Hobbesian Possessive Individualism, Libertarianism, and the Racist Mobs.

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Thom Hartmann mentioned on his program, The Big Picture (27 minutes), staffers of Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (specifically Chief of Staff Greg Casey and Constituent Service Counsel Jack Richard, and GOP operative Brad Garrett) mocking opponent Elizabeth Warren's American Indian heritage by chanting war whoops at a campaign event. Most persons will dismiss such behavior to a small coterie of Republican volunteers desperate to win an election. But such racist behavior has significance far beyond unethical campaigning strategies because this display of unapologetic racism highlights yet another societal trend symptomatic of totalitarianism in American society.

Political theorist and former student of Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and then France in 1940. Arendt was imprisoned in the internment Camp Gurs, but was able to escape after a few weeks. In 1951 Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism in an effort to understand the economic, and socio-political origins leading up to the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. The parallels between pre-World War II European national trends, and the United States today are absolutely stunning. Because of progress in modern technology Americans tend to think of the United States as having immunity from the political problems experienced by old Europe. Many of the trends in European nations during the late 1800s and early 1900s are eerily similar to today’s current events.

European nations in the period from 1884 to 1914 experienced economic problems of overproduction of capital, existence of superfluous money that could not be productively invested domestically, intense racist imperialism, financiers seeking only commission-earnings who were not interested in domestic production, epidemic of financial speculation with investors’ savings, private business class leaders entering into national politics, frequent massive financial scandals, idolatry of success, and public admiration of criminals. These historical trends did not appear by chance, but were the logical outcomes of particular economic circumstances, political ideologies, and social dislocation of “superfluous” men.

The business classes of Europe, especially Britain, faced the economic problem of saturated domestic markets in which there was an over accumulation of profit as savings that could not be invested as capital. This accumulation of savings is called “superfluous” wealth since there is an over abundance of idle capital so that profitable investment in traditional production and consumption within national home borders was not possible. Capitalists instead sought investments within foreign countries that amounted to gambling in risky financial speculation to earn commission fees instead of profits from the capitalist production cycle. This kind of unproductive financial gambling caused a wave of stock market scandals and bankruptcies.

The desperate elite business class realized that capitalism had to constantly grow or profits would stagnate if they only remained in their home markets so the business man turned to politics to escape this economic situation by leading home governments to adopt a national economic foreign policy of expansion into other developed, or underdeveloped markets. The businessman who was traditionally absent from national European politics, in a new trend, appears as Statesman whose foreign policy is imperialist expansion for capital accumulation. The scope of this turn of the century imperialism was literally endless planetary exploitation. Arendt quotes South African businessman Cecil Rhodes, “these stars...these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could.” (Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harvest Book, Hb244, Kindle Loc. 3056.).

The capitalist figured out a way to bypass the productive cycle and use money instead to accumulate money directly by first accumulating political power, especially violent police and military power, to appropriate wealth. This new capitalist imperialist philosophy of unlimited power for appropriating unlimited capital has it roots in a revival of Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679) philosophy of the self interested economic man described in his book, Leviathan. Hobbes’ philosophical anthropology has a familiar ring with today’s flavor of Libertarian philosophy represented by Ayn Rand. The Leviathan’s theory of state is linked to a belief in the intrinsic competitive nature of human beings. For Hobbes the natural condition of men is “war of all against all” for without the nation-state each person has a right to everything, but a world with such self-interested human beings seeking advantage would be chaotic in which commerce is impossible since no one would secure against violence from another. In order to avoid this natural state of war for advantage the self-interested rational human being accepts a social contract by which all persons give up some freedom for state protection from another.

