Hobbes and Bregman

16/05/2020

Are human beings good? A lot of things appear to be riding on this question--the fortunes of some lucrative publishing careers among them. The question whether human beings are more naturally inclined to cooperate, to treat eachother kindly, to respect and acknowledge each others intrinsic dignity and worth seems to be of great importance, or at least great enough to devote a book and media blitz to, as Rutger Bregman is doing at present.
 
Bregman's main claim is that the idea that human beings are not naturally pleasant or inclined to mutually beneficial cooperation is not just wrong, but lies at the heart of far too many grotesque perversions of our thinking about questions of public policy. The idea has thrown sand in our eyes and has made us unable to see our natural inclinations--to our own great misfortune, and to the corruption and manipulation of our lives in systems of control designed under conditions of error at best, and malice at worst. Because if man is a wolf to man, what other political order is feasible but one littered with snares? 
 
Naturally, we need someone to blame. Bregman's greatest bogeyman (though there are others) is Thomas Hobbes. And why not? Didn't Hobbes declare that life in the state of nature would inevitably lead to a "war of all against all"? That its condition is "nasty, brutish and short"? That man, left to his own devices, lusts after "power after power", in order to satisfy his limitless desires?
 
And does this not speak to the bleak outlook Hobbes possesses on matters of human nature and our ability to get along? Surely, Hobbes is an excellent target for revisionism. 
 
What is irksome about this, is that there is so little that sticks, because it lacks all meaningful context. There are many different ways to read Hobbes, many of them productive and interesting, and many imaginitive, transformative and insightful. But there are also many ways in which not to read Hobbes, and these make a genre in itself--the genre Bregman has mastered well. Pretend the people you critique somehow failed to see something that should be almost embarassingly self-evident, but practice no modesty while you attempt to go toe to toe with these giants of the canon. It is a wonderfully profitable conceit that takes ones own superficiality to be the superficiality of someone else, to then be dismissed with confidence and bravado (and why not: you've made it so easy on yourself). 
 
A number of practicioners of political science and other broad-brush impressionists of human affairs tend to read Hobbes by not reading him at all--skipping over the first chapters and running straight to the goods in the famous thirteenth chapter, where all the flavorful bits are about how nasty life is and how much war there is when humans are left to their devices. 
 
Much of this, however, simply projects onto Hobbes what isn't strictly in Hobbes, and holds him responsible for it. The reason Hobbes writes that life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish and short is not that people seek to subjugate each other because they can. It is rather that they cannot help themselves, and provided with no mechanisms to countenance the risk, will end up doing so. Not necessarily because they want to, and not even because it is inevitable--but because they lack the structures for cooperation. The reason, again, is not because we are motivated to act like wolves, but rather because we overestimate the extend to which our motives are good and our actions justified. Famously, Hobbes likened this to the changing of weather. The state of war we find ourselves in is not a continuous cohabitation with violence, but rather the knowledge that violence might be brought to us at any moment. 
 
"For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary." (Hobbes, ch. 13)
 
 
It may be that today the sun shines, and tomorrow as well. But we can safely predict that some day, we will need an umbrella. And thus we have need for one.
 
But why do we fight in the first place? The point that Hobbes returns to, over and over again, is not that we are intrinsically bad--indeed, he gives a rich and detailed account of the passions that includes all kinds of impulses: the good, the bad and the ugly--but that we tend to overestimate our capacity for judgment. That, whenever we find ourselves in disagreement, we are bad at resolving disputes without an arbiter recognized by both parties as the legitimate authority to settle the matter. We undervalue the capacities of others and overestimate our own wits. There is no way out of this but that of an arbiter. The whole point of nearly all chapters leading up to the famous one that Bregman and others so thankfully abuse for its fragments is not that we are bad, but that we have need for rules and a way of enforcing them to allow us to cooperate:
 
"And as in arithmetic unpractised men must, and professors themselves may often, err, and cast up false; so also in any other subject of reasoning, the ablest, most attentive, and most practised men may deceive themselves, and infer false conclusions; not but that reason itself is always right reason, as well as arithmetic is a certain and infallible art: but no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty; no more than an account is therefore well cast up because a great many men have unanimously approved it. And therefore, as when there is a controversy in an account, the parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator, or judge, to whose sentence they will both stand, or their controversy must either come to blows, or be undecided [...]." (Hobbes, ch. 5)
 
 
As it is with intellectual disputes, it is with disputes of all kinds. Witout some form of arbitration by a legitimate authority, we are left to our own devices to solve our conflicts. And without the instruments of peace Hobbes prefers--law and sovereign violence--there is only the force we are able to produce with what our fists can muster. This is the condition of war. The sun may shine but it may rain too--we do not know in advance, and thus we live in constant worry or fear. We bring an umbrella for lack of certainty, not for desire to use it. Hobbes may have chosen to depict the state of nature not as "nasty, brutish and short" but as "anxious, diminished and curtailed". 
 
