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GMO Labeling: Why We Cannot Let the Market Decide

You’ve probably heard about the legislative battles raging over the labeling of genetically modified foods. Over twenty states are considering such legislation. Proponents of labeling believe that consumers have a right to transparency and to know just what is in their food. Opponents of labeling insist that GMOs pose absolutely no health risk and that there is no need to label them.


Immage courtesy of Wikipedia

Despite some excellent recent news, success for the pro-labeling camp been mixed. As of April 2014, Vermont has become the first state in the US to successfully pass a mandatory GMO labeling law. However, propositions submitted to voters have failed in states such as Washington and California. According to the website, biotech and food corporations have spent over $45 million in California alone on anti-labeling campaigns.

My point here, however, is not to debate whether or not there exists a scientific consensus on GMO safety. Rather, I want to contest the ideological terrain on which the titans of the biotech and food industries rest their case. In particular, I want to question the underlying free-market narrative embedded within the anti-labeling discourse.

Take this for example. In an editorial critical of federal legislation mandating GMO labels titled “Let the Market Decide,” the LA Times took a very pro-market stance on the issue. It stated that it is up to the market, and not legislators, to decide which products appeal most to consumers. For the LA Times, the organic option (by definition GMO-free) is already available to us. If consumers do not want to purchase food containing GMOs they can buy organic, and “If there is a growing demand for such foods, the market will find a way to offer them.”

What the editorial is telling us is that we don’t need legislation regulating the food industry because the market is capable of responding to consumer preferences by itself. According to this view the market is simply self-regulating and requires no regulation imposed on it from without.

The idea that free markets are self-regulating is the cornerstone of the economic school of thought known as neoclassical economics. Economists such as Milton Friedman convinced the free world during the 1980s that markets free of governmental interference are capable of policing themselves. Government interventions such as subsidies, tariffs or taxes distort this otherwise self-regulating system.

Moreover, those in favor of some types of market regulation have often been portrayed by free market supporters as anti-business. Taxes and environmental standards, for example, are leading grievances in the neoclassical book and cited as primary causes for layoffs or for higher prices passed on to consumers.

In the works of Milton Friedman, the dynamism of energetic entrepreneurs and the rationality of informed consumers are contrasted with the lackluster central planning of socialist bureaucrats whom presume to know what is best for the economy and society. Friedman argued that it is up to consumers voting with their dollars, and not government, to decide which companies and products ultimately succeed or fail. He stated that individuals must have the “freedom to choose,” and that government interventions in the market actually limit our choices as consumers, thereby restricting our freedom as citizens.

Case in point, the mandatory labeling of GM foods is seen as an unnecessary regulatory burden on the free market because, after all, the options available to consumers are already there in the form of organic products.

Let’s take a closer look, however, at the underlying system which is supposedly generating this great wealth of choices and options for us.

Consider this.

  • In the food processing industry, the four largest companies control 82 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing, and 53 percent of broiler chicken processing.
  • Six of the largest biotech and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, control 60 percent of the seed market, 100 percent of the GM seed market, and 76 percent of agrochemical sales.
  • And in retail the picture is similar: in the late 90s the four largest retailers controlled 22% of the grocery market. Ten years later, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco and Supervalu controlled more than half of all grocery sales.

In truth, our alleged “free” market is anything but. It is not a self-regulating sphere which curbs its excesses through healthy competition and consumer sovereignty. Rather, it is one characterized by monopolization and the awesome concentration of wealth and power.

Friedman’s famous statement “freedom to choose” rests on the existence of options available to the individual. Yet given the concentration of the food system in the hands of very few, those options are increasingly restricted. Real options arise out of healthy competition, not out of a monopolized marketplace. Moreover, less competition produces fewer options, and in neoclassical theory fewer options signify a net loss of freedom.  

“Letting the market decide” is therefore an empty statement, because those choices have already been made for us behind the closed doors of a handful of corporate headquarters.

 So if we ask ourselves who are the actual central planners deciding what is best for the economy, the answer is not big-government regulators but the few transnational corporations that have monopolized the alleged free market. And what is truly anti-business is not government regulation per se, but the ability of the powerful few to use their political clout to gain unfair advantage in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and deregulation.

Finally, what happened to the good old capitalist mantra of “customer is king?” Adam Smith himself, the alleged grandfather of neoclassical economics, stated that “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production and the welfare of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.” [1]

Let’s take a cue from Adam Smith and attend to the welfare of the consumer by labeling GM foods, we have a right as consumers and citizens to know what is in our food.

