Tag Archives: Thomas Hobbes

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

The Liberal Ontos

Subjectivity and Raison D’état in Liberal Democracies

“You either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism …or else you criticise the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality.”

Foucault “What is the Enlightenment?” 1984, p43


In What is the Enlightenment (1984) Michel Foucault refuses what he calls “the blackmail of the Enlightenment”: he refuses to be “for” or “against” it. One of Foucault’s main objects of study was to understand the techniques and disciplines utilized by modern governments and their role in the creation of the modern individual. His aim was to expose the relation between the subject and subjectivity and between power and knowledge. As he saw modernity as the product of the Enlightenment, and as he deeply disagreed with modern governmental disciplinary techniques, Foucault set out to understand how the Enlightenment produced such coercive modern institutions. He sought to do this without condoning the disciplinary techniques of modernity as inevitable products of the Enlightenment, but at the same time without refuting the Enlightenment’s tradition as a whole. Refusing the blackmail of the Enlightenment would require embarking on a “historical ontology of the self”, a genealogy of subjectivity which would reveal the relation between the individual, understood as an autonomous agent, and the state, the governor of subjects through liberal-democratic rationalities.

Nowhere else does Foucault address this problem more concisely than in his lectures on Governmentality. It is here that he discusses the raison d’état of the early liberalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that of modern liberal mass democracies. Foucault’s studies expose the pivotal power relationship between governmental rationalities and individual subjectivity, and traces how this relationship changes from its birth during the Enlightenment to contemporary expressions of neo-liberalism.

What Foucault’s work allows us to address are the political rationalities on which early and modern liberalism rest. This, in turn, enables us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our rights, liberties and democratic agency as free and autonomous citizens. What does it mean to be in liberal democracies? This is the central question of the “historical ontology of ourselves”. Answering it requires exposing one of liberalism’s most explosive tensions: namely, that between its alleged neutrality in regards to conceptions of the “common good” and its imposition of an abstract and universal understanding of the self. Studies in governmentality allow us to clearly see that liberalism is not in fact value-neutral but rests on strong and well founded epistemological and ontological assumptions. Exposing the violence embedded in these assumptions is the main object of this enquiry.

The first part of the essay will analyse Foucault’s understanding of early and modern liberal political rationalities, delving into the differences between the principle of sovereignty as opposed to scientific knowledge. The second part will demonstrate how liberalism has presented itself through history as the ideology based on the tenets of negative liberty and limited government. This will be then contrasted with the particular ontological assumptions liberal government attributes to its democratic citizens. In turn, this will enable us to challenge the symbolic framework with which we come to understand ourselves as free and autonomous agents, thereby exposing the tension between liberalism’s alleged value-neutrality and its imposition of a particular form of subjectivity. I will conclude with a brief discussion of contemporary liberal subjectivity occurring in neo-liberalism.

Liberal Raison D’état

In his lecture Governmentality (1991), Foucault traces a distinctive change regarding social policy in the transition from early to modern liberalism. Early liberalism – that based on theorists such as Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf or Locke – grounded the legitimacy of government on the principle of sovereignty. Eighteenth century liberal political rationality is based on the concepts of popular sovereignty, limited government, the social contract, natural rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the subject over which the government rules has a distinct identity. Early liberal subjectivity conceives of the individual as a rational being who is constituted prior to society: a transcendental self, equal to all others in the eyes of God, with inalienable natural rights and liberties. As such, governing citizens required minimum state intervention and the codification of clear demarcations between the state and civil society as well as between the public and the private. In short, law and its juridical apparatus are the sole legitimate instruments through which the state could govern its subjects (Foucault 1991, p95)

However, Foucault points out that beginning in the eighteenth century the exponential growth of population and the expansion of commerce begin to morph the way government firstly relates to its citizens and secondly comes to conceive of them. As governing over large populations becomes increasingly difficult, scientific knowledge comes to the aid of the state, providing it with averages, statistics, surveys and studies which generalize and calculate virtually every conceivable characteristic of society with the aim of efficientizing and simplifying the art of government. Foucault suggests that this type of knowledge, garnered through the developing fields of the social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics, eventually came to supplant the rule of law as a more efficient technique of governing. It was not enough to threaten citizens with harsh penalties for breaking the law. Subjects could be made to conform to laws not through deterrent, but by following the suggestions of the social sciences which produced “truths” and “norms”. This expert knowledge pontificated, to citizens and governments alike, how populations should behave “normally”. Therefore norms garnered through authoritative and scientific sources provided statistics, averages and means to which the population would synchronize itself in order firstly to ensure domestic tranquillity and secondly to actually improve itself (Foucault 1980, p105).

