By Daniel Renwick
Born into a tradition of leftism, Thomas Hobbes never spoke to me. When I read Leviathan as a student, it was the book of my enemy, an adversarial text that precluded me from challenging my sovereign and binding me to a status quo I loathe. I tended to be drawn to texts that offered a more optimistic picture of what we as a collective can achieve. Where sympathies lie is colored by one’s understanding of human nature or, to be more precise, the nature of the individuals who compose the body politic, in conditions where general order is removed.
Hobbes painted a picture that was bleak indeed. He, in quasi-materialistic terms, laid out the system of logic that has governed political science since: people are rational egoists and it is on the basis of human selfishness that we find politics, covenants and laws. From Hobbes’ perspective, people are only as good as they are scared; take away fear, order and law and watch the avarice of man take center stage.
Hobbes wrote Leviathan in the conditions of civil war and wrote to state his obedience to any sovereign who could maintain order (the sovereign of the Front cover of Leviathan changed from looking like Charles I to Cromwell, after the war, showing the logic Hobbes employed). Order imposed by force is legitimate, for force is the predicate of order and the cosh bends us to the betterment of all, supposedly. Remove the cosh, remove the state and the policeman at your peril, for the vacuum will be filled but trust, hope and good will be lost as order will be – potentially irretrievably – and life will become “poor, nasty, brutish and short”. For Hobbes, the sanctity and stability of the state is the primary condition of a fulfilling life and the basis of all rights. Rights are not abstract, they are not natural and in a state of nature cannot exist and will simply wither away, so if we want rights, we must first defend the principle foundations of the state.
Hobbes’ logic is prescient and well-received in the English speaking world. The Hobbist principles that underline political liberalism cannot be overstated. Hobbes defined the idea of political freedom (negative liberty, i.e. freedom from) and began to impose the limits on political power. While we want political freedoms, what are words if life we exist in conditions so competitive and aggressive, we cannot live? It is only when the state offends our right to life that we are justified in fighting against it – but even when political revolt is justified by the right of self-preservation, general order is preferable to general chaos.
The argument employed by Hobbes is cynical, pessimistic and conservative in its logic, not usually the terrain of a leftist who is writing in a vein of anti-imperialism. I did not ever think I would be loading my cannon with the words of Leviathan, but alas, I am. For, while we accept the Hobbesian logic in our state and decry anarchy and the unleashing of avarice, with the contemporary example of the riots to concretise our arguments, we preach chaos, disorder and civil war as “revolutionary” in Syria as we did with Libya and Iraq beforehand.
Unlike many of my ilk, that is white, Western and privileged, I do not see the Arab Spring as the chance to resuscitate a defunct ideology. Rather, I see it as dangerous risk for political freedom in a terrain subject to manipulation by global powers. I sympathize with my Arab brethren and respect them for their optimism, I see the terrain they are walking as treacherous. Globally, we no longer live in Hobbesian times, the nation state is not the most powerful body in the political world. We have the imperial state of the USA which acts militarily to support the supra-state institutions that determine the world and the Arab street has long been an arena they have been active in manipulating. Syria, firmly in the crosshairs of imperialism, is on the verge of falling into a state of nature, that is, a perpetual state of war, according to Hobbes.
In the four years proceeding the invasion of Iraq, MIT predict, there were over 600,000 more deaths that would be otherwise, where deaths per 1000 went from 5.5/1000 to 13.2/1000. This spike in deaths can be ascribed to the Rumsfield doctrine, that is, the banning of anybody associated with the Baath party from holding office, completely hollowing out the one-party state of any active politicians or civil servants. The chaos that has engulfed Libya is incomprehensible, where there is neither the journalistic will nor public pressure for the retrieval of information that would hold to account the intervention of NATO to destroy the sovereign of a country and replace it with a divided council. Suffice to say, even the “hero” who killed and sodomised the sovereign was killed by rival factions, united only in their hatred for the order, not in their agreement and pursuit of a solution.
In Syria, like in Iraq and Libya, civil war has been stoked, fuelled and armed, chaos dawns and entrenched sectarianism means disorder will be the order of the day. Like in Iraq and Libya before it, a secular Arab nation state will be destroyed, its state emptied out and decimated; order lost. Beheadings, justified by hyper-religious fervor and cries of the greatness of God will project across the world, showing us the brutality that “political freedom” translates to in the modern world. On the day Assad is killed, I will not be celebrating. His regime may be brutal, his dynasty horrific, but the hope of a new start in the time of US imperial dominance is naïve to extremities. The world has two examples of what happens when a strong state is stripped of power and a rag-tag divided sectarian rebellious leadership of exiles takes power: chaos.
Faced with the choice between order or chaos, most would universally choose order. The seemingly inexplicable support Assad still has in Syria is based on this logic, the Baathist state is the guarantor of order, the bestower of rights and the guard against strife. In the conditions of civil war, the “greatest political text of the English language” was written, its author if he were alive today and Syrian would be pro-Assad as would many of the Western liberal supporters of the “revolution” who have the comfort of their own Leviathan keeping them safe.
– Daniel Renwick contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.