A Political Theory of COVID-19 or Hobbes’s Coviathan

Political theorists have been mostly silent about COVID-19, as far as I have seen. There was Georgio Agamben, who, early on in 2020, suggested that what was going on bore out his view that the exception was now the norm. For thirty years or more Agamben has gone on, to great applause from admirers and publishers – he is one of those writers for whom every lecture in Italian becomes a handsomely bound book in English – in a paranoiac metaphorical erudite leftist manner. But now events have borne him out. And since he was willing to say that something bad was going on, we have to give him credit, not only for that – saying so – but also for having worked on a theory which, no matter how irrelevant it seemed in the old days (except, perhaps, to Guantanamo), now has something to say to everyone.

Apart from him there is no one I know of. They continue in conference and on Twitter while the world burns. So I asked myself which of the great political philosophers would have approved of the government-corporation-media response to this novel coronavirus (and the apparently necessary consequence that all discussion, debate or disagreement be suppressed, avoided, deplatformed)? And the answer was bare, to say the least. Plato might come to mind, because he advocated rule by the wise, and because he mentioned “the noble lie”: but the lies told this time around have been ignoble; and, anyhow, it is far from obvious that our philosopher-kings (Whitty, Vallance, Cummings, Hancock, etc.) know what the good is. In addition, Plato was not in favour of extending life by the use of medicine. He might not even have granted citizenship to modellers and behavioural scientists.

Other political theorists could not have approved of the rigmarole of distancing, masks, lockdown and vaccination. Not Aristotle, who was moderate in almost every respect, including in seeing both sides of every question. The polis for him had good reason to be aristocratic, but was also, emphatically, a place in which citizens were equals, so that they ruled and were ruled in turn. Not Augustine, who said that Rome had originated in injustice, and that one should opt out of it and think of oneself as a member of a societas perfecta, a city not of this world, the civitas Dei. Not Aquinas. Not even Machiavelli, despite all the force and fraud, because he was, in the end, a good republican, a believer in vivere civile e politico, civil and political life. Not Locke, of course, the father of liberalism. Not Rousseau, not Kant, not Hegel – not without distortion. Not Burke. Not Paine. Not Bentham. Not J.S. Mill. Not John Rawls. No. They all valued something which would have disqualified them, whether it was truth, tradition, reason, utility, liberty, or justice. Not Marx, of course, since he was concerned with emancipation, and was against alienation. Most modern thinkers, from Heidegger, through Adorno, Schmitt and Foucault to Habermas, have been opposed to technical or instrumental rationality. So it is actually quite hard to think of a theorist of this brave new world.

The only obvious candidate is Hobbes, if interpreted in a particular way. Nowadays, Hobbes is much admired, and has been since the mid-twentieth century. After a few centuries of dismissal or forgetting, Hobbes returned to the top 10 in the era of Collingwood, Strauss and Oakeshott, and has since been much studied since by some of the most intelligent historians in England, including Quentin Skinner and Noel Malcolm, as well as by many Americans. Hobbes was born in 1588: in fear, he joked – since the Armada was coming. And the most important word in his political thought is fear. Oakeshott said it was pride; but Oakeshott’s interpretation was capricious: his Hobbes was a sort of Montaigne-cum-Nietzsche, an aristocrat of the soul. In fact his Hobbes was a sort of Oakeshott, and Oakeshott, famously, thought we should pay as little attention to politics as possible. (Paying as little attention to politics as possible has become difficult, to say the least, since March 2020.) Everyone else has agreed that Hobbes’s theory was about fear, came out of fear and was intended to deal with fear, just as his own behaviour was, his enemies suggested, fairly fearful. He told one of his friends that he wrote Leviathan, written in France where he was sharing exile with Charles II, because he had a mind to go home.

Hobbes’s theory is a theory of the absolute necessity of being ruled. There is the state, on the one hand, and the state of nature on the other. The state of nature is a supposed original state of all humans. He memorably called it the place where man is a wolf to man, and – in one of the most often quoted lines in our literature – where life is “nasty, brutish and short”. But this state of nature was not just an original state: it was also the state to which we might return at any point. It was, in short, the world of exit: the world of chaos, anarchy, distemper, civil war: a picture of what the world would be without the state.

His political theory has generally been celebrated by recent commentators because it emphasises the need for politics in the most extreme or fundamental manner. He does not say that the state is the living embodiment of justice on earth, or the manifestation of the natural law, or the safeguard of our liberties and rights, or anything like that. It is simply an artifice whereby scared men and women agree to surrender their powers to a sovereign. How is this done? The most important novelty of Hobbes’s detailed argument is that it is done by representation.

