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.