Friday, November 21, 2008

Agamben, Hobbes and Liberalism: some incoherent thoughts

Wow. You turn around and suddenly two months have gone by. I have been a little bit busy, I got, and then lost, a job (damn you economic crisis!), have a few academic projects up in the air and have read a few books. Also, to be honest, I haven’t been that inspired to blog anything, indeed I am posting this because my cat woke me up this morning, I couldn’t get back to sleep and this thought popped into my head. Anyway, what I was thinking about was Homo Sacer.

Agamben and Hobbes

One of the really interesting bits of Homo Sacer for me was Agamben’s reading of Hobbes, as I’ve mentioned before I think Hobbes is a really interesting and really important figure, so it’s always good to see him get a mention. Anyway, Agamben argues that the state of nature is ‘not so much a war of all against all as, more precisely, a condition in which everyone is bare life and a homo sacer’ (1998: 106). As such, Hobbes argues that the institution of sovereign power arises when people lay down their right to resistance and it is left for the sovereign. Thus, for Agamben sovereign power (in Hobbes) is not founded on contract but on the inclusive exclusion of bare life which is realised through the ban. According to Agamben:

The understanding of the Hobbesian mythologeme in terms of contract instead of ban condemned democracy to impotence every time it had to confront the problem of sovereign power and has also rendered modern democracy constitutionally incapable of truly thinking a politics freed from the form of the state.

(1998: 109)

I think Agamben’s reading of Hobbes has much to recommend to it, however, I don’t think that he can lay claim to an authoritative reading of Hobbes. In fact, I don’t think we can definitively say whether Hobbes focuses on the ban or the contract because I think he is ambivalent on this question. There are several ambiguities in Hobbes which centre around these questions. Thus, on the constitution of a sovereign Hobbes says:

The only way to erect such a common power ... is, to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will.

(1998: 114)

But this can only be done when the great multitude ‘by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves everyone the author’ (Hobbes 1998: 114). Immediately, there is an ambivalence as to what precisely has constituted the sovereign. Either, we all start with a right to do something in the state of nature and we all agree to lay down this right vis-à-vis the sovereign, whilst the sovereign retains it or we have all authorised the sovereign and he bares our person. Nigel Simmonds has pointed out that here the two traditions of jurisprudence (natural law and positivism) vie with each other. For if the former conception is correct, then the sovereign’s authority (and as such law’s bindingess) is a right of pure coercion, since only he retains the right to use it. Yet in the latter conception we have a duty to obey, since the commands of the sovereign are our commands. Here, one can see the tension between the ‘ban’ and the ‘contract’. Indeed, in a single paragraph Hobbes effaces transferring and renouncing a right:

And lastly the motive, and end for which this renouncing, and transferring of right is introduced, is nothing else but the security of a man’s person, in his life, and in the means of so [88] preserving life, as not to be weary of it. And therefore if a man by words, or other signs, seem to despoil himself of the end, for which those signs were intended; he is not to be understood as if he meant it, or that it was his will; but that he was ignorant of how such words and actions were to be interpreted.

The above tension becomes especially apparent in Hobbes’ discussions of a ‘right’ as against the sovereign and the ‘duty’ to obey. Despite, his partial argument that the sovereign springs from covenant Hobbes has quite a few strategies for avoiding the implications of this argument. His first – and for our purposes least interesting – strategy is to argue that the citizens have covenanted with each other and not with the sovereign, which hadn’t existed at that point, as such the sovereign cannot breach he covenant. His second, more interesting, strategy is to argue:

Besides, if any one, or more of them, pretend a breach of the covenant made by the sovereign at his institution; and others, or one other of his subjects, or himself alone, pretend there was no such breach, there is in this case, no judge to decide the controversy it returns therefore to the sword again; and every man recovereth the right of protecting himself by his own strength, contrary to the design they had in the institution.

(1998: 116)

This relates back to Hobbes’ idea that covenants are only binding when there is a public power to enforce them. But of course, this begs the question, where does the bindingness of the original covenant come in? These strategies, whilst designed to minimise the impact of contractual reasoning, nonetheless remain rooted in the idea that the sovereign springs from covenant. Hobbes also deploys other strategies, which seem more rooted in the ‘ban’:

To resist the sword of the commonwealth, in defence of another man, guilty, or innocent, no man hath liberty; because such liberty, takes away from the sovereign, the means of protecting us; and is therefore destructive of the very essence of government.

