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Capitalism, Liberalism and Despotism – Locke

and Hobbes (Part Two of "The State in Economic

Theory") - by Joseph Belbruno

Capitalism, Liberalism and Despotism – Locke and Hobbes

Classical political theory assumes that the State is the holistic ethico-political ex-
pression and pro-duct of more fundamental social components that precede the State
both historically and analytically. The bourgeois theory of the State, known as
liberalism, shares this vision of the State with the added ingredient that society itself can
be separated into a scientific economic sphere governed by the “laws of the market” and
“economic value”, on one side, and a political sphere of public opinion guided by ethical
values, on the other. In other words, if Economics is the bourgeoisie’s scientific
rationalisation of capitalism, then Liberalism constitutes its quintessential political
ideology. Liberalism is the political expression of capitalism in that it proclaims that it is
possible to separate the economic sphere of social life which is the realm of necessity or
“free-dom”, that is, the rigid constraint of each individual free-dom imposed by the free-
doms of others all understood strictly as “individual freedoms” (the optimal utilisation of
resources made scarce by the insatiable nature of individual self-interest – whence the
dismal science – this is the constraint that founds the scientificity of capitalist social
relations, the Objective Value of neoclassical economic theory) from the sphere of
freedom or public opinion in which individuals can air their most subjective beliefs, the
Subjective or Ethical Values of the liberal public sphere, without – for that very reason,
that is, by reason of the “ideal” nature of opinions and beliefs – upsetting the politico-
technical neutrality of the State which, again, is founded on the scientificity of
Economics, that is to say, on the liberalist presumption of the scientific workings of the
self-regulating market mechanism.

It is the subjectivity of these ethical values – their origin in the ideal “freedom of the
human will” -, and the fact that this ethical-moral “freedom” can be founded exclusively
on the objectivity and “scientific” operation of the market mechanism and on the “laws
of Economics” – it is these two factors combined that liberalism can exploit
ideologically to vaunt its unique affinity with democracy. The central tenet of liberalism
is that “democracy” is socially impossible unless the sphere of economic production
and exchange is kept hermetically separate and protected from the sphere of public
opinion with its “irrational” ethico-moral and religious beliefs! Locke and Constant
are the great theoreticians of liberalism. For Locke, the separation of economic and
political spheres is made possible by the fact that it is possible to assign individual
property rights to resources by means of “individual labour” – by which Locke means
also the labour of others exchanged like any other product of labour or commodity.
Constant goes further by treating liberalism as the social state that allows the
transformation of proprietary antagonism from war to commerce. In other words, for
Constant, commerce, or the Lockean appropriation of resources on the basis of
supposedly “individual” labour, leads not just to social peace guaranteed by a neutral
State, but also to international peace between nation-states on the basis of the
disciplining effect of property and capital movements between nation-states! This could
not be achieved without the existence of “natural rights” that precede the State.

It is just such a jusnaturalist position that Hobbes denies steadfastly and intransigently –
and one that he demolishes with the ruthlessness of his logic. The greatness of Hobbes
lies precisely in having demonstrated that a society run strictly along capitalist lines on
the basis of possessive individualism is quite impossible because it will inevitably
descend into civil war – that, pace Constant, it is not possible for commerce to replace
war as a means of resolving the conflict implicit in commercial transactions (possessive
individualism, private ownership of social resources) either within or without the
boundaries of the nation-State. Auctoritas, non veritas, facit legem. The essence of laws,
says Hobbes, is not their “content”; it is not the “truth” of their injunction – for the
simple reason that there can be no universal Truth of which the laws are dictates. For
Hobbes as later for Nietzsche, the real essence of the law, its actual “truth”, is the very
fact of its enforcement – the fact that a particular Will is able to impose it on the subjects
to which it applies and who are forced to obey it. It is the authority of the Sovereign, the
actual physical ability to enforce the law that makes it “law”; it is certainly not the
correspondence of the law to an intersubjective universal human Truth that makes it “the
law”. (Wrong therefore are the theses of Leo Strauss and Warrender that claim Hobbes
for liberalism. And equally wrong is Macpherson to claim that Locke’s theory of the
State is in all analogous to Hobbes’s.)

