Under the yoke

Philosophers have long noted the utility of fear to the state. Machiavelli notoriously argued that a good leader should induce fear in the populace in order to control the rabble.

Hobbes in “The Leviathan” argued that fear effectively motivates the creation of a social contract in which citizens cede their freedoms to the sovereign. The people understandably want to be safe from harm. The ruler imposes security and order in exchange for the surrender of certain public freedoms. As Hobbes saw it, there was no other way: Humans, left without a strong sovereign leader controlling their actions, would degenerate into mob rule. It is the fear of this state of nature — not of the sovereign per se, but of a world without the order the sovereign can impose — that leads us to form the social contract and surrender at least part of our freedom.

Most philosophers have since rejected this Hobbesian picture of human nature and the need for a sovereign. We have learned that democratic states can flourish without an absolute ruler. The United States of America was the original proof of concept of this idea: Free, self-governing people can flourish without a sovereign acting above the law. Even though the United States has revoked freedoms during wartime (and for some groups in peacetime), for most of its history the people have not been under the yoke of an all-powerful sovereign.

However, since 9/11 leaders of both political parties in the United States have sought to consolidate power by leaning not just on the danger of a terrorist attack, but on the fact that the possible perpetrators are frightening individuals who are not like us. As President George W. Bush put it before a joint session of Congress in 2001: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Last year President Obama brought the enemy closer to home, arguing in a speech at the National Defense University that “we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States” — radicalized individuals who were “deranged or alienated individuals — often U.S. citizens or legal residents.”

The Bush fear-peddling is usually considered the more extreme, but is it? The Obama formulation puts the “radicalized individuals” in our midst. They could be American citizens or legal residents. And the subtext is that if we want to catch them we need to start looking within. The other is among us. The pretext for the surveillance state is thus established.

[…] We are conditioned to fear persons in caves in Pakistan but not the destruction of our water supply by frackers, massive industrial accidents, climate change or the work-related deaths of 54,000 American workers every year. Fear of outside threats has led us to ignore the more real dangers from within.

Fear has also driven us to wage a “war on terror” that, as the political writer Jeremy Scahill has shown in his book “Dirty Wars,” creates still more enemies. As Scahill describes the results, the United States Special Forces kill lists of seven targets gave rise to kill lists of hundreds, which in turn gave rise to kill lists of thousands today. Does it not occur to the United States that the drone strikes and assassinations are creating more terrorists than they are neutralizing? Perhaps it has, but the calculation has been made that it does not matter. The newly minted enemies can be used to gin up more fear, more restrictions on our freedoms, and so the cycle goes. One might argue that the United States has become a government of fear, by fear, and ultimately, for fear.

Obama’s drone wars also arise from Hobbesian assumptions about society — that the sovereign, enlisted to impose order, is above the law. The sovereign is free to do whatever is in his power to impose order. If the United States must be in charge of providing order in the world, then its sovereign is above the law. Here lie the roots of so-called American exceptionalism.

Svendsen describes the dynamic thus: “The social contract is absolutely binding on all citizens, but the sovereign himself is not subject to the contract that he undertakes to guarantee. Similarly, the U.S. is conceived as being the guarantor of a civilized world, as the country that can maintain moral order, but that stands outside this order.” Fear is driving the United States to believe it is above the law.

[…] Whatever their motivation, by using fear to induce the rollback of individual rights, politicians, judges and lawmakers are working against the hard-won democratic principles and ideals that we and other democracies have defended for almost 250 years. They are manipulating our fears to undo centuries of democratic reform. And it doesn’t matter if the empowered leader is called a king or a prime minister or a president; the end result is that fear has been used to place us back under the yoke of Hobbes’s sovereign and Machiavelli’s prince.


You should read the piece in its entirety. If only to remind yourself that there are many instantiations of sovereigns and reflect on how many Americans may still be worshipping them.

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