How Google & Facebook May Have Taught Us About Hobbes

November 4, 2011

Political Theory


In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, Hobbes spends a great deal of time discussing the social contract and its roots. To distill it

Thomas Hobbes

down, Hobbes argues that when humans are left alone, they are in a state of war. Hobbes defines this state of war as, “that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.”[1] Hobbes then goes on to explain that in a time of war, every man is set against every man, resulting in a continual fear of a violent death.[2]

Hobbes uses his theory of the state of nature as the basis for his argument that the social contract is a byproduct of life being “nasty, brutish and short.”  As I was reading how Hobbes defined this social contract, a particular section struck me:

Lastly, the agreement of these creatures is natural; that of men, is by covenant only, which is artificial: and therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required (besides covenant) to make their agreement constant and lasting; which is a common power, to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit.[3]

He then goes on to clarify:

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: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own, and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person, shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgments, to his judgment.[4]

As I sat here and thought about what all of this meant, I was instantly drawn to the Arab Spring. Just one year ago, Egypt was run by a tyrannical monarch, Hosni Mubarak. For 30 years, this ironfisted commander ruled Egypt with the kind of force that revives memories of SS officers. Yet, on February 11, 2011, all of that changed.

Wael Ghonim

Last year, a Google employee, Wael Ghonim started a Facebook page titled, “We Are All Khaled Said” in memory of the Egyptian citizen who had been tortured to death by the police. What may have started as an inconspicuous Facebook page soon became an international movement. Young intellectuals in Egypt viewed Khaled Said as a paradigm of everything wrong with the then-current regime. Young people were severely underemployed. The elites lived a lavish lifestyle while the majority of Egyptians were left scrapping for pieces. In sum, Egypt was a great place to be if you were one of the few rich and powerful, but not if you were a normal person.

So, what does all of this have to say about Hobbes’ theories? I’d say a lot. The key portion above that relates most directly to the Arab Spring, and specifically Egypt, is the part about power and decision-making processes of a community being held in a single person. I believe that the Egyptian Revolution, and by extension, the Arab Spring is a

Khalid Said and Hosni Mubarak

repudiation of the clause within Hobbes’ argument that the common power can be conferred onto one man. Sure, power can be conferred onto one assembly of men, just take a look at the American democracy. But, to confer an entire society’s decision-making abilities onto one man alone, is a categorically different animal.  Intrinsic in the idea of an assembly of men is that if one of the men acts, not in accordance to the supreme will of the majority, but rather his individual will, that there are other men to check his power. In the case of a single man being conferred all of the power of the state, there is no such check on his power. Thus, the Arab Spring postulates that a more accurate theory would remove the clause that allows all power to be conferred onto one person.

While the Arab Spring may not answer any of the questions naturally posed by Thomas Hobbes’ social contract theory, it nonetheless provides a lens through which we can discern a great deal about Hobbes’ theory. Believe it or not, what has been occurring thousands of miles away, in a land that is foreign to many of us, has helped refine a 400-year old social contract theory.


[1] Leviathan, para. 8/14 pg 112, Date Accessed: October 3, 2011

[2] Leviathan, Para. 9/14 p. 113 mp. 186, Date Accessed: October 3, 2011

[3] Leviathan, Para. 12/15 p. 157 mp. 226, Date Accessed: October 3, 2011

[4] Leviathan, Para. 13/15 p. 157 mp. 227, Date Accessed: October 3, 2011

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  1. Hobbes, Thomas « Earthpages.ca - December 8, 2011

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