A Hobbesian Perspective on Anarchism
Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588. He was a British royalist best known for his book “the Leviathan”. In this specific piece of his work, Hobbes reflects on many things, but particularly on his thoughts on authoritarianism, the human condition, and how these concepts would relate to society, hierarchies and styles of leadership. Hobbes argued that a society with no authority would be a disaster. One of his most famous quotes is that life in a state of nature (a system with no authority) would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, and the way he justified this was by claiming that humans are rational egoists that look after themselves at all costs and that their logical patterns of behaviour would eventually create this reality if they were not kept in check by a figure of authority.
Hobbes argued that individuals are by nature inclined to look after their own interests, and thus every move they make is influenced by this train of thought. He feared conflict without end in a state of nature due to this, and therefore argued heavily in favour of the notion of a social contract to keep society in check. The way he interpreted the social contract led to him arguing for the need for an absolute power (hence the title of his work, The Leviathan). This specific aspect of his theory has been heavily criticised, but the main point that lies in the idea of rational egoism is the most important to be looked at for the purposes of this article.
Is Hobbes’s claim that all human beings are rational egoists and thus only look after themselves and their own interests, true? It can be argued that the main interest of an individual is to look after himself and such is part of the human condition. However, some would say that there are various examples of individuals voluntarily sacrificing time, resources and labour to help others who are disadvantaged, in situations where they have more to lose than gain. This has been used repeatedly as a way to counter Hobbes’s claims on rational egoism, claiming altruistic people and altruistic actions in general prove him wrong.
But according to philosophers like Aristotle, actions of altruism always have had a substantial amount of self-interest, that being either the betterment of the community and therefore of the self, or expecting something in return. Either that or an individual’s own shame and feelings may coerce them into being altruistic (or in other words, an individual’s moral code influence his actions). Whether trying to make the right decision for the sake of preserving one’s moral principles or for one’s personal gain, it is at the very least debatable that altruism is something that could undermine Hobbes’s thoughts about rational egoism. While the idea of rational egoism does not stand unchallenged, it is safe to say that it has at least retained some useful value, and thus it can still be used in a credible way to justify Hobbes’s further claims.
So if we are to believe, even in theory, that the concept of rational egoism has some value, does it actually mean that the lack of an authority would make mankind turn into a state of perpetual warfare? That might be the case. For example, if one is to believe in tribalism as a factor, (something that can be defined as the behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s tribe or social group), then it can be assumed that society would eventually organise itself in that way, leading to less cooperation between people with different cultural, geographical or ethnical backgrounds, with the logical conclusion being that people in a state of nature would organize in tribes.
This can be justified by the fact that even without an absolute authority, the human being is a social animal that is still dependent on the community around him to subsist. The cultural ties that bind a specific group could be dependent on concepts such as language or ethnicity (which are the base in which nation-states are built and eventually get their legitimacy), and thus society would descend into the most primal type of tribal conflict, based solely on differences regarding race, creed, language etc. And even within a cohesive tribe, conflict would be constant, as one’s personal interests would inevitably lead to conflicts that a governmental system, even if authoritarian to some extent, would not allow to happen by exerting its power upon society and limiting an individual in his actions.
However, it is possible to claim that even if the situation becomes one of tribalism, cooperation between tribes would still be possible in terms of common interest, when it comes to the exchange of goods and services for example. Despite this, the existence of a certain level of cooperation is not enough to render all conflict obsolete, and if anything, it is the only possible way to avoid conflict for resources, and not exactly a perpetuator of peace. Essentially, if within a state of nature tribalism reigns, Hobbes’s original claim about life in a state of nature would be mostly correct.
Nevertheless, it may be too simplistic to only look at through tribalism alone, especially because Hobbes never mentions tribalism directly and thus it cannot be the main topic surrounding the state of nature debate. A complementary topic would, however, be anarchism. Anarchism can be defined as the belief in the abolition of all government and a society organized around voluntary cooperation between individuals, hence why it is related to the concept of a state of nature.
How far is the concept of anarchism apart from the state of nature? Obviously, by definition, both include the complete absence of government, but for anarchists, the lack of government control would not mean total chaos (even though, to this very day, the word anarchism is correlated with chaos), it would mean cooperation between people to subsist. It is not at all true that there are not modern and even successful examples of what can be perceived as anarchism, with a few self-sustaining communities existing in present times, with Marinaleda in Spain being an example. This specific community is very much a reflection of the definition of anarchism, with no figure of authority and being self-sufficient through cooperation.
Does the existence of communities like Marinaleda prove that anarchism is possible, and thus that the existence of a state of nature in which man does not have a nasty and brutish existence possible? It could be so, yes. However, while some anarchist communities have survived for a while, it is imperative to point out that they have a problem maintaining themselves, not just when it comes to producing enough goods, but also when it comes to protecting themselves.
It is worthy of note to point out that anarchist societies would always be at a disadvantage when it comes to the mass allocation of resources that any state can carry out, and it is not surprising at all that that would be a detriment when it comes to self-defence. It is quite easy to establish a parallel between this apparent inability of self-defence and the earlier reflections on tribalism. The bottom line is that if these communities are to be attacked by external forces, they most likely cannot protect themselves. Which then could only mean that for the existence of man in a state of nature to remain peaceful and cooperative, there could not be any external threats, otherwise the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.
One fundamental aspect of being ruled in any political system, is that the ruling class guarantees the safety of the citizens through the rule of law and protection. If, like in these communities, humans can live peacefully without written law, they absolutely cannot live peacefully without protection, and so it seems that the only way to attain such is to delegate power and control to someone who can lead and protect. So merely grabbing the anarchist perspective, one could say that no, a state of nature does not necessarily include barbaric behaviour and conflict. However, if external factors such as outside interference or invasion come into play, it is of little use to the people living in said state of nature, as this scenario of freedom and cooperation could be destroyed at any given moment.
In conclusion, it is important to remind that Hobbes did not live through the times in which one can observe these independent communities and witness the cooperation and self-respect that define them, even without an authoritarian figure guiding their sense of justice or morality. Hobbes lived in a time in which witnessing things of the sort was impossible, and his absolutist views impacted his work to a very significant extent. However, he was not totally wrong. He was not wrong in the idea of rational egoism, that while still up for debate tends to be perceived as generally true in the way in which the individual looks after himself; It is also possible to see how Hobbes’s ideas would become true in a state of nature where civilization, deprived of enlightened rule, would turn into primitive tribalism, causing conflict and misery without end, not only within tribal communities, but in a larger scale. In summary, a Hobbesian perspective, while still obviously debatable, tends to be correct in the assessment it makes of human nature, even if most of its flaws derive from that exact one dimensional explanation of rational egoism. Hobbes’ final thought that life in a state of nature would most likely be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” remains, regardless, very likely to be true.