“And in case a subject be forbidden by the civil sovereign to profess some of those his opinions, upon what just ground can he disobey? Christian kings may err in deducing a consequence, but who shall judge?”Thomas Hobbes
Neoleviathan. It’s bitter as I turn it over in my mouth. My tongue bounces around like a ricocheting bullet. The last syllable leaves my lips set back in the beginnings of a grimace. For Hobbes, the sovereign was the only possible guarantor of security and prosperity,1“[W]here there is no coercive power erected, that is, where there is no commonwealth, there is no propriety; all men having right to all things: therefore where there is no commonwealth, there nothing is unjust.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. by Crawford Brough Macpherson, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books Limited, 1985), p. 202. but the Neoleviathan is power under infinite siege, and so it guarantees nothing, not even the illusion of stability and order. It is the state in crisis, with all unnecessary functions disposed of, refusing to deny itself any technology or immorality it needs. But before we discuss its descendent, we should first discuss the Leviathan itself.
The frontispiece of Leviathan. At the head of the Sovereign there are the words of Job 41.33 from the Vulgate Bible: “Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei.”—Nothing on earth is its equal. This is how God describes the Leviathan, a sea monster with a double coat of armour, whose scales are rows of shields so tightly knit that not even air can pass between them. With one breath it incinerates armies, it smashes iron and bronze with ease, no spear or sword can so much as tickle it, and it makes a mockery of every prideful boast of kings who presume to call themselves mighty. “No one is fierce enough to rouse it,” says the Lord. “Who then is able to stand against me?”2New International Version, Job 41.10
When Job demands that God account for the suffering put upon him, a pious man who had done no wrong but had now been reduced to nothing, he is chastised by his friends, who insist that Job must have sinned to have suffered so. But when God confronts Job, it is not with an explanation, he is not told that he is being punished or scolded for wrongdoing—instead God merely reminds Job that there can be no mediation between the sovereign and the subject, that the mighty need not explain themselves to the weak, that understanding is not owed to the wretched, that right is something the powerful arrogate to themselves, and which is unlimited across their whole domain. And God’s domain is infinite: “Everything under heaven belongs to me.”3Job 41.11 Therefore infinite suffering can be distributed without rebuke. When Job recoils in shame at this—“I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”4Job 42.6—God turns to Job’s friends and demands they make a sacrifice to Him to atone for lying about His nature. “You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”5Job 42.8 For it was Job who disregarded the words of the consolatores onerosi6“Miserable comforters”—his three friends who insisted that God, who is good and just, would not punish Job without good reason, nor abandon him indefinitely, as long as he repent of his sin. Job 16.2 as empty, long-winded speeches. It was Job who would not accept that God’s behaviour towards him was “rational” by human standards, that there was no necessary connection between suffering and sin, between glory and piety. And this is indeed so. It is the story of the Leviathan that impresses upon Job the weakness of his position, so that he finally accepts that it is his duty to obey without question. At this point, he is rewarded with wealth, longevity, and progeny, as arbitrarily as he was afflicted with disease and a massacred family.
You can see why Hobbes would invoke the Book of Job for the frontispiece of his treatise on omnipotent government. The relationship of the powerful to the powerless is exquisitely presented here, sacralised in the discourse between God and Job. Divinity itself sanctions the use of unlimited power. And while no sovereign should seek to pretend to the power of God, for the sovereign is not immortal, it can certainly claim a parallel with Leviathan, being a composite and almost invincible body. The lesson learned by Job in his dealings with God is the same as the lesson learned by subjects in their dealings with the sovereign, which comes into being when every person contracts with one another to surrender their respective rights to self-governance to the head of a commonwealth: “This is the generation of that great leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”7Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 227.
