Towards an Alternative Perspective: Against Hobbes

In our last few blog posts on the state, we have argued that Scott’s whole vision of state centralization is deficient. Scott is right that in some cases the state is a great threat to welfare and he has been a vigorous and effective critic of the Hobbesian perspective on the state, so central to much thinking in social science.

Hobbes, the great 17th-century English philosopher, argued that without a state one would have in society a “war of all against all”. The only solution was to create an institution for which Hobbes used the metaphor of a “Leviathan” – the great sea monster described in the Bible’s Book of Job. The cover of Hobbes’s book, Leviathan, featured an etching of the Leviathan with the quotation from Job “There is no power on earth to be compared to him” (Job 41. 24). Point taken. Without a Leviathan in control society would be in trouble and for a functioning society it was necessary for everyone “to submit their Wills, every one to his Will, and their Judgements, to his Judgement” (Hobbes, Chapter 17, p. 227). Without this there would be

no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Leviathan, XIII.9.)

For Hobbes, though the details of states mattered, having one was the main thing. He observed

There is written on the Turrets of the city of Luca in great characters at this day, the word LIBERTAS; yet no man can thence inferred, that a particular man has more Libertie or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth there, than in Constantinople. Whether a Commonwealth be Monarchicall, or Popular, the Freedome is still the same (Leviathan, Chapter 21, p. 266)

So freedom was the same in republican Italy as in the despotic Ottoman Empire. Getting a state up and running was the main thing. If anything, Hobbes, having been the tutor to the young exiled Charles II, favored monarchical government. Only a state could remove the clash of interests and notions of justice and eradicate the uncertainly, arbitrariness and domination which a stateless society was prone to.

Scott’s disagreement with this would be twofold. First, as an avowed anarchist, he’d deny that the state of nature was anything like as bad as Hobbes said it was, and he’d certainly be able to cite ethnographic evidence of pre-state societies where life was not “nasty, brutish and short”. Second, he’d never accept that building a state actually solved what problems there might have existed in a stateless society. As we have shown, his arguments in fact are that states typically reduce social welfare and that is why people fly from them and try to escape their power.

To anyone with some knowledge of the great tragedies of the 20th century, the claim that states formation can reduce human welfare can hardly be a controversial observation. It was the strong states created and controlled by the Bolshevik Party in Russia, the Communist Party in China, the Nazi Party in Germany and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia that succeeded in wiping out vast numbers of people on a scale of killing never seen before in human history.

At the same time it is also obviously not true that states necessarily do this. The powerful state that England built after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 did not systematically harass or murder its citizens and neither did the central state that was constructed in the United States after the ratification of the Constitution. The obvious point is that it matters how and by who the state is governed. Scott recognizes in Seeing Like a State that the governance of the state, who controls it and in whose interests, is critical in the sense that authoritarianism is necessary to create a really big disaster, but this receives scant attention in The Art of Not Being Governed.

The fact that the governance of the state is critical can be seen from our example taken from David Nugent’s Modernity at the Edge of Empire. Peasants in rural Perú, rather than rejecting the state, actively tried to induce it to intervene to protect them from local elites and to deliver the services and benefits that the Peruvian constitution promised. This example vividly shows how once a state governed by law, even if mostly in the breech, can radically change the calculus of citizens. The same is true of our example from Western Colombia. Afro-Colombians communities were able to use the state to get control over their land and Law 70 of 1993 turned out in the past 20 years to be a key tool to fight against local elites trying to expropriate lands.

Powerful centralized states can therefore be a blessing as well as a curse, it all depends on how they are governed and by whom and under what terms. 

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