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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

January 13 – A Theory for a Capitalist Market Society

Last time we examined how Hobbes thought he had derived his ideas about the necessary social relations of men from a few simple postulates about physics and about human psychology. According to Hobbes, everybody must always seek “power after power” not because everyone has an innate need to accumulate an unlimited amount of resources, but because a few do; and because of what he takes the nature of power to be. Power turns out not simply to be what he first defines it as, one’s “present means to acquire some future apparent good”. Instead Hobbes assumes that the power of each opposes the power of others. His is a “zero sum” idea of power: what I have must be taken away from someone else. Power is essentially, if not entirely relative: I have power to the extent that my power is greater than someone else’s, to the extent that it is power over their power. (For Hobbes, it would be logically necessary that an equality of power would be an absence of power, rather than, say, a power held in common) All must seek power after power, i.e. power over the power of others and social relations are thus taken to be necessarily a universal and incessant struggle for power.

Now, we saw that Hobbes was unable in fact to derive universal competition from his physiology and psychology. The deduction of universal competition is necessary only if the unlimited desire of some pulls everyone into a competition with all. That is, this “necessity” is socially acquired. This analysis of apparently necessary behaviour (of human nature) is in fact an analysis of men already in a specific kind of social relation, although this is not clear to Hobbes himself. It is not an analysis of any and every human society, of human society as such, but of a very specific and special type of human society. Hobbes must be thinking of a society in which individuals can behave in this way, as always competitive with all others, because they already possess peaceful, legal ways in which this competition can go on. If Hobbes were not abstracting from (in order to get to “human nature”) some model of society where such means already existed, his individuals once they started relating to each other would rapidly consume each other in the War of Each against All.

So Hobbes had in mind a particular kind of society in which peaceful, legal means exist that allow each person to try to turn any and all others into an instrument of their own power. A brief excursion into the types of society that might be found by a historical sociology should be enough to show that only someone observing or conceiving of a capitalist market society would have or could have come up with these propositions. Why is this? Certainly every or nearly every form of society sees power struggles. This is true, but all forms of pre-capitalist society had ways of limiting this struggle so that it was never felt as or became a struggle of each against all. Only a capitalist market society – by which we mean one in which there is a market not only in things but in human labour power – could develop a universal “peaceful”/legal struggle.

For these purposes a fairly simple three-fold classification of societies will suffice. First, we have status or customary society. This large category will include all sorts of subtypes which can be very different from each other in many different ways: tribal societies, slave societies, feudal societies. In such societies there is an authoritative allocation of work and reward through law and custom. But there is no market in labour power. It is impossible for everyone  to try and transfer the power of others to themselves. There will be competition for power, competitions of various kinds, but only between groups at the higher levels of society. This model is incompatible with the types of social relations Hobbes is placing in his state of nature.

A second type of society would be a simple market society. In it there would be no market in labour power itself. By definition everyone in it would own or has the real possibility of owning productive resources. Here the only way a universal struggle for power could develop is if labour became a commodity. But then you would have a different, and third form of society.

In a full market or capitalist market society “contention” or struggle for power over the power of others can operate peaceably through the market in men’s labour power. As greater concentrations of capital appear, the harder it is for people with little capital to remain independent producers. Not only do economic classes appear, but more importantly for our purposes here, all are eventually pulled into the struggle. People who only own their own labour power must work for capital and this leads to everyone being pulled into a struggle to transfer labour from some to others.

So Hobbes’s analysis of human nature turns out to be an analysis of human behaviour in a capitalist market society. Perhaps it is then an analysis of one thing human nature is capable of developing into. But can it be said to be human nature, per se? Capitalist society is just such a system in which everyone is subjected to the necessity of struggling for power, not only if they want to increase their power, but even if they want to maintain what they have. Hobbes reads back into human nature the social relations of a specific society. What is generally true of a specific social form becomes surreptitiously, in his hands, universal and necessary, true of all human beings at all times. It gets taken to be a necessary consequence of human nature. Why? One place you might look is to his method. The resolutive-compositive method finds it very difficult, if not impossible, to explain what happens at the social level except by reference to what is already contained, present from the first, in the human individual. Another way of saying this is that society is held to be simply an aggregate or composite of atoms, which would themselves remain the same no matter what combinations they entered into.