Hobbes’s political theory, therefore, contra Habermas, is clearly not an attempt to

scientize politics – because for Hobbes it is quite impossible to give politics any
scientific basis – again, for the simple reason that there can be no scientific “truth” upon
which a hypothetical “ideal polity” (a Utopia) can be founded. On the contrary, for
Hobbes what science dictates is that politics begins and ends with the authority of the
Sovereign. But this authority is legitimated contractually by the subjects of the common-
wealth, of the State, not because it is the settlement dictated by scientific “truth” – but
rather precisely for the opposite reason (!), that is to say, that science shows conclusively
that no commonwealth or society or State can be founded on the dictates of science! It is
this negative conclusion – the impossibility of a commonwealth or State that answers to
a summum bonum or Truth – that is the real foundation of the Hobbesian status civilis or
State as the supreme and ultimate endeavour of human beings to escape the otherwise
ineluctable state of civil war, the status naturae or bellum civium (war of all against all).
To reinforce his point, Hobbes distinguishes between laws or rights or moral rules that
operate in foro interno – in the sense that each individual human being may repose
credence in them – and the utter impossibility of applying these individual rules in foro
externo by virtue of the fact that these “internal” ethical rules can never coincide with
the “external” objective rule imposed by the State! The only “rule” or Value that can be
agreed upon is the scientific fact that human beings wish above all to preserve their
individual “life” from violent death at the hands of other human beings. And given the
ability of any one individual human being to threaten the life of any other individual, it is
this metus mortis, this fear of violent death, which can be the only “scientific” basis of
the State. The State is the deus mortalis in the sense that its godliness – its omnipotence -
is not derived from theological sources but from the very mortal forces of human
voracity, of human appetite for endless possession. Whereas the old mediaeval
Scholastic theories of the State remained theo-cratic in that the supremacy of the State
over its subjects remained still ethico-moral in nature because of its “patriarchal”
analogy to the Divinity and the Judaeo-Christian family, Hobbes’s theory of the State
breaks radically with all previous political theory by asserting and demonstrating
geometrico-mechanically the absolute primacy of the State in the foundation of human
society. The basis of the State is not rendered “scientific” thereby: or rather, the State is
“scientific” only to the extent that science requires it to proscribe the Political so as to
prevent the otherwise inevitable descent of humanity into total civil war. (As Leo Strauss
put it in reference to Schmitt, Hobbes theorised a State that put an end to politics
understood as the state of nature, and Schmitt theorises a state of nature that reintroduces
politics to the State. Both Hobbes and Schmitt, moving in opposite directions, theorise
the incompatibility of State and politics.)

It is evident therefore that for Hobbes there can be no distinction or separation of any
sphere of civil life, including the “economic” sphere, from the existence of the State: for
Hobbes, society and the State are one indivisible entity: there is simply no human society
or natural society or civil society possible outside the State. The State is a restauratio ab
imis fundamentis of human society – a total constitutional order – founded solely on the
ability of the Sovereign to enforce its decisions (the law). It is equally impossible
therefore for a law to be “natural” and thus to be “just” independently of the State that
enforces it: a conduct is “just” in a State that enforces it, and the very same rule can be
“unjust” in a State that proscribes it. A law can be “right” in one State and its very
opposite can be equally “right” in another State that enforces its opposite. The “truth” of
the law is the authority of the Sovereign, not an independent and intrinsic Value
possessed by or contained in that law.

The same applies of course to economic “laws” based as they must be on the notion of
property (the individual claim to social resources), individual labours or utility (as the
subjective individual ethical basis for property rights), and exchange (as the foundation
of market prices and commerce). All economic science is based on the “exchange” of
pro-ducts between individuals. But “exchange” implies by definition the existence of
property rights possessed by individuals over the pro-ducts that they are meant “to
exchange”. As we have shown, however, for Hobbes no such property “rights” can exist
outside of the State; and they cannot constitute therefore an objective scientific basis or
an ideal ethical basis for the science of “economics”. For this very reason, the Hobbesian
State is not an ideal State – it is not a prescription: it is instead a statement of fact! For
Hobbes, every conceivable human society, to the extent that it is viable, must be founded
on his analytical doctrine of the State! This means that for Hobbes liberalism is not only
impossible as a political foundation for human society, but to the extent that it appears to
hold sway it can do so only on ideological veils that obscure the real nature of the State
on which all human society must be founded. For Hobbes, liberalism is impossible – a
fraud or a fib at best – owing to its very theoretical premise, that is, possessive

