Hobbesian Revolutions

Posted on 15/05/2011 by


In this previous post, I wrote about how generally Thomas Hobbes regarded rebellions in his book Leviathan. In this post I want to update Hobbes’ concepts to take petroleum-based energy into account.

Significant economic changes were brought about by the world-wide switch to fossil fuels — petroleum — as the primary energy source for almost all activity. Many thoughts are presented as to how this was a ‘good thing’; how with petroleum, [insert ‘good thing’ here] was made possible for the starving masses of the world.

This ignores how petroleum fuel facilitated the swelling of the numbers of the starving masses. Also ignored is how petroleum fuel made violent oppression of a majority by a minority easier, cheaper, and more efficient than ever before. This latter point is where I am focusing for this post.

Oppression is profitable for a fairly large minority of a given population. It is a generally a pyramid of pecuniary advantage and other such incentivisation: the largest number of people enjoy the fewest privileges, and the fewest number of people enjoy the most. This is, to be clear, a flat-topped pyramid, because those at the top — an oligarchy or kleptocracy — are surprisingly balanced in their respective privileges.

In the past, the profitability was short term and limited. It was more of a bubble than a sustainable method of expanding profits at a higher rate. With petroleum, the increase can be made not only stable long-term, but the intensity of the oppression can be increased an incredibly vast amount.

Petroleum unlocks the power of creating the State of War, which I wrote about previously. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a model, but so is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: all are worlds which would not be possible without the vast energy potential of petroleum (although, to be fair, the energy source in Brave New World is post-petroleum, by admission of the author).

It is because of this factor of petroleum-based energy sources that bottom-up revolution becomes possible. Simply put, the extant political situation — the State of War — will become so unable to provide even the vaguest shreds of stability for human life, that the condition of rebellion — either open or clandestine — is preferable.

A point of order here: there are top-down rebellions, such as the American Rebellion, and there are bottom-up revolutions, such as the Arab Spring. Top-down rebellions are caused by things other than intolerable circumstances, despite protestations to the contrary. Bottom-up revolutions are uniformly caused by a pervasive inability of a political system to provide broad-gauge stability in the society.

Once a country has reached the point where the extant political arrangement is incapable of providing stability — and instead provides the State of War — then a bottom-up revolution is systemically inevitable. The point at which the extant arrangement could have been reformed was passed, unremarked and unnoticed, some time in the past.

With a revolution systemically inevitable, the extant political arrangement will be replaced, either in the short term — by either aggressive political action, or armed uprising — or in the long term — via economic underperformance and cultural opting-out. There is nothing which the extant political arrangement could do to prevent this, as its chance to reform away from the State of War has come and gone.

Put succinctly, when a country becomes managed by the State of War, a revolution is baked into the cake. Such a State cannot be reformed: it has become unmanageable, unresponsible, and ungovernable. The only question to ask is when, not if, a bottom-up revolution will begin. It will be a revolution not due to any notion of human nobility or some ‘higher rights’ of humanity; rather, it is a cultural symptom of a situation which has become inhumanly cruel.

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Posted in: Analysis