In Hobbes’ Leviathan the state is not founded on universalistic morality, nor on political human rights, but on non-traditionalist human economic self-interest. Norms are not completely arbitrary because there are some unchanging laws of nature on which norms can be based. In this case normative laws are derived from the biological competitive nature of human self interest according to Hobbes. This view is called "biological naturalism" by Popper. Man is only an accumulating machine seeking power over others. Arendt writes of this Hobbesian accumulator,

“A being without reason, without the capacity for truth, and without free will—that is, without the capacity for responsibility—man is essentially a function of society and judged therefore according to his "value or worth ... his price; that is to say so much as would be given for the use of his power." This price is constantly evaluated and re-evaluated by society, the "esteem of others," depending upon the law of supply and demand. Power, according to Hobbes, is the accumulated control that permits the individual to fix prices and regulate supply and demand in such a way that they contribute to his own advantage. (Ibid., Kindle Loc. 3330-3343.).

The nation-state function is to protect the process of capital accumulation and only requires individuals to pay absolute obedience to law and unquestionably conform to society. Ethical positivism holds that there are no norms other than those actually posited by law: all other standards for norm are illusory—what exists is good by virtue of its existence. Ethical positivism is consistent with the proposition, “Might is Right.” For Hobbes normative laws are created by man-made human decisions of alterable social convention, as opposed to the unalterable regularities in nature. Karl Popper calls this understanding of the distinction between natural facts and norms of social convention, “critical conventionalism.” In contrast, “naive conventionalism” is characteristic of ancient societies in which natural and normative regularities (or laws) are both seen as unalterable decisions made by a deity. (Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1962, pp.66-67.).

Arendt wrote of the Hobbesian cycle of accumulation of capital and power: “The limitless process of capital accumulation needs the political structure of so "unlimited a Power" that it can protect growing property by constantly growing more powerful. (The Origins of Totalitarianism, Kindle Loc. 3412-3417). The Hobbesian economic man is intrinsically anti-social who forms the basis of an inherently unstable community that is only designed to assist in exploiting other members and accumulating power over others for there is nothing else to connect private individuals in society except competition and human convention. He has no ethical responsibility for his beaten competitor- the poor. Both the unfortunate poor and the shameful criminal are indistinguishable and expelled from society as undesirable.

According to Arendt, the philosopher Hobbes by “reckoning of the consequences” foresaw a nation-state that results from the driving force of human beings’ desire to accumulate property and dominate others. By “enlightened self-interest” the mechanistic accumulator voluntarily forms a state to protect his private property in a never-ending life process of accumulating wealth that overshadows just mere consumption. The property owning class is the accumulating class. Hobbes’ prediction came true three hundred years later as European countries embarked on imperialist ventures all over the world with the rise of business leaders turned statesmen.

The business class elite was able to change nation-states into world imperialist capital accumulators by allying themselves with the “superfluous” permanently unemployed men that the surplus of capital created. The army of the unemployed was a cynical mob that later appeared in Germany’s Nazi movement, and Austria. In France the anti-Semitic mob was useful in waging an effective propaganda war of false charges of German espionage against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer of the French General Staff in 1894. Anyone defending Dreyfus’ innocence was attacked in the media, and even physically beaten up on the streets. The mob’s radical involvement led to Dreyfus’ imprisonment on Devil’s Island in spite of his innocence. Counter intuitively the elite business class was able to co-opt political support of the dispossessed mass of people ready to use extra-parliamentary violent actions against opponents by manipulating the mob’s anti-Semitism and other prejudices.

The rise of the mob out of the capitalist organization was observed early, and its growth carefully and anxiously noted by all great historians of the nineteenth century. Historical pessimism from Burckhardt to Spengler springs essentially from this consideration. But what the historians, sadly preoccupied with the phenomenon in itself, failed to grasp was that the mob could not be identified with the growing industrial working class, and certainly not with the people as a whole, but that it was composed actually of the refuse of all classes. This composition made it seem that the mob and its representatives had abolished class differences, that those standing outside the class-divided nation were the people itself (the Volksgemeinschaft, as the Nazis would call it) rather than its distortion and caricature. The historical pessimists understood the essential irresponsibility of this new social stratum, and they also correctly foresaw the possibility of converting democracy into a despotism whose tyrants would rise from the mob and lean on it for support. What they failed to understand was that the mob is not only the refuse but also the by-product of bourgeois society, directly produced by it and therefore never quite separable from it. They failed for this reason to notice high society's constantly growing admiration for the underworld, which runs like a red thread through the nineteenth century, its continuous step-by-step retreat on all questions of morality, and its growing taste for the anarchical cynicism of its offspring. (Ibid., Kindle Loc: 3653-3657).