To be sure, the analytical framework of Walrasian equilibrium is also beset with

“unscientific” ethico-political and indeed metaphysical problems. It is hard to imagine,
for instance, a more metaphysical notion than that of “utility”, which is essential to
neoclassical economic theory. Or indeed even the notions of “individual” and “self-
interest” that form the mechanical elements of equilibrium theory. Yet equilibrium
theory, exactly like Hobbes’s notion of the state of nature or state of civil war, begins
with the formal equality of individual market participants who are unequal or different
only in the “endowments” with which they conduct their perfectly competitive market
exchange. Indeed, it could be argued that the differences in “initial endowments” do not
constitute “inequality” given that no two individual human beings are alike! The central
ethico-political assumption of equilibrium theory is that individual market participants
have a legal right to their initial endowments. Once this initial legal right is accepted,
then the entire “settlement” of equilibrium exchange transactions in accordance with
utility schedules is mathematically determined. The absence of “profit” or “surplus
value” in neoclassical equilibrium theory means that the problem of the Dynamik, that is,
the problem of the mutation or trans-formation of the economic system, of its
“evolution”, is not even posed.

Just as in Hobbes’s theory it is the necessary (to preserve one’s life) yet free and rational
(free because rational) decision of individuals to alienate their “free-dom” in exchange
for the totalitarian rule of the State, which establishes civil society and proclaims
positive laws, so in equilibrium theory self-interested individuals are governed “from
outside” by the quasi-Euclidean totalitarian axioms of the theory which, as we saw
earlier, transform “economic agents” into the “inert bodies” of mechanical physics. Just
as in Hobbes’s state of nature individuals transfer mechanically their de facto
possessions or power to the civil state so that they may be socially recognized as “legal
possessions”, so in equilibrium theory the “endowments” of individuals are sanctioned
axiomatically without any question being posed about how and with what right they
came to acquire these “initial endowments”. Neoclassical equilibrium theory is entirely
analogous to Hobbesian political theory in that its “government” is entirely external to
its governed individuals who have entirely alienated their individual free-doms in the
state of nature and therefore acquire their possessions and formal equality before the law
in their contractual society solely and exclusively from the State. The conflicting “free-
doms” of individuals lead them to agree, on pain of mutually assured destruction (ob
metum mortis), to alienate their individual “free-doms” to the State. Once a State is
formed, the individuals who formed it by contract immediately and irrevocably alienate
their erstwhile free-dom to the State. Because the “government” is mechanically
imposed on its “subjects” – because the contractum unionis becomes instantly or
mechanically a contractum subjectionis – we call this equilibrium state or political state
a “state by (contractual) institution” as distinct from a state “by (historical) acquisition”.

By contrast, in the case of liberalism in all its forms, right up to Schumpeter’s political
elitarianism and economic Dynamik, given the “indeterminateness of prices” caused by
the fact that the economic system is changing endogenously (“from within” and not
“from outside” as in equilibrium) through the innovative actions of “economic agents”
(Withschafts-subjekte) and changing “incessantly”, the question that comes up
immediately is not just how initial entitlements or endowments are to be settled between
economic agents, but also how present and future endowments or entitlements are
justified! In other words, the ethico-political questions raised by the Dynamik relate not
just to the initial acquisition of property rights, to their transfer from the state of nature
to the civil state – to the reception of natural rights by the civil State -, but also and
especially to the present and future legal claim over the pricing of all goods and services
for exchange on “the market”. In this case we have a Lockean “state by acquisition”.

