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Preface to Beyond Leviathan

Detail from cover of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Detail from Abraham Bosse's frontispiece for Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Getty Images).

István Mészáros (1930–2017) was a philosopher and political theorist, and a frequent contributor to Monthly Review. At the time of his death, he was Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Sussex.

This article is adapted from the preface to Beyond Leviathan, an unfinished work on the state. For an overview of the book’s aims and scope, see John Bellamy Foster’s introduction to the Review of the Month by Mészáros in the December 2017 issue of MR.

Why Leviathan? The readers of this book may well ask the question.

The answer is both very simple and painfully difficult. Very simple in the sense that the state—despite the great variety of its forms, as constituted in history, from the time of so-called oriental despotism and the early empires to the Modern Liberal State—cannot be other than Leviathan in imposing its structurally entrenched power on overall societal decision-making. Obviously, that kind of separate, state-imposed resolution of the vital issues of societal reproduction means in reality expropriating and usurping the vital decision-making powers from the social body as a whole.

The answer is also painfully difficult because this alienated form of long established overall decision-making represents a fundamental challenge for the future, in absolutely unavoidable opposition to its perennial domination. That is the case because in our time, in view of the objectively accomplished changes that produced in the course of history the now readily available powers of total destruction, a way must be found to extricate humanity from the ever more dangerous—in fact potentially in a literal sense self-annihilating—arbitrary decision-making practices of the Leviathan state. There can be no hope for the survival of humanity without that.

To be sure, a challenge of this kind and magnitude has never been confronted in all of history. For in order to bring the destructive antagonistic developments not only to a halt but to reverse them in a positive way, in the interest of a historically sustainable mode of existence in the future, human beings must change, in the words of Karl Marx, “from top to bottom the conditions of their industrial and political existence, and consequently their whole manner of being,” and that change is inconceivable without an appropriate period of consciously regulated transition from the existing order to a qualitatively different one.1

This is a task that cannot be realized within the paralyzing confines of the necessarily hierarchical and antagonistic framework of the political/military domain, as often wrongly projected. For in order to make feasible a historically and in the long run viable accomplishment of this kind, a radical transformation is required in our social metabolism itself. That is to say, a radical social transformation that would deeply affect our modality of decision-making no less in the elementary constitutive cells or microcosms of our societal reproductive order than at the most comprehensive level of the global interdependencies.

It is the inseparability of this necessary interrelationship between the elementary constitutive cells of societal reproduction and the broadest globally relevant determinations that happens to be the reason why it is impossible to go Beyond Leviathan in the political/military domain without radically overcoming at the same time the social metabolic power of capital as such at its material ground. The same determination prevails also the other way round. And that means that it is impossible to go Beyond Capital in the material reproductive order of our society without overcoming the vital challenge of Leviathan’s structurally entrenched and superimposed overall decision-making powers as constituted in history in a great variety of its state formations, asserting themselves more than ever today. In other words, the structural imperatives of going Beyond Capital as the material reproductive force of society, and going Beyond Leviathan as the political/military overall decision-maker are inseparable.

People like to quote from the Leviathan written by Thomas Hobbes the shocking words which are said to describe what is supposed to be humanity’s original “state of nature” in general to which the political/military state itself was meant to provide the corresponding all-embracing answer. Closely connected with the words of bellum omnium contra omnes—i.e., the war of each against all—they sound like this: “the life of man, [was] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”2

However, as Hobbes himself made very clear, “It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now.”3 Moreover, “though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another; yet in all times, Kings, and Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall Spyes upon their neighbours; which is a posture of war.”4

Naturally, Hobbes offered his own vision of an all-powerful Leviathan state formation as the only legitimate counterforce to all of its predecessors and potential rivals. We shall examine in proper detail the merits as well as the problematic aspects of his great work in due course. What is directly relevant at this point is his forceful condemnation of the perennial warfare known in history, and aggravated through the civil war in his own time, to which he was hoping to find an alternative. Thus he wrote in the interest of peace that “The Lawes of Nature are Immutable and Eternall; for Injustice, Ingratitude, Arrogance, Pride, Iniquity, Acception of persons, and the rest, can never be made lawfull. For it can never be that Warre shall preserve life, and Peace destroy it.”5 And for even greater emphasis he added a little later that “all men agree on this, that Peace is Good, and therefore also the way, or means of Peace, which (as I have shewed before) are Justice, Gratitude, Modesty, Equity, Mercy, & the rest of the Lawes of Nature, are good; that is to say, Morall Vertues; and their contrarie Vices, Evill. Now the science of Vertue and Vice, is Morall Philosophie; and therefore the true doctrine of the Lawes of Nature, is the true Morall Philosophie.”6

In this way the radical theory of the state published by Hobbes in 1651 was proclaimed to be grounded by its author on the most secure philosophical foundation, in terms of the highest morally justified opposition to war. And indeed, war was by him decreed to be categorically contrary to the laws of nature. The fact that nearly three hundred and seventy years after the publication of Leviathan by Hobbes humanity is constantly compelled to confront the danger of war in its potentially overwhelming all-destructive form can only underline the gravity of these problems.

