Is intensifying competition a door opener for omnidirectional war?
The State of Nature in The Englightenment
Social contract theory was born during the Age of Enlightenment, attempting to navigate the question of the state’s authority over the individual and the extent of its legitimacy therein. The broad idea is that individuals consent to trade a certain amount of freedom to an authority in exchange for society and the active protection of their remaining rights and freedoms.
The three central figures involved in this were Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, and John Locke, each coming to the social contract with a different set of influences and interpretations. They remain influential figures even in the modern day, with the writings of John Locke seeming to influence Thomas Jefferson when drawing up the American Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s assertion that all men have a right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, parallels Locke’s assertion that all men have a right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of property’.
The social contract stands in opposition to the ‘state of nature’. The state of nature is interpreted differently by an array of different thinkers over time, but is generally attributed to Thomas Hobbes, who very early on in The Leviathan gave us the now famous description of life in the state of nature being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. The state of nature can generally be thought of as an interpretation of pre-societal life and a theoretical explanation as to why humans form governments and nation states at all.
John Locke lived through the ‘Glorious Revolution’, a mostly bloodless revolution in 1688 that deposed Catholic monarch James II in England. Locke asserted that God bestowed natural rights on Adam and, as such, man has the same natural rights — to life, liberty, and property. To Locke, people were a tabula rasa, free to act and make choices as suited them. Under the state of nature, Locke argues that it would be difficult to preserve one’s natural rights and freedoms, leading to people to form societies under governments, the primary role of which is the preservation of those rights inherent to its citizens.
Jean-Jaques Rousseau was an influential figure for Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. Similar to Locke, Rousseau took a more favourable view of people, proposing that in the state of nature they were not so bloodthirsty and would not instinctively seek to destroy one another. Humans, he argued, possess an inherent virtue – a natural compassion. The state of nature to Rousseau, was generally solitary and, lacking property, free of ‘moral corruption’. Property, in fact, creates the social contract — writing in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, he asserted, “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine’, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.“
Rousseau developed the idea of the ‘general will’. The general will, to boil it down in a way that will no doubt have philosophy academics vomiting blood, roughly states that the best needs of society are more than simply the sum total of the individuals that comprise that society. One can think of this in terms of vaccinations — is it better for the population to undergo mandatory vaccination for polio, measles, smallpox, etc, in order to maintain the health of the general population, regardless of whether some individuals object? Rousseau suggests that it is. It’s worth considering that this in turn opens the idea up to interpretations that are supportive of authoritarianism. So, for Rousseau, the social contract and government are there to represent the people and implement their will — almost a socialism before socialism.
Thomas Hobbes, by contrast, wasn’t waving a flag for humanity. Having lived through the English civil war, his views were markedly more pessimistic. To Hobbes, a man on the street who is not dissuaded by the threat of punishment is as likely to stab you for your chips as smile at you. Against this backdrop he wrote The Leviathan, the title being a biblical allusion to Job 41:
“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Nothing on earth is its equal — a creature without fear.
It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.”
In short: One does not piss about with The Leviathan.
Hobbes’ vision of mankind in the state of nature, as alluded to earlier, perceived little more than feral beasts. Driven to seek and obtain scarce resources for survival, we would destroy one another. Hobbes characterised the state of nature as a war of all against all. It is in the hope of avoiding this state of affairs that people establish a society and a social contract, and the absolute ruler’s responsibility is to stop their citizens from deteriorating into savages driven by survivalist instincts. To Hobbes the Leviathan was the ruler that was ultimately needed to govern a nation effectively, a sort of necessary evil with the uncompromising force to stave off the state of nature.
The State of Nature in Modernity
So what is the role of government in the modern day? It could be interpreted as a regulator of capitalistic entropy caused by the demand for ever-intensifying production and competition. Far from being an overseer of national economies, governments now take on the role of intermediaries between market forces and human life.
If people escape the state of nature by trading freedoms for security or stability then capitalism’s inherently entropic character all but guarantees a failure of the very security that people rely on the government to provide, whilst the governments themselves must facilitate the ambitions of the very system that opposes its intent.
Gradually, as capitalism works to increase competition all arenas of life from the home to the boardroom, the state of nature is re-established. Counter-intuitively, the state of nature transitions from being the precursor and rational for the establishment of society, to being an engine of society. A paradoxical state of scarcity and abundance is created to facilitate this new economic war of all against all. While base resource scarcity may be all but mythological in the developed world, resource scarcity in the form of currency is perpetual and omnipresent. In the first world psyche, currency has almost supplanted nourishment as the baseline, the logic that one needs currency before one can eat now a more established reality than the mere fact that one needs food to eat. The order of needs and operations has shifted.