The contrast between John Locke’s political theory and the Hobbesian theory lies
centrally in the fact that the first relies on the existence of “natural rights” possessed by
individuals in the state of nature which are then transferred to and received by the civil
state by agreement or social contract so that they may be protected by the State as a
neutral arbiter. In other words, for Locke, unlike Hobbes, “natural rights” exist already
in the state of nature, and it is only for protection that individuals contractually acquire a
State to preserve these natural rights from violent acts that would lead to a civil war.
Unlike Hobbes, then, Locke does not believe that the state of nature is a state of war of
all against all in which no “natural rights” can be said to exist, except for the right to
preserve one’s life! As a result, the Hobbesian State is totalitarian in the sense that its
citizens have alienated all their freedoms and possessions to the State and the State is the
sole source and guarantor of positive laws. By contrast, the Lockean State is a liberal
“state by acquisition” in the sense that the state of nature is already one with natural
rights that precede the formation of the State: therefore the State is subordinate to and
limited by these natural rights which it acquired from the state of nature, and its role is
merely that of protecting its citizens - their “life, liberty and estate” - from eventual
infringements that might arise in the state of nature. Unlike the Hobbesian State, the
Lockean State does not determine the content of positive laws: it merely safeguards or
guarantees pre-existing natural rights: it is strictly Police – the protector and enforcer of
the salus publica – but subject to the division of powers. Whereas the rationale of the
Hobbesian State contains a genial mixture of both jusnaturalist (the preservation of life)
and therefore contractual, as well as positivist (it is the sole source of law) and therefore
totalitarian elements (there is no division of powers), because it is the last resort, the
ultima ratio, the Lockean State instead is entirely a jusnatural and contractual or liberal
institution meant to protect natural rights already acquired in the state of nature.

It is quite right therefore to place Hobbes in the illiberal, despotic camp of political
theory in the sense that for him human society, understood as a quintessentially
bourgeois society of possessive individuals, must be despotic even though despotism is
the product of a social contract. By contrast, for Locke, a society that is established by
mutual consent cannot be despotic – and therefore the powers of the State must be
limited to adjudicating over the natural rights of individuals acquired in the state of
nature. It would seem thus that Bobbio’s remonstrations against Macpherson’s attempt
to link Locke and Hobbes as ultimately “collectivist” promoters of the despotic powers
of the State are justified.

Pur prescindendo dal mutamento avvenuto nelle idee di Locke rispetto al potere del
sovrano in materia religiosa, e restringendoci alla questione del potere in materia
economica, nel secondo trattato la sfera di cose moralmente indifferenti che riguardano
la formazione della proprietà e i rapporti economici, è di dominio esclusivo
dell'individuo, e il corpo politico ne è soltanto a post e non il garante o il custode. Anzi
che essere lo stato padrone assoluto e arbitrario dei beni degli individui (come in
Hobbes), gli individui proprietari, cioè padroni di beni, finiscono per diventare anche i
padroni dello stato. La novità della costruzione lockiana che ne fa il modello dello stato
liberale-borghese è l'individuazione e la scoperta dello stadio dei rapporti economici tra
gli individui precedente allo stadio delle strutture politiche. Lo stato di natura non è più
in Locke uno stato ipotetico, ma è lo stato in cui si sviluppano i rapporti economici
naturali, e questi rapporti sono naturali per il fatto che si formano e si consolidano
indipenden temente dall'intervento dello stato: il quale, se mai, ne è l'organo di
registrazione e di coordinamento. La regolamentazione di quella vasta sfera di cose
moralmente indifferenti che è costituita dalle azioni economiche, è affidata agli indi-
[116] vidui medesimi, cioè è sottratta al potere assoluto e arbitrario dello stato. Far
passare Locke per un « collettivista » significa non intendere il significato della sua
riforma che consiste nel porre la sovrastruttura politica al servizio della struttura
economica, nel subordinare il potere politico al potere economico, nell'invertire
insomma i termini del problema quali erano stati posti da Hobbes.
Yet, what Bobbio neglects is the fact that Locke’s liberalism limits the powers of the
State only so far as natural rights are concerned. But once we enquire about what Locke
means by “natural rights”, we see that these rights all originate in the economic sphere –
they all have to do with property rights. And these property rights are acquired in a
manner that is absolute in the sense that the State is powerless to interfere with their
indefinite acquisition. It is this indefinite extension of property rights that lends to
Locke’s economic foundation of his liberalism a “scientific” basis that is entirely novel
in political theory. (The infinite repeatability of experiments is, as Leo Strauss has
insightfully pointed out, the most essential criterion for the scientificity of experimental
science. See his lectures on Socrates.) Locke postulates the indefinite acquisition of
property rights by individuals in at least three senses: first, individuals can accumulate
property by purchasing the labour of other individuals; second, property acquisition is
not limited by the satisfaction of individual needs because of the existence of money as
general social wealth (cf. Aristotle); and finally, property rights are not limited to the
natural life of individuals because the right to inheritance forestalls their reversion to the
community. For these three reasons, given that the acquisitiveness of individuals is
utterly unlimited, it follows inevitably that the State will sooner or later come to
represent and protect the natural rights of the richest members of society to the detriment
of everyone else. As a result, the limits of the liberal State invoked by Locke are
confined merely to the sphere of subjective beliefs and opinions, whereas in the
economic sphere, far from being “liberal” in a “democratic” or even “consensual” sense,
as Bobbio suggests, the Lockean State becomes utterly despotic as much as the

