Thomas Hobbes on Revolution

Posted on 07/05/2011 by

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One of the basic concepts one takes away from Thomas Hobbes’ immortal Leviathan, is that revolution is not a good idea. In fact, he very carefully lays out the reasons why it is a very bad idea, which I will loosely sketch out here.

In a phrase, it is better to keep the devil you know, rather than trade him for the devil you don’t know. As far as Hobbes was concerned, rebellion was destructive and disastrous. It was the state of war which he so rightly feared: without the stability of a government to keep relationships between people on an even keel, the strong would inevitably attempt to utterly oppress the week. At least, much more than it usually does.

Let me be clear, I am neither criticising Hobbes, nor calling him wrong. His only flaw is that he could not see into the future. He did not foresee just how cheap the powers of oppression could become: a machine gun is a weapon of vastly greater power and speed than a crossbow. A fighter jet can drop more sheer destruction in one go than an entire 17th Century army could have hoped to accomplish in the same amount of time. And so on, and so forth.

Put more simply, Hobbes did not foresee the power of a petroleum-fuelled military. The difference of power between the oppressed and the oppressors in his world was marginal, as the difference between a knight and an armed peasants is limited compared to the asymmetry of unarmed protesters facing down tanks. An existing (albeit corrupt, despotic, et cetera) government would always be better than a usurping government. In Hobbes’ life, Oliver Cromwell conveniently demonstrated this: his rule was so unlovely that his head was dug up and stuck upon a pike out front Parliament for many years.

Reiterating, the devil of a known, relatively stable government is better than the unknown, but certainly unstable usurping government. The state of war is, at its core, total instability: it is the weak being totally at the mercy of the whims of the strong. A usurping government would have no reason to not take its every advantage against those who supported the losing side.

A government, classically, could not afford to slaughter vast numbers of its people, as economic activity was — compared to today — so marginally profitable that a country would descend into a tailspin if it lost too many people. Now, however, the situation is quite different. Human labour in most — if not all — countries is so superfluous to the economy, a good slaughter now and again won’t have much of an effect. The power of petroleum energy, as demonstrated by this frankly chilling study from the UK, is mind-bogglingly vast.

To summarise: in Hobbes’ time, there were no superweapons, like machine guns and other such technology, and therefore no highly efficient method of broad-gage oppression. Fundamentally, society had to remain extremely stable in order to maintain the stability repetition of a given country.

Read part 2 here.

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Posted in: Analysis