Hobbes Is Dead (or at least on life support) . . . and I Feel Fine

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Hobbes Is Dead (or at least on life support) . . . and I Feel Fine

It has been said that the election of Barack Obama as the next President may serve to redress the four-century-old stain of racism in America.  While the symbolic poignancy of his ascent no doubt will dispel some demons and open new vistas of opportunity for many, there is another deep-seated ideology of nearly the same historical age that Obama's election may confront, one that perhaps even underlies the overt machinations of race and caste: to wit, fear itself.

In his foundational tome Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously asserted that the natural disposition of humankind was aggression, brutality, and a "war of all against all."  He argued that the creation of a modern State was necessary in order to bind us under a social contract, to impose by coercion the rule of law, and in essence to protect us from ourselves.  Hobbes was primarily motivated by fear in his moral and political philosophizing: fear of the other, fear of nature, fear of death, fear of losing his property and privilege, even fear of his creator.

While the modern nation-state employs many methods to maintain the patterns of social control that Hobbes envisioned - including the hardware of weaponry, imprisonment, and surveillance - it is at root the ideological software of Leviathan that is the glue holding the system together.  Unsurprisingly, modern-day Hobbesians seek to create and accentuate fear among the masses as a means of preserving their positions of power.  The outgoing Bush Administration in particular built its entire platform on this, tapping into the well of 9-11 over and over again as a justification for everything from preemptive war to offshore drilling to high-tech voyeurism.

This last election cycle was notable for the contrasts it presented.  One the one hand, John McCain sought to tap into the same fear-based rhetoric that served the current administration so well, running almost exclusively against an opponent characterized variously as a terrorist, a socialist, anti-American, and someone who would take away your guns and religion.  While race was a veiled part of this fear-mongering strategy, it surprisingly did not take center stage in this campaign (much to the chagrin of Atwater-influenced politicos, no doubt).  Indeed, this may well have been an acknowledgment that at the end of the day, the Hobbesian fears are the bedrock ones upon which constructs of race, class, gender, and all of the sundry -isms are built.

For its part, the Obama campaign sought to contrast itself to the politics of fear by maintaining a sense of optimism and hopefulness in most of its politicking.  Of course there was some negative advertising (is this a redundancy?) here as well, but by and large the central message was one of change and possibility.  Despite the tried-and-true method of scaring the crap out of people as a means of getting them to fall in line and support the iron fist instead of the open hand, and despite throwing every inflammatory label at him, Obama seemed to refuse to take the bait and instead kept to his message of contrast and change.

This isn't meant as a glorification of Obama and the Democrats or a condemnation of McCain and the Republicans.  Many liberals have relied on the fear card in challenging the Bush Administration's policies and practices, and McCain was sometimes described by left-leaning pundits as scary, erratic, and a warmonger.  But there was a virulence lacking in these moments that seems to come easier to the other side.  For instance, I attended the election eve "victory rally" held by John McCain here in Prescott, Arizona.  A number of us turned out to demonstrate with messages about spreading the wealth, health, and opportunity around not only the U.S. but the world.  For this, we were excoriated by many McCain supporters in quite vicious terms.  And at the end of the day, CNN showed images of a woman with an Obama sign that had "666" scrawled across it while failing to mention any of the positive messages that we tried to display.

This is America, after all, and fear sells.  The whole advertising industry is built on the notion that without this [insert product name here] you will be unpopular, uncool, unkempt, unloved, unwelcome, unattractive, persona non grata.  "Keeping up with the Joneses" is an expression of fear that we will stand out in a manner that makes us shameful, lesser, and pitiful.  Conspicuous consumption becomes a way of ostentatiously flaunting our worthiness while simultaneously flouting our fear of impoverishment.  Not surprisingly, once we've invested in a conception of identity based on the power of possession and the fear-flouting virtues of being flush, it becomes incumbent to take any measures necessary (and even some that are not) to protect our domains of privilege and power.  In the end, consumer capitalism turns us into fear-driven actors, and in this we are enacting a new mantra that essentially boils down to "keeping up with the Hobbeses."

Fifty years ago, Kenneth Boulding wrote that "the national image is basically a lie . . . which perhaps accounts for the ease with which it can be perverted to justify monstrous cruelties."  We know that behind those new sneakers and computers there are workers toiling in misery and deprivation.  We sense that within every Styrofoam package or genetically-modified meal lurks a potential impact on the biosphere.  We recognize that our automobiles run on the blood of Iraqis, Nigerians, and others around the world with the misfortune of living in places with resources that we desire.  We see the self-perpetuating nature of poverty and despair even as we blithely punish the individual transgressor rather than address the root causes.  We know we're living a lie in many of these contexts, but because our self-image depends on the lie it is so easily ignored.

Hobbes knew this as well.  His civilization-founding political theory was based on the most specious of evidence, namely that people living in Hobbes's time would lock their doors at night or travel armed as an expression of the obvious distrust they felt for the brutish other.  But the people of Hobbes's era already lived in a nation-state that had laws and a social contract, so all that he really confirmed was that "civilized" people acted aggressively and in the spirit of self-interest.  To this he attempted to contrast the purportedly aggressive tendencies of indigenous Americans, but neglected to mention any of the brutal behaviors of those who had ostensibly come to "civilize the savages."  And obviously, civilization has not staved off the ravages of war.

What Hobbes thus created - the big lie upon which our national image is based - is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In the name of overcoming our fear of the worst traits in humankind, we have institutionalized those tendencies and cleaned them up to seem somehow more palatable.  Out of mistrust of ourselves and each other, we have created social structures and institutions that render us even more untrustworthy by making self-interest a virtue.  In the name of maintaining our privilege and power, we have turned the reins of control over to others and made ourselves almost wholly dependent upon their judgment and policymaking.  From our terror and grief we have inflicted the same on multitudes of others.  In his book Nonviolence, Mark Kurlansky writes that "people motivated by fear do not act well," and in this may we find a reflection of ourselves.

At the end of the day, an Obama presidency likely won't surmount all of this historical baggage.  Yet for a brief moment in time, perhaps we can idealistically linger over the defeat of fear by hope, just as we allow ourselves to glimpse the end of racism in our midst.  Of course, neither fear nor racism will magically perish from the earth simply due to a tally of the Electoral College.  But if it can happen for even a moment, perhaps that is the impetus we need to transcend the Hobbesian legacy and begin the task of writing a new shared narrative of hopefulness.  If fear can become self-fulfilling, then over time so too can become the virtues of optimism and peace.

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, and serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. His recent books include Peace Ecology (Paradigm Publishers, 2014), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness; and the co-edited volumes  Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013) and Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action.


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