There’s a curious point in Michael Bérubé’s The Left at War, where he reflects on the philosophy of the Responsibility to Protect. This concept is a fascinating idea in itself, not only for its conceptual complexity, but because it’s probably the first serious philosophical concept to emerge from multilateral and multinational political conversations. I don’t think I could ever write on this concept myself, because of the sheer amount of work that I’d need to do to be taken seriously. Unless I had a head start of something like forty years, I’d never be able to read absolutely everything that has been produced on R2P. I’m rarely intimidated by anything in philosophical scholarship, but R2P has done it.
However, Bérubé makes a fascinating assessment of the centrepiece of R2P, the notion that, when a sovereign government commits terrible violence against its people, it loses its claim to sovereignty. Because so much of his book is based around an extended critique of the political writings of Noam Chomsky, Bérubé mostly focusses on attacking how Chomsky has misunderstood so much of this idea. Essentially, Chomsky is one of the most articulate opponents of R2P on the grounds that it is a humanitarian mask on the bog-standard military imperialism of the near-omnipotently powerful United States as it forces its corporate capitalism down the throats of the world.
|Who knew the United Nations would end up following|
principles of Thomas Hobbes so well?
So Bérubé unfortunately ignores the most intriguing element of his reading of R2P to engage with Chomsky, when a discussion of how R2P, this defining concept of liberalism in international politics, is a pure Hobbesian doctrine. This makes for a wonderful collision, given that Hobbes is so frequently portrayed as an arch conservative. The reason for his conservatism is, for one, his actual conservatism as a staunch monarchist, having lived through the English Civil War. But the more widespread philosophical reason for Hobbes’ conservative reputation is his conception of the legitimacy of government as grounded in the people’s literal surrender of their will to a sovereign who rules over them absolutely.
Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben take up this idea of sovereignty in their own ways, which Bérubé briefly mentions before moving on again, because he apparently considers yelling at Noam Chomsky more important than formulating a genuinely interesting philosophical idea in much detail. Schmitt is a theorist of the fascist right, and Agamben of the radical European left, but they agree* on a conception of sovereignty which defines that figure as the controller of the power to make someone an exception to civil society, the rule of law, the basic regime of human rights, and even the community of humanity itself. An illustration relevant to Bérubé’s inquiry is how George W Bush became such a sovereign when he exercised the powers of indefinite detention and extraordinary rendition of enemy combatants.
* Well, they don’t agree, so much as Agamben is following in the tradition of Schmitt, picking up his conception of sovereignty and developing it in wildly different directions.
In both Schmitt’s and Agamben’s thinking, the sovereign is a genuinely absolute power. The sovereign possesses the power to cast someone out of their personhood for entirely idiosyncratic reasons, and this power is built into the essential structure of state governance. Their own difference is that Schmitt is quite happy about this, while Agamben is horrified.
But this isn’t Hobbes’ conception of the sovereign. For Hobbes, unlike Schmitt and Agamben, the sovereign can be made illegitimate, and therefore it is justified to revolt against him and remove him from power. The sovereign, in Hobbes’ thinking, is a product of a solemn contract among all citizens, that they enter this arrangement where one person or institution has an overall monopoly on force for the sake of mutual protection.
In other words, the Hobbesian sovereign has a responsibility to protect his citizens. The legitimacy of a government is founded not literally on the superior force of arms, but on a promise. Where the sovereign power fails or mocks that responsibility, he has lost his right to govern. Whether an internal revolution or an international invasion removes him from physical power after that failure, such an act is legitimate, because the promise has been broken.