Bobbio’s summary of the distinction between Hobbes’s despotic collectivism and

Locke’s despotic liberalism ought to be etched in gold!

Il giusnaturalismo di Locke, che è poi tutt'uno col suo liberalismo e con la sua teoria
dello stato limitato e controllato, si esprime principalmente nell'affermare l'esistenza e la
bontà d'una società naturale distinta dalla [127] società politica. Poiché la società
naturale è di fatto prevalentemente la rete dei rapporti economici, questo giusnaturalismo
lockiano contiene una teoria del primato dell'economico sul politico, mentre
l'antigiusnaturalismo di Hobbes si risolve nella teoria opposta del primato del politico
sull'economico. Il perno del sistema lockiano è la teoria della proprietà: orbene, la
proprietà è l'istituto fondamentale della vita economica. La scoperta di Locke, almeno di
fronte ai suoi immediati predecessori, è che la proprietà è un istituto naturale, non civile;
il suo assunto è quello di far retrocedere l'origine della proprietà allo stato di natura. Di
fronte ad Hobbes, che aveva fatto della proprietà un istituto di diritto positivo, Pufendorf
aveva iniziato, ma non condotto sino in fondo, la retrocessione, facendone un istituto di
diritto naturale convenzionale. Solo Locke riesce, con la sua teoria del lavoro come titolo
d'acquisto della proprietà, riportarla al fondo, cioè all'energia dell'individuo, unico
signore del proprio corpo. Attraverso l'acquisto e lo scambio dei beni i destini dell'uomo
si consumano nella società naturale: quando sorge la società civile il gioco è già fatto.
Non per nulla la ragione principale per cui sorge la società civile, cioè quella società che
ha per iscopo la convivenza pacifica, è la conservazione della proprietà.

What Bobbio leaves out here, however, is the fact that the “liberal” separation of
economic and political spheres, given the unlimited scientific understanding of the
operation of the former, inexorably turns the Lockean liberal State not just into an
authoritarian one (as Bobbio accepts referring to Franz Neumann’s famous distinction
between “the authoritarian and the democratic state” – see Bobbio’s “Liberalism and
Democracy”), though not into a “collectivist” one as suggested by Macpherson, but
indeed above all it turns the Locklear liberal State into one as despotic as anything
theorized by Hobbes! Bobbio separates Locke from Hobbes on the ground of liberalism,
which he perceives to be consensual and not despotic, though it may be authoritarian and
undemocratic. Macpherson instead equiparates Hobbes and Locke on the basis of their
presumed collectivism – which in reality is appropriate only to the Hobbesian but
certainly not to the Lockean State, whose “collectivist” powers are limited to the
economic sphere of necessity but not to the free sphere of public opinion.