[1] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1937 Modern Library edition, p. 625  

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The First Thanksgiving and Our Agroecological Founding

By Giulio Caperchi

This post was originally published on the Small Planet Institute website on November 26 2013

Buckled hats, golden leaves, roasted turkeys and steaming ears of corn. Hardy Pilgrims and noble Wampanoag tribesmen sharing hard-earned food in a mutual gesture of thanks for the bounty bestowed upon the table. No myth has a hold on the American collective imagination as the myth of the First Thanksgiving. It predates all political and military founding stories and conjures images of an innocent, pastoral past.

William Lockhart Made The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). Courtesy of WikiCommons

William Lockhart Made The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). Courtesy of WikiCommons

Without a doubt, Thanksgiving is the quintessential all-American holiday. As such, the tale of how the First Thanksgiving happened plays an important role in defining Americanness. Much has been said about what factually happened on the third Thursday of October 1621, with historians arguing over who attended and who brought what to the dinner table. But it is equally important to engage with the actual myth we have created, as founding myths are central to the way a community of people thinks of itself. [i]

In our case, reading between the lines of the first legendary Thanksgiving menu might yield a surprising new interpretation of what it means to be American.

On the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, we are told, Governor William Bradford and the Pilgrims were joined by ninety members of the Wampanoag Confederacy led by their sachem Massasoit in an outdoor feast celebrating the autumn harvest. Following the infamous First Winter, which felled many brave Pilgrims, an English-speaking native named Squanto taught the distraught Colony how to plant corn in the Wampanoag fashion. His simple lesson saved them from starvation.

The three-day-long feast was thus meant to thank God and the Wampanoag people for a bountiful harvest and has today come to symbolize an instance of intercultural harmony and dialogue. So what exactly was Squanto supposed to have taught the Pilgrims?

While there is much debate, a common version of the myth tells us that Squanto taught the Englishmen a Native American agricultural practice called the Three Sisters, a polycultural technique involving the planting of squash, beans and corn in close proximity. The three different plants bring mutual benefits to each other allowing them to grow faster and healthier than if on their own, while simultaneously providing excellent sources of protein, carbohydrates and other essential micronutrients.

Researchers tell us today that the Native American tribes of southern New England made their living through horticulture, hunting and fishing. As hunting was traditionally a male endeavor, women were the expert agronomists. They used bio-indicators (the changing color of certain leaves, for example) and the position of the stars to know when to plant or harvest. They fertilized the soil with ash and probably with fish remains and knew when to leave the land fallow. They selected specific varieties of corn and bean seeds best suited for their particular microclimates. Their agricultural practices took advantage of the natural synergies found spontaneously in nature, as in the example of the Three Sisters: beans fixing nitrogen in the soil while climbing the stalks of corn, and the squash’s large foliage starving nasty weeds of sunlight.[ii]

The type of horticulture they practiced was knowledge intensive. Today, these same techniques have been extensively researched and are part of a growing discipline called agroecology. Simply put, agroecology consists of the application of ecological science to the growing of crops and the management of farms. Agroeocological farms are usually small and very diversified, forgoing chemical fertilizers, thereby minimizing the need for fossil fuels. Just like those of the Wampanoag’s, agroecological systems are polycultural and many experiments have proven that their diversity makes them more resilient to climate change than monocultures. Other tests have shown that on average small farms produce more food per acre than large industrial ones. In fact, a University of Michigan study calculated that, contrary to what many critics say, if we were to switch to this type of sustainable agriculture it could produce enough food to satisfy the needs of every human being and projected population growth.[iii]

Thus, if we are to believe the First Thanksgiving myth, the Pilgrims would not have survived another unforgiving New England winter without the Wampanoag’s lesson in agroecology.

Ironically, today some insist that industrial agriculture is quintessentially American. They assert that chemical-intensive and GMO-powered giant farms are the only actors capable of feeding the world. But what if these views are the real myths?

The sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture is here; it is grounded in scientific research and has proven to work. Moreover, agroecology may be traced back to the original cultures of the Americas. So this Thanksgiving let us celebrate what we know is not a myth: that ancient wisdom that made this great holiday possible in the first place.