At a glance, then, Leviathan’s frontispiece may appear a scary but morbidly comforting provincial scene. Over the city looms the sovereign, crosier and sword in hand, representing the union of military power and moral-ecclesiastical authority. But when one notices the city, empty save for soldiers, the guarded harbour, and the ships approaching from the sea, one realises—the monstrous body of the sovereign is not there to protect the city. It is emerging from the sea to invade it.8Magnus Kristiansson and Johan Tralau, ‘Hobbes’s Hidden Monster: A New Interpretation of the Frontispiece of Leviathan’, European Journal of Political Theory, 13.3 (2014), 299–320 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1474885113491954>. The spikes just under the right arm are the scales or spikes of a homines marini, a man of the sea, with the lower body of a serpent or dragon, its body composed of so many mortal citizens tightly packed together like impenetrable scales—Leviathan. As this monster looms over the landscape, the crosier bisecting the sky, the great sword raised to the sun, and that gigantic, impassive face between them, one can imagine the horror of the citizens locked away in their homes. The sun is eclipsed. “Fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake.”9Job 42.8 This image, with the violence it promises, brings us into contact with the fear Job felt as God spoke to him out of the storm. And it reminds us that de facto sovereignty is always a question of power first, security second, and comfort dead last.
In Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), Immanuel Kant presents a series of articles which, if enacted by all states, should ensure an asymptotic movement towards everlasting stability and safety from war. The first article, that no peace settlement may contain provisions for a future war based on post-hoc information, emphasises that “peace signifies an end to all hostilities . . .”10Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, ed. by Pauline Kleingeld, trans. by David L Colclasure, Rethinking (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 68 <https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.12987/9780300128109>. Indeed, Kant even considers the adjective “perpetual” to be a suspicious pleonasm—does one not protest too much? ‘I assure you, this peace is quite perpetual,’ sounds like something you hear shortly before you’re taken out back and shot. Still, Kant’s understanding of peace as necessarily being extended in time concurs with Hobbes’ own temporal understanding of war, which consists, to him, “not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.”11Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 186. To keep reasons for war in reserve is undignified, and arises from the false belief that honour derives from conquest and territorial capture rather than from the wellbeing of the citizenry. So says Kant.
In this condemnation of the excesses of sovereignty, Kant unmistakably echoes Job—but in his invocation of rational humanity, he echoes the consolatores onerosi. For it is from the standpoint of rational humanism that Kant is able to condemn the use of civil subjects as possessions and objects of the state to be used at will by the sovereign as abominable to reason.12“To annex a state, which, like a tree trunk, has its own roots, and thus to treat it as a graft onto another state, is to annul its existence as a moral person and to treat this moral person as a mere thing.” Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, p. 69; See also: Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. & trans. by Allen W Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 56. Sovereignty can be bargained with, or made to answer for itself, if and only if there is something to which it should be made accountable, and, more importantly, if the subjects of civil authority can set themselves up as actors by authority of a greater power. In the Hobbesean system, this is impossible. The sovereign is accountable to nobody and recognises no higher power, standing outside the law and determining what is just and unjust within the realm per se. And because the subject is the author13For Hobbes, an Actor represents an Author, who owns the words and actions of the former; the Actor acts by authority of the latter. When an act is performed by authority, this means it is done by commission or license of the author. The relationship of the subject to the sovereign is of an author to an actor. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 218. of every sovereign act, as the sovereign is no more than the subject’s power externalised and outsourced to the sovereign by contract, there is no room for complaint in any case, no matter how much iniquity the sovereign inflicts.14Because the sovereign, by definition, protects the commonwealth and is authorised to do so by the subject, there can be no question of injury by the sovereign—that is, it is impossible for a subject to injure themselves, says Hobbes. We can speak only of mere iniquity, not injustice, since justice can exist only within a commonwealth, which exists only through the power of the sovereign. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 232.