(1998: 145)

These strategies are very closely related to the ambit of sovereign power and the ‘right to resistance’. Hobbes’ deals with this in an infamous manner, arguing:

[B]ecause every subject is by this institution author of all the actions, and judgments of the sovereign instituted; it follows that whatsoever he doth, it can be no injury to any of his subjects; nor ought he to be by any of them accused of injustice. For he that doth anything by authority from another doth therein no injury to him by whose authority he acteth: but by this institution of a commonwealth, every particular man is author of all the sovereign doth: and consequently he that complaineth of injury from his sovereign, complaineth of that whereof he himself is author...

(1998: 117)

(Again, the strategy outlined at p.145 is complementary to this). Yet Hobbes also realises he has to qualify this by arguing that a man always has the right to defend his own life and the conditions of his life. I don’t think that these ambiguities in Hobbes can simply be read off as inconsistencies or as varying attempts at justification for his overall project (as I imagine Agamben has to). Instead, I think this tension in Hobbes work – between contract and ban – actually tells us something quite interesting about liberalism. Now, there are lots of liberals who don’t think Hobbes is part of their canon. I don’t want to dwell too much on this although MacPherson, Arendt and Strauss do an excellent job of placing Hobbes within the bourgeois liberal tradition. I think at the very least Hobbes has to be acknowledged as pre-figuring the liberal tradition and his individualistic, rational ‘citizens’ are the bedrock of subsequent liberal justifications for the state.

A Little Locke

Indeed, in the case of Locke, what we see is very similar problems to those with Hobbes, but with only the weakest solution to them. Nowhere is this more evident than in his attempt to reason out how it is we can consent to government if we were not part of the original compact to it:

But since the government has a direct jurisdiction only over the land, and reaches the possessor of it, (before he has actually incorporated himself in the society) only as he dwells upon, and enjoys that; the obligation any one is under, by virtue of such enjoyment, to submit to the government, begins and ends with the enjoyment; so that whenever the owner, who has given nothing but such a tacit consent to the government, will, by donation, sale, or otherwise, quit the said possession, he is at liberty to go and incorporate himself into any other common-wealth; or to agree with others to begin a new one, in vacuis locis, in any part of the world, they can find free and unpossessed...

(Locke 1689: § 121)

Here, Locke comes right up against the tension in Hobbes. Indeed, from the perspective of the person who wants no part in the ‘social contract’ the government looks to be made of ‘pure coercion’ and the fact that ‘he is at liberty to go and incorporate himself into any other common-wealth; or to agree with others to begin a new one, in vacuis locis, in any part of the world, they can find free and unpossessed’ is unconvincing. Similarly, when the government breaches its social contract ‘they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty’ (Locke 1689: §222). The practical result of this – of course – is no different to that which Hobbes outlines, we revert to a situation of the sword against the sword, a situation in which ‘right’ no longer seems particularly important.


In searching out what Hobbes ‘really’ means and moving decisively in favour of the ‘ban’ I think Agamben misses the fact that this ambivalence is a structuring tension in liberalism. This can be seen in the fact that – right from the get go – the central problematic of liberal political theory is working out how to justify the deployment of coercion in terms of freedom and equality. However, this doesn’t just operate at the level of theory; it is – for example – particularly evident in the discourse on terrorism and security. The way that the argument typically rolls around is something like this – we need to protect our liberties and some people are threatening our liberties – so what we need is security, thus as Marx notes (in a very prescient piece of analysis):

Security is the supreme social concept of civil society; the concept of the police. The whole society exists only in order to guarantee for each its members the preservation of his person, his rights and his property. It is in this sense that Hegel calls civil society “the state of need and of reason...The concept of security is not enough to raise civil society above its egoism. Security is, rather, the assurance of its egoism.

