Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hobbes's Liberal Leviathan and the Rule of the Clan

Much of what Hobbes says in Leviathan sounds surprisingly liberal.  The fundamental right of nature is "the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgment, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto" (ch. 14, 91).  Since this natural liberty of each person to live as he pleases leads to war in the state of nature, each person must give up some of his liberty for the sake of peace.  But the contract by which this is done is based on the principle of equal liberty--that each person "be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe" (92).  This principle of equal liberty runs throughout the history of classical liberalism, from John Locke to Adam Smith to Herbert Spencer to Friedrich Hayek.

Nevertheless, the picture of the Leviathan on the title page of the book doesn't look very liberal.  All the individuals have been fused into one political body in which all stare up at the crowned head of the ruler.  Surely this is the picture of an illiberal authoritarian order.

And yet the authority of this sovereign power arises from the consent of all individuals, who have consented to it for the sake of securing their civil liberty as individuals.  This sounds a lot like the arguments for republicanism advanced by English parliamentarians and dissenters against the Royalists.  When Hobbes wrote Leviathan, he was in Paris with the royal court in exile of Prince Charles (Charles II), whom he had tutored.  But a few months after the publication of Leviathan in 1651, Hobbes was excluded from Charles's court, and Hobbes returned to England early in 1652.  The royalists charged him with atheism, heresy, and treachery.  They were particularly offended by Parts Three and Four of Leviathan, which attacked Anglican doctrine and hierarchy and endorsed a parliamentary plan for churches being independent of both Anglican episcopacy and Presbyterian church government (ch. 47, 479).

Hobbes's difficult position in the English political and theological controversies of his time is conveyed in his letter of dedication for Leviathan: "For in a way beset with those that contend, on one side for too great Liberty, and on the other side for too much Authority, 'tis hard to passe between the points of both unwounded" (3).  Hobbes is neither an absolute libertarian nor an absolute authoritarian, because he thinks that securing individual liberty requires centralized state authority.

This points to a problem in classical liberal political thought.  On the one hand, liberals want to expand the liberty of individuals by limiting state authority over them.  On the other hand, liberals need a powerful state authority that will enforce the conditions for liberal individualism.  So like Hobbes, liberals must steer between "too great Liberty" and "too much Authority."

In many countries around the world today--such as Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan--the weakening or failure of central state power has promoted not individual liberty but the rule of clans that deny individual autonomy.  When there is no powerful central government to enforce law and order and provide public goods, people will not live as free individuals; rather they will revert back to an ancient tribal form of social order in which people are treated not as individuals but as members of their extended kinship groups.  There are good Darwinian reasons for this, having to do with the evolved instincts for kinship, nepotism, and tribalism based on extended real or fictive kinship. 

The moral codes of these clan societies will enforce group honor and suppress individual liberty.  For example, clan societies will enforce the blood feuds, the honor killings, and the attacks on infidels that liberals abhor.  The social order of liberal individualism will not prevail unless there is a powerful liberal state that will deny the customary legal systems of clan groups and protect the autonomy of individuals from coercion by clans.

That's the message of a brilliant new book--Mark Weiner's The Rule of the Clan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).  Although he never directly mentions Hobbes, Weiner's argument is Hobbesian in making the case for a Liberal Leviathan.  He disputes the common libertarian assumption that liberty is strongest when the state is weakest or even absent.  While conceding that the state can be used for illiberal ends, he insists that individual freedom cannot exist if it is not enforced by a powerful liberal state.  He develops this argument by showing how weak or failed states have often created a vacuum of power that has been filled by the rule of clans that deny individual liberty.

Weiner represents a liberal society in a visual diagram--the state is a large circle and within this circle smaller circles represent discrete individuals who are equal in their independence (7).  This diagram is similar to Hobbes's picture of Leviathan as a single body composed of the discrete bodies of individual citizens.

In contrast to such a liberal society, in which individuals are understood to be equally independent of one another, a clan society assumes that individuals have no identity or value except as members of their extended families.  So Weiner's diagram for such a clan society is a big circle around smaller circles representing kin groups that contain even smaller circles that represent individuals who have no independent identity outside of their kin group (9). 

A clan society is natural for human beings, Weiner claims, because it is rooted in their instinctive longings for communal life in extended clan groups.  And therefore, when there is no powerful liberal state to enforce the legal norms of liberal individualism, the rule of the clan will naturally assert itself.  A liberal society cannot exist except as an artificial construction of a liberal state.

Weiner adopts Henry Sumner Maine's account of legal evolution as moving "from Status to Contract," from social orders based on extended family groups to social orders based on free individuals (10-14).  This is a movement from clan society to liberal society.

Most of Weiner's book develops this argument through historical case studies of clan societies and of how the centralization of state power is required to restrain clan power and protect individual liberty.  His historical cases include the Nuer of Southern Sudan, Medieval Iceland, the early history of Islam, Anglo-Saxon England, the Palestinian Authority, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Although I am persuaded by most of what Weiner argues, I am not persuaded by his general assumption that a clan society is more natural or instinctive than a liberal society, and consequently that a liberal society arises only as an artificial imposition by a centralized state that represses the tribal instincts of clan society.  I disagree with this for the same reasons that I disagree with Friedrich Hayek's Freudian view that liberal civilization requires the repression of the evolved tribal instincts of human nature.

