Why the Establishment likes Locke
Anyone who was educated in America can probably remember the time in grade school when they were forced to write a paper on Hobbes and Locke. As always the paper was supposed to be skewed in Locke’s favor. Hobbes was a mean and nasty man who paved the way for Fascism while Locke believed in freedom.
To deny the bias towards Locke would be absurd, clearly Lockean social contract theory is shoved down our throats as a way to prevent Hobbesian thought from seeping in. Hell the two almost come together in a package, if you are taught about the Leviathan it almost has to be followed up with Lockean social contract theory. Hobbes is the bitter pill and Locke is the pleasant tasting chaser that follows.
But why exactly is that? Why are these two men always taught in tandem? There is really no comparison to the Locke/Hobbes symbiotic relationship in academic thought that can be found anywhere else. I have a theory why that is. Very rarely does posterity produce an individual who has the wherewithal and the nerve to tell it like it is. Machiavelli was one, Socrates, and of course Hobbes. Not surprisingly all three of these men found themselves at the mercy of the authorities for their “blasphemy”, either through imprisonment, censure or execution. There is something about Hobbesian thought that strikes a nerve, a deep one, and we don’t like it. Perhaps because, it’s true?
The Hobbesian view of humanity is not a feel good one, in our natural state we are thieves, liars and murderers. We kill senselessly, we take what isn’t ours, we neglect what is ours. Jesus was right, we are all sinners. The state is there as a saving grace, without it we would surely be at each other’s throats, and indeed even with it we still are. Without society we are just as graceless and cruel as any other beast.
Locke on the other hand presents a warm and fuzzy view of things, humans in their natural state are cooperative, they work together and never get into fights. We all respect each other’s natural rights, and if injustice does occur that is the fault of an individual, and not evident of humanity as a whole. The state exists to uphold justice, and we could always get rid of it if we felt like it. We don’t really need social structure because humans can take care of themselves just fine. Oh and let’s not forget property rights, the elite love their property rights.
The Lockean viewpoint is the one our establishment wants us to hear, and for a few good reasons. The first is that it assumes that we have chosen our government, our society and our economic system out of mutual agreement. All these things are here to make you feel better. Certainly our economic and social systems are not ones that unfairly favor a certain group over another, because these things arose out of mutual agreement of everyone. Also it makes the individual feel special: you are the star of the show, the elites and government are just there to help ensure your life is better, and we all have a seat in the table in the social contract, we are equal. The homeless beggar and billionaire are all social equals in the Lockean world. Property rights and the social inequality that results when they are over-exaggerated are also natural of course. Finally, the Lockean viewpoint is favored because it glosses over the sketchy aspects of humanity. Humanity is and always has been a good thing, people have always had good lives. Overall the picture is a feel good one. It is also pure rubbish.
The truth is that we live in a Hobbesian world. Human beings are capable of terrible things, most of human history has been a chronicle of suffering, hardship and war. Society and the state don’t exist merely because we wanted to get along, it exists because we have no other alternative. For thousands of years we lived off the land, but our population exploded and the burden became too much, we killed all the herds, we picked all the low hanging fruit, man the hunter was forced into living in society and relying on agriculture to survive. Civilization is a necessity because of ecological constraint, government and law is a necessity because of social constraint. We rely on the state because we have to, not because we want to. Humanity can be capable of great good, but it can also be capable of great evil. And that evil can be turned on quite quickly.
How would a Lockean explain Nazi Germany? An entire nation embarks on a macabre adventure in which nearly everyone participates in a horror show of gross proportions. Or better yet, what about war in general? It only takes 6 weeks of boot camp to turn anyone into a killer. Surely such horrors must be the government’s fault, and indeed modern day Lockeans pretty much blame the whole thing on the state.
But there is an alternative explanation for Nazi Germany and the horrors of war: humanity has a monkey on its back, a bad one, and one that can easily be released if we are put it in the right environment. We are still animals underneath, and history and the present are testaments to our primitive and violent nature. We don’t want to be independent, we want to be led.
The establishment likes Locke because Locke limits the role of the government to mere perfunctory matters. The night-watchman state. Everything else is to be left up to the “markets”. Our economic system, wealth distribution, ecological relationships, social trends, all of that is left up to “humanity”. It is also helpful that Locke includes a right to property in his view of what “natural law” is. Thus the rich are able to say to everyone else that their condition is natural, any redistribution or taxation is thus an affront to nature as their property rights are “natural” and any attempt at equality is a sin. And indeed, these are the very beliefs held by the establishment.
The establishment doesn’t like Hobbes because Hobbes spoke the truth. Humanity is not in control of things, we have no idea what we are doing, here we are in the 21st century, in the wake of financial catastrophe, and potentially on the precipice of an ecological one. War and violence is a reality for far too many of us, millions of people are rotting in cages around the world, species disappear from this planet every day, millions suffer seemingly needlessly from poverty and mental illness, economic disparity between rich and poor has never been greater in the entire history of this world. And as always, we are the culprits. We did not choose this world, we were simply born into it. There is no guarantee that things will get better, and in fact they may very well get worse. And yet we continue to go forward because there is no other alternative. Our world, the real world, is a Hobbesian world.