[i] For an idea of how the myth of the First Thanksgiving has been reinterpreted throughout American history see James Baker, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2009)

[ii] For an in-depth study of New England Native American agricultural practices see Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender and Science in New England, (Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1989)

[iii] For references and additional info on Agroecological theory and practice please check out the Small Planet Agroecology Fact Sheet

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Regimes of Full-Spectrum Surveillance and Whistleblowers

How should we understand the phenomenon of leaking? Can we call it a new form of legitimate resistance against all-powerful regimes of authority?

By: Giulio Caperchi

Wikileaks Logo

Wikileaks Logo

Since the NSA scandal blowout, I’ve been on the fence regarding the support of whistleblowers such as Manning, Assange and Snowden. On one hand, I praise them for finally putting the spotlight on the abuses that our institutions of authority perpetrate on a daily basis. I admire them sacrificing comfortable lives for prison sentences or lives in exile. On the other hand I’ve always wondered: who are these whistleblowers ? What set of assumptions motivate their decisions? More importantly, how do their actions influence society? (And was the leaking of diplomatic cables really necessary?)

What helped me get a grip on the debate was a comparison between two opinion pieces by two writers on the opposite ends of the political spectrum: conservative NYTimes columnist David Brooks and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Brooks’ piece The Solitary Leaker bluntly states that Snowden has betrayed the trust of social and political institutions which support the common good and keep together a political community. Conversely, in Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange: our new heroes, Zizek argues that whistleblowers have become necessary figures in our new digital era and that every authoritarian regime should have one.

Mulling over these two contrasting opinions brought me to the conclusion that yes, whistleblowers are necessary, but also that leaking -understood as a form of resistance against unaccountable regimes of authority- is a fundamentally undemocratic form of resistance. Let me illustrate my point by briefly going back to Brooks and Zizek.

Brooks’ critique of Snowden’s moral character is based on pretty flimsy, and frankly ridiculous, evidence. Allegedly, Snowden hasn’t visited his mother in a while and he isn’t a very amicable neighbor. Harrowing evidence folks. (If you haven’t already, please take a look at Snowden’s video interview on the Guardian too see what Snowden is really like.)

For Brooks, Snowden has betrayed the cause of “open government” (as if the CIA and NSA are transparent public institutions); he has betrayed the Constitution because he “short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else” (as if the CIA and NSA would indeed be held accountable); and that by revealing the secrets he was entrusted with, he has betrayed “honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity” (as if working for a defense contractor is a “cooperative” endeavor). His acts of betrayal, concludes Brooks, ultimately create a climate of distrust which damages the already frail bonds holding together our political society.

But Brooks isn’t an idiot, and he highlights a provocative dimension of the act of leaking. Brooks positions Snowden firmly within a growing libertarian narrative emerging across the American political spectrum. He paints Snowden as a “solitary leaker,” a victim of an atomized society which ultimately pits the naturally free individual against the leviathan nation-state in an epic David and Goliath-like scenario. More importantly, Brooks points out that Snowden acted unilaterally: his act of resistance was unmediated by political institutions and based thoroughly on his personal moral prerogative.

Zizek, on the other hand, states that the world is in dire need of more leakers. Leakers are crucial because not only do they shed light on the abuses that characterise this digital era, but because they remind us that the digital age may be informed by Immanuel Kant’s idea of the public use of reason: “the transnational universality of the exercise of one’s reason.” They keep alive the (somewhat utopian) idea of the internet understood as a free and radically transparent frontier where all kinds of debate may flourish.

Zizek suggests that not only the US, but also China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes need more leakers. The world therefore requires an organization which can protect leakers and help them spread word of the abuses they have denounced. He believes that “whistleblowers are our heroes because they prove that if those in power can do it, we can also do it.” (I make a very similar point in a previous post The Reverse Panopticon)

Between the two commentators, I side with Zizek. Albeit partially, and here’s why. If we consider the act of digital leaking as a new form of resistance against various regimes of surveillance and control (be them articulated through governmental or private institutions, -or both), we must first ask: how democratic is this form of resistance? Can I partake in its decision making? Can I decide (democratically) what and when gets leaked? I understand these are somewhat banal questions, after all the whole point of leaking is to catch institutions of authority by surprise and to then leverage public opinion. But they serve the rhetorical purpose of shedding light on the fact that what and when gets leaked is totally up to the moral prerogative of the individual whistleblower . Like Brooks states, the leaker acts unilaterally.