Like Hayek, Weiner views Marxist socialism as an attempt to overcome liberal individualism by reviving, in a higher form, the social solidarity of ancient clan groups.  This is most evident in Friedrich Engels's adoption of Lewis Henry Morgan's theory of the circular evolution of human society, so that eventually modern civilization would evolve into a higher form of Iroquois clan society.  The consequences of this kind of thinking were disastrous: "The centralization of political authority in the Communist Party, the abolition of private property, the nightmare of Soviet state surveillance--all were part of an effort to re-create a world of clan solidarity through force of law.  The effort ended in slavery, in a new, modernist society of Status that subsumed the individual into the demands of the group" (183).

But if clan solidarity is naturally instinctive for all human beings, and if individual liberty is a artificial invention of modernity that runs against our human nature, then why didn't the Marxist experiment succeed?

Even if there is a natural yearning for clan solidarity, a liberal society can satisfy that yearning by channeling it into the natural and voluntary associations of a pluralist society.  Weiner recognizes that in his account of how Walter Scott used his romantic historical novel--Waverley (1814)--to imaginatively recreate the life of Scotland's Highland clans in a way that was compatible with liberal society (188-95).  A liberal legal order in Scotland must deny the coercive legal authority of Scottish clans, but that liberal legal order could allow people to celebrate their clan identity as something to be celebrated in memory.  Scottish clan identity could become a voluntary commitment in a free society of individuals, in which Scottish clan life became a cultural activity in liberal society without the coercive harshness of the originally illiberal clan society.

I have developed this idea in my comments on Jonathan Haidt's evolutionary moral psychology, in arguing that a classical liberal regime can create a largely open society in which all six of the moral foundations identified by Haidt can be satisfied--not only the individualistic principles of harm, liberty, and fairness, but also the communitarian principles of authority, loyalty, and sanctity.

Moreover, the powerful appeal of liberal culture--even to people in long-established clan societies--suggests that the desire for individual liberty is just as naturally instinctive as the desire for clan solidarity.  Weiner disagrees.  He thinks that the clan expresses "a basic human drive," which is a "natural drive of human beings . . . to create legal structures in which individual freedom is diminished" (169).  He thinks this must be so because "for most of human history, the primary . . . group has been the extended family, the clan," thus, "the clan is a natural form of social and legal organization," and "we humans naturally build legal structures based on real or fictive kin ties or social networks that behave much like ancient clans" (7).  In contrast to this evolved instinctive drive to clan society, the modern liberal state is an artificial invention that requires repression of clan instincts.

Weiner is mistaken in claiming that "for most of human history, the primary group has been the extended family, the clan."  In fact, for most of our evolutionary history, our human ancestors lived as clanless foragers in bands of nuclear families and small kinship groups.  In one brief passage of this book, Weiner recognizes that clan societies did not arise until human beings shifted from small bands of hunter-gatherers to larger tribes of pastoralists (58).  But then in the rest of the book, he ignores this and assumes that clan societies have ruled over most of human history.

As I have indicated in some other posts, hunting-gathering foragers probably showed the kind of individual liberty that Hobbes and Locke depict as characteristic of the state of nature.  If that is so, then modern liberal individualism could be understood as a revival in modern form of the individualistic life of our Paleolithic ancestors, and thus modern liberal society could appeal to our ancient evolved instincts for individual liberty.  This has been argued by Jonathan Turner and Alexandra Maryanski (in The Social Cage [1992] and On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection [2008])and by Paul Rubin (in Darwinian Politics [2002]). 

If this is correct, then the Liberal Leviathan could appeal to all of us as the design for a civil society in which we can satisfy our ancient natural desire for individual liberty.

Also, we can see here the grounds for the debate between liberalism and anarchism, which has been the subject of some previous posts.  The liberal assumes that since the natural liberty of individuals in a society without a state leads to war, we need a state to secure peace in a way that promotes as much liberty as is compatible with security.  The anarchist assumes that a stateless society can become a self-regulating or self-governing order that secures the conditions for peaceful cooperation without any need for a Leviathan state. 

Resolving this debate depends on an empirical science of political anthropology to answer certain questions.  How successful have stateless societies been in securing both liberty and security?  Have liberal state societies been more successful at this?  Even if stateless societies have been somewhat successful in the past--in small forager bands and in larger clans and tribes--how successful can they be for organizing the large nations and extended orders of modern life?  Don't the stateless clan societies that we see in the world today suppress individual liberty rather than promote it, as Weiner argues?

This debate has practical implications for the future of global politics.  In many parts of the world, states are failing or disappearing.  Some observers foresee that the modern state itself is in decline.  Liberals will insist that we must preserve the modern state and direct it to liberal ends.  Anarchists will say that we should let the modern state fall and then look for new forms of stateless social order to secure our liberty and our security.

Mark Weiner has an essay at "Cato Unbound" on "The Paradox of Modern Individualism."

Elaboration of these points can be found in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Troy Camplin said...

Given that a "state" is a particular kind of government, it is not impossible that one could see the rise of a different kind of post-state government.

The U.S. may have originally been thought of in those terms. We are the United STATES of America -- with a federal government over those states. The idea being that the overarching federal government would check the power of the more local states.

If we were to have a spontaneous order of governance, we ought to find a power law distribution of power in governments. Small local governments should have the most power, various polities in between with less power, and a large umbrella government of almost no power, but which maintains freedom of movement of people and goods among the polities.

The U.S. is structured that way with the town/city, counties, states, and federal governments. But the distribution of power is hardly a power law any more. Therein lies the problem in the U.S. We weren't a state -- but we have become one. We have regressed.

Larry Arnhart said...

Hegel complained that the United States was not a State.

Troy Camplin said...

He was right that we were not. He was wrong to complain about it. :-)

clifford said...

But after the 14th amendment and the creation of the progressive administrative state FROM FDR it has, unfortunately.

I ought to look at Weiner....

Are you using the 3 volume Levithan?