Thomas Hobbes, advocate for autocracy

The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes died today (December 4th) in 1679. But as a civic republican I shall not be mourning him, for a number of reasons. Ironically for one of the founders of liberal and libertarian thinking (along with John Locke) a primary aim of Hobbes was a defence of sovereign power and autocratic government. Hobbes works include Leviathan, published in 1651 in which he developed his social contract theory. His work was partly aimed at opposing the radical politics which emerged during the English Civil War and the theories of the high Republicans during the Commonwealth of the early 1650s; the modern combination of which I find compelling!

So what lay behind Hobbes insistence on an absolute monarch (or ruling group)? It comes from Hobbes concept of society which viewed people atomistically, in perpetual motion trying to get economic power and influence over each other. From this a natural structure to society emerges with individuals all seeking their best interests. But if society is of this nature, what stops it falling apart in some kind of anarchic fight for ultimate power? Why, none other than a universally accepted absolute sovereign charged with passing laws to ensure the continued health of the competitive system. To keep the sovereign above the throng he or she would have the power to appoint their successor (what better than the eldest son!).

Hobbes claimed that the legitimacy for his theory came from the freedoms man possessed in the ‘state of nature’. But as CB MacPherson in Possessive Individualism has shown, this was a fallacy. What Hobbes did was to take the contemporary mid-17th Century English economic structure of small traders and freelancers and assume there were no laws! Unfortunately it was the version of liberty proposed by Hobbes and Locke which became prevalent and still dominates today. As Philip Pettit in his book Republicanism says:

Liberty as non-domination – republican liberty – had not only been lost to political thinkers and activists; it had even become invisible to the historians of political thought.

Not any longer!

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