The birth of the market state

First published in June 2022.

In the beginning, there was power. This was the power to sort and arrange the layers of reality into a complex whole, reassembling what had been divided into something resembling unity. In Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, the ‘real unity’ of the state plays this role, uniting the divided ‘Multitude’ into a seamless ‘Commonwealth’ under the leadership of a potent ‘Sovereign’. Borrowing the biblical language of the sea monsters ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Behemoth’, Hobbes’s books of the same names gave accounts of the effects of state authority and civil war, respectively. Behemoth describes the effects of the English civil war, in which the anarchic monstrosity of anarchy disrupts the serene fabric of peacetime, as described in the utopian Leviathan, where all are united under the banner of the king.

Gustave Dore’s The Destruction of Leviathan, a mystical beast whose name is shared with the masterpiece of political theorist, Thomas Hobbes, about the state that emerged in the early-modern period.

But Leviathan and Behemoth also share startling similarities. In particular, both explain war and peace through the prism of trade, or economic exchange. In Leviathan, the central power of the state is the ability to enforce ‘contracts’, including the civil contract or ‘covenant’ among subjects to authorise the sovereign’s authority over them, for their peace and protection. The language of ‘covenant‘ is borrowed from the Torah, and in particular the covenant between God and Moses as presented in the biblical ‘Old Testament’. But the language of ‘contract‘ is an import from Roman law, which emerged as a way of managing great cultural diversity and mistrust among disparate peoples, requiring a common set of rules to regulate interaction and transactions of goods and people. Law safeguards property, in particular, private property, in order to make possible the smooth trade of goods among various parts of an empire or commonwealth. This is demonstrated by the private conception of subjectivity in Leviathan, where every individual is viewed as discrete and separate from every other individual, like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, frequently used nowadays to account for a similar individualism which runs through the discipline of economics. In Hobbes, the sovereign’s authority is grounded on a contract ‘of every man, with every man’ – where ‘every man’ is a propertied individual capable of making contracts and exchanging trust as frequently as the exchange of goods and labour in the emerging system of civil trade.

In Behemoth, Hobbes describes how trade can mutate from a protector of peace to a generator of war. The financing of the breakaway Parliamentarians from the presiding Stuart monarchy came from the City of London and trading guilds, facilitating the division of England into two warring factions. War, for Hobbes, emerges from the excesses of trade, and the greed that leads market actors to go beyond their means and rely on a system of borrowing and lending, in addition to the more basic system of buying and selling, in order to invest in the future. But relying on the future jeopardises it, leading to an imbalance of resources that persists through time and leads mutual suspicion and ‘jealousy’ to arise, as Hobbes’s philosophical successor David Hume argued in the famous phrase, ‘jealousy of trade‘. Arguments against trade outstripping its own means through financialisation derive from Hobbes’s arguments against the power of ‘private men’, in Leviathan, and the outsourced role of the financial City and trading monopolies, in Behemoth, monopolies which Hobbes casts as ‘entrails’ in the bowel of the state, in chapter 29 Leviathan (concerning things that ‘weaken’ any commonwealth). While Hobbes advocated a certain market basis for the state in Leviathan, he was suspicious of the transformation of this market economy into a system of accumulation, beyond bare transactions. Hobbes, thus, was suspicious of a state that became captured not just by market actors but by capitalistic actors, produced by the excesses of the market economy as it was transformed from a system of commodity production and transaction to a system of capital accumulation, grounded on financial investment rather than economic exchange and human need.

While Marx is known for giving an account of the ‘capitalist state’, or a state captured by the interests of a class – the capitalist class – Hobbes also gives an economic account of the state, one which anticipates and lays the foundation for the later theory. Hobbes’s state is a market state, a state whose primary function is to safeguard the security of citizens, their private property, and the exchange of this property on the market. While the capitalist state is a state captured by the class of capital owners, the market state is a state captured by the institution of the market. Since the development of the market naturally leads to excess, and to the centralisation and accumulation of capital, as the focus shifts from natural resources to artificial rents as the basis for profit and wealth, Hobbes’s story is a prelude to Marx’s story. But it is also a more basic, and often overlooked, story. If the state we live in, a capitalist one, is more basically a market state, then any attempt to overcome the rule of capital will inevitably face up to the more basic, and perhaps more pressing, problem: the rule of the market. While capital presents itself as its own Leviathan, as centralised and monopolised as the Leviathan of the state, the market is much more similar to the civil war of Hobbes’s Behemoth, an anarchy which inevitably produces a tyranny. There is a danger of anarchy and tyranny in both political and economic spheres. But if my reading of Hobbes is correct, these dangers stem from the same basic system, or institutionalised order: the market state, whose current death throes mimic its turbulent birth in the time of Thomas Hobbes.

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