Sunday, September 04, 2005

"Fear and I were born twins"

Commenting on New Orleans' rapid descent into barbarism, one caller to a Vancouver radio station yesterday claimed that Canadians would behave better in a catastrophe. Would we? We tend think of Canada as a more civilized society, the "kinder, gentler nation" that Bush Sr. wanted, a society where we look out for each other. Our national character trait is terminal niceness. We are the nation whose motto is not "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", but the very traditional-conservative "peace, order, and good government". Ay, but there's the rub. What happens if the government disappears? How long after the Big One, the nine-point-whatever Richter earthquake, before we too are looting, shooting, and scrabbling over each other to save ourselves?

"Fear and I were born twins", said Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), referring to the approach of the Spanish Armada at his birth. The fear of social collapse underlay his political doctrine--not surprising, since he lived though the English Civil War, and feared for his life both because he was on the losing side and because he was a notorious atheist. He famously wrote that life in a state of nature, a condition without the political state, would be "nasty, brutish, and short". He is worth quoting at greater length:
Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known....
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
"A common power to keep them all in awe": a strong state is the necessary condition for peace, in Hobbes' view. When that power goes, we descend into a war of all against all, whether or not there is actual battle at any given time. Anarchists do not share Hobbes' pessimistic view of human nature, and reject his contention that society will collapse without the political state. In the ruins of New Orleans there were countless instances of mutual aid among the population. The most plausible vision of an anarchist society is probably the one to be found in Ursula K. Le Guin's science-fiction novel The Dispossessed. But, as Le Guin writes, the people of the utopian planet Anarres "knew that their anarchism was the product of a very high civilization, of a complex diversified culture, of a stable economy and a highly industrialized technology that could maintain high production and rapid transportation of goods." Even anarchist optimism must be tempered by the realization that the larger and more complex a society, the more energy it requires to sustain it, and that the viability of the whole depends on maintaining its constituent subsystems in good working order. Look at New Orleans and how vulnerable it was to catastrophic disruption; then look at the role the oil of the Gulf of Mexico plays in the larger US economy. Global civilization today is New Orleans writ large. There are storms on the horizon, the levees are in danger of failing, and we do nothing.

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