The Return of Leviathan: A Case For Neo-Hobbesiansim?

Comment: By Rian Whitton

For progressives, Britain’s secession from the European Union was not merely a case of ignorant voters misunderstanding the macroeconomic fallout or failing to consider the geopolitical implications, it was a heretical act against the utopian doctrine of creeping globalisation.

Following the end of the Cold War, the Nation State, the stationary bandit as prescribed by Hobbes, has gradually been weakened. Its monopoly on violence, once indisputable, has been challenged by non-state actors, private companies and  international organisations at the legislative and judicial level. The principle of Sovereignty was reimagined to centre on that of individuals rather than Governments. The rule of law was circumvented by the arbitrary rule of international law. The idea of Governments maintaining the integrity of their national borders went from innocuous hear-say to a reactionary throwback. Where once states were the primary actors, they now increasingly had to share responsibilities with transnational organisations, on matters of justice, monetary policy, war and human rights

In an ocean of trends stressing the inevitability of globalism and homogenisation, the reassertion of nationhood seemed nearly impossible. This was further compounded with the election of Donald Trump. His was a message of security; enforcing border law, stiffening the sinews of the world’s most powerful military, replacing a liberal foreign policy with cold Jacksonian interest and eschewing free-trade for jobs at home. Though some commentators have interpreted  this as a whitelash or a Americanised form of crypto-fascism, this misunderstands the issue.

While Fascism was revolutionary and totalitarian, the retrenchment of the Nation State is conservative, a hark back to the Early-Modern period, enshrined in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). This primordial state was not particularly concerned  in social engineering, entitlements, healthcare or other modern facets of progressive statism, but was preoccupied with sovereignty, defence and security. The fundemental rationale for the modern state is not ideological but practical in the face of man’s imperfect nature. This is quite different, in fact remarkably different, to the Fascist state as prescribed by Mussolini, in which the remit of Government is boundless and the compact between individuals and state is erased in favour of totalitarianism.

Security in the West is expansive and often positive. We have well-matured doctrines of the individual’s protection from the state, and amalgamate social wellbeing and healthcare into our expectations of the Government’s ability to protect. By contrast, the Russian tranlastion of security is bezopasnotsi; that is to mean without danger. This negative term for security is concomitant with Russia’s precarious position and history of existential conflicts.

Through the discourse on terrorism, geopolitics and immigration, Western conceptions of security are beginning to more closely resemble the Russian definition, though not completely. The philosopher John Gray elucidated after the 2015 Paris attacks that, contrary to the assumptions of international law and metropolitan thinking, our freedoms and rights are not free-standing absolutes, but are fragile compacts forever sheltered under the functioning of the state. It is the rediscovering of this essential truth that has discredited ungovernable internationalism and led to a rekindling of national sovereignty in the form of Brexit and Trump.

Globalisation shrugged

The returning appeal of a domestic Leviathan is in part a reaction to the perceived failure of globalisation. In large part, this is justified. ‘Free’ trade and mass immigration, while bringing cheaper goods and higher living standards, have not seen  benefits equally distributed, and cultural consequences have festered.

While most progressives had up until now been coy about their dissatisfaction with the Nation State, Britain’s secession and the rise of ‘populism’ across the globe has precipitated a more open Liberal articulation in favour of the final crescendo of globalisation; world government.

While considered modern, the idea that nations and empires should eventually make way for a global polity are a recurring theme. Dante Alighieri, the 12th century author, longed for a universal empire, which was in his eyes ‘God’s plan for providential glory’.

Following the peace of Westphalia and the formations of proto-states in England and France, thinkers like Charles-Irinee Castel and Immanuel Kant argued for the federalisation of nations under a common authority.

These notions were developed further under Marxism, whether as ascribed by Communists like Lenin or Anarchists like Bakunin. The fact that such utopian ideas as a global polity has either ended in impotence, in the case of the league of nations, or tears in the case of the Soviet Union, did not dent its universal appeal.

From the end of the Cold war, the development of global finance and subsequent rise in the movement of labour took a great deal of agency away from Nation States. The growing prevalence of UN peacekeeping and the increased profile of international legal norms redefined traditional notions of sovereignty into an informal charter of global citizenship.