Kant, however, claims that by the light of natural reason any rational being can arrogate the right to accuse the sovereign, at least in principle, as reason is a legislative potency residing within all rational beings. This is no less than a revolt against Leviathan and a claim to be able to pierce its scales. For if it is possible to assume for oneself, as Kant does, the right to legislate according to natural reason, that is, the right to judge on behalf of the divine power, then no justification can be made by the sovereign to an omnipotence which neglects the proper use of reason. This is a direct attack on the Jobean divinity. And it is no mistake that in Behemoth, Hobbes’ account of the English Civil War, Hobbes begins by putting the blame squarely on the ecclesiastical sectors for their major role in corrupting the social body.15Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth Or The Long Parliament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 4–6. Specifically, they claimed to have the right to govern directly from God, to be actors by divine authority which, they claim, supersedes all base civil authority—and alignment with the latter against the former is a sin punishable by eternal damnation. Kant does not, of course, promise hellfire to the despotic sovereign, but he nonetheless claimed the same right to be able to criticise in ordine ad spiritualia—“In accordance with the spirit.”
Hobbes, being dead, was unable to answer Kant directly, but Hegel was able to well enough. On Kant’s plan for the implementation of a rational Völkerrecht (international law), Hegel simply retorts with common-sense: “This universal determination of international law therefore does not go beyond an ought-to-be, and what really happens is that relations in accordance with treaties alternate with the suspension of these relations.”16Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, ed. by Stephen Houlgate, trans. by T M Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 312–13. In other words, states remain in the state of nature in relation to each other, as the first principle of the possibility of relations between states at all is that they retain their sovereignty. The choice to restrict said sovereignty in the name of a peaceful international order is thus always subject to cancellation. You can, by all means, make the first article of your peace treaty be that the treaty cannot be cancelled, but the moment the treaty is cancelled, that article no longer applies. Particular sovereign wills infect the Völkerrecht with contingency, and disharmony can only ever be settled, in the final case, by war.
So much for the international order. What about the intranational relationship between the state and the so-called rational subject?
Enter Carl Schmitt, “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich.”17Stephen F Schneck, ‘Waldemar Gurian: Rediscovered’, ed. by Ellen Thümmler, The Review of Politics, 74.4 (2020), 685–89 (p. 687) <http://www.jstor.org/stable/23355691>. As the self-styled 20th century successor to Hobbes and bitter enemy of rationalism in jurisprudence, not to mention the infamous enabler of the Nazi party’s rise to dictatorial power, it is hard to imagine a theorist better positioned to answer Kant.
For Schmitt, relativism is a brute fact. There is, essentially, no court of reason for the Kantian usurper to represent. Liberalism instantiates itself through an appeal to rationality and a defence of the right of every rational person to determine individually what they think is best. It then institutionalises this rationality in the state and produces the liberal-democratic order, while simultaneously disavowing its own ideological basis. But by denying the fundamental metaphysical basis of its claim to sovereignty, liberalism produces a political order incapable of defending itself. For what is enshrined in a democracy is the right for every private interest group to organise and attempt to capture the state apparatus. If the ruling party is liberal, it continues to perpetuate rule by water cooler. But if it is illiberal, it exercises the extant dictatorial power of the state to smash the liberal elements and revive the true nature of the political: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”18Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political: Expanded Edition, trans. by George Schwab, Enlarged (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 26. The liberal declines to identify the enemy, opting instead to view them as an economic competitor and an intellectual adversary.