In any case, Hobbes does perform this mistake in analysis and evidence that he is thinking of a capitalist market society is to be found not only by logical analysis but in other things he says as well. One might begin by looking at his analysis of power, value and honour in Ch. 10. But here we’ll examine his remarks on commutative and distributive justice, which occur in Ch. 15 of Leviathan. “Commutative justice” refers to the idea that in any exchange the things exchanged should be of equal value, equal intrinsic value. Hobbes dismisses this notion as meaningless. It is rendered meaningless because, according to him, the value of anything is simply determined by the appetite of those who want it, and the “just price” of something is simply what people are willing to give. Therefore every exchange that is not effected by force or by fraud would be an exchange of equal value. “Distributive justice” (Aristotle’s idea) is that in a whole society the distribution of good things ought to be equal to merit. Hobbes thinks this is a worthless standard because the worth of any individual simply is equal to what the market will render that individual at any given point in time. [By this notion, the only way the question of justice can be raised is by asking if there really is a market operating, not whether the market is able to render justice.] In Ch. 24, we find Hobbes’s explicit statement that a man’s worth is the price of his labour. A little later on, in connection with a different issue, we’ll look at Hobbes’s analysis of the office and functions of a sovereign, and we’ll be able to ask if they are not particularly well-suited to a capitalist market society. Outside of Leviathan, one might want to look at Hobbes’s analysis of the English civil war in his book Behemoth. According to that analysis, ther civil war seemed to be caused by a new class of merchants who found it increasingly difficult to turn a profit under the restrictive rules of the old monarchy.

If one accepts that Hobbes was in fact thinking of a capitalist market society when he was trying to deduce the necessity of universal struggle from human nature, the question arises of whether Hobbes, or to what extent, he might have realized he was doing this. Here the evidence seems to be inconclusive, because if he had recognized it fully he would not have been able to treat his analysis of social behaviour as universally valid. Limitless desire for power is not innate in everyone, according to Hobbes, but only in some people. Nonetheless he has everyone being drawn into competition. This social behaviour of the individual Hobbes knows is sociologically imposed, is a function of social relations, but he nonetheless thinks of it as universal and necessary.

Moving on – We’ve followed Hobbes’s deduction so far from human nature as matter in motion to one of the two main propositions he holds concerning human social behaviour, i.e. all must strive for power over the power of others, and we’ve seen that it belongs only to a capitalist market society. The second notion that allows Hobbes to go on to formulate his special theory of politics is the  proposition that each person, by natural necessity tries to avoid death. Hobbes took this to follow immediately from the essence of man as continued motion. (Although it seems obvious and evident, it could still be open to question. For example, in medieval society life for a significant number of people was not valued as highly as salvation, or perhaps honour). Hobbes actually adds two qualifications to this proposition that all necessarily avoid death. In Ch. 15, he mentions that the fear of hell-fire can be stronger than the fear of death and also notes that most men choose to risk life over being held in contempt.This second proposition means that men by nature, though, are averse to, and fear violent death. By violent death, Hobbes means avoidable; death at the hands of others.

With these two basic propositions, Hobbes believes that he has grasped the necessary relations of men in society. Now the question becomes: what sorts of obligations can and must such men enter into in order to avoid violent death ? and to “live commodiously”?

At this point Hobbes probably could have gone on directly to deduce the necessity of an Absolute and Self-Perpetuating Sovereign, but instead he introduces a logical abstraction to draw attention to the “real” nature of human social relations, and this abstraction is the State of Nature (described in Ch. 13). The State of Nature is a counter-factual state or at most a limit condition. It is not meant to refer to any real existing historical condition (nor will there be a historical social contract either). Hobbes explicitly states that men have never been in that state, although he thinks they approximate it in some “savage” societies; in civil war; and in international relations.

The State of Nature instead refers to what Hobbes thinks would be the social condition of men in the absence of positive law and of effective law enforcement. In the State of Nature people would behave the same as they do in the society Hobbes observes and analyzes, only worse, only more so. This is because, by their natures, they would be compelled to do anything to preserve their own lives: lie, cheat, deceive, enslave, murder. “To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice. Force and Fraude are in Warre, the two cardinal virtues.” Rational, calculating individuals would want to get out of this situation. Therefore by reasoning in this way (Hobbes’s way) we can see the need of avoiding such a situation. We would avoid it by somehow establishing as much law and order as were necessary.  So the passions which incline men to peace are, according to Hobbes, fear of violent death and the desire of commodious living.

In Ch. 14, Hobbes turns to the notions of natural right and natural law. In the State of Nature, men have certain natural rights, but in order to establish law enforcement, they must give up these rights of nature. The law enforcement power will derive its character from the natural rights of individuals which are transferred over to it. But what are natural rights? Natural rights are the liberty (i.e. the ability) each has to use his own power by his own will to preserve his life. This means, in effect, that every man has a right to everything, even to others’ bodies. In the State of Nature one can do anything to anyone, any time, if one believes it is necessary to preserve one’s own life. There is no obligation to respect the rights of others.