Thus, a defining feature of modern liberalism is that it increasingly grounds its legitimacy in socio-scientific knowledge rather than in the juridical apparatus (Ashenden 2010, p62). It does not govern through the limited architecture of “rights and duties of citizens” but rather guides its population towards efficiency and self-improvement, so that citizens may exercise their inalienable freedoms in a disciplined fashion (Dean 1999, p175). The modern liberal subject is now conceived not only as a static bearer of rights and liberties but as someone who conforms to normal and reasonable codes of conduct. The patterns of behaviour he or she is supposed to follow are not derived from transcendental notions such as “the state of nature” or “natural rights”, but from what scientific knowledge has calculated to be normal, healthy, balanced and productive (Foucault 1984, 74).

Foucault asserts that advanced liberal democracies govern their subjects through a “demonic” mix of the early and modern political rationalities of liberalism. Today’s Western governments exercise their power firstly on the legitimacy of the concept of popular sovereignty and secondly through the techniques of disciplines offered by the sciences (Foucault 1980, p106). This is the theoretical context, as presented by Foucault, in which I wanted to place liberalism. Now I would like to analyse how liberalism presents itself as a coherent and unified ideology through time, and how is it that it has come to be the dominant political rationality.

Limited Government

From its earliest inceptions, liberalism presents itself as the theory of limited government. But why limited government? This is because it perceives as dangerous and potentially destructive any notion of the common good which could jeopardize the natural liberties of individuals. Government is limited in the sense that its primary purpose is restricted to the protection of the self-regulating sphere of civil society (Hindess 1996, p67). For example, early liberal theorists saw the wars of religion that had ravished Europe as factions of fanatics engaging in mass slaughter to impose an alleged divine order. The social unrest generated by religious strife destroyed and taxed property, inhibited progress and, more importantly, was bad for business. It is the imposition of a unitary notion of what is “right”, “divine” or “good” which liberalism sees as potentially dangerous and conducive to civil strife. Its emphasis on religious toleration embodies one of its earliest rejections of totalizing world-views and a move towards a neutral position in regards of what is “good”.

This is evident in Hobbes’s criticism of Christianity (directed primarily at the Pope and Scottish Presbyterians alike) in books III and IV of Leviathan, in which he states that religious strife was responsible for civil war and social unrest in the commonwealth. For the sake of stability and the preservation of life, Hobbes concludes that the sovereign should control the sphere of public worship in order to avert sectarian violence waged in the name of spiritual convictions. Privately, anyone could believe what they wished, as Hobbes fully embraced Parliament’s principle of Independency, that is, religious toleration (Tuck 1996, p.xliii). Similarly, Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration describes toleration firstly as a basic Christian value and secondly as an inalienable right (Tully 1993, p.57). But these early liberal theorists were not solely opposed to the imposition of totalizing religious orders but also of political ones. In Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008) Quentin Skinner gives a detailed description of Hobbes’s rejection of civic-republican as well as classical notions of freedom. Hobbes believed that republican intentions of instituting popular sovereignty on Aristotelian assumptions were just as responsible for civil strife as religious factions were (Skinner 2008, p.75). In the same way, Locke’s Two Treatises are an attack on the illegitimacy of the divine right of kings, as his specific aim was that of delegitimizing authoritarian and absolutist claims to sovereignty (Dunn 1969, p67). Hence the stress on a limited form of government, with the main purpose of averting totalizing claims (be them religious, absolutist or civic republican) which can potentially deprive the inalienable and natural rights of freedom and self-government pertaining to individuals in civil society.