Why has this process stalled? Most importantly, the immense complexity of decision making in a globalised world has created a sense of powerlessness. The European Union’s faults have been laid bare by three crises; the Euro, the rise in extra-European immigration, and geopolitical confrontations with Putin and Erdogan. In all three cases, Brussels’ lack of centralised authority, its lack of clarity and direction, its inability to patrol borders or galvanise a united defence policy, has rendered its authority suspect. Brussels is not constructing a super-state as many Eurosceptics claim, it is presiding over a pseudo-state, failing in its basic function to provide security.


There is a further reason for why the Nation State might be reappraised. As detailed in Ben Wittes’s and Gabriella Blum’s excellent book the future of violence, technology is distributing  three important agencies beyond the state to individuals and small groups; offensive capability, defensive capability and vulnerability.

Malware, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, additive manufacturing, robotics and unmanned systems all have enormous capacity to endow individuals and small groups with the level of power usually reserved for more resourceful governments. Furthermore, the ever-expanding data-mosaic that people carry with them in the digital age makes them more vulnerable than ever to criminal action.

It should be no surprise that in this time of flux, of economic uncertainty, rapid demographic change and technological disruption, polities in the developed world become less interested in the state as a tool of egalitarianism and progressive liberal paternalism, and more demanding of a state’s ability to keep them safe from real and perceived threats.

Where Now?

Some argue that the answer to this broadening of the security environment requires the centralisation of authority into a global government; a world-Leviathan so to speak. The issue is that such an endeavour itself threatens cultural heterogeneity, national sovereignty  and tradition; things that people consider integral to their wider security. It should also be said that transnational groups, such as the United Nations or European Union, have proved impotent in the face of challenges requiring decisive action, from Srebrenica to Syria.

Though their power is being diffused to a range of actors, Nation States remain the strongest agents in an increasingly chaotic world.

We might lament the fermenting of national chauvinism, and many dedicated and intelligent people who have worked for a more interdependent world will be disappointed, but on some level, we should welcome this revaluation of the state to a more clearly defined role; mounting national integrity, providing security, and furthering national interests.

Despite the threat of a nuclear exchange, the cold-war bipolarity between the US and the Soviet Union functioned as a definable and understandable global order, far more stable than any order preceding it. What the Cold War showed was a mutual understanding of deterrence and a familiarisation between global cooperation and national interests could function as a blueprint for global order.

What has changed is the number of actors capable of deploying and producing potentially destructive weapons. This is in reference to the ambitions of small states like North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, but also the increased possibility of small state and non-state actors developing biological threats. Cyber-threats continue to grow and metastasise, as shown by the recent Wannacry malware episode. Porous borders and global interdependency act as force-multipliers to the deluge of capabilities, and so it is not surprising these two tenets of globalisation are facing increased scrutiny and scepticism.

In responding to the mass-diffusion of technology, populations are increasingly realising that their freedoms are not innate, nor inalienable, nor something that exist outside the capacity of state-power. A government’s legitimacy is not defined by whether it is republican, monarchical, despotic or democratic, but whether it can keep the peace and make life commodious. For this reason, Russians are foregoing Western liberalism for Putinism, Britons reject Eurotopia in favour of the oldest parliamentary democracy, and Americans have elected a highly flawed man running on a ticket of border security, economic protectionism and anti-elitism at home, and a punitive national interest abroad.


To many, the revitalisation of Hobbes signals a dark turn for our politics. We are told authoritarianism and racism are on the rise, and that the challenging of the  liberal consensus amounts to an unprecedented regression of our discourse. Trump is labelled a Fascist and Brexit is misconstrued as the UK leaving the world-stage.

This is hysteria, the flailing of a bien pensant cosmopolitanism  that has run out of ideas, and expresses contempt for those who haven’t kept up with ideological fashions. In the face of growing threats at both the state and individual level, pseudo-states like the European Union have no legitimacy. Liberal norms  like freedom of speech, pluralism and aversions to tribalism are not tenable without a clear understanding as to who holds the monopoly of legitimate force and the ability to protect. For this reason, we should see the loss of confidence in high-minded but ultimately powerless international systems, and a retrenchment of the Nation State as the primary vehicle of sovereignty and protection, as a step forward to securing a prosperous civil society in the future.

Hobbes was correct in his analysis, that peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of humans, and the highly refined culture that we enjoy is contingent, not on inalienable rights and liberal do-goodery, but on the  confidence in States’ ability to secure their citizens. The challenge to globalisation does not have to be reactionary or pessimistic, but rather can replace indeterminate progressivism with a steely clarification of where power should reside.


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