The Leviathan Is Still Alive?

Carlo BordoniThe recent publication of the critical edition of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (edited by Noel Malcolm, 3 volumes, 1,832 pp., Clarendon Press) brings our attention to modernity and the actual role of the state (cf. David Runciman, “Where’s Hobbes?”, in TLS, 27th February). In the beginning there was a monster, Leviathan, a dark presence removed from the evil public consciousness. The image of Hobbes’ Leviathan represents well the perspective of the composition of the modern state that the inhabitants of the seventeenth century had, who were tired of living in a world ruled by chance, disorder and corruption, tired of wars of religion; a world based on the primordial law of the strongest and, most importantly, eager to develop their business in a climate of mutual fairness.

Leviathan, as can be seen from the cover of the original edition of 1651, is a biological monstrosity that comes from the biblical tradition, the body of which is formed by the bodies of human beings. A little like the portraits of Arcimboldo, whose features are made up of various objects or figures arranged in such a way as to give the human eye the illusion of it being a whole. In fact the compositions of Arcimboldo anticipate the taste of an epoch that feels the need to find a lost unity, collecting and arranging the various social segments, using them according to their functionality, to construct a balance, which is no longer a natural balance but “humanised”, i.e. bent to the needs of man to unify the forces and comply with the laws that make the composition of a civilised society possible.

Overcoming the “natural” concept of society, Hobbes emphasises the artificial character of his creation: “Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that great Leviathan called a common-wealth, or state (in latin Civitas), which is but an artificial man”.

Leviathan is therefore a whole made up of many men, whose task it is to provide all the vital functions that are needed, and each has a different task depending on the position in which he is located and the functionality of the complex “mechanism” dependent upon the uniformity and regularity with which everyone does his duty. A regularity of the whole that is ensured by the head (the “soul” of the Leviathan), i.e. the higher will of a “sovereign” who, as the etymology of the word clearly explains, “stands above”. He decides, directs, moves and determines the actions of the whole on behalf of everyone. Each member needs to adapt to this higher will, otherwise the risk is that the system will collapse.

In this innovative and extraordinary insight of the modern state we can find the full implementation of the principle of social solidarity which is the basis of every society, even though the motto “one for all and all for one” is subtly reinterpreted (with a subtle semiological modification that is not always understood), not so much in reference to the individual but as the unity of the whole. The one who provides for all, and who, therefore, expects everyone to participate in all its sustenance (defence or development) is clearly the state. The new modern entity possesses superhuman strength, much greater than that of the various traditional authorities of the past; all the stronger because it does not depend on divine investiture, on heredity of power or on imposition by physical force, but on the will of everyone. Or at least on the majority, thus introducing the other corollary identification of modernity, and that is the delegation of power through the mechanism of collective representation. What is commonly denoted by the term “representative democracy”.

In the face of these considerations, it is clear that the modern state, from its beginning through the figure of Leviathan, already contained in itself a form of massification, a significant source of repression of individual autonomy, against the granting of “economic” freedom for the middle class, who were allowed to undertake productive and commercial activities at their own risk. If this contradiction in terms may appear inexplicable and inconsistent with the requirement of compactness of Leviathan, it appears instead to be legitimate and, in its own way, coherent when the “classicist” character of modernity becomes apparent. In other words: all those (and they are the vast majority) who do not have the ability, the will and the means to contribute to the economic, cultural and civic development of the state, limit themselves to merely doing their duty as citizens. And that is, to carry out their activities in their fields of competence, which means working together to ensure the strength, defence, sustenance, all the services necessary for the survival of everyone and therefore also of the privileged minority. Their usefulness is fundamental and, for this reason, must be guaranteed at all costs, either by persuasion or by force, so that the state – through its “active” members (entrepreneurs, businessmen, intellectuals, leaders) – can progress.

Not surprisingly, the policy of most industrialised countries, first of all England, immediately took action for the recovery of social alienation, aimed at the poor, the unemployed, the homeless and destitute who crowded together on the edge of the industrial cities. The various “Poor Laws”, which came in succession between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, are concerned not so much with feeding and looking after them out of a sense of Christian charity – as the Church had done up to that time – but to reintegrate them into the production process. They gave them the dignity of a job, not on the basis of a humanitarian purpose, but a social purpose, that they might contribute to the overall advancement in their small way, without being dependent on the community. So much so that their destination, which before would have been to the hospices or dilapidated shelters run by parishes, is now the factories, where they are required to do mandatory work. A form of forced cheap labour, which serves to increase earnings and lower production costs in the emerging industry.