We can therefore see that liberal hallmarks such as representative forms of democracy, checks and balances, bicameralism and the separation of powers are all instituted with the aim of protecting the otherwise self-regulating sphere of civil society from a potentially coercive government. A brief look at James Madison’s Federalist X will reveal a plan for an architecture of government with the specific aim of diffusing the fiery passions of the “tyranny of the majority” and of violent factions (Madison 1987, p125). From Mill, to Berlin, to Rawls, liberalism offers a negative understanding of liberty whose main purpose is that of assuring neutrality and averting the encroachment of any dangerous conception of the common good (positive liberty) which could spiral out of control and into totalitarianism (Berlin 1969, p152). As such, liberalism has emerged victorious in modern history: it has achieved religious toleration, abolished the divine right of kings, survived the nationalisms and totalitarianisms of the First and Second World War and defeated the Soviet Union in the last great ideological duel of the twentieth century. Moreover it has done so by not imposing any apparent form of subjectivity on its citizens: liberalism perceives of individuals as self-determined subjects with inalienable rights and liberties. It rejects any particularised ontological grounding of the individual, limiting itself to the protection of a self-regulating and interest-motivated civil society within which individuals can perceive themselves as they see fit (Burchell 1999, p133).

The “Doubling” of Liberal Ontology

So we must ask now how the previous exposition of liberalism as proposed by Foucault can serve as a basis for a profound critique of the symbolic framework within which liberalism conceives of its subjects and within which citizens perceive of themselves. As I have shown, Foucault asserts that there are two distinct political rationalities working within liberalism: one based on the seventeenth century concept of sovereignty and the other, more modern, on socio-scientific knowledge which provides the government with the necessary expertise (and legitimacy) with which to govern. This in turn engenders a doubling of liberal subjectivity: the individual is simultaneously a bearer of rights and liberties as well as a subject to be studied, disciplined and made to improve him/herself. It is towards a critique of this doubling of liberal subjectivity to which we must turn now.

Liberal subjectivity engendered by the concept of sovereignty conceives of the individual as a rights bearing entity which is constituted prior to society. Most of the social contract theorists perceive the individual as possessing certain a priori characteristics which are not the product of political arrangements or social articulations but which are transcendental values granted by God. James Tully points out that the state of nature is an abstract condition: a “quasi transcendental speech situation” from which we derive an understanding of the self as being free and equal (Tully 1995 p64). Michael Sandel asserts that the Kantian notion of the universal self claims transcendence because it is constituted and imagined prior to the social, economic and political conditions in which an individual is born. “The antecedent unity of the self means that the subject, however heavily conditioned by his surroundings, is always, irreducibly, prior to his values and ends, and never fully constituted by them” (Sandel 1982, p22). This specific ontological articulation allows liberalism to claim a neutral stance. Contrarily, say, to an Aristotelian understanding of the self as the zoon politicon which can fulfil its telos solely through political participation, liberalism refracts the constitution of subjectivity to a higher and universal level of abstraction. In such a way, natural rights are prior to any other value, conception of the good, culture or religion. This allows thinkers such as Rawls (1993, p10) to articulate a theory of political liberalism as based on the priority of the right over the good: a theory which is perfectly compatible with liberalism’s fundamental mandate – limited government.

On the other hand, Foucault shows how liberal subjectivity changes once modern governments begin to act on individuals on the basis of evidence garnered through the social sciences. The conception of the transcendental self which defined early liberalism is now complemented by an understanding of the self as expounded by anthropology, psychology and sociology. These new typologies of knowledge produce what Foucault calls norms. On the basis of empirical evidence, presented in the form of statistics, calculations and percentages, governments formulate policies which enforce correct codes of conduct and particular patterns of behaviour which are deemed to be “normal” (Rose 1989, p6). For example, scientific studies suggesting a healthy diet or daily exercise are examples of norms which point to specific forms of behaviour meant to efficientize, help and improve individuals. As suggested by Rose (1989, p4), this knowledge shapes subjectivity: individuals see the “ideal self” as someone with a healthy diet and which exercises regularly and aspire to achieve that status.

