Our Modern Social Contract Is In Crisis: What Would Thomas Hobbes Say?

World crises and diplomatic disputes define our current era, one where low impact warfare is used as a main tool to devise political strategy. Soft power politics of diplomatic entanglement are redefining the boundary line of national interests. Up and coming powers are uninterested in following the ideal of democratic norms and instead have found meaning in pursuing tactics to bend the will of targeted enemies. Whether it be the U.S-North Korean nuclear standoff, border issues involving China and India in the Doklam region, or proxy wars between Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the desire to strengthen national resolve has superseded man’s ability to redefine his role, interest, and identity within the state. Man has been left behind, consumed by his prepositioned role not as beneficiary of a functioning global community, but grantee of low wages, civil strife, and a sense of being uprooted. Our social contract with the state is beginning to blur, as there is a lingering feeling that the state has not upheld its duty to be the custodian of man’s natural rights. Man may be in danger of losing his purpose if he is not able to understand his political role and the power he holds in relation to the state. But before a new type of sovereignty can be born it is important to reflect on the thinking of the leading authors of social contract theory, that of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). In this post I will talk about the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and leave the Locke and Rousseau to be discussed in consecutive posts.

The Individual, the State, and the Social Contract

Our current era is conflicted. Consumed with the resurgence of great-power politics as globalization continues to shrink the scope of the state’s economic and political authority, man has retained his political rights by acting within democratic institutions but has lost the individual sense of his own rational nature to governing organs (whether it be state-based or supranational i.e European Union). Throughout the vast history of political organization and as new nation-states continue to blossom into being, man’s job has been to contemplate his place in an ever changing network of social systems. He will question the very elements that shape man, pondering whether we are born with innate qualities or obtain certain behaviors from the environment. Since man cannot live in isolation he must judge the essence of morality and the formulation of man’s natural rights. This presents unique challenges in organizing fair and functioning socio-political systems. Isolation may create a sense of individual utopia and an uncharted sense of being, but is futile in the scope of reality, as man cannot live inside himself. He will encounter fellow man and will have to decide whether he is going to work with or against him, as man’s ability to define his essence is in direct relation to the health of his political organization and creation of consent of the governed.

Looking at Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau can help in unfolding the utility between individual liberty and social organization. Hobbes may say in order to obtain a peaceful society we must take warlike man out of isolation and bring him into the social contract, though only by the will of his own choice. Locke would propose that man is born with his life, liberty, and property and becomes warlike only to preserve these. Rousseau would contend that maybe man is not created as a warlike creature but it is his environment that shapes him this way. Each man’s social contract design invites us to ponder man’s state of nature; it is the key to the substance of the social contract. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau take us on different levels of man’s state of nature and allow us to ponder if their designs have been thorough enough to be suitable for man’s initiation into the social contract.

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes was born as the nation- state was forming in Europe and thus provided him with the foundation of questioning man in accordance with his fellow man. Hobbes begins to ponder man’s natural state by the lens of his own society and experiences. He asserts that ‘man’s true nature is warlike, competitive, has a desire to hold what he gains, and wants to be respected.’ From here he builds notions about the social contract and that there must be some power unrestrained over man in order to restrain people from living a life that is brutal and short.

Do all men in the state of nature see life as a brutal and painful experience? Could his foundation stem from his own personal acquaintance with life’s hard spots? Hobbes wants to know what a person is like without any influence or markings from societal forces, he also wants to strip away what makes a human superior. Rousseau would argue that in order for a man to contend that life is brutal and short they must have markings from a society. Hobbes’s warlike man derives order from necessity; man joins with man to create order because our natural state propagates competition for resources while fomenting universal insecurity. His theory for a social contract prototype is that the best way to create collective strength is to give it power unrestrained. Hobbes says that there is no absolute equality by the coming together of men, only the power to participate or not. Locke would contend that we are all created equal but our ability to exploit our capabilities is not equal; that we have equality of nature but not equality of substantive skill.

Hobbes’s social contract design is influenced by the notion of man seeing that it is a necessity to create one society with his fellow man. Since men emanate from the same condition of brutality they are guided by the apparent dangers of distorted self-interest and pleasures of the moment. Hobbes’s contract is a singular binding force between the sovereign (man) and the law (the state). This means that the sovereign (man) is outside of the contract and confines the measure of authority a legislature or parliament has over his life.

What happens if the contract becomes corrupt? Hobbes says that if compliance goes bad the rebellion comes from the government and that it has overstepped its powers, for example, dictating what rights we may have instead of guaranteeing the exercise of those rights. We each have individual life that we put in the hands of higher law. Can we really corrupt our own lives and become an endangerment to the government? Hobbes wants us to know ‘we the people’ have the power to topple the government once it degrades our existence in the social contract. Once government starts to make laws that delegate unlimited scope to its power, it has transgressed and gone against its original contractual duty to safeguard its people against the restricting nature of political authority.

The element that is most intriguing in Hobbes’s design is the fact that man starts off as a warlike creature and that he has the innate quality of a defensive nature. Something from outside of man himself must teach him that his life must be preserved. If man did not know his life needs to be protected would he still have this warlike attitude? Man’s desire to enter the social contract stems from the idea of safety in numbers and compliance to be in a community. But can man in a warlike state trust his fellow man since they are both violent creatures? This assumption is important to contend with, as man’s understanding of his own nature in relation to his fellow man will underpin the utility of his social community and the equality of economic rights that the government of his peers must protect. Hobbes does not explain to us the compelling reasons why man is the way he is. He only pushes us forward to see that man is designed with the intelligence to know that his sole existence must be protected.

The era that we live in presents challenges to the obligation of the state to protect man’s natural rights. Democracy, as man’s most mobilizing function in representing the ethos of the many, is in danger of becoming a tool to represent the power of the state and not that of protecting the people. The liberal international order will continue to stand; seeking to promote globalized norms, such as democracy, in order to help mobilize humanity toward an order that promotes the common good. But in our hasty attempt to democratize the global commons, it seems as though we have forgotten the original plight of the individual man.





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