Pessimism in Political Discourse
Thomas Hobbes is one of the giants of political theory, primarily with his book Leviathan which has set the tone for much of conservative ideologies. You can usually find Hobbes in texts that speak of humanity as some kind of horrible creature that must be kept bound against its will, otherwise it eats itself. I’m perhaps not giving the best image of Hobbes, because I myself am biased toward a more optimistic view of the human race.
I find this sort of dialectic is used to justify hatred against the other. Because in hobbesian dialectic, we must always be on the lookout for the other, because he may at once betray us without so much as a blink of an eye. Seeking some kind of middle-ground or indeed thinking that humanity CAN be brought to cooperate globally is an impossibility to the Hobbesian. The only way we can make humanity cooperate is to put them in a perpetual prisoner’s dilemma, where the gains of cooperation outweigh the losses. It takes a very rational and admittedly, logical approach to human interaction.
I find that Hobbes is also associated with “realism”, but in my view, realism is thinly disguised pessimism. It would presume to be taking both the positive and the bad into equal measure and it is only because the bad is more apparent that realists come off as pessimists. Most Enlightenment philosophers, alike Hobbes, did not very much like the concept of a pure democracy, which they likened to anarchy. For men are forever bound to their inner savage. This makes sense, in theory and in practice. So much horror has been visited by human civilizations on this Earth, therefore Hobbes was not behaving irrationally when he wrote what he wrote. He was taking in the historical analysis of human politics and coming up with a conclusion which was sound.
At the time, yes… Not anymore.
Taking old theories and translating them today
There is a mistake here, I believe, in taking old theories and translating them verbatim here and now. Our society is much different than it was in the times of the Enlightenment. There was not the prospect of globalization and technologies like the Internet were not linking all humans together, to exchange words instantly, whereas in times of the old Regime philosophers, there were only letters and messengers.
Ideas are communicated much more quickly now and a population can transmit information at faster-than-light speeds. This is important, because the savagery that existed back in those days was facilitated by the lack of proliferation of authoritative information. We are still at risk of these things today, but mending erroneous information that could cause conflict is much easier to do.
Pierre Bourdieu, in the book “Sur L’État” explains the necessity of coming up with new theories or new analysis for new phenomena. It does not suffice to know how Hobbes thought and then try to translate his thought into everyday society. We must take into account these things, when using Hobbes’ ideas: There was a significant difference in cultures. What I expect those reading this to understand from what I am saying is that Hobbes’ ideas were a reflection of the times in which he lived. The same can be said of most philosophers.
Why is this important, though? Because Hobbes’ ideas, while revolutionary back in his time, shaped the world we are in. By creating governments that are apparently only there to keep the blind savages that comprise the demos from killing eachother, we forget about the need for humanity to evolve. You cannot constrain civilization into one singularity for too long. What is happening now is a direct result of that.
Francis Dupuis-Déri has written about a term called “agoraphobia” which is a widespread notion in Liberal democracies that the people cannot be made to make decisions on their own. They require rational, specialized thinkers to make them for them, to avoid self-serving prophecies to be realized. Elitists like Hobbes who preconized this, Locke included, thought the Legislator as being some kind of holy figure of pure objectivity. This is elitism, and this is what Hobbes hides in his dialectic: A disdain for the poor.
This is the dialectic that permeates the landscape of current politics. Poor people tired of being betrayed by the wealthy aristocrats look for a proper outlet to their frustrations. Elitism begets such frustration and invariably leads to revolution and as history has shown us, this revolution is usually violent. The risk, therefore, is that because our current systems have been built off of Enlightenment philosophers which would best pass off as “libertarians” in this day and age, we end up having a normalizing paradigm of oligarchies handing off power to new oligarchies.
In Dupuis-Déri’s work on historical definitions of Democracy, it is found that when the Founding Fathers took power, the years following their institution of the United States saw an influx of Old Regime loyalists (people loyal to the Crown) coming back as senators or governors or indeed advisors to the newborn states. Aristocrats that had been part of the colonial authorities had moved from popular assemblies to seats of government. In the end, the shift in power was purely semantical, as the people were still beneath the boot of a debatably less oppressive power.
Disdain for the people has shaped policies of the first legislative bodies of America and have laid the groundwork for a continued barrage of lies and misleading political and economic objectives upon the people. The reason being that at the very outset, the goal was never to give power to the people but to give the illusion of such. Hobbes views humanity, the masses particularly as being the most dangerous of beasts. Agoraphobia predates Hobbes, however, even going so far as the Greeks who all thought that Democracy only served to erect despots, but history serves as our witness that despotism and oppression exists in any which government.
It simply works much more insidiously in Republican or representative democratic systems.
To conclude, it behooves us as a society not to look to the past for answers but forward. These ancient monoliths carry with them seeds that sowed their future: us. Now, we must find new ways, and what sets my generation (millenials) and those that came before and after us, is an emphasis upon empathy. Gone are the days of stoic aggression and of skeptic dogmatism. We wish to make humanity whole, and in by doing so, deconstructing what sets us apart is the goal we’ve set upon ourselves.
This, like anything else, however, is just an idea wrapped with good intentions, and as we all know, the way to hell is paved with good intentions.
What is necessary is to never lose track of how things could be made better and not think in terms of static imagery: A Utopia is an impossible dream to realize, and that is why it ought to be kept that way, so that we can always find ways to improve what is considered stale, change the unchangeable and move the immovable.