In this sense, scientific knowledge is not an imposition of the government, but is rather a suggestion of a way to improve oneself. We must always bear in mind that liberalism views society as a self-regulating sphere on which it has no right to intrude, let alone dictate what to eat or when to exercise. Norms, therefore play the pivotal role of guiding and channelling the behaviour and interests of individuals in a productive and disciplined fashion. At the same time these codes of behaviour entail the need for the individual to synchronize his or her person to them: hence the link between subjectivity and norms. But how are norms created? Norms are averages. For example, the idea of the “average man” is a norm. It is derived through statistical information which tells us what the average man’s height is, how much he should weigh, how old he is and what kind of income he has. Mitchell Dean (1999, p171) refers to norms as “counter-factual and self referential”: they refer to us, but are pure abstractions. The “average man” does not exist: he is an arithmetic construct and blind calculation of what a man should look and behave like. This is the profound critique to modern liberal ontology which Foucault allows us to make. Therefore, we can see a doubling in the abstraction of the self as present by liberalism: the individual is at once a transcendental being deriving his or her rights from the abstract condition of the state of nature, as well as the product of blind statistics pointing to non-existent stereotypes.

Challenging the Symbolic Framework

Foucault’s work allows us to point out where liberalism is at its most hypocritical. While claiming to be the only ideology capable of ensuring individual autonomy without imposing conceptions of the common good on its society, it also makes very specific assumptions on the nature of the individual, of how civil society behaves, and on the relation between government and population. By exposing the assumptions that liberalism rests on, in its early and modern articulations, we finally see that both natural law and empirically determined norms are firmly grounded in the realm of abstraction and not in alleged objectivity. Far from receding from the realm of the metaphysical, liberalism ascends to a new level of abstraction, manufacturing universals which inform and construct the modern self. It is behind the “neutral” conceptualizations of the self that we find liberalism’s hidden violence: in a globalized world, the vast majority of the population finds it very difficult to conceptualize of the self as being constituted by transcendental rights and having to behave in rational (read Western) ways. The post-modern point worth making here is that individuals all over the world can equally identify themselves in ethnic, nationalistic, gender, religious, class or cultural terms, and not universal liberal ones. The imposition of liberal forms of subjectivity which the west has unleashed on the world (often with the most sincere and benevolent intentions) nonetheless have had devastating consequences: from socio-political marginalization of minorities to “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Not only must we be weary of the imposition of early forms of liberal subjectivity, but we must also be critical of the modern manufacturing of norms. Although it claims neutrality in regards to any conceptions of the good, the production of norms is not a mere exercise of blind scientific calculations, but the creation of statements which suggest the “right” way to behave and think. Ashenden points out that norms work on the normal-abnormal polarity, where “normal” inevitably points to what is “good” and abnormal to what is “bad”. Behind the veil of socio-scientific objectivity norms make profound normative statements (Ashenden 2010, p72). These, in turn, are based on very specific Eurocentric assertions which state that the individual behaves according to his or her interest-motivated choice. Norms are built upon a thoroughly capitalist conception of civil society in which individuals interact and are motivated by rational choice: a sphere which spontaneously regulates itself thanks to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (Burchell 1991, p134). Hence the normative and value-laden charge of norms suggests “right”, “correct” and ultimately “good” patterns of behaviour which are however inextricably enmeshed within western capitalist conceptions of the individual, of society and of government.


Two conclusions follow from our discussion. Firstly, an analysis of Foucault’s understanding of liberal political rationalities and subjectivities enable us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our freedoms. This is one of the key challenges of our times: instead of hiding behind a “veil of ignorance” and procedures ensuring neutrality, liberalism should bear full responsibility for the exclusions and violence it commits in the name of its very enlightened principles. The West’s problematic approaches to multiculturalism, the troubled relations with the Middle East and a grave democratic deficit are problems which can be traced back to the adoption of a symbolic framework which rests heavily on abstract and universal notions which are faltering in today’s globalized world. It is high time that liberalism recognizes that it too, as much as civic republicans, Marxists or Islamic fundamentalists, is promoting, imposing and exporting a conception of the “common good”. Perhaps the very ideology championing negative liberty should heed the warnings of Isaiah Berlin.