And here is where I agree with Brooks, the figure of the “solitary leaker” lends itself to a dangerous libertarian and manichaean narrative in which public authority (except that protecting private property) is bad, and where individual decision making (insofar as it is rational) is good. It is no surprise that Rand and Ron Paul support the leakers. It fits neatly within a political vocabulary predicated on the denial of collective decision making.

Leaking is therefore a form of resistance starkly different from that, say, of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, in which the democratic element in consensus-seeking assemblies dominated all aspects of decision making (perhaps to a debilitating point).

In conclusion, let me shed my naive democratic yearnings and talk a bit of realpolitik. Perhaps leaking is the best form of resistance to Empire we’ve got today. Assange, Manning and Snowden have indeed scared the living lights out of some of the most powerful institutions on earth. And maybe Zizek is right: at least now this awesome architecture of full-spectrum surveillance knows that if it can infiltrate every crevice of our private lives, we can do the same to it.

But let us remember that tidbits of leaked information, although painful, merely embarrass such powerful institutions. As Brooks points out, they will learn from their mistakes and tighten their grip. Let us not be naive and think that because abuses were revealed they will submit their actions to public scrutiny and accountability. After all only half of the American population disapproves of government surveillance programs.  In all probability they will act with ever more secrecy, and farther away from law.

The real solution to such abuses of power is to address the structural problems at the heart of our democratic societies, namely secrecy, inequality and discrimination. And the solution to these problems can only be more democracy: leaks and leakers alone won’t do the trick.

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What can Machiavelli teach us about democracy?

The Role of Conflict in Democracy According to Machiavelli and Mouffe

By Giulio Caperchi

It’s hard to deny that the infamous Niccolò Machiavelli enjoys a pretty vicious rep in the back alleys of political philosophy. If my memory serves me right, I’m quite sure that John Locke once referred to him as the “bad boy of political theory.”

So what can the a-moral realist, the cruel pragmatist and the counselor of ruthless princes ever teach us emancipated moderns about democracy? While Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince are without a doubt hardly “democratic”, there is another façade of this eccentric Florentine’s thought which is scarcely talked about. Contrary to his street cred, Machiavelli is one of the greatest theorists of civic republicanism, of popular liberty and of political self-determination. More importantly, Machiavelli shares a vision of politics strikingly similar to contemporary radical democrats such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

A look into Machiavelli’s understanding of the nature of political relations will reveal a surprisingly innovative approach to the way we can conceptualize democratic politics. Moreover, by highlighting the similarities with contemporary theorists such as Mouffe, we can begin to advance a fresh and radical critique of today’s neoliberal democratic order. Ultimately, what Machiavelli teaches us is that the essence of politics does not reside in universal value systems but in the constitutive role that political struggle engenders. We will see that for Machiavelli and Mouffe, claims to universality serve firstly to veil vested interests and secondly to displace alternative or competing value systems. The purpose of democratic politics is not to arrive at universal “truths” but rather to foster a system where competing hegemonies emerge through political struggle and conflict.

But first, I must spend a few lines re-habilitating Machiavelli’s reputation. Machiavelli’s “good side” comes out in his Discourses on Livy (ca. 1517) where instead of counseling a ruthless prince he lays out the military and political order that a self-governing and free republic should exhibit. Using the example of ancient Republican Rome, Machiavelli asserts that a free state is one governed by its own citizens through free and accessible institutions, thereby protecting its autonomy from the caprices of kings and despots. It is the collective commitment to civic values and the common good which make republics, such as Rome, so successful and glorious:

“It is … marvelous to consider the greatness Rome reached when she freed herself from her kings. The reason is easy to understand, for it is the common good and not private gain that makes cities great.” Discourses, Book II, Chapter II.

For the great Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli is a pivotal thinker because he is the first theorist to explicitly reject a Christian moral universe in favor of a classical humanist one. This act of rejection is important as it signals that Machiavelli clearly distinguished between two rival value systems. For Machiavelli, the Christian value system based on humility, sanctity, holiness and compassion was simply incompatible with the classical humanist one based on strength, decisiveness, cunning, power-politics and the antiquae virtus. And surviving in the world that Machiavelli inhabited, that of warring renaissance Italy, required the ancient civic virtues -not the Christian ones which, according to him, made people sheep-like and fearful of embracing their own liberty. Berlin goes in so far as stating that Machiavelli’s act of rejection destroyed a central assumption at the heart of Western civilization: that there exists a single universal value system. Machiavelli therefore explodes the illusion embedded in Western rationalist and positivist thought “that there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live” through a quest for the ultimate “just” society.

Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian value system stems from his understanding of politics and of the relations between political forces. Being the ultimate pragmatist, his politics are inherently conflictual and do not appeal to any value system or universal moral framework. Political forces are always in constant and irreducible tension, where the few (i grandi) seek to control and oppress the many (il populo), and the many wish to liberate themselves from the few. And this tension, for Machiavelli, is not problematic but is actually the source of political stability:

 “In every republic there are two different inclinations: that of the people and that of the upper class, and that all the laws which are made in favor of liberty are born of the conflict between the two.”  Discourses, Book I, Chapter IV.

Similarly, radical democratic theorist Chantal Mouffe does not accept the universal framework underpinning classical liberalism. For her, theorists such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas envision the democratic process as a mere procedure required to achieve some form of idealized consensus within societies. Allegiance to the universal rights, principles and values of classical liberalism along with an agreement on the validity of deliberative procedures are absolute prerequisites in order to play the neoliberal democratic game.

Such ideas of democracy, for Mouffe, are wrong because they ignore the inherent antagonisms present in any pluralist society. Political identities, moral frameworks, and universal truths vary wildly throughout societies and will inevitably express conflicting assumptions. Attempting to force social diversity and pluralism to conform to an alleged universal liberal value system, says Mouffe, excludes them a-priori and serves to displace them. Just like Machiavelli, her idea of politics is characterized by antagonism and conflict emerging from the inherent diversity of social identities. As such, the purpose of democracy should be to provide a political framework which transforms antagonist conflict between enemies into agonistic relations between political adversaries. Confrontation, as in Machiavelli, becomes the essence of democracy.

Machiavelli and Mouffe’s rejection of universal frameworks and their recognition of the role of conflict in politics provide the basis for a radical critique of our neoliberal democratic orders. We have seen how envisioning democracy as a quest to achieve a final universal consensus serves the purpose of excluding alternative democratic articulations. This means, for example, that ideas such as participatory democracy, economic democracy, or reducing the primacy accorded to free markets are excluded a-priori from the democratic game because they don’t conform to neoliberal assumptions.

What we are in need of, therefore, is a democratic framework in which diverse expressions of democratic politics can confront each other on equal footing. This entails that political forces such as those emerging from political Islam, from indigenous cosmology, from the assemblies of Occupy, from Pirate Parties or from the Latin American Bolivarian bloc, for example, must be accepted as legitimate and viable democratic possibilities, and not be demonized, repressed and intellectually ridiculed by the West.

Neoliberalism is one among many different democratic articulations. It is high time we give space and opportunities to other equally legitimate ones so that they may contest and confront the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts over democratic theory.

Further Reading

  • Mouffe, C. 2000. The Democratic Paradox, Verso: London
  • Mouffe, C. 2005. On the Political, Routledge: New York
  • Skinner, Q. 1996. Machiavelli: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: New York
  • Berlin, I. 1993 “The Originality of Machiavelli” in ed. Hardy, H. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Pimlico: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “Discourses” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “The Prince” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes (on
  • Towards a New Defintion of Liberty (on


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The Retreat to the State of Nature

The Tea Party’s Denial of the Enlightenment

Taming Leviathan

The economic views embraced by the Tea Party movement understand of big government as the major cause of America’s financial woes. An expansive, gargantuan and leviathan-like state is not only inefficient in delivering public services, but also has no right to decide what is right or wrong for private individuals. “Freedom to choose” said Milton Friedman in the 1960s, while calling for a retreat of the Keynesian welfare state in the name of private sector efficiency and individual freedom. Echoing neo-classical economics, the Tea Party movement calls for limited government and fiscal austerity through the reigning in of public spending particularly in services such as healthcare and education. However, this popular resurgence of neo-liberal ideology should be viewed with a critical eye, particularly because of its fiercely oppositional and almost phobic attitude towards the role government in society. We must ask therefore whether such a staunch and borderline-paranoid perception of government is in some way detrimental to American national unity and to its democratic process.

            The fierce rejection of government, accompanied by a deep suspicion of politics, in fact implies a denial of democratic values and traditions. Brought to its logical extreme, economic libertarianism attempts to remodel social interactions upon individuals inhabiting a state of nature devoid of an intrusive government. This represents a denial of the social contract, a rejection of democratic politics and the refutation of the politics of the enlightenment (with all of its flaws of course).

