In a World Ruled By Fear: Arendt-Hobbes Triangulation, Research Time, 04/11/2013

There’s a short section of Hannah Arendt’s discussion of imperialism in The Origins of Totalitarianism where she discusses Thomas Hobbes as a philosophical precursor to totalitarian government. He had long been considered a precursor to authoritarian government, focussing on his foundational argument in the most popular sections of his masterpiece Leviathan. But Arendt examines this argument in terms of a totalitarian principle of governance: rule through fear.

While Arendt would later complicate her conceptions of how totalitarian and fascist governance worked (wait for my posts on Eichmann in Jerusalem for my thoughts on that), Origins focusses on the dynamics of political fear. Here’s how she takes up Hobbes’ argument. 

Not much historical research exists on how many people
lived in fear of Thomas Hobbes specifically. Likely not
too many by the time of his death at 91, an impossibly
old age for the 17th century.
The core principle is that the natural state of men is to live in fear of each other. Every person is a competitor or potential competitor of everyone else, every person out to expand his property at the expense of everyone else. Given that everyone has become a threat to everyone else, the only rational way to regard others is fear. And because this is a situation where all possible force can be brought to bear against someone from any possible source, the only way to bring this chaos under control is with a power powerful enough to overcome (Hobbes uses the term “over-awe” and Arendt falls back on this repeatedly) all the individuals acting in force. This power is the state, and it rules by means of having the most powerful weapons: the police. 

For Arendt, this conception of people in constant competition, conflict, and fear of each other describes the morality of the petty bourgeoisie. I use the word ‘petty’ here in the sense of petty-minded, those unscrupulous businessmen who never seem to have any friends, and can speak and think only of the next ventures, the next profit, the next investment, the next swindle. They believe all people see each other in terms of their potential financial or material gain because that’s how they see all people. A society of these people is a society without empathy. Charles Dickens was wonderful at sketching such people, I thought of another way to sketch such a character, and it saddens me that they exist. 

This, as Arendt describes it, is not a condemnation of capitalism, but pinpointing a peculiar vulnerability to capitalist societies. The person who sees all human relations as reducing to ruthless competition for scarce resources among individuals is vulnerable to investing in a total government: a monopoly on force that prevents people from living in fear of each other because we’re all shuddering in fear of the Leviathan: the state and its police. 

The funny thing is that Hobbes is something of an ironist, and Arendt is aware of this. Despite philosophical arguments in favour of the state monopoly of violence, there is a current in Hobbes’ thinking that undercuts this. Within his conception of the social contract, a curious inversion takes place that would mutate this society of fear into a kind of public utopia of continual negotiation and compromise. Arendt works through the implications of the standard presentation of Hobbes’ philosophy in the above argument, but there’s a footnote where she describes how Hobbes’ secret democracy comes through. I paraphrase.

Footnote 36. The social contract that Hobbes describes is an agreement among all in a society to operate their politics to work toward satisfying all individual and familial private interests as best as the society can manage. Literally, the public interest is the satisfaction of private interests harmoniously and transparently within a community. The textbook version of Hobbes sees him advocating an over-awing state power that crushes private interests for the sake of overall public safety. Power descends from the state upon the people. The structure of his hypothetical social contract itself makes the adequate satisfaction of the various complicated private interests to be the primary interest of the public. Here, the desire for peace flows from the people to the institutions of power. 

That this paradox can exist within Hobbes fascinates me, and he may become a historical touchstone in my further university career as a researcher. 

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