Leviathan as Eldritch Abomination

Sean Fleming has a fascinating book titled Leviathan on a Leash about how to conceptualize state responsibility by updating Hobbes’ versatile theory of state representation and collective responsibility for the modern era. He (like John Gray in Two Faces of Liberalism) correctly sees that Hobbes-for all the reasonable disagreements one can have with his thought- especially in regard to absolute loyalty to authority- offers a superior framework for the multi-faceted society than the more popular Kantian interpretations so common today.

The most important aspect of this is that while the state has many attributes of personhood, it lacks independent agency. Like a mentally disabled person or child, it cannot represent itself and must require a parent, legal guardian, or lawyer to represent them. This guardian is then invested with full powers to act as the dynamic force on behalf of its charges. Understanding this allows us to tackle questions of state responsibility for debt, war, and other policies.

There was one issue I diverged from the author on worth mentioning. Though it does not assist his case to do so, Fleming makes a point of writing at no small length on how this Hobbesian contract between people and state is invalidated by a society where the majority of people are too indoctrinated/lack access to alternative sources of information to make informed decisions. Since the Hobbesian bargain is always on some level security and stability in exchange for loyalty, I fail to see why this distinction should be made. Brainwashed people can and do authorize representatives and are just as capable of collective loyalty. All successful societies also engage in some level of indoctrination (if anything the illusion of choice given by US and UK news media is every bit as affective as state monopolized news in forcing public consensus on key issues), meaning that by introducing this point Fleming does not help his overall argument and opens up the question of where exactly the line is between fully, partially, and not at all indoctrinated really is.

Towards the end of the book, Fleming talks about how the concept of representatives of state-and the distinction between personhood and tool-use are going to become increasingly blurred as artificial intelligence becomes a larger part of statecraft. Given that these homunculi will be programed by humans and thus inevitably inherit some of their pathos, we might have to seriously consider questions of state responsibility when the actions, most likely unintentional, of some kind of store brand Skynet open up a whole new can of worms between nations. We cannot simply assume we will get the more trustworthy(?) AIs of Deus Ex, after all. This is a serious problem geostrategists should be preparing to grapple with.

But whether or not we see increasingly automated states, a less real but more symbolically apt comparison of the Leviathan of modern statehood came to me: that of the Lovecraftian Eldritch Abomination. Since about the time of the subterfuge and nuclear deterrence of the Cold War, large and successful states have reached a complexity which is often quite literally unfathomable. Multiple sometimes separate and sometimes overlapping intelligence agencies conduct business that is often even unknown to the sovereign representatives of the people. The phrase ‘Deep State’, so castigated by the bien pensant media because a few low-information voters use it, is a real phenomenon and has been academically studied for generations at this point. Bizarrely, these types of organizations are assumed by right-thinking western technocrats to only exist in different countries, but not in countries like the United States with far greater amounts of technological prowess and funding. You are either in the cult or you are not. What is going on deep within the bowels is still obscured regardless of proximity.

Combine these factors with automated systems, lobbyists, NGOs, large and increasingly complex militaries incapable of even keeping track of their expenses, and who knows what informal influence networks within…and you get something beyond Leviathan. Leviathan by way of Dagon or Cthulhu perhaps. Tsathoggua or the gods of the Dreamlands if we are lucky. Or, in an absolute worst-case scenario AM from ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.’

Within the confines of this beast the social contract itself seems to be with something beyond comprehension. The beast’s thoughts are so removed from personhood that you are really only dealing with an approximate representative via the person or persons who hold the most power. Like cultists of Yog Sothoth, not even they can truly fathom what it is they are representing. They only know that they bask in the immensity of its presence. Its weighty psychic gravity is unpredictable and implacable, its power over mere humans incalculable. But lest this seem all-terrifying, there is another aspect of this which perhaps reflects the philosophical materialism of both Hobbes and Lovecraft: this god-like being (or series of beings under conditions of multipolarity) can do something more traditional gods cannot- prove its own existence. And-potentially-die as well.

The question still remains, however: Will its unfathomable web of idiosyncratic goals be capable of aligning with its own subjects needs? Or, like a proper eldritch abomination, will it see us simply as toys for amusement or even irrelevant insects? If this is what happens, the Hobbesian contract is gone as security of subject is no longer taken into consideration. But perhaps even weirder would be what if this monstrosity *does* uphold the bargain? And if so for how long? We might be even less prepared to deal with the ramifications of that.