In the state, the civil state, we do not have power. We have surrendered it. We are not ruling and ruled in turn. Instead we have security. And our security is entrusted to an entity which stands for us, and guarantees our security. Forget about liberty – a slight matter. In the endless problem of how to balance liberty and security Hobbes is, alas, on the side of security. Hence his invention, the security state. And – given the historical shifts which have followed since the eighteenth century, in terms of the increased power of this state, not only in terms of taxation, but also regulation, education and eventually inoculation – this security state has been behind the emergence of the thing which Foucault and others since the 1970s have called biopolitics and the biosecurity state. Hobbes was not very interested in politics as such: the usual cut and thrust of argument, the theatre of conniving, the business of “who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out” (as Lear put it in King Lear, Act V, Scene 3). He had no interest in party politics, which was barely glimpsed at the time: and he would have considered most of the Whig-Tory, Conservative-Liberal-Labour fuss of the last three hundred years a charade of fraudulent and dangerous flirting with civil war: or, at most, a bit of theatre designed to conceal from the Hobbesian public the real nature of the state he had most carefully exposed in Leviathan.

Hobbes’s state was for security. He was against anything which was a threat to the body politic. An important metaphor, the body politic. The state was a body, threatened by various mortal enemies. Hobbes warned of the danger of intestine worms to the body politic, and anything cancerous. He would have been opposed to political viruses, had he known about them: it is almost certain that he would have used the word ‘virus’ as a metaphor for something dark and dangerous had he known of it. His state, we may now say in 2021, was antiviral. It was for integrity, unity, order and safety. It sought a political vaccine. It was distanced from empire, church and other states. And it was masked.

Consider the astonishing lines in chapter 16 of Leviathan in which Hobbes explains how the sovereign is a person, something which represents or personates us. The word ‘person’ of course does not refer to an actual human being. It means the legal thing, or the theatrical thing: the thing which stands for an absent thing, a thing like an attorney or an actor. Hobbes says that the word ‘person’ derives from

the disguise or outward appearance of a man, counterfeited on the Stage; and sometimes more particularly that part of it, which disguiseth the face, as a Mask or Visard.

The modern state, the Hobbesian antiviral state, is a state which has managed what we might until now have supposed impossible – certainly in the West where there is the long tradition of basing our politics on liberty or law or justice or proportion or discussion. For it has succeeded in imposing its own hidden image on the face of its citizens. Man, according to the Bible, was made in God’s image. But the state has defeated this. Man is now made in the image of the state. The state is a person, a counterfeit of us, masked, visarded so it looks like us. It is not a real person, but a fiction, a crown without a head, a king without scalp or oil or ritual or corpse, a rickety framework of straw and scaffolding which we have to believe in somehow.

And now, in a final stroke, thanks to the scare caused by the over-reactions of a rising biosecurity apparatus and its now almost entirely socially mediated civil society, the state has disguised the faces of its citizens – who now, in praise of the state, turn, take the knee, and publish photographs of themselves masked and visarded to indicate how they have complied with the order to inoculate themselves with an experimental nanotechnology. These citizens are no longer free. They have turned themselves into miniature reflections of the state behind its mask. The state stares at them, cold and pitiless, behind a mask. The mask of the state looks like them, looks human (like a vast Leviathan frontispiece), looks caring, and assures them, in fraudulent words and with forceful injunction, that they are safe. And now the citizens stare back at the state wearing masks of their own: but these masks are cold and pitiless in appearance, since they imitate the pitilessness of the actual state, the state behind its mask, that reality of straw and scaffolding. They signify nothing except submission to the state. The citizens are in every other sense dehumanised. They are alienated from everyone else. But beneath the mask they enjoy a warm (and moist) sense of having been saved by the state.

I have exaggerated here, and have no doubt that Hobbes could be exonerated. Like many, I find him sympathetic. He had a twinkle in his eye, and probably would have looked good on the BBC, a seventeenth-century David Attenborough or Brian Cox. But, like many modern scientific modellers, he thought he had squared the circle. He thought order could be deduced. He thought that the safeguards of experience or religion or law or moderation could go to the devil. He is not responsible for pharmaceutical corporations, for monopoly capitalism, for biopolitics, for modern state propaganda, for social media, or for our own corruption, collusion and compliance. But he is responsible for a vision of a state in which we will mask ourselves in order to be safe.

Dr. James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.

May 2024
Free Speech Union

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