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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Hobbes on Democracy.


Thomas Hobbes was a perfect foil for Machiavelli in a way, as Machiavelli claimed to have discovered a new continent of a new order but it was Hobbes who made that continent habitable. The focus of Leviathan, specifically in chapter 19, shifts onto the different kinds of commonwealth as distinguished from one another in terms of institutions and the succession to sovereign power, as well as in differences of convenience, aptitude in the creation of the peace and security of the people. For Hobbes there were only three main models of commonwealth: monarchic, aristocratic and democratic. This is due to the indivisible nature of sovereign power can only be peacefully manifested in representatives of “either one or more or all”.[1] For our purposes we will be focused particularly on what Hobbes has to say about democracy rather than aristocracy and monarchy. But the views he held on aristocratic and monarchic systems remain important only insofar as they can be distinguished from a democracy or a “popular commonwealth” as Hobbes deemed it.

Early on in the chapter democracy is marked out as distinct from monarchy and aristocracy, as a popular commonwealth in which representation comes in the form of “all that will come together”. Thomas Hobbes contrasts this with monarchy, where the representative is one man, and aristocracy, which is only partial assembly. In the case of a democracy every man has the right to enter into it, rather than in an aristocracy where only the men distinct from the rest can enter. Notably, if the power of the monarch has been limited then the state in question is not a monarchy as sovereignty fell into the hands of an assembly (which could be either democratic or aristocratic). For Hobbes the indivisibility of sovereign power is necessary for peace, an end for which sovereignty is instituted. Once power becomes divided it is no longer sovereign, so for conflict to be avoided it is vital for a duality of power to be averted.

For peace the sovereign must have absolute authority, be not a party to the covenants and hold absolute authority only to the extent that the sovereign has the power to enforce the law. Then it is absurd to think that there could be perpetual peace when sovereign power is in the hands of an assembly (as in a democracy) for the absolute representation of the people would fall to subordinate representatives and the power could very easily become divided. Thus subordinate representatives pose a danger to sovereign power insofar as such a system can become a source of division in the commonwealth.[2] So sovereign power can be divided, but it shouldn’t be because power ceases to be sovereign once it has been divided.[3] Think of instances in which states have collapsed into chaos amidst an uprising, a rupture of the order from which the sovereignty of the regime is undermined to the extent that a duality emerges and a rival for sovereignty appears.

There are also cases where the sovereign takes the form of a one-party state and a sudden rupture explodes the status quo. The revolution and subsequent civil war in Libya was one such example where power was stripped of its sovereignty as the people rebelled, but eventually sovereign power was manifested in a new government as the Gaddafi regime was brushed aside in Tripoli. We might even segue into theories of what makes a revolutionary situation. We might understand a revolutionary situation as defined by the emergence of what Charles Tilly called “multiple sovereignty”, which has three main features. First of all, the existing state suffers a loss of power to contenders and rivals. Secondly the rivals fall back on a base of popular support which is a significant portion of the population overall. Lastly, the existing state cannot, for whatever reason, repress the contenders and the base of support behind them. The fears of a divided sovereignty, which Hobbes had, are precisely a fear of this kind of situation arising.

Whether or not it is possible for a sovereign to hold absolute power regardless of its' form (whether monarchic or democratic) is not really explored by Hobbes at this point. For Hobbes, democracy is problematic for a number of reasons let alone the question of indivisible sovereignty. In a democracy the people of the assembly would not just represent the common interest of constituents. The individual has their own private interests which would rival the common interest and could easily come first, as Hobbes notes that the “passions of men are commonly more potent than their reason.” Where the public and private interests are unified the public is most advanced, Hobbes maintains that in a monarchy the private interest is the same as the public. The reasoning being that the wealth, power and honour of a monarch are derived from the subjects. The ability of the state to defend itself from enemies would be undermined if the people are poor, contemptible or too weak to maintain such a war. In a democracy, the prosperity of the people contributes not so much to a corrupt leadership as it does many times deceit, treachery and conflict.

Hobbes points out that a monarch can receive counsel wherever and from whomever he so deems fit, in secrecy, at whatever point before the time of action. In a democracy in which a sovereign assembly has been established, there is no time or place in which the assembly could receive counsel with secrecy because of the multitudinous nature of an assembly. So when such an assembly requires counsel, it will not be received except from those who have a right to do so and may not leave the confines of its own body to do so. Typically this will mean that the assembly will receive counsel from people who are more versed in the accumulation of wealth than knowledge. The advice could likely come in the form of long discourses, which would commonly call upon men to act in various ways rather than govern them. For Hobbes the assembly could reach out to counsel from the unskilled in civic matters, orators and so on, who give their opinions in speeches full of pretence and inept learning, this could only lead to the disruption of the commonwealth or do it no good at all.

It is possible that the assembly could strip good citizens of property to enrich friends of the assembly (e.g. friends of the people rather than the friends of elected representatives). Hobbes concedes that this is a possibility in a monarchy, he maintains that “we do not read that this has ever been done.” For the favourites of the assembly are more numerous than a monarch, so there is a greater temptation to serve the interests of their own kindred as well as to seductive orators – who have greater power to hurt than to help, as “condemnation than absolution more resembles justice.” Not only is it impractical for the assembly to be well advised there is a great potential for inconstancy as the potential for such in a monarchy is multiplied as with the mass of the representative. For Hobbes the resolutions of a monarch are subject to no other inconstancy than that of his own nature, whereas democratic resolutions are subject to the nature of the masses.

The assembly would be prone to disagreement as a result of the nature of man, as well as due to envy and interest, to the height of such disagreement a civil war maybe the consequence.[4] So it would seem that the stability of the state in question is at stake with the rise of a democracy. At the same time, the whole of the assembly cannot fail unless the multitude fail as well and there is no place for the question of the right of succession in a democratic government for the reason that anyone can enter into such a government. Though the death of a monarch differs from the death of an entire assembly, it would still dispossess the people of a representative and leave the multitude without a sovereign which unites them. The question of stability inevitably arises once again, without the guarantee of the “peace of men” it is likely that the state could return to the “condition of war in every age” and the only alternative to this is an “artificial eternity of man”.[5]


[1] Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (1994) pg.118-120
[2] It makes sense then that Hobbes considered it absurd that the monarchy could hold sovereign power as it invites the people to elect representatives capable of putting forth the advice from the people. In the rare case of a monarchy in which the monarch is never considered a representative, though called sovereign, the status of representative would fall to those who have been sent by the people to carry their petitions and give the monarch their advice. In such cases then it is imperative for the “true and absolute representative of a people” to instruct the people in such offices and watch how they admit any other representation on any occasion.
[3] Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (1994) pg.120-121
[4] For Hobbes, to say it is inconvenient to place sovereign power in the office of one man or an assembly of men (e.g. rather than a democratic assembly) is to hold that “all government is more inconvenient than confusion and civil war.” All danger must originate in the dispute between those who are for an office of such honour and those out to profit for themselves.
Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (1994) pg.122-123
[5] Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (1994) pg.124-125

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