‘Hostiles’: A Review of a Saga of Rogue Culture

Hostiles Pic

I have reviewed from a geopolitical perspective on this blog numerous books, at least one television show, one gaming setting, and, superficially, an entire trend of movie subgenres which as ‘The Post’ shows clearly has not gone away. But I have yet to do a review for a specific film. Well, a good one anyway. It’s time to change that. ‘Hostiles’ has earned the right to be the first. This will not really be a conventional film review of course, but more the political theory take on the movie. My personal opinion is that the film is amazing, a type of ‘Apocalypse Now’ western were the journey is more important than the destination and many conventional tropes and tackled in an unconventional way. The basic synopsis is that a woman whose family was murdered by Comanche horse thieves finds her path overlapping with a US Army mission to take a dying Cheyenne chief back to his birthplace across the country from New Mexico to Montana for public relations purposes. Along the way in the chaotic end to the frontier era this state mission meets many of the still existing non-state actors, usually with violent outcomes.

Also, Wes Studi, who played Magua in Last of the Mohicans, is the chief. As if you needed any more reason to see it.

While the message of former enemies coming together to fight new threats is hardly novel, especially in the Western genre, this movie does it particularly well. In a setting of wide open and barely populated spaces transitioning from free roaming cultures to increased property speculation and control, crime and raiding are rife. State authority is weak to nonexistent and a state of war in an officially pacified west can still persist in some places. As the Cheyenne, who are technically still US Army prisoners, must be freed to help fight the Comanche and then others as the story unfolds, formerly embittered battlefield rivals come to rely on each other to survive-and this very struggle for survival creates a new, and extremely strong alliance.

What we have in the movie is a situation of the Hobbesian state of ‘war of all against all’ which prevails outside of an internally organized society. International Relations scholars might also refer to this as similar to the ‘state of anarchy’ which reigns in foreign policy as there exist few checks on powerful states on the world-wide level. What we see in ‘Hostiles’ is this situation in microcosm which much smaller bands of people to give it a more personal touch. The very tag line of the film: ‘We are all Hostiles’ basically tells the general tone.

What becomes interesting is how the distinctions of Cheyenne and United States gradually fade to be replaced with that of the band itself. Kept together at first by necessity, the former rivals have effectively left past distinctions behind and became their own ‘tribe’, against any that threaten it. This is similar to how so many settlers from different, and often hostile, nations in Europe would eventually become early Americans (as well as Latin Americans). It also has echoes of various steppe nomad confederations in Eurasia who quite literally constructed many an ethnic group that would found new states based off of nothing but mutual enemies and a shared horseback lifestyle. The Metis culture in western Canada too was an amalgamation of French trappers and Algonquian Indians which became its own thing, as was the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy which was formed of previously warring tribes for the purpose of creating security in upstate New York and to make those tribes more capable at projecting their power outwards at other rivals. Before the threat of assimilation into Russian society appeared there was no such thing as a pan-Siberian native sentiment, but then there was one. One that in the 19th Century even included many settlers in that territory. There were also many multi-ethnic enclaves of pirates in the West Indies and the southern Indian Ocean in the age of piracy on the high seas, united only by being outcasts and renegades who would go own to develop a rogue culture of their own. Spartacus’ revolt also comes to mind, as do the early Cossacks around the Black Sea.

We may even be seeing something similar happening today in Syria. Though Syria was always regarded by the vast majority of its citizens as a sovereign and legitimate nation, the ties of loyalty between minorities and anti-salafist sunni facing a foreign backed coalition of fundamentalists and sectarians have probably only strengthened the ties of loyalty and really fostered a sense of Syrian-ness like nothing in modern history ever has before. Hence why attempts to stir up a sectarian war to bog down Iran in total state collapse in Syria have so far failed. Planners in Riyadh saw Sunni vs Shia and Alawite, but in trying to exacerbate those divisions they made sure they were really battling Syrians themselves.

Ibn Khaldun was called this ‘Assabiyya’ and I have certainly spoken of it before in other contexts. It’s the group-solidarity that many a successful new society is built on, and many an ageing society loses before its collapse.

In a world where ‘we are all hostiles’ it is worth noting that those people who fall outside of and in between major established divisions in preexisting society must band together in order to survive, and, as ever the realist that I am, the alliances may be surprising and more often than not dictated upon circumstance than any real values. The old paradigms largely become irrelevant as they are overtaken by events as it is. In the end, every society came from nowhere, after all, and will in the future be replaced by those yet to exist. Bonds of personal loyalty not of kin but of shared experience forge the links of new orders when older ones break down.

Nothing fits this more than the point in the film when the band, no having given up all pretense of being official and hierarchical, ends up in a shootout with some Ron/Rand Paul type property guardians over trespassing. At this point an American army captain is shooting at people on their own property and they are shooting at him despite the federal legality of his presence there. But what came to matter there, in the middle of nowhere and far from the institutions that set these events in motion, was the immediate group and not the official and distant loyalties.

In a time where people of all stripes are losing faith in institutions of all kinds all around the world, this is worth thinking about and appreciating as shown on the small scale in the film ‘Hostiles.’

Anyway, have a Lakota song translated into English: