Top Image The Road Warrior, bottom image people in the US putting gasoline in plastic bags
I am going to assume that most readers of a blog like this are familiar with Hobbes' description of the state of nature as "nasty, brutish, and short." His assertion that without an overwhelming authority human beings will engage in a life of perpetual strife and war, killing each other for whatever their desire. Hobbes gives what could be considered three proofs for this state of nature, the first is the new world, or at least an armchair speculative colonial imagination of it, the second is the behavior of kings and states towards each other, but the third, which actually appears first, is the presence of this state of nature in civilized state breaking through, like weeds through concrete. As Hobbes writes,
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. Let him therefore consider with himself, when taking a journey, he arms himself, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be Laws, and public Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall bee done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his door; 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? But neither of us accuse mans nature in it. The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin. No more are the Actions, that proceed from those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them; which till Laws be made they cannot know: nor can any Law be made, till they have agreed upon the Person that shall make it.
It seems to me that this is the argument that forms the basis for the pop-Hobbesianism that has filtered down to us through films, comic books, and television. Not a state of nature at the beginning of society, but the constant threat of a descent back into the state of nature. This was probably Hobbes real concern, he was more worried about the collapse of society than its origins (or "the new world" for that matter, that was Locke's concern).
If one wanted to look for signs of this slip back into the state of nature beyond the world of zombie apocalypses there seems to be no shortage in the last year or so. From the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 to the gas hoarding of last month there are multiple instances where society seems to collapse into a war of all against all. Social collapse seems to be imminent, and gun sales seems to prove it.
It is on this point, however, that a symptomatic reading of Hobbes might be called for, seeing to what extent what is presented here as a cause, anti-social activity, might be effect. This seems to me the best critical response to Hobbes, not simply to dismiss him as too cynical in his descriptions, or authoritarian in his prescriptions, but to see him as taking effects for causes.
But then what it is an effect of? What produces this anti-social tendency if not mankind's anti-social nature? Well, returning to the recent incident of gasoline hoarding, it is possible to ask how many people who were stockpiling gasoline were worried about how they would get to work, that week how they would keep their job if they missed another day, how they would feed their family without their job, and so on. What seems irrational, self-destructive, and even dangerous is itself the product of a society that limits any other response. Hoarding of resources is nothing other than the implicit status of individuals in capitalism made explicit. The dangerous anti-social behavior is a product of the anti-social nature of contemporary society.
To take another example of anti-social activity. A large number of Americans are refusing to get vaccinated, refusing to protect themselves and others. In some sense this is the point where anti-social borders on self-destructive. However, a recent survey suggest that a third of those unvaccinated are concerned about the cost of the vaccine. Of course the vaccine is free, but people have a hard time understanding or believing that. As one person surveyed puts it,
“This is America — your health care is not free,” said Elizabeth Drummond, a 42-year-old mother in Oregon who is unvaccinated. “I just feel like that is how the vaccination process is going to go. They’re going to try to capitalize on it.”
I think that this survey offers a necessary corrective to all of the moralizing around health as a public good. You cannot treat health as a private good in practice, squeezing every possible dollar out of it, only to insist that people consider it to be a public good. Or, more to the point, you cannot destroy society through ruthless privatization and then be surprised when people act like it does not exist.
Thus, it becomes necessary to stand Hobbes on his head. To see in anti-social behavior not the encroaching effects of the state of nature, poking through society, but the effects of what could be called, reversing Kant's terms, social asociability. The latter refers to the way in which isolation, competition, and fragmentation are products of capitalist social relations. Hobbes may be descriptively true, may offer us the best picture of contemporary society, where even toilet paper is a war of all against all, but such a description should not be confused with insight into the actual causes of such a state. If Hobbes is, as Negri writes, "the Marx of the bourgeoisie" (a passage I never tire of quoting), this because of his refusal to historicize what he presents as a remnant of nature.