As a matter of chronological record, all of the major theories of the state have been produced in historical periods of great turmoil, from Plato, Aristotle and Augustine through Machiavelli and Hobbes, all the way to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and G. W. F. Hegel, as well as, of course, to Marx, V. I. Lenin, and their comrades like Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci.

This is well understandable. For all of the important theories of the state, including those that fully accepted the retention of its contradictorily self-legitimating overall commanding role, wanted to improve the state’s ability to cope with its problems in those periods of severe historic crises to which they responded.7 Thus at least in the ascending phase of their society’s development even the state theories written from the standpoint of the ruling order were critical theories in this limited but clearly identifiable historically specific sense, despite their problematical siding with the antagonistic overall decision-making processes of their own class-exploitative reproductive order. The same goes also for the various utopian theories of politics and society which—in their own way, even if often quite obliquely—offered on the whole the critically modified retention of some superimposed command structure on societal decision-making. By contrast, the Marxian inspired approach followed a radically different critical attitude, envisaging the “withering away of the state”—or the total eradication of the state—from the modality of social metabolic reproduction, in place of the continued expropriation of humanity’s overall decision-making processes.

One of the crucial problems in this respect concerned the unavoidable periodic upheavals and the ensuing reversals in the continued exercise of the established state’s laws. Obviously, such upheavals and reversals badly needed to be addressed in all state theory. For without securing in some way the continuity of overall political decision-making the maintenance of societal reproduction would be rendered impossible under the conditions of antagonistic material and cultural interchanges that prevailed in history and indeed still prevail in our own time.

It was one of Plato’s great insights thousands of years ago to focus on the requirement of securing the necessary continuity in question. He realized it before anyone else that the law cannot be considered law proper unless its character is universal in the sense of its fully legitimate unassailability. He undertook the establishment of this fundamental requirement in one of his most important and by far the most extensive dialogues on the state, the Laws.

Toward the end of this work, describing in minute detail the utopian state project of Magnesia, the principal interlocutor makes the self-critical point according to which “the service we have still not done, for the laws is to discover how to build into them a resistance to being reversed.”8 As a requirement this is absolutely vital in past state theory, quite irrespective of how successfully it can be accomplished by the particular thinkers under their given historical circumstances. Plato is by no means alone in his forceful advocacy of some kind of irreversibility. Many centuries later Machiavelli underlines much the same requirement when he insists that what truly qualifies a Prince for greatness is not how powerful he is in his lifetime but how enduring his creation as the overall political framework proves to be.9

Plato proposes in the Laws as his own solution in Magnesia the institution of what he calls the “Nocturnal Council” of guardians in order to secure the stipulated permanency of his ideal state and its laws. He argues about the existing and by him rejected states that “Where there are no efficient and articulate guardians, with an adequate understanding of virtue, it will be hardly surprising if the state, precisely because it is unguarded, meets the fate of so many [failing] states nowadays.”10 At the same time, as the necessary condition of success Plato advocates that the members of the Nocturnal Council—projected by him as some kind of constitutional safeguard—should be “rigorously selected, properly educated, and after the completion of their studies lodged in the citadel of the country and made into guardians whose powers of protection we have never seen excelled in our lives before.”11 He also stipulates the need for finding “the single central concept” (in the multifaceted domain of virtue) through which it becomes possible “to put the various details in their proper place in the overall picture.”12

However, the great irony is that Plato’s stipulation remains only a stipulation. We are never told by Plato, and—given the elusive character of the requirement of the law’s irreversibility itself as its own guarantee—we can never be told, what that “single central concept” might be. We get only procedural details—a constantly recurring rather problematical feature of state theories that claim much more by such devices also after Plato, to our own days—about how the members of the Council should be selected, educated, lodged, what time of the day they should meet, etc. But we never receive even a remote hint at a “single central concept” that could serve as the practical guiding principle of a sustainable state regulation “built into the laws and guaranteeing their irreversibility.”