Yet everybody has this right (equally), and therefore this right is pretty useless because in the state of nature all have roughly equal ability to kill. So natural right is infinite, but useless and self-defeating. On the other hand, it also useless to give up or agree to limit one’s natural right unless everybody else does so at the same time. So Reason (understood as a long-term calculation) offers a way out: it suggests articles of peace which are the “laws of nature”. These are basically three: a) each ought to seek peace and keep it; b) each ought to keep promises or covenants; and c) peace requires that each give up unlimited natural right. There are more such “laws” deduced from the first three and developed in Ch.s 15 and 16, rules about equity and moderation, etc… that come to resemble Christian moral principles. Yet these rules are different in that they are really not laws binding in and of themselves. Hobbes calls them “maxims of prudence”. They are theorems about what sorts of behaviour tends to preserve men and are actually just calculations. To violate them is not to incur guilt. And in fact one is obligated only to desire to be able to obey these “laws”. As mere laws of nature it is not necessary to obey them because there is as yet no reason to trust that anyone else will obey them.

Thus it is only the belief that these laws will be enforced that will convert them into having any real obligation. Another way of putting this is, as Hobbes says, there is no law without the sword. An agreement is therefore necessary to set up a power able to enforce natural law. Thus the last step needed to get out of the State of Nature (which, remember, does not exist) is the Social Contract. It is important to be clear that the Sovereign (the enforcing power) is not a party to the contract. In the contract it is as though individuals were saying to each other: I authorize all his actions…. (If you also authorize all his actions). The Sovereign thus has no obligations to the community or to the individuals who are parties to the contract. Hobbes is eliminating the old idea of a contract between people and ruler, which required that the people have some sort of corporate existence in order to be able to enter into an agreement collectively with a ruler. But these people who Hobbes has in mind have already been “atomized”, as it were, and are not capable of any unity of action outside of the existence of a sovereign over each and all of them, severally. It is common subjection to a single will that is now the basis of society.

Thus, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, according to Hobbes it is the existence of a Sovereign power that creates obligation rather than the other way around. It is not that people recognize an obligation to set up a Sovereign power. They can only recognize an obligation (rationally) if there is a Sovereign power there to enforce the laws of nature (or such civil laws as might be aimed at realizing the laws of nature). The “contract” is a legal fiction that actually obscures Hobbes’s meaning here. It is not a historical event. The crucial idea here is that there is no valid obligation or contract without the sword, that is, that the only real law is “positive law”. There is no real natural law that can be set up to effectively evaluate positive law.

There is a conundrum here, the suggestion of a logical impossibility:  how is a contract between such individuals possible? The sovereign must somehow exist already, in the first place, in order for people to effectively enter into a real obligation, i.e. one that can be enforced… But in order for there to be an enforcer, there must be a contract that obliges. One must keep in mind that both the State of Nature and the Social Contract are not historical ideas. A Sovereign power must already exist, must have the power to enforce his laws before the obligations between people are real. Thus it is not some promise I make that establishes power, but the existence of power that establishes my ability to make and keep promises (rationally). The real question for Hobbes is not how to set up a power where there is none to begin with. The real question is how to keep society from sliding into a state of nature and  real/explicit war of each against all. Thus any existing sovereign power is justified by imagining a social contract. We deduce consent from the act of submission and from  the motives (to continued motion) that must (“rationally”) lie behind that submission.

Natural Law and the Social Contract are Hobbes’s way, using legal fictions,  of illustrating to individuals that Reason compels them to obey any existing sovereign, any effective law enforcement power. You should act “as though” you’ve made a transition from a state of nature via a social contract to society. You can see that, for Hobbes, submission is due to any already existing sovereign in a number of ways. One good example of this occurs in connection with the distinction he makes between sovereignty by institution and sovereignty by conquest. Sovereignty by conquest is just as much based, according to Hobbes, on consent as is sovereignty by institution. In both cases there is submission, and the same motivation . Whether or not the contract is of “free will” or not is irrelevant. The will is always determined by the motive towards continued motion. Another example is found in the fact that according to Hobbes the only thing that an individual cannot give up is their “right” (their ability to try) to protect their own life. If someone is sentenced to death for a capitol crime, this is a “right” they retain. Of course, they are probably in chains as they are being walked to the gallows, and have no effective right to resist death. But they have no obligation to assist the hangman. All of this circus of force is hidden by the language of mutual obligation, consent and rights.

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