Progress itself lies in the hands of a few and in the sacrifice of all for the common good. The social differentiation is thus placed in the principle of the idea of modernity, on which it feeds, by separating the “sacrificed”, those condemned to perform vital functions for Leviathan, from those who contribute in some other way, privileged by the opportunity to live a better life. Obviously the principle of representative democracy descends from all this. Many, simply by virtue of the fundamental duty they are required to carry out in ensuring the continuity of the state, can only “delegate” their decision-making power to others who are more experienced and dedicated to this task. A flawed democracy, as Rousseau observed, which cannot be exempt from being in line with the very constitution of Leviathan, based on partial surrender of individual autonomy of those who are citizens of the state and therefore induced to carrying out their duty and their function without questioning it. The end of the modern state is, in part, determined by the questioning of this absolute principle. The presumption to criticise the conduct of the executive, the same refusal to delegate individual power unless able to monitor it, the original sin of the prevalence of the self that endangers the balance that had been painfully achieved three centuries ago.

The state is the great regulatory apparatus of modern nations, which was established as early as the fifteenth century and immediately demonstrated its ability to maintain control of the scattered population lacking identity that emerged from feudalism. Thomas Hobbes anticipates the establishment of the modern state in De Cive (1642) and Leviathan (1651), where the multitude (“the dispersed mob”) becomes a population in the union with the sovereign, by becoming subordinate to his unifying power. The people, together with the sovereign who represents them, become one. But the people partially give up their autonomy and their prerogatives of freedom in favour of the protection afforded by the state.

The modern state was created by virtue of this contract between the masses and the sovereign, with which they form a cohesive unit they can identify with. The concepts of nation, culture and traditions are implanted in a permanent way, the principle of regionalisation is affirmed, that is the link with the territory which accommodates private property, the centre of personal interests and family life. All of this – with the addition of a common language, traditions, religion and culture – helps to turn the multitude, made up of individuals, into a single solid united body, which becomes a people. In exchange for the guarantee of legal rights, security, order, and freedom to do business, the modern state establishes the explicit obligation to pay taxes and, implicitly, exercises social control. Rough and formal in its first application, it later became more and more refined with the setting up of records offices, registries of births and deaths, marriages, changes of residence, registration of property and land, documentation of property sales and inheritance, trading, production, and building permits.

The violent oppression of an intrusive state was subsequently replaced by conditioning, though no less invasive, of the single thought, as implemented through the hypnotic power of television and other mass media, whose form of communication from the top down, authoritative and persistent, from one to many, in a one-way direction, confirmed the massification and validation of the conscience, with even higher effects. T.W. Adorno was right to harshly criticise the conditioning system operated by the culture industry (a term which he called mass culture), with the emergence of ephemeral artistic values, used only in order to support the market.

The modern state was born, therefore, as a deeply undemocratic body. A noose-type agreement that cannot be negotiated or challenged. The sovereign has absolute decision-making power that comes from a ‘carte blanche’ delegation. It is needless to mention the reasons for the delegation. They are those already extensively examined with regard to the recognition of individual rights and private property, freedom to trade and take action, to enjoy the services provided by the state. In return for these benefits, citizens give up their own authority and autonomy, in exchange for obligations, such as the payment of taxes, compulsory service in the event of war, obedience to the laws and regulations imposed. So far, there is no democracy. There is only a higher power (the modern state) with its organisational and functional needs and capabilities in support of their subjects and the sovereign.

Unlike the case of modern democracy, while in Hobbes both sovereign and state are identified, it is harder to identify the state within the heterogeneous set of representatives today. Here the representation is split, there is no longer only one sovereign, but a wide range of delegates, from which a democratic state is formed. It is easier to identify with one than with in a variety of elected representatives, who have the task of being the state, even when they are not part of the majority and they fight against the decisions of the majority. On the other hand, if all the delegates are themselves the state, that in itself justifies the difficulty in distinguishing between one party and the other, between the majority and the opposition. Both move within the same system, both are the State and the ideological distinction that has characterised them until recently, has been wiped out, erased forever from history.