The second conclusion we derive from our argument is that Foucault’s work points towards a new terrain of contestation. This novel battlefield is located within the institutions where norms and socio-scientific knowledge are produced. If, according to Foucault, socio-scientific knowledge informs and sustains our very subjectivity, then such knowledge must be criticised and contested for the sake of the very definition of the self. Moreover, as neo-liberalism increasingly devolves, decentralizes and privatizes norm-creating institutions (think lower and higher education, hospitals, insane asylums, the armed forces, jails) citizens lose the scant democratic control they have on the production of normalising knowledge, thereby forfeiting any participation in the production of ontological discourse and abandoning it to the vagrancies of the fee-market.


Ashenden, S. 2010, “Legality, Legitimacy and the Circumstances of Sociology” in Tarnhill and Ashenden, S. Eds., Legality, Legitimacy: Normative and Sociological Approaches, Nomos, Baden Baden

Berlin, I. 1969 Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press

Burchell, M. 199, “Peculiar Interests: Civil Society and Governing the System of “Natural Liberty” in Burchell, M., Gordon, C., Miller, P. Eds., The Foucault Effect, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

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Foucault, M. 1991, “Governmentality” in Burchell, M., Gordon, C., Miller, P., The Foucault Effect, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

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Madison, Hamilton, Jay. 1987 The Federalist Papers, Penguin, London

Rawls, J 1993. Political Liberalism. Columbia University press, New York

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Skinner, Q. 2008 Hobbes and Republican Liberty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tuck, R. “Introduction” in Hobbes, T. 1996 Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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Tully, J. 1995 Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, John Locke, Liberty, Michel Foucault, Negative Liberty, Neo-liberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Thomas Hobbes

Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes

The Encroachment of Negative Liberty on Republican Virtue


To this day, the definitions of the concepts of human agency and the political are continuously revised, debated and argued over. If, according to W.B. Gallie (1955), concepts are essentially contestable this paper seeks to contest these concepts through the comparison of their interpretations by arguably two of the greatest political theorists of all time: Machiavelli and Hobbes. Isaiah Berlin (1979) suggests that Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian-classical epistemic framework liberated the spheres of politics and human agency from previous (Christian) behavioural patterns and moral attitudes. This act of liberation allowed for a plurality of different value systems to answer the age old question of “how should men live together?” thereby actively challenging Christian hegemony over the proper articulation of authority and sovereignty. About a century later, and after the Reformation had successfully broken Catholic dominance over spiritual thought and temporal behaviour, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, in which he gave a particular account of the limits of human agency and proposed specific definitions of liberty and freedom. My concern is that if Machiavelli liberated the concept of freedom from the yoke of antiquity, Hobbes proceeded to assimilate it within the nascent theory of liberal individual liberty based on natural law. If Machiavelli’s a-moral realism “opened up” the space in which political concepts and ideas could be contested, Hobbes’s principle of self-preservation began to saturate that space by sowing the seeds for what was to eventually blossom into a negative interpretation of liberty.

It is therefore necessary to take a brief look into both Machiavelli and Hobbes’s understandings of human agency and by extension their notions of liberty and freedom. I will use the terms liberty and freedom quite interchangeably as both authors don’t seem to make clear cut definitions between them (Skinner 1998, p17). Therefore, in the first two sections the concepts of virtù, necessità and fortuna will be analysed alongside Hobbes’s causal understanding of human agency, his definition of liberty and the principle of self preservation as presented by Quentin Skinner. Successively, I will analyse Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Originality of Machiavelli (1979) thereby discussing the Florentine’s conception of the political and conclude by comparing it with Hobbes’s. By the political I intend the space in which human agency (and by extension political action) can be exercised and contested, a terrain which is inherently antagonistic (Mouffe 2000). I want to be clear here, I do not want to assert that Hobbes is the “grandfather” of negative liberty. Nor do I want to state, as Leo Strauss (1965) and C.B. Macpherson (1965) suggested, that Hobbes’s theory is the basis of liberalism or of the bourgeois man. Rather that the roots of negative liberty can be clearly discerned within Hobbes’s ambiguous account of liberty.

