Y’all know I love Thomas Hobbes, though more for his method than his conclusions — like Confucius, he thought that all misunderstandings boiled down to bad definitions. He wanted all arguments to proceed like geometry proofs. Whether that’s workable or not is above my pay grade (and note that Hobbes wasn’t a very good mathematician), but there’s no question that bad definitions are at the heart of most, if not all, political misunderstandings these days. To wit:
Machiavelli said that nobles long to oppress the people, while the people only want to avoid being oppressed. Which is true of any hominid hierarchy. If you really believe in evolution, you know that humans are advanced software running on kludgy monkey hardware. What’s true for the baboon troop is true for us, and that’s what we see in human societies — alphas at the top, with his lieutenants, ruling over the great mass of ordinary monkeys, with a few despised omegas lingering at the group’s edges.
Society, then, is a conglomeration of baboon troops, and government is the conglomerate’s internal organization. The classical social contract theorists had it wrong. It’s not individuals, each as sovereign as his physical power can make him, doing the contracting. Rather, the “contract” preexists, in the form of monkey troops – we’re born into a troop, and like all monkeys we’re able to break off and form our own troops if we’re strong enough, but there’s no such thing as a pure individual in the State of Nature (which also doesn’t exist in the way Hobbes et al implied). Society, then, is a fractal pyramid, and government likewise: all the little monkey troops banded together into one big troop.
Monkey troops have one purpose, and one purpose only: the flourishing of the troop. And that’s where the problems start — as humans are mega-monkeys, we’re able to assign all kinds of different meanings and shades of nuance to “flourishing.” How far does that extend? Who gets to decide if the troop is flourishing or not, and what happens when the majority decides the troop isn’t flourishing?
That was Machiavelli’s simple, irrefutable point — the nobility must assure the peasantry that their interests move in tandem. Nobles want to fight wars and sponsor art and live high on the hog because they’re alpha chimps, and that’s what alpha chimps do. But nobles can’t do all that stuff without the active participation of the peasants, as they’re the ones who staff the armies, make the art, grow the food, etc.
In return, though, the nobles have to provide some basic returns — a share of the spoils of war if you’re on offense, and physical protection if you’re on defense. That’s the real social contract, and if it’s broken, the macro-troop that is Government collapses back into micro-troops at the local level. As humans, we have some limited degree of choice in what micro-troop we want to join when the macro-troop breaks down– this is the “State of Nature” — but joining one isn’t optional.
So here’s the homework that every aspiring noble used to do as a matter of course:
- define “flourish;”
- define “protection;” and
- define how you’ll provide for both.
Pretty simple, no? Problem is, none of our supposed “leaders” have any inkling that they’re supposed to be doing this. Cf. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush — get them drunk (from what I’ve heard, that shouldn’t be tough) and make them answer a simple question: “Why do you want to be President?” And we all know the answer: “Because it’s my turn!!!!”
Which means that this particular iteration of the macro-troop is kaput. Most of us who reside here in the USA in this, the Current Year, have a decent instinctive idea of what “flourish” and “protection” mean, and though we may not be able to articulate it like 17th century Oxford dons, we know that our so-called “leaders” aren’t providing either. Back when, this used to be called a “crisis of legitimacy,” and pretty much everyone — yep, Hobbes included — thought that an illegitimate government is no government at all, and nobody is obliged to obey its decrees.
And it’s illegitimate all the way down the line. The closer you get to an answer to the Three Questions, from an ideologue of any side, the more you realize that they not only haven’t thought this stuff through, they have no idea they were even supposed to. Government is just kind of a thing that sorta happens, dude…. but it’s super-important that it happens my way, or else ur a h8r.
Which is, as the kids these days say, problematic. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what happens to an alpha chimp when he can’t protect the troop. It’s the same thing that happens to failed leaders in all times and places: lamppost, rope, some assembly required.
It doesn’t have to end that way, but it’s increasingly likely that it’s going to…. because it’s our turn, I guess.