The First Counter-revolutionary | The Nation


The First Counter-revolutionary

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Skinner is generally wary of viewing the past as a mirror of or prelude to the present. He prefers to emphasize its refractory quality: the past is not prologue; it is another country. We can learn something about ourselves by traveling there, but only if we resist the temptation to assimilate its otherness.

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Corey Robin
Corey Robin, who teaches at Brooklyn College, is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, and The...

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Many have delighted in judging Hannah Arendt, maybe because they have feared her judgment.

Ayn Rand was a melodramatist of the moral life: the battle is between the producer and the moochers, and it must end in life or death.

Yet it's also clear from Hobbes and Republican Liberty and Skinner's other writings that he believes the Hobbesian view of liberty has persisted in the writings of Constant, Isaiah Berlin and the tradition of what is now called negative or minimal liberalism. Unlike the robust liberalism of John Dewey, which suggests that anything less than complete democracy in the public and private spheres poses a threat to individual freedom, negative liberalism focuses on a narrower range of abridgments: being "prevented by other persons from doing what I want," as Berlin puts it, when there is "deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I wish to act." Freedom, to Berlin, is the absence of interference, and, in a nod to Hobbes, he writes that it "is not incompatible with some kinds of autocracy, or at any rate with the absence of self-government."

Skinner also has suggested that the republican account of liberty has lived on in the democratic movements of the nineteenth century, the Marxist critique of wage slavery, feminism and "other pleas on behalf of the dependent and oppressed." Where the negative liberal believes that the state should ensure "that its citizens do not suffer any unjust or unnecessary interference in the pursuit of their chosen goals"--most notably at the hands of the state--the radical, writes Skinner, "maintains that this can never be sufficient." The state must also "liberate its citizens from...personal exploitation and dependence."

If Berlin and Constant are the heirs of Hobbes, and modern radicalism the heir of English republicanism, does it follow that their accounts of liberty are, like his, counterrevolutionary? Skinner doesn't say, but given Berlin's feline hostility to the left and Constant's opposition to the militants of his day, that seems a fair conclusion. At a minimum, Skinner suggests that their brand of tepid liberalism, which has achieved "predominance in Anglophone political philosophy"--not to mention the contemporary media and the Democratic Party--is one of the forces today preventing us from enjoying a fuller freedom. And though it may scandalize the bien-pensant of the center-left to hear this, their soft liberalism owes a good deal more to the spirit of Hobbesian counterrevolution than they realize.

Despite the progress from Clinton to Obama, the center-left is still reeling from the right-wing backlash against the New Deal and the Great Society. The obeisance it pays to safety and security, its preference for private over public goods, its fear of and contempt for democracy in the streets--these have been, since the second half of the nineteenth century, the impulses of the party of order, not the party of movement, and they owe their origins to Hobbes. Today they issue from a liberalism mugged by reaction.

If we read Skinner's footnotes more carefully, we see that the Hobbesian spirit also haunts the contemporary right. Hobbes's idea of freedom pervades libertarian discourse, and Leviathan casts a long shadow over the conservative vision of a night watchman state--where the government's primary purpose is to protect the citizenry from foreign attack and criminal trespass; where people are free to go about their business so long as they do not interfere with the movements of others; where contracts are enforced and security is ensured.

Libertarians will blanch at that association: whatever resonance Hobbesian ideas may find in their writings, the Hobbesian state is a good deal more repressive than any government they would ever countenance. Except for the fact that it's not. As Greg Grandin points out in Empire's Workshop, Milton Friedman met with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1975 to advise him on economic matters; Friedman's Chicago Boys worked even more closely with Pinochet's junta. Sergio de Castro, Pinochet's finance minister, made the observation, reminiscent of Hobbes and Berlin, that "a person's actual freedom can only be ensured through an authoritarian regime that exercises power by implementing equal rules for everyone." Hayek admired Pinochet's Chile so much that he decided to hold a meeting of his Mont Pelerin Society in Viña del Mar, the seaside resort where the coup against Allende was planned. In 1978 he wrote to the London Times that he had "not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende."

"Despite my sharp disagreement with the authoritarian political system of Chile," Friedman would later claim, "I do not regard it as evil for an economist to render technical economic advice to the Chilean Government." But the marriage between free markets and state terror cannot be annulled so easily. As Hobbes understood, it takes an enormous amount of repression to create the type of men who can exercise their "Liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another" without getting stroppy. They must be free to move--or choose--but not so free as to think about redesigning the highway. Assuming an all-too-easy congruence between capitalism and democracy, the libertarian overlooks just how much coercion is required to make citizens who will use their freedom responsibly and not ask the state to alleviate their distress.

It took Margaret Thatcher, of all people, to explain that to the libertarian right. As Naomi Klein recounts in The Shock Doctrine, when pressed by Hayek to pursue Pinochet's brand of shock therapy more aggressively, Thatcher responded, "I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable." It was 1982, and British democracy being what it was, Thatcher had to go slow. But then came the Falklands War and the miners' strike. Once Thatcher realized that she could do to the miners and trade unions what she had done to President Galtieri and his Argentine generals--"We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands and now we have to fight the enemy within, which is much more difficult but just as dangerous to liberty"--the stage was set for the full Hayekian monty.

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