Monday, October 12, 2009

Surrender to Authority

Part 14 of Prisoners of the Real

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes proposed that the desire to safeguard power stems from the search for "perfect" happiness, a final tranquillity of mind or "summum bonum" that actually doesn’t exist. Hence, happiness becomes in practice continual progress, endless motion toward an elusive goal. This search for what Lewis Mumford called "improvement through movement" is the underlying notion that links the frontiersmen and mechanical pioneers who, during the four centuries since Hobbes, have devoted fanatic energy to the task of speeding up transportation. According to Mumford, the motion fetish of modern humanity is linked with an hostility toward the past; he suggests that doubts about human nature have encouraged the view that destruction of past institutions will assure happiness, virtue and freedom in the future.

"Farther means not only farther away in space," says Mumford, "but farther away from the past."

Hobbes proceeded from the destructiveness of the "natural state" produced by fear to the alternative inclination toward peace. Trapped in a state of war, human beings desire peace because reason supplements the dominant passions of fear and will to power; thus, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" man uses reason to draw up "articles of peace" and turn them into action. For Hobbes reason, made possible by speech, is essentially the ability to evaluate consequences on the basis of sense impressions:

"Reason is nothing but reckoning (that is, adding and subtracting) of the consequences of general names agreed upon, for the marking and signifying of our thoughts; I say marking them, when we reckon by ourselves; and signifying, when we demonstrate, or approve our reckonings to other men."

Neither revelation nor experience will help "rash" humanity, he adds, since neither has a basis in reason. In fact, spiritual substance can't even exist. Formulating an operational view of the human being as mechanism more extreme than Descartes, Hobbes felt that reason is not innate, but rather learned through the "hard work" of making definitions and applying orderly method. The outcome of this self-discipline is science.

The identification of work with reason was rooted in the economic and social distress of his time. Communities were overtaxed by the large number of poor and sick wanderers. In this era of emerging monarchy and mercantile thought, the solution was to eliminate beggary by unifying all facilities under a central authority. The concern about idleness, whether it was caused by madness, illness or poverty – all classified as irrational deviations – was fundamentally economic and political. The general feeling was that governments should compel all persons who were capable of some productive effort to work. Plans ranged from punitive legislation to the creation of institutions that would provide the work and punish the malingerers. Work, it was widely assumed, would both make the society strong and prod the irrational idlers back to clear thinking.

According to Hobbes, reason instructs us to establish institutions that will curb our natural passions. The culmination of reckoning, then, is the social contract, the foundation of commonwealth. Each person surrenders his or her natural right to a sovereign power with absolute and unconditional authority. The sovereign may be a group or a single man:

"The only way to erect a common defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, as that by their own industry, and by the fruits of the Earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly is to confer all their power and strength upon one Man (sic), or upon one Assembly of men, that may reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices unto one Will..."

In short, the human being, who is no more than a mechanism, must surrender forever to another mechanism – the State, which is matter in motion. The private good must be sacrificed for the common good. He further suggests that the choice of governing body or person be made by majority rule. On the other hand, rebellion is indefensible, since the crucial doctrine is obedience to authority. In fact, obedience is more important that the form of government itself.

Hobbes argued for sovereign power under a single hand, a strong manager above the covenant that established his power. Among his reasons for this arrangement were unlimited access to people and information that are not as easily obtained by groups; greater consistency of policy; and a merging of individual and collective interests. As he put it, "the riches, power and honor of the monarch arise only from the riches, strength and reputation of his subjects." Furthermore, he felt that the establishment of a common-wealth – "a league of all the subjects taken together" – under sovereign power would make various leagues of subjects such as guilds, unions, corporations and churches "for the most part unnecessary, and savor of unlawful design."

Many modern organizations and States still reflect the concept of surrendered sovereignty, under some form of modified or democratically-inclined monarchy. They vary from the Hobbesian formula to the extent that they assume the validity of somewhat independent systems under a central management. Clearly, Hobbes justification of power helped to justify both the State and the machine in their efforts to establish law, order, and control. And despite Hobbes' extreme assumptions and requirements, the Leviathan vision of the sovereign has provided a powerful philosophical basis for authoritarian governments throughout the last three centuries. Even today his definition of man the brute continues to bolster both coercive management styles and those stressing "technical rationality." Most of humanity remains under the yoke of sovereign science – rulership by reason alone.

Next: Rise of the Reasonable State

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

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