What if however we could improve things? What if humanity had more power than it is led to believe? What if through governance and law we could do more to improve our life? Our economy? Our ecosystem? We are taught to believe that this is somehow beyond our control, that the government is useless in these matters, that we must simply accept it for what it is. But perhaps that isn’t true, perhaps the social contract carries with more bargaining power than we were told by the Lockean? Locke tells us that humans are just fine on their own, Hobbes however points out that we are all in this together, and we all need each other. Hobbes was right.
The establishment loves Locke because Lockean theory is ultimately a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It makes the individual feel as though this is our “natural” order. It makes them feel as though they are truly free. Its feel good story helps justify our actions when we “rain freedom” on other countries in the form of hellfire missiles. It allows the elites to raid our wealth, tear down our public institutions, privatize our public goods and degrade the commonwealth. It makes collective power out to be an enemy. Locke tries to objectify subjective preferences, and ultimately this makes our fellow men out to be enemies as violence in the name of these preferences is justified. It tells us that our choices are limited. Locke, not Hobbes, ultimately tells people to stay in line.
Hobbesian thought however, tells us that our laws are not a result of nature or wisdom, but of mere authority. This is often misused to accuse him of despotism, however the true implication of this line of thought is that it leaves it open ended. What it really means is that humanity, through the power of our sovereignty can change these laws. Far more power is in our hands than what the Lockean framework tells us. Locke tells us that people don’t have to compromise anything to live in society because everyone is naturally all rosy. Hobbes on the other hand acknowledges that part of living in a society means giving up some freedom for security, however what freedoms those are is up to us. Plus the Hobbesian view acknowledges that without that security our lives would be far worse.
Our world is not a Lockean one, it is a Hobbesian one. The Lockean vision being taught in our schools is one used to anaesthetize us while the elite grab more power and wealth. The elites use their authority to grab more power and then turn around and tell the masses that it is their “natural” right to do so. It is high time we begin to look at the world as it really is, and that starts with some honesty. Lockean theory is fundamentally dishonest, and thus it will always be used to maintain the status quo rather than improve it. Hobbesian thought may make one uncomfortable, but it is ultimately the more honest of the two philosophies. It is when we are honest that we will begin to see truth, and through truth we can bring about a better world, for all of us. The first step in attaining true freedom is to see the world for what it really is.
3 responses to “Why the Establishment likes Locke”
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- May 22, 2013 -
Forget what sociology and psychology tell us, I know Hobbes is dead on about human nature from my own life experience. I grew up in what is known as the rust belt of Michigan, between Flint and Detroit. Went to college at U of M in Flint and lived there for some time. I worked as a DJ in every seedy bar in town. The city is jam packed with men in their undeveloped natural state. The entire area is a predatory jungle. If you let your guard down, something will be taken from you. Materially or psychologically, every corner has a fat cat waiting to show his teeth. I have heard that Hobbes had a tough go, some rough patches during the revolution and saw how horrid the human animal can be. Maybe Locke was ignorant to these things, maybe his life’s experience was a rosy one. It might be true that people who are able to cakewalk through life also find it easier to side with Locke. People who have not been through a proper state institution decay into living proof for a Hobbesian. Now how to get the rose colered glasses off the eyes of the cakewalkers is a tough nut to crack.
I like the term “rose colored glasses” because that is pretty much what I was getting at in this post. In fact I currently have some articles in the works where I want to address the issue of methodology and approach in the humanities and social sciences. It is indeed a tough nut to crack, and the reason I believe lies in ourselves. Humans can study geometry, sea slugs and organic chemistry with a type of objective detachment which makes it easy. However, when studying ourselves, it can be very easy to insert subjective normative hopes into things which should be looked at objectively. We see this in concepts like rationality, free will and the role of the individual in society. We want to give a certain answer about them which makes us feel good, which can lead us to developing flawed methods and models. Of course the great genius of Hobbes was to approach humans in purely scientific terms. Hobbes started off in physics and viewed humanity purely through the frame of him just being physical matter. And indeed all the sciences including the social sciences are just outgrowths of physics, and I believe that it one of Hobbes’ great legacies. However, I do believe that there are times that people veer away from those fundamental tenants set out by Hobbes and they drift into making metaphysical assumptions about humanity, which can end up injecting a fatal flaw into their entire model which makes it less workable and helpful for humanity. One of my goals with this blog, and indeed why I call it the Hobbesian, is to stress the importance of trying our best to remain painfully objective in our analysis, and to show how many popular philosophies and schools of thought we find today have failed in staying painfully objective, and instead have injected romantic notions into their description of humanity which they subsequently present as scientific fact. And that is a bad thing.