It is important to emphasize that Hobbes claimed that all human beings were essentially equal. The strongest could be bested by the weakest through cunning. And since we are all equal, no individual being so powerful as to permanently ward off all risk or challenge, we are never safe from the risk of conflict. Not because we personally seek it, but because in a world of scarcity, it will find us. Authority is instituted not because we are fallen creatures who can only be kept in check by the knout, but because we have a positive desire to resolve our disputes non-violently. As Hobbes says: 
 
"The passions that incline men to peace are: fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them."

 

 

What are the fruits of commodious living we would miss?  

 

"[No] place for industry [...] no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society." (Hobbes, ch. 13) 
 
 
Or, in terms Bregman would perhaps prefer: no universal basic income. 
 
Inspiring and encouraging as the story about the shipwrecked boys may be (and however much it makes for a welcome distraction from the cruelties inflicted on humans every day by structures stonger than the moral dispositions of the people it employs in their service), there is nothing in the tale Bregman tells to suggest that it is fundamentally at odds with Hobbes' account of the social contract. The shipwrecked boys who managed to work together, decide on common goals and settle disagreements with one another did nothing outside of the scope of Hobbes' analysis. Authority can take many shapes, and Hobbes is mostly agnostic about what form it takes. If it is established without much violence and suffering, all the better. To read Hobbes and encouter the imagery of a state of nature, and then to imagine a barren beach without shelter is not a mistake Hobbes is responsible for. The state of nature is not an uninhabited island, but rather a state without agreed routines and customs. Shipwrecked as they were, the boys arguably never came to inhabit the state of nature. Why, after all, would they decide a power-struggle would be their first priority? The habits and manners in which they were educated may have suffered a blow by the absence of a clear authority to enforce compliance, but the habits themselves (not to mention the fact of their friendship) still served as an authoritative guide to action. If there was a Hobbesian moment of peril and breakdown, it was averted succesfully. But little in this account strikes directly at the heart of Hobbes' theory, even as it may read a little more optimistic than Hobbes personally appeared to allow for. Hobbes clearly argues that their desire for survival would rather encourage us towards cooperation. And while it may serve as a tale of inspiration that during their long disappearence the shipwrecked boys maintained their social contract, the fact that they did is not something that sits at odds with Hobbes. In a way, it is a very Hobbesian thing to do. 
 
Which brings us to the point of these narratives. As Anton Jäger has pointed out, Bregman's stories are woefully devoid of serious discussions of power and politics. They have barely anything to say about the nature of political mobilization, about the state, or about interests and ideologies beyond the way they color our personal view of the world. Maybe this is because Bregman has implicitly accepted the basic premises of the ideas he tries to overturn: that all there really is to public policy is possessing the right sort of attitude, and a sufficient degree of personal virtue and affect. Try not to mind that this is exactly the kind of curveball conservatives often use to deflect from any serious discussion of structural forces in the world--to shift the argument away from questions of political power to ones of personal morality and virtue; to point at some supposed moral failure of individuals and to chirp that their misery is a failure of character. How different is that really from what Bregman is offering as an explanation for the failure for a more progressive politics to come about? With him too, it is a failure of the person, both on the part of voters and administrators. Nevermind the machinations of capital and class interest, nevermind the slow drilling of hard boards that is politics. The enlightened despots of our institutions are simply not enlightened enough. If only they saw human beings as inherently good and created policies to fit their virtues, all would be well.
 
It is a wonderful tale, and so easily digestible that it begs the question why others have not resolved the great political questions of the world with the same breeziness. Or could it be that so little is gained by convincing others that human nature is good and not bad that it is simply not worth to dwell upon at much length? That such an effort is what Hobbes called "insignificant speech", because it is neither relevant nor soundly anchored to real problems?
 
Either way, it seems that in one aspect Bregman may be the Hobbesian after all. For Hobbes, the interest of peace trumps all, and consequently the security of sovereign was his greatest concern. And in Leviathan, Hobbes discussed many different ways in which the peace could be kept. Punishments, naturally, but no-one innocent should be subjected to punishment. Thus, any sovereign interested in maintaining their power (and keeping their subjects in check) would naturally seek some kind of benefit to dole out as well in order to retain the status quo. But these benefits, as is the case for punishments, are the product of a fearful concern over order. As Hobbes writes: 
 
"The benefits which a sovereign bestoweth on a subject, for fear of some power and ability he hath to do hurt to the Commonwealth, are not properly rewards: for they are not salaries, because there is in this case no contract supposed, every man being obliged already not to do the Commonwealth disservice: nor are they graces, because they be extorted by fear, which ought not to be incident to the sovereign power: but are rather sacrifices, which the sovereign, considered in his natural person, and not in the person of the Commonwealth, makes for the appeasing the discontent of him he thinks more potent than himself [...]." (Hobbes, ch. 28)
 
 
Whatever a Universal Basic Income is, it should serve as a point of interest that few critics of capitalism like the idea much, and many billionaires do