Naturally, we should not be surprised at all by such historic failure, despite Plato’s awareness of the great importance of the principle itself laid down by him. For in any antagonistic societal reproductive order, not to mention a slave-owning society like ancient Greece, there cannot be anything built into the laws that could in any sense guarantee by itself their irreversibility. Not only the predicament of ancient Greece but also countless Constitutions thereafter, necessarily alternating with their reversals sooner or later, amply proved that plain truth in the course of history. Accordingly, we had to wait for a very long time before the conditions required for making the law truly universal in character could objectively arise in actually unfolding history. We have been condemned to wait for it for such a long time because its conditions of realization could become feasible only through the actions of self-determining human beings who would autonomously make their laws for themselves by themselves, beyond the antagonistic determinations of their long established social metabolic order and its corresponding state formations.

In the course of actual history, one of the most problematical aspects of the law was—and more than ever remains—the endless multiplication of its statutes and regulatory determinations. As a result, we could witness up to the present time the creation of an ever denser legal jungle in state theory, fully in tune with the existing antagonistic societal order and its political institutions. The law itself can offer no obstacle to that. For the disheartening fact is that for every one of its instances a whole range of “counter-instances” can be devised, so as to be “countered” again, potentially ad infinitum, in the law’s institutionally secured and sanctioned pseudo-legitimacy.

This way of conceptualizing the required state practices in the form of an ever denser legal jungle helped to render the modality of societal reproduction in political terms always more complicated, often in the name of producing greater transparency. Invariably, however, such practice was pursued in the interest of preserving the substantive inequality established in society for thousands of years, instead of facilitating its meaningful critical evaluation and ultimate consignment to the past. Today this trend continues to drive unmistakably in the direction of making the legal jungle so dense that it should be penetrable only by those practitioners in the field whose professionally pursued and sanctified job is to make that jungle even denser. The Parliaments we know all over the world are an obvious proof for that.

The apparently insurmountable difficulty regarding this problem is that it cannot be solved in terms of the law itself, in its own terms of reference. For the cause of the necessary failure in this respect is that the institutionalized law as such had been constituted—and constitutionally/circularly/self-servingly legitimated and entrenched—by the exclusion of the subordinate class of society from law-making from the very beginning, and reproduced as well as strengthened in the same way ever since that time.

The only exception seems to be when in situations of great emergency or a major revolutionary crisis some forms of “constitutional assemblies” are temporarily established. However, despite their achievements in improving for some time the material conditions of the poorest section of the population in some countries, they can show very limited lasting success so far, if any, in changing the structural determination of class-society. Understandably, the inherited “constitutionality-requirement” itself—to which the constitutional assemblies in question dutifully conform, despite the fact that in their primary self-legitimating circularity the traditional Constitutions always sustained the established social metabolic order—represents the most easily exploitable danger on this score. To give only one important example, the cynical exploitation of pretended legality is made evident by the utterly lawless and often even violent activities of the subversive “constitutional opposition” inside Venezuela since the death of its revolutionary president, Hugo Chávez. Most revealingly, such subversive forces are sustained in every way by the—in many countries of the world very far from constitutionally behaving, ubiquitously interventionist—Leviathan state of North America, as the history of several Latin American countries, prophetically anticipated by Simon Bolívar and José Martí, bears eloquent witness.

The contradictorily self-legitimating endless multiplication of legal statutes and regulatory measures in history is all the more problematical and revealing because it has been identified and criticized thousands of years ago, already in ancient Greece, to absolutely no avail. It was Plato, again, who raised his critical voice against the intrusion of Hydra—the mythical creature that managed to grow several heads when one of them had been cut off—into the law, through the perversely devised multiplication and amendment of useless laws and regulatory measures. He forcefully condemned that practice by comparing it to disease in this way: “By all their remedies they achieve nothing except engendering and multiplying greater diseases, while always hoping that someone will advise a drug to make them better…. Equally charming are those, who make laws on matters like those already mentioned and constantly amend them in the belief that they will reach finality—unaware that they are just cutting off a Hydra’s head.”13

In the thousands of years since Plato’s time, countless numbers of Hydra-heads have been cut off, and continue to be cut off today, so as to multiply every one of them when they are cut off, as had occurred already in ancient Greece. Not surprisingly, therefore, in the immensely bureaucratized states of our own time the law is getting ever more cumbersome and impenetrable. That serves, of course, most successfully the continued disenfranchising of the subordinate class of the people in the authoritarian overall decision-making framework of the Leviathan state, where all such practices are in the material domain hierarchically entrenched and in the political field arbitrarily self-legitimated.