If resource abundance creates security, then capitalism’s reliance of competitive intensification encourages the deliberate creation of resource scarcity, or the broad psychological impression of resource scarcity, but the inhibiting or active destruction of abundance. Reality becomes a survival game. Abundance translates to fallings prices, falling prices translate to a reduction of profit. A reduction of profit is antithetical to the raison d’etre of capitalism: to facilitate the profit motive. As Steven Shaviro reflects in his essay, Accelerationist Aesthetics: Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption:
“It has become increasingly clear that crises and contradictions do not lead to the demise of capitalism. Rather, they actually work to promote and advance capitalism, by providing it with its fuel. Crises do not endanger the capitalist order; rather, they are occasions for the dramas of ‘creative destruction’ by means of which, phoenix-like, capitalism repeatedly renews itself. We are all caught within this loop.“
So the state of nature becomes just another form of competition. From there, competition is ingested and commodified and repurposed after the same logic. If competition generates profit, then sell more competition. If it does not, find a way to jigsaw it into the mechanics of profit or discard it entirely.
Are we bringing the Hobbesian state of nature into society?
Capitalism is, counterintuitively, antithetical to security. Security demands some level of established order and with order comes normalisation and regulation. This in turn contributes to the creation of the abstractions of tradition, culture, and heritage. Security naturally puts some limit on competition, competition by extension decreases stability. Capitalism, therefore, can be considered to be inherently entropic. In order to perpetuate itself, capitalism has to constantly break down established modes of living, which it then uses for spare parts to create new culture, ideas, and commodities, and thus self-perpetuate.
One manifestation of this entropy is the reinterpretation of human beings as economic units. This in turn translates into precarity. No Speed Limit elaborates:
“The redefinition of human beings as private owners of their own ‘human capital’. Each person is thereby, as Michel Foucault puts it, forced to become ‘an entrepreneur of himself’. In such circumstances, we are continually obliged to market ourselves, to ‘brand’ ourselves, to maximize the return on our ‘investment’ in ourselves. There is never enough: like the Red Queen, we always need to keep running, just to stay in the same place. Precarity is the fundamental condition of our lives.“
This seems to frame capitalism as being opposed to human life – in as far as an abstract economic system can oppose anything. Not consciously. It’s more a simple fact that an economic system of any kind relies on speed and efficiencies. Humans are slow, error-prone, and inefficient sacks of meat and liquid. Past a certain point they stop being a benefit to the profit motive, and instead become a hindrance. This seems to graduate capitalism from a static system to a sort of semi-conscious inertia-driven entity — capitalism as Azathoth, indifferent, if not entirely unaware, of the very humanity that spawned it.
If the profit motive is the driving force for capitalism, and that drive creates the internal state of nature, how do you explain monopolies? They seem to defy the competition-as-existence paradigm. Well competition creates power, conflict, and vacuums. This translates into manifest hierarchies. All parties within a hierarchy are locked in a violent struggle for ascension, creating the incentive to decrease competition by those are the top. We might interpret this as a sort of tribalistic or instinctive manifestation of the move away from the state of nature and this the perpetuation of the social contract. Which, if we return to the concept of entropic capitalism as a force of moving the state of nature from outside society into society, seems to suggest a cyclical process of economic-societal creation and destruction.
If art reflects the age, the battle royale has become a central motif. From the namesake film, the concept has expanded dramatically, encompassing the hit Netflix series Squid Game, an entire video game subgenre sporting a variety of interpretations of this ‘last man standing’ trope, a subgenre of competitive ‘reality tv’ scenarios treading and retreading the fight for survival, film series’ such as The Purge amongst an armada of other iterations. In all cases other humans are adversaries and nothing can be shared nor built. Zero-sum survival logic permeates, soaking into the meat of culture. If the stories we consume shape our conception of the world, then we learn only that all humans exist merely to place on the scoreboard of existence. Then again, it’s worth noting that the Romans had gladiatorial combat, they understood blood and circuses — so if capitalism is a systematisation of the war of all against all, perhaps it is the most natural system to pursue, for whatever that’s worth.
The social contract is relevant in specific contexts where the constructors and maintainers of a society exist in a paradigm where their work is something parallel to what Marx seemed to consider an ideal in the first volume of Capital; that being, to riff on one part of Marx’s comprehensive tome, that a worker owned their work and sold it to a customer who had a direct use for it. As societies progress, however, the shift away from a worker—customer—product lifecycle towards increasing means of mass production — from the scutching mills to the modern car factory and beyond — social model conceptions evolve from primitive pyramids into more elaborate structures that people are not part of so much as existing in. Advanced economies are abstract enough to effectively nullify people’s idea of a social contract. What would a modern social contract even look like? Given that the focus is monetary flows and people are increasingly irrelevant, the abstracted incestuous amorphism of society, coupled with governmental subservience to a dislocated donor class, makes drawing up a social contract in the modern world a nigh-on waste of time.
With the easy-access concept of societal outline revealed to be a nicety from a more primitive iteration of humanity, leaving an abstracted series of impenetrable systems in which to navigate at random, we find ourselves transcribing a curious circle. We may have left the jungle behind only to find that it is still in the room. As resources scarcity and precarity instigate new scrambles for survival, a re-emergence of survivalist principles emerges, copulating with embedded status seeking, spawning a new internalised state of nature. Our trajectory from here is uncertain — the undergrowth is too dense, there is too much danger to watch for, and too much insecurity to nail down. And there is a great deal of competition to kill before anyone can consider the future.