But both Bobbio and Macpherson forget the embryonically “scientific” nature of the
economic institutions that Locke is the first to theorise. It is the inchoate but
embryonically “scientific”, as against merely ethico-moral, nature of the economic
institutions of capitalism he outlines for the first time that separates Locke’s economic
and political spheres so as to make his theory of the State liberal yet not collectivist,
against Macpherson. And yet, at one and the same time, it is equally this “scientific”,
and not merely ethico-moral, understanding of the economic sphere that renders Locke’s
liberalism despotic and not “consensual”, against Bobbio. Whereas Bobbio errs on the
side of “consensualism”, Macpherson errs on the side of “collectivism”. Both Bobbio
and Macpherson underestimate the scientistic aspect of Locke’s embryonic economic
theory – the first because he seems to accept the scientificity of economic theory as the
proper foundation of social consensus (economics as the scientific account of
“spontaneous” social choices), and the latter because he clearly denies it, overlooking
thus the “scientism” of economic theory in separating economic and political spheres in
terms of political praxis – which is what distinguishes Hobbesian from Lockean
despotism. What makes both wrong is the novel “scientific” nature of the economic
theory of capitalist society based on alienated labour that Locke is the first great
bourgeois theoretician to hypothesise. Thus, although Bobbio is again right to chide
Macpherson on Locke’s presumed theory of “civil society”, on the other hand
Macpherson is quite right to lay emphasis on this potential “scientific” future
development in Locke’s theory of the State that brings him closer to Hobbes’s
It is easy to see, thus, on the basis of this “scientific” self-understanding of liberalism,
the close analogy between the Hobbesian state and Walrasian Statik equilibrium theory,
on one side, and the Lockean State and Schumpeter’s Dynamik, on the other side, from
the perspective of arbitrary initial “endowments”. Schumpeter’s Dynamik resembles the
Lockean liberal State in the sense that the claims laid by entrepreneurs to profits, by
capitalists to interest, and by workers to wages, as well as by landlords to rent, are based
entirely on ethico-political grounds – “natural rights” - and not on an axiomatic
mechanical exchange derived from the logico-mathematical matching of given
individual utility schedules, as in Hobbes! Unlike the Walrasian Statik, in the
Schumpeterian Dynamik nothing is “given” – there are no “data” – because everything is
“acquired” ethico-politically by virtue of the “actions” of economic agents –
Schumpeter’s Wirthschafts-subjekte – who are no longer the unconscious inert bodies of
equilibrium theory but are rather free and creative individuals whose innovative acts
enliven an incessantly changing and mutating economic system.

Yet, paradoxically, once the Lockean ethico-moral claim to initial endowments is

accepted, then unlike the Hobbesian theory that always assumes the arbitrariness of
Walrasian equilibrium exchange, the Lockean one thoroughly denies this arbitrariness
precisely on the “scientific” ground of the spontaneous “naturalness” of the property
rights with which the economic agents can continue to exchange not just in a static
equilibrium but also in a dynamic one! In Locke, the “consensual” character of
bourgeois society provides the foundation for what will become the utilitarian “science
of choice” of neoclassical economics. (Cf. on this, Hayek’s analogous oxymoronic
notion of “spontaneous order” or catallaxy.)

In Hobbes, who is the archetype of bourgeois social and economic “science”, we find the
positive “scientific hypothesis” or rationale provided by the framework of equilibrium
whereby the capitalist system can be ana-lysed as a “balance of competitive and
conflicting forces” whose ultima ratio is that metus mortis (fear of death) that pushes
atomic self-interested individuals out of the status naturae (state of nature), out of its
stasis (civil war), and out of its “gravitational centre” or equilibrium, into the metabolic
orbit of the political convention or status civilis (civil society). The conflict of the
Hobbesian state of nature is transformed into entrepreneurial activity under the
protection of the State. But under this commercial “continuation of civil war by other
means” (Constant), an ethical or political or rational-efficient productive-scientific
rationale must be found for the determination of prices (for the theory of distribution) –
considering the “separation” between “worker/product” and employer/worker/product.

Thus, liberalism from Locke onwards hypothesizes the jusnaturalist “political

convention” or rationalization of the status civilis (civil society) that takes into account
the political and bureaucratic “frictions and fictions” and compromises, the conventions
and atavisms, all guaranteed by the liberal negative State or “Common-wealth”. But
unlike Hobbes, Locke and Constant and Mill do not consider that the liberal “night-
watchman State” or “police State” can never overcome the conflict that gnaws at the
very foundation of bourgeois capitalist society and that must ultimately drive the
political system back into the paralysis, stagnation or sclerosis and finally the stasis
(civil war) of the Hobbesian status naturae. Thus, Lockean liberal jusnaturalism and
Hobbesian despotic positivism become Janus-faced or enigmatic concepts, the one
entering the other as it exits itself. The profit-seeking of pure competition (jusnaturalism)
provides the dynamism of capitalist society and drives it out of equilibrium; but the
profit-making of imperfect competition (positivism) pulls back into the staticity of
equilibrium. The tendency here is toward “entropy” or paralysis – due to the
proliferation of protective measures and to the easier reliance on conservatism – leading
to civil war (stasis or bellum civium).