The alliance of capital and the mob embraced Hobbes' philosophy of power. Nation-states were tribes with no other connection than competition and accumulation of property. There is no commonality of humankind or universal human rights, or humanitarian ethics: only race was left to unify the nations (ἔθνος , ethnos, Greek: nation, or people) in a war against all in a contest for accumulating power.

If it should prove to be true that we are imprisoned in Hobbes's endless process of power accumulation, then the organization of the mob will inevitably take the form of transformation of nations into races, for there is, under the conditions of an accumulating society, no other unifying bond available between individuals who in the very process of power accumulation and expansion are losing all natural connections with their fellow-men.

Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into "white men," as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death. (Ibid., Kindle Loc: 3703-)

These are the trends we are witnessing today in America. Hobbesian power philosophy has been adapted to popular Libertarian sects in America. Libertarianism and NeoLiberalism embrace this anthropological view of the self-interested human as a capital-accumulating machine. Libertarian anti-society doesn’t exist on any other foundation than self-interested advantage, possessive individualism, competition, individualist economic contractualism, and ethical egoism if not crude materialistic nihilism. Libertarians give lip service to limiting power of the state in their anti-taxation screed, but actually view the role of the state as protector of monopoly capital providing massive subsidies to Wall Street financial institutions, and the Military-Congressional Industrial Complex.

Financial imperialism seeks unlimited returns in Global capital accumulation using computerized market manipulation along with brute military force when required. Wall Street and corporate boardrooms are cesspools of corruption causing millions of people to lose their lifelong savings and investments. Police paramilitary units are the bankers’ repo men that beat up citizens of foreclosed homes, even burning down structures if they resist eviction. Corporate criminals are admired and awarded with massive bonuses for committing financial fraud and tax evasion. Citizens are victimized using debt-loading schemes with devastating usurious loans for education, housing, and for those that avoid these debt traps, medical costs that no one can escape. Monetary policy is used to strip citizens of savings with false economic statistics, and interest rate manipulation. The elite business class use its trillions of dollars of unpaid taxes to manipulate the political process by subsidizing staged political populist groups acting as political reactionaries in election fraud, voter suppression, right-wing race baiting, dirty political tricks, disinformation campaigns, propaganda, and political surveillance. Billionaire capitalists enter the political stage to steer national policies to narrow private corporate interests. Police and private security forces are handsomely paid to rough up and harass citizens involved in the political process. Corporations and business billionaires openly bribe politicians without fear. These descriptions profiling the current American socio-political environment are historically symptomatic of a totalitarian state.

Antifascist's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm


Libertarians talk as if the social contract of government is an unnecessary institution of society, that individuals are perfectly self sufficient and only need to be left alone to truck and barter in a mythical self regulating free market. They have forgotten the original problems of social interdependence and the need for a social contract to protect the freedom of the weak from the unjust tyranny of the strong. Unlimited freedom in the market place destroys itself by giving the strong the freedom to rob the weak. This means unrestrained capitalism must be subjected to economic interventionism.

The origin of society is a convention, a social contract. But it is not only that; it is, rather, a natural convention, i.e. a convention which is based upon human nature, and more precisely, upon the social nature of man.

This social nature of man has its origin, in the imperfection of the human individual. In opposition to Socrates, Plato teaches that the human individual cannot be self-sufficient, owing to the limitations inherent in human nature. Although Plato insists that there are very different degrees of human perfection, it turns out that even the very few comparatively perfect men still depend upon others (who are less perfect); if for nothing else, then for having the dirty work, the manual work, done by them...