The liberal is a good Kantian: they hope to see sound reasoning replace uncivilised violence, suspending forever the enmity implicit in the political and transforming it instead into a productive and healthy dialogue between rational subjects. In practice, however, we see that democracy actually paves the way for state capture by demagogues, and for the manipulation of the liberal subject by propaganda. It inevitably produces political disorder and civil war, because it is a fundamentally delusional political system. Kantian morality is an elaborate articulation of the idea that ‘if everyone just thought like me, everything would be fine,’ in that it seeks to justify the concept that, properly applied, reason leads to singularly inevitable conclusions. In other words, at the limit, every reasonable person thinks like Kant. Kantian jurisprudence is nothing more and nothing less than political solipsism. And by the time Kantianism has made its way from 18th century Königsberg to infest the inside of your skull, you are left convinced that if everyone just thought like you, everything would be fine. The homo-homini-homo eschatology19“A man is a man to a man.” Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, trans. by Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Wiley, 2008), p. 54. of the progressive society is necessarily hopeful—it hopes for the day that everyone comes together in agreement, as enlightened subjects, perfectly rational, bound together in perpetual peace. But the truth of the Book of Job is that this is, quite simply, not the nature of political authority, not the nature of power, and that to attempt to make it so is not only an incredible hubris based on a lie, but, to Hobbes, and to his successor Schmitt, the basis for an unravelling of the very possibility of societal peace.
Still, what would a Nazi like Carl Schmitt know about peace? On one hand, Schmitt viewed the Hobbesian solution as the only possible bulwark against social chaos. But he denied the rational basis for absolute sovereignty that Hobbes employed. In fact, he viewed Hobbes’ decision to allow the subject’s individuality to enter his system at all as a dire mistake, one that would lead inevitably to the bourgeois liberal-democratic state, that is, to institutionalised unseriousness about politics, engendering social chaos.20David Dyzenhaus, ‘“Now the Machine Runs Itself”: Carl Schmiit on Hobbes and Kelsen’, Cardozo Law Review, 16 (1994), p. 2. What is required is not rational justification at any level. Political authority is established through a leap of faith. Essentially, the right to legislate comes through the right to legislate, which is nothing more than power’s autopoiesis. This existentialist component of Schmitt’s thought emerges also in his abhorrence of the depoliticised world. A value-free world is one without existential meaning. The ability to die for something is, to Schmitt, what makes somebody fundamentally human, what makes morality possible at all. And this question of morality is what brings us, at long last, to the Neoleviathan’s ultimate negation of all of the above.
What is present in all of the theorists discussed so far is a certain reverence for the notion of meaning. For Hobbes, culture, meaning, justice, and progress are only possible through the authority of the Leviathan. For Kant, the moral law within—that is, reason—provides the basis for social life. Hegel gives a central place to recognition, and Schmitt hides a romantic existentialism behind his cold veneer. But leviathanisation unleashes Darwinism across the social body—natural selection is valueless and non-agental, it has no telos, no end, no purpose. And one should never forget that it is only by a manner of speaking that one says the heart pumps to circulate blood around the body, or that the sun fuses hydrogen into helium to warm the surface of the Earth. In reality, purposes have no place in nature at all. They are a fiction we add to processes which occur without conscious direction. The Neoleviathan may claim to have some greater purpose, but its only purpose is self-preservation, and it wastes no resources which could otherwise be put to that singular use. Where the Hobbesian Leviathan produces the conditions for civilised life, the Neoleviathan takes civilised life hostage and liquidates it. Political power once again becomes absolute but existential meaning is humiliated by the collapsing biosphere. There are no heroics to be performed. And indeed, life is not even tragic.
The Leviathan gracing Hobbes’ frontispiece invades for a reason, and once it has established itself, it upholds authority and civil norms. It is absolute power with a human face. But the Neoleviathan invades for no human reason at all, only out of desperation. Its body is composed of cybernetised and insignificant modes, its face is masked, only those blood red eyes look out into the ravaged landscape. Nothing on earth is its equal. It reaches down into the emptied city to look for the final rotting scraps. It scoops up clods of cracked earth to find the supplies hidden underneath, and smears the crater with the guerrilla’s blood. There is no longer any need for the timewasting scholastics of political justification. Authority just is Hobbesian, that is, Jobean, that is, absolute and divine. But leviathanisation pulls back the liberal mask, claws away the impassive face, and reveals nothing, abyss, void, before covering itself with the garb required to survive the crisis to the bitter end.
The Neoleviathan begins to stalk the rapidly emptying plains.
“Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.”21Job 42.8