Virtù as Human Agency

The Machiavellian principality and republic exhibit what Quentin Skinner terms a neo-roman interpretation of liberty. Neo-roman liberty is concerned primarily with the relationship between the subject and the state and how freedom and authority are articulated within a polity (Skinner 1998, p17). Freedom is therefore a strictly political issue, and thus very different from the liberal notion of freedom which is based on natural or God given rights. Machiavelli’s vivere civile e libero (free and civil living) refers to a polity which is governed by good arms and good laws, or what Machiavelli calls the ordini, which are drafted and enforced by the prince or the leaders of the republic (Baron 1961). In order to ensure liberty within a polity good laws and good arms are required to be instituted so that the citizens and the city retain their virtue. But it is virtù itself the primary quality needed by leaders to ensure domestic tranquillity and prosperity. Both Romulus of Discourses and Cesare Borgia of The Prince exhibit decisiveness, courage and cunning, but above all they are able to shape the world around them according to their desires and political ends. It is here where virtue becomes the ultimate vehicle of human agency. Virtù, understood as the reliance on one’s own capacities (Wood 1972), is necessary for the institution of good arms and good laws, and is required to react boldly to both necessità and fortuna. Let us take a look at these terms more closely.

The concept of necessità arises in response to particular events which occur in a state of emergency. Machiavelli’s Italy was one in which power was continually contested, where invading armies were beating at the city gates and where citizens rebelled and princes crushed uprisings (Parks 2009). The leader must react to the necessities and events which emerge from a turbulent world prone to violence. Success lies in the ability to achieve stability in times of perpetual disorder by whatever means necessary (Mansfield 1972).

Fortuna, on the other hand, represents unforeseeable circumstances. These can be positive or negative: finding a pot of gold or getting hit on the head by a falling brick; being given the region of Emilia Romagna from your father the Pope, or losing it because of an incurable and unforeseeable sickness. “All the same, and so not to give up on free will, I reckon it may be true that luck decides the half of what we do, but it leaves the other half, more or less, to us.” (Prince, XXV) Even within the concept of fortuna, Machiavelli leaves ample space for human agency, however we must point out that “Machiavelli…promises only that we can increase our chances against Fortune, not that we can eliminate her effects entirely.”(Flanagan 1972, p. 141)

Finally, virtù is the primary quality of the prince and of the republic’s citizens. Virtù is shrewdness and astuteness; it is the reliance on one’s own arms, audacity, and at times calculated cruelty to achieve one’s ends (Plamenatz 1972). Virtù is what is necessary to react successfully to necessità. Machiavelli goes in so far as to say, in an oft quoted and scandalously sexist passage of the Prince (Ch. XXV), that virtù (intended as virility) must be able to tame and ride fortuna (intended as femininity).

Thus virtù is not only the attribute required to navigate the troubled seas of power politics and military confrontations (necessità), but, if properly wielded, it can also master unpredictable circumstances (fortuna) (Wood 1972). Understood in these terms, virtù represents the highest embodiment of human agency which can be exercised within a conception of liberty which is thoroughly positive.