This form of determination represents a very great problem for the future. For, as mentioned before, the realization of humanity’s emancipation is inconceivable without an appropriate period of consciously regulated transition from the existing order to a qualitatively different one. And that has necessary implications for the move from our present social system, with its Leviathan state and its laws, sustained by their apologetic jurisprudential underpinning, to a fundamentally different one envisaged by Marx and his comrades.

The state existed and dominated societal reproduction for thousands of years. It would be, therefore, very naïve to project its abolition or disappearance in a short period of time, let alone immediately. The task is not to project the time-scale of its withering away or eradication but to indicate the conditions that must be fulfilled in order to achieve the required change through the qualitative restructuring of the social metabolism in accordance with the historic reality of our time.

To make that task realizable, the elaboration of critical jurisprudence, in sharp contrast to its state-apologetic variety in existence, is bound to play an important role. For the Marxian idea envisioning the state’s withering away was feasible not as some kind of spontaneously self-realizing event but as a most active and coherently pursued strategic intervention that identifies from the start the existing state, with its laws in the service of perpetuating substantive inequality, as the urgently necessary critical target of radical change.

That means the necessity to transfer to the social body also the totality of the powers expropriated by the Leviathan state in the course of history. To this crucial task critical jurisprudence can contribute in its own meaningful way in the unavoidable period of transition, but by no means in a dominant way, as traditional law always asserted itself in the past. For the task of qualitative restructuring mentioned a moment ago is conceivable only through the activation of the great masses of the people—that is, all of society’s given and potential producers—for taking full control over the reproductive determinations of their society, from the elementary constitutive cells of the thereby constituted socialist system to the most comprehensive really feasible global interdependencies of the highest complexity. In that sense critical jurisprudence is objectively mandated to sustain in its own ways the much-needed radical social metabolic transformation. In other words, the fundamental meaning of the consciously regulated strategic intervention also in critical jurisprudential terms can only be to facilitate the progressive eradication of the state, in all of its dimensions and institutional embodiments, from the societal reproduction process.

“Globalization” is a contradictorily unfolding, yet in any case inexorably unfolding, reality on the material plane. But it is totally devoid of sustainability on the political plane. For capital’s historically constituted nation states continue to fight each other even when apologetic ideologists idealize globalization, as if such globalization could be carried forward to its harmonious all-embracing conclusion within the antagonistic framework of the capital system. However, the undeniable reality is that the nation states fight each other either directly or in their proxy wars. They adopt the modality of proxy wars when through the openly pursued direct confrontation of the world’s dominant powers, e.g., the United States and Russia, the danger would be the total destruction of the warring countries as well as the rest of humanity. And for the time being the most powerful nation state, China, is relatively little involved in such antagonistic interchanges. But what happens when the necessary confrontation over our planet’s limited strategic material resources becomes more acute? Who can guarantee that also under such, far from hypothetical, conditions the proxy wars are not turned into an all-destructive direct global war? For the unpalatable truth is that there cannot be a state of the capital system as a whole, because the state can only be the structurally entrenched and hierarchically dominant Leviathan state in confrontation not only with its own subordinate social class, but also with some other Leviathan state. Despite all attempts to project the contrary, the idea of harmonious globalization on the ground of capital’s antagonisms is a self-contradictory fiction. No wonder that at times it is coupled with the nightmare-fantasy of the seriously advocated “global coercive state,” as we shall see it discussed in the course of the present study.

We must add here also the problem of antagonistically colliding ethnicity, combined at times even with the revival of historically long persisting religious antagonisms. But even without their religiously antagonistic dimension the contradictions of ethnic confrontations are insoluble by capital’s Leviathan state formations in global terms, as we witness their recurrent explosions in our contemporary world. The traditional way of dealing with ethnic confrontations—through the repressive violence imposed by the more powerful nation state—is unthinkable as a historically sustainable global remedy in the future. For in the past even a fairly big nation-state could be subdued as a subordinate “ethnic entity” when the winning power was powerful enough to make its position prevail on a continuing basis. However, under the conditions of warfare with the weapons of “Mutually Assured Destruction” the maintenance of that kind of domination—quite common in the imperialist past—becomes prohibitively dangerous in a politically and militarily globalizing world.

Compared to the ongoing devastating conflagrations in the Middle East for several decades on a vast scale, with their undeniable dimension of proxy war, the ethnic and religious conflicts between Armenian Christians and Azeri Muslims in Nagorno Krabakh are minor. This conflict concerns a relatively small part of the land of Azerbaijan, populated, however, by overwhelmingly Christian Armenians who now claim—by Azerbaijan itself unrecognized—independence. The grave problem is that in some of the armed confrontations of these two hostile ethnic communities tens of thousands of people have lost their lives, and the conflicts are renewed again and again.