Society and the individual are thus interdependent. The one owes its existence to the other. Society owes its existence to human nature, and especially to its lack of self-sufficiency; and the individual owes his existence to society, since he is not self-sufficient. But within this relationship of interdependence, the superiority of the state over the individual manifests itself in various ways; for instance, in the fact that the seed of the decay and disunion of a perfect state does not spring up in the state itself, but rather in its individuals; it is rooted in the imperfection of the human soul, of human nature; or more precisely, in the fact that the race of men is liable to degenerate...

...In the Republic we find elements of the conventionalist contract theory in a similar way combined with elements of naturalism (and utilitarianism). ‘The city originates’, we hear there, ‘because we are not self-sufficient;.. or is there another origin of settlement in cities?.. Men gather into one settlement many .. helpers, since they need many things ... And when they share their goods with one another, the one giving, the other partaking, does not every one expect in this way to further his own interest?’ Thus the inhabitants gather in order that each may further his own interest; which is an element of the contract theory. But behind this stands the fact that they are not self-sufficient, a fact of human nature; which is an element of naturalism. Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1962, pp. 82-83.

Antifascist's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

Thank you sir, for stepping on the Hobbes capitalism uber democracy as realism stuff. I am with Paine.

Apr. 26, 2012 12:15 pm
Thank you sir, for stepping on the Hobbes capitalism uber democracy as realism stuff. I am with Paine.

Hobbes was perhaps the first writer to explain the importance of a "social contract."

stuff's picture
Nov. 24, 2012 4:59 pm

Add another right-on to drc2 post. Anti-fascist, i would put you above Hobbes, you have added historical knowledge. I would add, the primary factor for human progress is "morality". What`s the better good for all(we know at present) is a "force" that humanity cannot ignore. If they do,it`s at their peril.

tayl44's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

I found a very interesting article on altruism that contradicts the Ayn Randian, Hobbesian possessive individualism that libertarianism presents as the foundation of human nature. Ethics during the 17th and 18th century was called "Moral Sense Theory" and describes the views of 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), David Hume (1711–1776), and Adam Smith (1723–1790). For British economist, Adam Smith, sympathy by one human for another was the foundation of moral philosophy.

One salient feature of Adam Smith’s moral theory is the central place accorded to sympathy. To attribute ethical importance to sympathy was not, indeed, a novel position in British moral philosophy. Hutcheson had attributed importance to it, and Hume, as we have seen, made great use of the concept of sympathy. But Smith’s use of it is more obvious in that he begins his Theory of Moral Sentiments with this idea and thus gives his ethics from the very start a social character. ‘That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it’ The sentiment of sympathy is not confined to the virtuous and the humane; it is found in all men to some degree.

Smith explains sympathy in terms of the imagination. ‘As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the man in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.’ When we sympathize with someone’s great pain, by the imagination we place ourselves in his situation….’ Thus sympathy, which means or can be used to mean ‘our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever’, arises not so much from a view of the passion ‘as from that of the situation which excites it’…Moral approbation and disapprobation, therefore can ultimately be referred to the operation of sympathy. (Fredrick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy, Berkeley to Hume, Vol. 5, Part II, Doubleday Image, 1964, page 159-160.)

This is not the amoral Adam Smith of the Libertarians, or of the antisocial, anti-altruistic Randians. Our sympathy (from the Greek words syn "together" and pathos "feeling" which means "fellow-feeling") for other human beings is foundation of all ethics. Is the lack of sympathy for others the antecedent to nihilism? Could this explain the cruelty in world today? Could an ideology that systematically inculcates apathy toward others create an amoral society?

Can Empathy for Birds Make Us Happier? Ten Breakthroughs in the Science of a Meaningful Life. Last year, scientists found that gratitude makes us financially smarter, mindfulness reduces racism, and compassion for birds could help tackle climate change.

Antifascist's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

There's a 1 in 20 Chance of the Apocalypse. Shouldn't We Act Now?

A new study published in Science argues that we as a civilization need to move "rapidly" -- as in almost immediately -- towards a carbon emissions free future if we are to have any chance of holding off runaway global warming:

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