'Leviathan' & Libya

Published: Sunday | March 6, 2011 Comments 0
Ahmed, a two-year-old Egyptian boy, looks through the window of a bus as he and his family flee Libya. - AP
Ahmed, a two-year-old Egyptian boy, looks through the window of a bus as he and his family flee Libya. - AP

Martin Henry, Gleaner Writer

Thomas Hobbes would have just loved to be in Libya right now. But he has been dead for a while. Since 1679, in fact. Hobbes, in 1651, published Leviathan, one of the most important and influential books ever published in political philosophy.

Almost everybody at least vaguely knows about the central idea of Leviathan: The Social Contract by which people in a "state of nature" negotiate the establishment of the state and a government for the state.

The Libyan state and the government of Muammar Gaddafi are disintegrating under protests which have become essentially a civil war. And the anti-Gaddafi rebels are trying to establish an alternative government in the areas they control and then, ultimately, for the entire country if they manage to drive Gaddafi out. Libya is providing something of a laboratory for Hobbes' Leviathan.

And almost everybody also knows that famous Hobbesian conclusion that in the raw state of nature, human life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

This famous phrase is part of a longer passage which in Elizabethan English reads: In the state of nature there would be "no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and, consequently, no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Note the refugee exodus out of Libya where central authority has collapsed and war is swirling.

Continual war

Hobbes was very familiar with civil turmoil and war in 'civilised' England. He lived through the English civil wars of 1646-48 and 1648-51, which forced him into self-exile in France, the monarch being executed and a republic established led by Oliver Cromwell - the same Cromwell who made Jamaica an English colony by sending Admiral Penn and General Venables to capture territory in the West Indies.

The hypothetical state of nature, according to Hobbes, would be a state of continual war. "Hereby it is manifest 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."

To avoid this state of affairs, rational men establish political community or civil society through a 'social contract' in which each individual gains civil rights in return for subjecting himself to civil law or to political authority. This social contract has to have two basic components: first, people must agree to establish society by collectively and reciprocally renouncing the rights they had against one another in the state of nature. And second, they must authorise one person or assembly of persons with the authority and power to enforce the initial contract. Or, in other words, to ensure their escape from the state of nature, they must both agree to live together under common laws, and create an enforcement mechanism for the social contract and the laws that constitute it.

Hobbes was very much in favour of an absolute monarch as the enforcer, something which many modern people find objectionable. But some of the Libyan protesters/rebels are displaying the flag of the monarchy which Gaddafi overthrew in a bloodless coup as a 27-year-old army captain on September 1, 1969, while the ailing king was in Turkey for medical treatment.

Society becomes possible because, whereas in the state of nature there was no power able to "overawe them all", now there is an artificially and conventionally superior and more powerful person who can force men to cooperate. While living under the authority of a sovereign can be harsh (Hobbes argues that because men's passions can be expected to overwhelm their reason, the sovereign must have absolute authority in order for the contract to be successful), it is better than living in the state of nature.

Intolerable state of nature

For Hobbes, the necessity of an absolute authority, in the form of a sovereign, followed from the raw brutality of the state of nature. The state of nature was completely intolerable, and so rational men would be willing to submit themselves, even to absolute authority in order to escape it.

Hobbes anticipated objections to his state-of-nature proposition, and answered them: "It may seem strange to some man that has not well weighed these things that Nature should thus dissociate and render men apt to invade and destroy one another: and he may, therefore, not trusting to this inference, made from the passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience ... . [He should consider] what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions as I do by my words?"

"The passions that incline men to peace," Hobbes declared, "are: fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them."

Muammar Gaddafi probably sees himself as a benevolent monarch standing between Libya and Chaos. His long speeches certainly suggest that, although his deployment of lethal force against 'his people' says otherwise. In the early hours of February 21, his eldest son spoke on Libyan television of his fears that the country would fragment and be replaced by "15 Islamic fundamentalist emirates" if the uprising engulfed the entire state. He warned that the country's economic wealth and recent prosperity were at risk.

Young Gaddafi's fear is not entirely unreasonable. This is where Libya is coming from, a collection of emirates united by the only king, Idris I, an emir who was elected to be king by a National Congress. Idris, in 1951, the 300th anniversary of Leviathan, led Libya into indepen-dence from Anglo-French control as a United Nations trusteeship post-World War II, which had followed a longer period of Italian rule.

Ripe for revolution

The Kingdom of Libya was proclaimed a constitutional and a hereditary monarchy, an odd creation in a post-war world going in the opposite direction, with elected presidents and prime ministers.

At independence, there were no colleges in the country and just 16 college graduates. The country had just three lawyers, with not a single Libyan physician, engineer, surveyor or pharmacist in the kingdom. It was also estimated that only 250,000 Libyans were literate and that five per cent of the population was blind, with eye diseases such as trachoma widespread.

The country hit oil in 1959 but the new-found wealth became concentrated in a few hands. Conditions ripe for revolution.

Junior army officers, led by Captain Muammar Gaddafi, seized power on September 1, 1969. The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic. The motto of the RCC was 'Freedom, socialism and unity'. It pledged itself to remedy 'backwardness', and to encourage domestic policies based on social justice, non-exploitation, and an equitable distribution of wealth.

Under Gaddafi, per capita gross domestic product has reached US$13,800. Jamaica's is US$8,400. Libya has the highest human development index score among countries in Africa but a horrendously high unemployment rate in the region of 30 per cent.

Daddy Gaddafi's aptly Orwellian title is Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution ruling over the the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Jamahiriya is a phrase coined by Gaddafi in The Green Book (1975), which sets out his political philosophy, and means 'state of the masses', akin to 'people's republic', so common in the names of communist states.

The Green Book rejects modern liberal democracy and encourages the institution of a form of direct democracy based on popular committees. But in practice, Gaddafi rules as an autocrat.

Bad political structure

Remarkably, the new revolutionaries, falling back on what they know best but hope to improve, have set up a provisional political structure, the National Transitional Council, based on committees with 'appointed' delegates with nobody clearly and firmly in charge. It won't work; it won't last. Either the weaknesses of rebel political organisation will allow pro-Gaddafi forces to reassert control of the country, or a 'king' of sorts will emerge to take charge of rebel politics. Thomas Hobbes is more pragmatically correct about human nature than the Libyan rebels are.

But, in the meantime, rational people aware of the importance of social order backed by an enforceable legal code are organising, in some fashion, state activities from directing traffic and collecting garbage to continuing social services like health and education, and organising military defence against the attacks of pro-Gaddafi forces.

And a large number of Libyans are supporting - and defending - the order and stability which the Gaddafi regime provided despite its abuses and excesses.

Brotherly Leader and Guide of the (old) Revolution Muammar Gaddafi has his Green Book of political philosophy. The new revolutionaries will need one of their own of whatever colour. They will quickly have to form, and act upon, opinions either by conscious reflection or by default, on the Hobbesian concerns about human nature, the state, law, and government. And as I said for Egypt, Libya, out of its history and culture, has poor soil for Western-style liberal democracy, suffering from its own excesses, but now widely viewed as the unquestioned reference point for good governance, a view which Thomas Hobbes decidedly would not share.

Martin Henry is a communication consultant. Talk back at columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.

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