The Nightwatchman State

            Both libertarian and neo-classical economic theories –which the Tea Party movement broadly seems to subscribe to- believe that government should be limited for two main reasons. Firstly because individuals possess the inalienable right of self-ownership: they own themselves and the fruit of their labor. Government therefore has no right to coercively redistribute what they have acquired through the sweat of their brow. In addition, government has no right to force individuals to do anything which they don’t consent to, for example buying health insurance[1]. The second reason why government should be limited is that government formulates public policy on the basis of what it considers to be the common good. However, as David Hume and J. S. Mill have taught, and as F.A. Hayek has re-iterated, there is no way of discerning what this common good empirically is, as every single individual has a divergent conception of it. Centralized national planning (such as healthcare or education programs) should therefore be resisted[2].

            Without burdensome regulation and heavy taxation, so the theory assumes, private companies and entrepreneurs will be able to deliver efficient services which cater to specific consumer needs. The role of government in society is therefore minimal, as its main concerns become protecting the nation’s borders, protecting citizens and property, providing a just legal framework and enforcing private contracts[3]. There is of course disagreement over the extent to which government should be limited. Hayek and Friedman are critical of a complete laissez fair order; while, in Robert Nozick’s utopia, government should limit itself only to the protection of citizens and the enforcement of contracts, thereby merely acting as a night watchman.

The Retreat to the State of Nature

            Brought to its logical extreme, the doctrine of limited or minimal government implies the remodeling of society upon a world in which political participation and democratic deliberation are replaced by voluntary interactions between individuals in the state of nature. In its most extreme form, economic libertarianism does away with the idea of a community of consenting citizens while retaining solely individual natural rights. Moreover, it implies that the political act of national self-determination could be in some sense morally wrong because it offends the natural liberty of the individual by imposing laws and norms decided through a collective process.

            But what is the state of nature exactly? As employed by the social contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it referred to a condition of mankind before it entered civil society and before it erected authority or government: in short, before real society existed. A brief look at three of the most important social contract theorists will help us understand this concept better.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau the state of nature is a hypothetical thought experiment used to determine mankind’s natural conditions, impulses and behaviors. Humans in the state of nature are neither good nor evil[4]. They live in a primitive world which is scarcely populated, where individuals are isolated from one another and where the only concern is that of self preservation. The impulse of self-preservation is however tempered by our inborn capacity for compassion, so that natural law tells us to “do good to yourself with as little possible harm to others”[5]. Humans become evil and selfish once they enter into society, when they begin to establish relations amongst themselves based on natural inequalities such as strength and intelligence.

            For John Locke, the state of nature is one where god created all humans free and equal. Natural law, which is discoverable by men through the application of their reason, tells individuals that everyone as god’s children possess the right to enjoy their life, liberty and property. “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and Reason, which is that Law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”[6]. However, in Locke’s state of nature, every man possesses the ability to exact his or her own justice, a condition which leads to the “State of War”. Individuals should therefore alienate this ability to a government established by the consent of the governed and ruled by law.

            Finally, for Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is one in which every individual is solely concerned with preserving his or her life. The instinct of self –preservation inevitably clashes against that of others in the competition for scarce resources. This leads to the omnium bellum contra omnes: the war of all against all, and “it followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body.”[7]. As a result, the life of man in the state of nature is “poore, nasty, brutish and short”[8]. Only a complete surrender of all rights to a powerful sovereign, which will keep all individuals in awe, will allow for a condition of peace. 

The Libertarian State of Nature

            In  Anarchy State and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick founds his theory of the minimal state upon Locke’s state of nature, in which humans are born with the inalienable rights to their life, liberty and possessions. More importantly, we are all born with the right of self-ownership: we own ourselves and the fruit of our labor. Mankind in the state of nature is thus in a “state of perfect freedom” [9], a condition which Nozick, as a libertarian, aims to preserve. However, in this state there is no institution which provides for the fair distribution of justice, thus every individual may exact his own justice inevitably leading to the “state of war”. For Locke, men should therefore erect a government to which they all consent, thereby instituting a social contract between citizens and governors based on trust and the rule of law. Nozick, however, does not agree. There is no real need for such a process as something resembling the state may arise out of the state of nature through an “invisible hand explanation”.