Reason as Human Agency


In Thomas Hobbes on the Proper Signification of Liberty (1990), Quentin Skinner argues against the criticism that Hobbes was advocating a conception of freedom akin to the theory of negative liberty. For Skinner, Hobbes’s distinction between the spheres of the state of nature and that of the commonwealth is crucial in this respect. In the state of nature their reigns a condition of absolute freedom, one where “every man has a Right to every thing; even to one another’s body” (Leviathan Ch. XIX). Here, a free man is he who is not hindered in his will to do what he wishes; therefore liberty is defined as the absence of impediment (Leviathan Ch. XXI).  On the other hand, Hobbes makes it clear that when men form a commonwealth civil law curbs their liberty and their freedom to act: “but Civill Law is an Obligation; and takes away from us the Liberty which the Law of Nature gave us”(Leviathan Ch.XXVI). The step in between the state of nature and the commonwealth is determined by fear, as it is fear of the state of war, and by extension the innate drive towards self-preservation, which forces us to renounce our natural rights in order to secure our person and our beloved. However, Skinner (1990) asserts that “even in those cases where the liberty of the state of nature is undoubtedly abridged by our obligation to obey the civil laws, this does nothing to limit our liberty in the proper signification of the word.” At this point, one could draw the conclusion that Hobbes’s notion of liberty is wholly determined by fear. Yet, Skinner denies this, as he states that Hobbes’s principle of self-preservation is dictated by reason and not by fear . Thus, Hobbes’s fear coincides with reason, as the forfeit of natural rights and the entering in a commonwealth is a voluntary and rational act: it is in the person’s own interest (Skinner 1990). According to this understanding the agent’s freedom to act as he deems fit is not impeded in any way: liberty, therefore is not understood ex-negativo.

Skinner’s account seems to fend off the critique of Hobbes’s liberty being a forerunner of negative liberty. However it does force us to look deeper inside what reason meant for Hobbes. In chapter V of Leviathan, Hobbes states that the use and end of reason does not reside in discerning the ultimate truth of an assertion (he was a sceptic after all); rather, in the following of its consequences. Hence, human reason is strictly causal (Tuck 1996 p.xxiv). Thus, if Hobbes’s notion of liberty, as presented by Skinner, hinges on the fact that entering in a commonwealth is determined by reason, and if reason is solely the calculation of cause and effect, is the covenant a product of voluntary free will or is it necessitated? And where does this account leave human agency? It is useful to complement the definition of reason in Leviathan with the definition of a voluntary action in Hobbes’s Of Liberty and Necessity. In the latter, Hobbes states that actions depend on a person’s deliberation between the positive and negative outcomes of his/her actions. Therefore, “voluntary actions have all of them necessary causes, and are therefore necessitated” (Hobbes Selections p.206).

Skinner’s conflation of fear and reason, in my view, does not exempt Hobbes’s theory of liberty from being negative, as it allows no space for human agency. The principle of self preservation, coupled with Hobbes’s causal understanding of voluntary actions and reason, impose very strong delimitations on human agency and by extension to liberty and freedom. In turn, these have serious implications on the limits and scope of political participation and civic activism. Moreover, if we do accept Skinner’s assumption that liberty is ensured by the use of our reason, then, for example, an act of patriotic sacrifice (which contradicts the principle of self preservation) would be by definition un-reasonable because it would go against one’s own interest. Therefore, human deliberation is not exempt from fear as Skinner suggests, but is influenced by the drive towards self preservation and more so by natural law. Here I must agree with Macpherson’s point (1962, p27)  that Hobbes’s subject in the abstract state of nature is not in fact exempt from the passions of society (in our case fear of confrontation and death). Strauss as well raises the issue of fear as the constituent feature firstly of Hobbes’s natural law (1953) and  secondly of his teleology: “death takes the place of the telos” (1965). Yet, I would like to add that it is not fear per se which is the determinant of reason and agency; rather, it is the denial of the political brought about by Hobbes’s understanding of natural law which limits liberty.

The Political According to Machiavelli

According to Isaiah Berlin in his essay “The Originality of Machiavelli”, Machiavelli’s chief contribution does not lie in the rejection of Christian and Aristotelian teleologies for an interpretation of politics based on a-moral realism and pragmatism. Most scholars, chiefly those following Benedetto Croce, believe that Machiavelli’s radical innovation lies in his separation of the purely political dimension of statecraft from that of Christian and Greco-roman morals. In such a way, Machiavelli does not necessarily reject morals and ethics, yet, if they come in between the Prince or the Republic’s interests then they are overridden, often with brutal violence (Parks 2009).

