Thomas Hobbes and ‘dystopian’ cities
After reading Halper and Muzzio’s Hobbes in the City, which focuses on Hollywood’s various interpretations of the plausibility and inevitability of the Hobbesian leviathan, I became interested in this idea of cinematic urban dystopias. Halper and Muzzio analyze a variety of these futuristic images, focusing largely on the Chicken Little approach: a distant future set in a broken-down city, broken down either because of the lack of a Hobbesian sovereign or the abuse of power by a leviathan-like leader.
Among the movies they list is a historical progression of doom-and-gloom predictions. Whether because of tyrannical leaders and uncontrollable technology, as in Logan’s Run (see the trailer here) and Fahrenheit 451, or the mass anarchical chaos in Batman and Robocop (Robocop trailer), the general consensus among Hollywood filmmakers seems to be that the urban society is going downhill quickly. Chicken Little’s eschatological declaration that “The sky is falling!!” is all too inevitable for these writers and directors.
But the question that kept nagging me throughout my reading of the article was, Why so many dire, ‘dystopian’ ideas about the future? Is it simply inevitable that our government is doomed to fail and create chaos and despair somewhere down the line? According to a series of Hollywood interpretations, the answer seems to be yes. Our society’s dependence on our governmental structure is leading us slowly but surely to this Hobbesian, animalistic state of nature in which any semblance of liberty is a long-forgotten memory.
So where is it that Hobbes’ perfect sovereign and just social covenant go wrong to make these futuristic urban depictions so generally unpleasant?
Clearly the anarchy reigning in Batman and Robocop support Hobbes’ conception of the condition of a society without laws or a sovereign – These fictional cities have reverted to a state of nature. The citizens are in a constant state of war, whether literally engaged in violence or simply in a constantly defensive state of mind, due to the lack of property laws or effective enforcement, requiring them to always be on their guard to personally defend their property. These movies certainly don’t paint the state of nature in a positive light, lending credence to Hobbes’ determination to move away from that condition of war. These hopeless depictions of cities in a state of nature, in desperate need for a hero, seem to advocate for a strong leader much like Hobbes’ leviathan.
However, according to a long list of other fictional scenarios, societies under the rule of a leader much like this seemingly desirable leviathan are no less in need of a hero. In these movies, it seems inevitable that the reign any absolute sovereign will end in the abuse of power, necessitating an uprising among the people. This particular storyline is not limited to these dystopian movies, either; historically, the abuse of power has led to rebellion and many a sovereign’s downfall (some examples include, but are certainly not limited to, Louis XVI in the French Revolution, King George during the American Revolution, and Tsar Nicholas II at the popular uprisings in Russia during the First World War). It could be argued that these rebellions are the breaking of Hobbes’ social contract and thus the dystopian image is not the result of following Hobbes’ ideals. However, the awful conditions leading up to revolution, both in the movies and in real-life examples, do not necessarily advocate for a Hobbesian approach to government.
So the question remaining is, Are these two extremes the only possibilities? Is it inevitable that society will eventually self-destruct either in anarchical chaos or the reign of a tyrannical ruler? Or is there another option?