(1978: 43)

However, it soon becomes apparent that the very rights we seek to protect are in fact protecting those who would take them away from us. So here, we have to breach, or abrogate those rights, so as to protect them. This, as Marx says, results in a rather odd position:

This amounts to saying: the right to liberty ceases to be a right as soon as it comes into conflict with political life, whereas in theory political life is no more than the guarantee of the rights of man – the rights of the individual man – and should, therefore, be suspended as soon as it comes into contradiction with its end, these rights of man.

(1978: 44)

But what Marx missed was the way that this concrete manifestation of a general tension is resolved in a particularist manner. Because in practice ‘these rights of man’ are not often wholly suspended (although there are of course exceptions to this), the rhetoric of depriving rights to protect rights is always directed at particular groups. This is true both nationally and internationally. So nationally, what you see is certain groups – communists, Muslims etc. – branded as a threat to ‘our liberties’. As such it becomes justified to deprive these groups of some of these liberties and – in the case of those against whom there is greater ‘evidence’ – many of their liberties. It is also true internationally, with certain states labelled as rogue states etc. on the basis of their persistent rights violations against whom – at least in some quarters – seemingly non-liberal actions become acceptable.

This contradiction leads to the most wonderful rhetorical contortions and faux rage (witness the response of Decents to Amnesty International reports and their attempts to wriggle out of Guantanamo etc.). Liberal states – by virtue of the fact that they are protecting rights – are justified in violating those very rights that claim to protect by the fact that others are violating those same rights rights. But again, this general claim has a particularist resolution, it is no accident that this reasoning is co-extensive with imperialism. Indeed, the recent Georgia-Russia scuffle is revealing in this regard, Russia adopting this rhetoric was roundly condemned but note that much of the condemnations was not that Georgia had not violated rights, rather the claim was that Russia had violated Georgia’s territorial integrity – Russia was not even considered as having the capacity to exercise the right of ‘humanitarian intervention’.


In touching on liberalism I have, of necessity, touched on law. Law is usually absolutely central to liberalism and as such is the immediate repository of its contradictions. Indeed, the initial contradiction – contract or ban – is deployed precisely to justify the coercion that is embodied in the law. Law is also immediately active in the question of rights (as it is what embodies them) and security (as it is what ‘creates’ it). As Pashukanis argued, law is also – in terms of its form, immediately subject to this tension:

Law is simultaneously a form of external authoritative regulation and a form of subjective private autonomy. The basic and essential characteristic of the former is unconditional obligation and external coercion, while freedom is ensured and recognized within definite boundaries. Law appears both as the basis of social organization and as the means for individuals “to be disassociated, yet integrated in society”

(1980: 70)

The form of law – recognising abstract, formal equality – is certainly (to some degree) a form of ‘freedom’, but this is always counterposed to the violent coercion that is part and parcel of the law.


I think these brief considerations of the law point to the material source Hobbes equivocation between the ‘ban’ and the ‘contract’ (and liberalism’s subsequent ambiguity) – namely capitalist property relations. Capitalist property relations combine freedom with subordination, on the one hand everyone in capitalist society is considered a potential property and as such, all are represented as equal to each other. On the other hand, the substantive relations that these individuals enter into – particularly the employment relation – are relations of subordination and domination. Furthermore, although individuals can choose their employer they cannot survive without working. Whilst individuals are formally able to become capitalists in practice this is very difficult and for a capitalist class to exist there must always be a working class. Thus, capitalist property relations are composed of both the ban and the contract in an unstable mix; liberalism, which is the purest ideological expression of capitalism mirrors this structure, as does capitalist society at large.

In neglecting the ambivalence of Hobbes’ work Agamben therefore tends to obscure the very real problems with which Hobbes in grappling.

(Sorry this was so quote heavy, the old synapses have been firing so hopefully some more stuff soon – and definitely my impressions on this Glasgow thing I’m going to in December; also, I was very tired when I wrote this)


Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press

Hobbes, Thomas (1998) [1651] Leviathan, Oxford World Classics

Locke, John (1689) Two Treatises on Civil Government

Marx, Karl (1978) [1843] “On the Jewish Question,” in R. Tucker ed., The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Pashukanis, Evgeny (1980) [1924] “General Theory of Law and Marxism,” in P. Beirne and R. Sharlet eds., Pashukanis: Selected Writings on Marxism and Law, London: Academic Press

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