This interpretation is not accepted by Berlin. Berlin believes that Machiavelli did in fact possess a very specific set of morals which he never relinquished, these being those of civic-republicanism. For Berlin, Machiavelli’s morality is thoroughly classical, humanist and patriotic. He is looking for “energy, boldness, practical skill, imagination, vitality, self-discipline, shrewdness, public spirit, good fortune, antique virtus, virtù – firmness in adversity, strength of character.” (Berlin 1979 p. 60) And he seeks these qualities not only in the prince, but in the citizens too.

“The central strain which runs through both [The Prince and Discourses] is one and the same. The vision – the dream – typical of many writers who see themselves as tough-minded realists – of the strong, united, effective, morally regenerated, splendid and victorious patria, whether it is saved by the virtù of one man or many – remains central and constant.” (Berlin 1979 p.57)

Machiavelli’s values are therefore not instrumental but are an end to themselves, requiring sacrifice and political commitment in order to have a splendid, strong, vigorous and above all virtuous principality or republic. Thus Berlin’s point is that Machiavelli did not merely “deconstruct” the Christian-classical epistemological framework which fused moral and political duties into a particular teleology. Machiavelli did not separate Christian morality from the political endeavour of state-building: he did not emancipate what was to become the basis of modern politics from the shackles of moralist antiquity. For Berlin the paramount importance of Machiavelli lies in that he made a conscious choice between a moral Christian value system and a civic-republican one.

Berlin thus asserts that Machiavelli inflicted a terrible wound to a basic assumption underlying western civilization’s teleology: the idea that the world and humans are part of a single intelligible whole which will one day mature into a just and harmonious society. For Berlin, every western religion and ideology has embedded within it the promise of a glorious future in which all differences will be harmonized. Machiavelli explodes this preconception by demonstrating two paramount facts: firstly that there are different conceptualizations of how to achieve this end (that there exist different value systems); and secondly, those different value systems are in most cases simply irreconcilable. There is no way that a prince or republic can be ethical in the Christian sense and be successful in the civic-republican one. Private property simply cannot be governed the same way under liberalism as under socialism. In other words, there is no one-way to achieve a “just and harmonious society”.

“This unifying monistic pattern is at the very heart of traditional rationalism, religious and aesthetic, metaphysical and scientific, transcendental and naturalistic, that has been characteristic of western civilisation. It is the rock, upon which western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.” (Berlin 1979, p.68)


Berlin’s assessment of Machiavelli effectively “opens up” the realm of political contestation to virtually any ideology or value system. However, I would not go insofar as deducing from Berlin’s argument that Machiavelli consciously pointed towards an inherent antagonism present in politics; nor would I assert that, in this way, Machiavelli is a some sort of postmodernist advocating equality amongst different value systems, far from this. Yet, it is clear that for Berlin’s Machiavelli, politics and statecraft is “up for grabs”: no single value system has a legitimate a priori claim to politics. Only virtù, and not a moral teleology, can assure success in politics; and it is here, I believe, that we find the pulsing heart of Machiavelli’s notion of human agency and by extension of the significance of the political. Here, for me, lies true freedom: an open field without obstacles in which Machiavelli’s Principe Virtuoso and Hobbes’s Absolute Sovereign can clash in the titanic struggle to define the very concepts and limits of human agency, liberty and freedom. It is a thoroughly political sphere saturated with power relations and clashing pre-conceptions.

In conclusion, Hobbes’s state of nature, and the subject inhabiting it, is conditioned by the limits of a causal understanding of freedom, which is in turn influenced by fear. Hobbes’s subject is fearful and does not seek the Machiavellian glories of public activism and patriotic sacrifice. Moreover, Hobbes’s subject is not inclined to participate politically, and this is what places his account of freedom squarely as the forerunner of the theory of negative liberty. This is because Hobbes has trapped him within the a priori logical stronghold of natural law – defying natural law would mean the subject is un-reasonable and thus not human. Machiavelli’s world, on the other hand, has no intrinsic rules: natural law and natural rights are for Machiavelli thoroughly political constructs devised by the prince or the republic to achieve success in a world fraught with antagonism. Ultimately, Hobbes positions the state of nature as existing prior to politics, Machiavelli’s world, on the other hand, is politics.


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Filed under Liberty, political philosophy, political theory, Thomas Hobbes