In the aftermath of one of these particularly violent conflicts a television crew went to the disputed hilly region of Nagorno Karabakh and interviewed an old Armenian shepherd asking him: to whom does the land belong in the area where he was tending his flock? The old shepherd answered the question with great wisdom:

“The land belongs to the sheep.”

However, the much more difficult question is: “When will Leviathan begin to understand such an answer?”

Alas, the answer can only be: never. For understanding the elementary truth and wisdom expressed in that answer is incompatible with Leviathan’s nature.

Yet, this kind of question requires a rationally sustainable answer unavoidably some time in the not too distant future. But a rationally tenable answer is feasible only Beyond Leviathan! For Leviathan lived with, and exploited for its own purposes, the recurrence of such conflicts. It was always part of its normal modus vivendi.

The Leviathan state is failing in more ways than one. Let us consider here, in conclusion, only the most dangerous aspect of the unresolved global confrontations. The controversy about it regularly enters the news headlines on account of the opponents of war questioning the legitimacy and safety of the existing nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Recently in the American presidential debates this controversy took the form of asking: “whose finger is the safer finger for the delivery of the nuclear bombs on the adversary?” What a gruesome irony to talk about a “safe finger” meant to initiate the total extermination of humanity!

The same question was raised also in Britain, when the newly appointed Prime Minister, Theresa May, was asked whether she would be willing to push the nuclear button. And she answered by saying that she can proudly give the answer, yes, she would unhesitatingly push that button whenever she was expected to do so as the prime minister of the country. In contrast, the opposition leader was pilloried for saying no at an earlier occasion to the same question.

Obviously, with regard to this crucial matter Leviathan in charge of the dominant states is playing with fire. And the fire that is being played with is all-destructive nuclear fire!

To be sure, playing with fire is by no means incompatible with Leviathan’s nature. On the contrary, it was always inseparable from that nature in the modality of pursuing some kind of adventurism. For no inherent limits could be set to Leviathan in its determination for gaining overall control in its envisaged political/military domain. The particular Leviathan state could resort in the past even to extreme adventurism until some more powerful Leviathan state prevailed over it. Destructive violence had to decide these matters in the end even in the confrontations of the most powerful Empires.

Today the situation is very different in the most relevant sense. To be sure, in view of the persistent social antagonisms of the capital system the traditional way of settling disputes by war cannot be given up. Leviathan, as historically constituted, knows no other way of solving problems. However, finding self-assurance in the “security” of Mutually Assured Destruction, as it is advocated by capital’s “strategic thinkers” in the political/military domain, is the conceivably most dangerous form of adventurism. But in contrast to the violent confrontations of the past, including even the two global wars of the twentieth century, in a future global war there can be no longer any victor in the end. There can be only the end itself.

Thus, in terms of all these problems that we must bear in mind, the great dilemma is that humanity either succeeds in the foreseeable future in creating the conditions under which societal reproduction becomes sustainable within the rationally planned and managed decision-making framework of our planetary household, or the endemic violence inseparable from the historically constituted Leviathan states is bound to destroy humanity.

The radical critique of the state in its Marxian spirit is necessary above all for this reason. It must be pursued in the interest of going irreversibly Beyond Leviathan.

Notes

  1. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Lawrence and Wishart, London, n.d.), 123.
  2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Penguin, 1985), 186. All further quotations from this work will be given from this most easily accessible edition.
  3. Hobbes, Leviathan, 187.
  4. Hobbes, Leviathan, 187–88.
  5. Hobbes, Leviathan, 215.
  6. Hobbes, Leviathan, 216.
  7. Naturally, blind reactionary state apologetic theories, characteristically dominant in the descending phase of the social metabolic order, rule themselves out in this context.
  8. Plato, The Laws (London: Penguin, 1970), 517.
  9. See Niccolò Machiavelli’s Prince and his Discourses on the subject.
  10. Plato, The Laws, 523.
  11. Many centuries later, in Fichte’s Ephorate, the ultimate decision-making “Ephors” of his Constitution-safeguarding institution are meant to fulfil a very similar task. Plato, The Laws, 530.
  12. Plato, The Laws, 524.
  13. Plato, The Republic, iv. 425-26 (Francis Cornford, ed., The Republic of Plato [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945], 117–18).
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