Contra Hobbes: Peace and Political Government Are Opposites

Drawing of frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Public domain.

“Hereby it is manifest,” Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651’s Leviathan, “that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war as is of every man against every man.”

Hobbes’s solution to the absence of a “common Power” was a “covenant” with a “sovereign” who would act on behalf of all – what we today call “the state” or “government” – thus bringing an end to the terrible war he discerned.

So, how well has that worked out for us?

Hobbes wrote in the shadow of the Thirty Years’ War, concluded by the Peace of Westphalia, which created the state as we know it. Casualties in that war are estimated at eight million.

Here are some death tolls for a select few of Earth’s near-constant wars since the consolidation of the Westphalian nation-state model in the late 19th century with the unifications of Germany and Italy, and subsequent struggles between/within nation-states:

World War One: 40 million
Russian Civil War: 9 million
Chinese Civil War: 11.6 million
Second Sino-Japanese War: 25 million
World War Two: 85 million
Korean War. 4.5 million
Vietnam War: 4.3 million
Nigerian Civil War: 3 million
Afghanistan Conflict: 2 million
Second Congo War: 5.4 million

The verdict was certainly in by 1918, when Randolph Bourne died and his essay “The State” was published posthumously. The takeaway line: “War is the health of the state.”

Hobbes’s “sovereign” suggestion, as taken, didn’t end war. It put war on steroids.

Political government as we’ve constructed it is geared toward maximizing death to increase its own power and expand its own reach at the expense of everyone. We’ve still got perpetual war of every man against every man. Only now it’s highly organized, well-funded, and waged for the benefit of the political class.

As Leon Trotsky – a “state-ist” himself, but one who hoped for a “withering away” of political government into communism – put it in 1937’s The Revolution Betrayed:

“Whatever be the programs of the government, stateism inevitably leads to a transfer of the damages of the decaying system from strong shoulders to weak. … State-ism means applying brakes to the development of technique, supporting unviable enterprises, perpetuating parasitic social strata.”

What private commercial interest, operating under a weak state or no state at all, would have invented the tank, the aerial bomb, or the nuclear warhead? Such weapons only promise profitability in the context of a strong, powerful states waging war with each other.

I’m often told that my anarchist philosophy and my goal of reaching, at least, a “panarchy” under which each individual chooses a governing entity instead of remaining trapped in the Westphalian Model’s geographic “sovereignty” trap, are unrealistic fantasies worthy only of dismissal.

But if unrealism is a disqualifying factor, Hobbes’s “sovereign” and the state as we know have, unlike my ideas, had their chance … and are clearly failures when it comes to ending war.

As we stare down the barrel of nuclear holocaust, it’s clearly time to re-think how we do government.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism. He lives and works in north central Florida. This article is reprinted with permission from William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.

4 thoughts on “Contra Hobbes: Peace and Political Government Are Opposites”

  1. TK strikes the root. Getting these concepts across to the average person is about like trying to explain a third dimension to a flatlander but it seems our survival depends on it. It seems like the unhinged lunacy of the nuclear arms race should give people pause to wonder about the whole “government” business. You really have to wonder about people who build bombs that will destroy an entire city. And it’s absurd on its face to suppose some commonality of interest by sole virtue of having been born within the geographic confines of this or that passing political entity, basically a collection of lines on a map with a piece of cloth and a theme song. Maybe we need a neologism or an acronym or something for the “Westphalian Model’s geographic “sovereignty” trap”, some kind of label to identify the problem with.
    addendum: Wikipedia says “Scholars of international relations have erroneously identified the Peace of Westphalia as the origin of principles crucial to modern international relations”, so clearly TK is on to something.

    1. Admittedly, the Peace of Westphalia is just a convenient marker. The concepts had been brewing for quite a little while before it, and took another couple of centuries to really come to fruition with things like unified “Germany” and “Italy” out of the old feudal principalities. It was the negotiations to end the Thirty Years’ War that sort of codified the “perpetual sovereignty and borders” system that was developing to replace transferable feudal allegiances.

      1. Anything political that Wikipedia explicitly refutes probably has at least a modicum of truth to it, in fact the full sentence is
        “Scholars of international relations have erroneously identified the Peace of Westphalia as the origin of principles crucial to modern international relations, collectively known as Westphalian sovereignty, but historians argue that this is largely a myth invented after the fact.” … which could be read that the erroneous identification is a myth. It’s at least sloppy writing/editing. And “erroneous” is not the same as “largely a myth”. Wikipedia definitely has some ideological and/or pecuniary axe grinding going on.

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