Individualism, Social Contract, Governance and Modernity

In the last few posts we have left a few loose ends dangling: there have been references to individualism in the context of hierarchy, to social contract in the context of monarchy, and to reason in the context of modernity. In this post we will try to tie the loose ends lightly to highlight some of the connections and hope to come back for a fuller discussion at a later time if there is demand.

There is no one better to weave the argument around than Thomas Hobbes (1558-1679) whose famous book The Leviathan (1651) became the foundation for most of Western political philosophy.

Of course, Hobbes did not emerge in a vacuum. The seventeenth century is widely accepted as a decisive turning point in Europe that marked the transition from an old decaying order to a new emerging one that many equate with modern society.

Very briefly, the conditions that undermined the old order included the role of religion as a source of conflict, the rise of capitalism that created a tension between social hierarchies based on inherited status and acquired wealth, and the mobility of populations that uprooted communities based on stable traditional values.

In the face of this crisis, the need for a new understanding of the world and a new source of social order became overwhelming and exercised some of the greatest minds of the time—Harvey, Hobbes, Descartes, and Newton (among others). These were the people who rejected the choice of attempting to re-establish the old order based on religious and monarchical hierarchies. Instead, they looked ahead by putting their faith in reason in order to transcend doctrinal differences.

Thus the purpose of Hobbes in The Leviathan was to propose an alternative to a political order based on tradition and on religious and social hierarchies—defined by Devine Will, individual duties (not rights), obedience to the ruler, acceptance of fate, and a reward in the after-life. 

Hobbes’ proposal was very much in the form of a thought experiment based on his understanding of human nature. He wanted to encourage a new way of looking at things and was not really proposing a system to be implemented as he had set it down.

Hobbes began his daring experiment by radical breaks in political thought along two dimensions. First, he accorded a higher priority to the individual than to society; and second, he replaced duties with rights. And, the question he asked was: How would individuals with equal rights constitute a society that would ensure justice based entirely on individual self-interest and reason? Note that in this scheme there is no pre-existing Divine order, no higher meaning, and no pre-ordained duties.

It is here that Hobbes posited the social contract—a voluntary contract signed amongst themselves by all individuals with equal rights to accept an external institution to govern them. There are many details here that are omitted but for us two things are important to note in this formulation. First, it is a model based on equality that does not have a place for hierarchies based on status or wealth. Second, it is a model based on individualism. In fact, to make the point, Hobbes strips the model of all horizontal bonds between individuals—family, clan, ethnic or religious links have no place in this foundation for governance. The only thing that matters is a one-to-one relationship of equal individuals with the state. The exact form of the state is not important; the objective is to institutionalize the concept of power and obligation.

As we mentioned earlier, this proposal by Hobbes was in the nature of a thought experiment. It built on the emerging trends of individualism, equality and faith in reason to propose a radically new basis for governance. These trends continued to grow throughout this period to reach one grand climax in the French Revolution of 1789 with its rallying cry of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. And Hobbes’ model became the foundation for the modern system of democratic governance.

For South Asians the points to think over are the set of social changes that marked the decline of the old order, the set of fresh ideas that gave rise to new models of governance, and the often revolutionary episodes that finished off the remaining barriers that stood in the way of the transition from the traditional to the modern.

Hopefully this thinking would lead to a better understanding of the crisis of governance in Pakistan today and the peculiar nature of democracy in India that Ramachandra Guha does not adequately explain in India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.

Students wanting to read more on Hobbes and the seventeenth century should consult On Hobbes’ Leviathan by Ian Johnston, one of the best references we have found and one to which we are indebted for the details in this post.

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1 Comment
  • Bello Semiu
    Posted at 13:25h, 24 February Reply

    This is quite educating and interesting. Keep up the spirit

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