            Nozick believes that individuals in the state of nature will spontaneously bond together in “protective associations”. Such voluntary associations would protect their members’ life, liberty and possessions. Eventually, out of the maelstrom of competing protective associations one would muscle out competition and establish itself as the “dominant protective agency” [10]. This dominant protective agency fulfils the basic Weberian role of the state: providing for the monopoly of legitimate force within a territory, which for Nozick, qualifies as a minimal state. This is an “invisible hand explanation” of the emergence of government from the state of nature, as it arises spontaneously without a conscious collective effort[11].

“We have explained how, without anyone having this in mind, the self-interested and rational actions of persons in a Lockean state of nature will lead to single protective agencies dominant over geographical territories; each territory will have either one dominant agency or a number of agencies federally affiliated so as to constitute, in essence, one.” (Nozick 1974, p. 118)

The Invisible Hand vs. the Social Contract

            Nozick’s minimal state therefore emerges directly out of the state of nature and models itself upon natural and spontaneous behavior of individuals interacting in the state of nature. This is in direct contrast with the whole of the social contract tradition upon which the democratic politics of the enlightenment are founded. All three of the social contract theorists we have looked at propose some sort of contract between individuals and a sovereign body with the specific aim of lifting ourselves from the state of nature.

            Thomas Hobbes believed that in order to stop the “war of all against all” we must institute a commonwealth so as to give up our rights to a sovereign which will establish peace and prohibit the private use of force:

“A Common-wealth is said to be instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, every one, with every one, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly of Men, shall be given by the major part , the Right to Present the Person of them all.” (Leviathan, Part II, Chap. XVIII)

For John Locke it is the duty of man towards God to establish a government by consent which protects the natural liberties of individuals through the rule of law:

“And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a Society. And this is that, and only that, which did, or could give beginning to any lawful Government in the World.” (Second Treatise  §99)

Finally, for Rousseau, individuals cannot subsist in the state of nature and are thus required to come together and establish a sovereign body through the social contract:

“This act of association produces a moral and collective body made up of as many members as the assembly has voices, and which receives by the same act its unity, its common self, its life and its will…As for the associates, they collectively assume the name people and individually call themselves Citizens as participants in the sovereign authority, and Subjects as subjected to the laws of the State.” (The Social Contract, Book 1, Chap. 7)

Nozick’s idea of the minimal state does not lift people out of the state of nature, but is aimed specifically at reproducing the conditions of “perfect freedom” found in such a state. Yet, the idea that a government may arise spontaneously through an “invisible hand mechanism” represents a denial of the social contract theory tradition. The establishment of the minimal or “night watchman” state  is bereft of a founding political moment of collective self-determination. This implies a veiled attempt of denying social and national unity, democratic deliberation and citizen participation. It also implies a denial of the categories of the citizen and of government which are the participants of the social contract.

European and American democratic traditions are not perfect. Carole Pateman has revealed a sexual contract hidden within the idea of the social contract, thereby exposing the displacement of the female sex. Similarly, Bikhu Parekh and James Tully have shown how western democratic politics exclude different cultures through the establishment o universal rights[12]. However, the complete denial of democratic politics represented by a libertarian retreat to the state nature is very dangerous. The democratic politics of the enlightenment should be exposed for their colonialist, misogynist and exclusionary characteristics, but they must also be used as a platform on which to construct a broader participatory and more inclusive democratic framework. Let us not deny the social contract. Now, more than ever, we must revive it so as to counter the grave democratic deficit which is crippling our political and economic institutions.


  • Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom
  • Hobbes, T. 1996. Leviathan, ed. Tuck, R. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Locke, J. 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, P. Cambridge University Press
  • Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell: Oxford
  • Rousseau, J. 1984. A Discourse on Inequality, Penguin: London
  • Rousseau, J. 1997. “Of The Social Contract” in The Social Contract and other later Political Writings” ed. Gourevitch, V. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Steger, M.B., Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Hayek 1944, p 79

[3] Steger & Roy 2010, p 14

[4] Rousseau 1984, p 98

[5] Rousseau 1984, p 101

[6] Locke, Second Treatise §6

[7] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIV

[8] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIII

[9] Locke, Second Treatise, §4

[10] Nozick 1974, p 17

[11] Nozick 1974, p 18

[12] See Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract (1988), Bikhu Parekh’s Rethinking Multiculturalism (2002), and James Tully’s Strange Multiplicity (1995)


Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Libertarianism, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract, Tea Party, Thomas Hobbes, Uncategorized