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Thomas Hobbes and ‘dystopian’ cities

October 12, 2010

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?

6 Comments
  1. Trevor Cookler permalink
    October 12, 2010 8:20 PM

    This is a well thought out post and the question at the end is extremely discussable. To be honest, I don’t know if there is another outcome for the future. It may be positive, it may be negative, who knows? In terms of Hollywood and their movie making abilities, perhaps it is harder to create a story line with a utopian society. It may just be easier to create a story of the turmoil of Gotham in “The Dark Knight” or movies of chaos such as Will Smith’s “I Robot”.

    So many of the movies mentioned in Halper and Muzzio’s Hobbes in the City show either a crazy turn in the human race, or an epidemic, or uproar of evil robots. Although all your points sadly show that the world may end up like one of these movies, it may be wrong to connect all negative movies with the state of nature. There are so many movies connoting positive messages. Let’s stay positive! So, the world may not in fact “self destruct” or turn on itself, but I do agree with you that by the effects of these movies there seems to be no other alternative. Great job.

  2. crorey permalink
    October 13, 2010 3:37 PM

    Society will never really self destruct unless there is nuclear way. I believe that society, over time, has been moving toward to the kinds of government that they see best fit. It is sort of like natural selection. The colonists obviously dislike the monarch of Britain, so they created a democracy. I highly doubt that any person would want an overpowerful dictator that oppresses them. It’s just very hard for me to imagine anyone promoting the kind of government that acts in ways similar to those presented in Robocop or Blade Runner. Until I actually see a dystopia similar to the ones described by Halper and Muzzio, I will continue to believe that these fateful opinions are just exaggerated worries.

  3. gobluee3092 permalink
    October 13, 2010 5:52 PM

    You bring up the question of why are these movies set in the future and if this points to an inevitable fail in society somewhere down the line, but I think that this is simply Hollywood’s way of appealing to people who are naturally curious as to what the future holds. Despite extremely sophisticated technology available today, one thing we as a human race are still unable to grasp are the events of the future. Hollywood movies bring us to a hypothetical place where we can “see” the effects our actions today have on the future. As noted, most of these depictions appear to be negative and in either a state of tyrannical authority or in the state of nature, but who’s to say that in 100 years our government won’t be nearly the same as it is now. We have held on to the idea of American democracy for over 200 years now with arguable success, but with success nonetheless. I personally don’t think that we are headed toward a Hobbesian-type government down the line.

  4. Will Butler permalink
    October 13, 2010 9:35 PM

    I think the last question brought up in this post is why we must appreciate and revere the framers of the constitution. While they all disagreed and had very much different views as to how America would progress, they saw the inevitability of this question. Human nature, much like Hobbes describes, is based on self-interest. This self-interest can either lead to a tyrannical dictator, or anarchy. However, the framers of the constitution built in institutional methods to prevent this from happening to the best of its ability. Our system not only provides self-interest for power, but also places checks on that power to protect the public.

    However, all this being said, I wanted to comment on a point made in another comment. I do disagree that there is some sort of natural selection taking place on the type of government that is best. I do not believe there is a single system that can claim the spot of the “correct” system. Your preference for the organization of the state all depends on what one prides. Hobbes values safety above all else. John Stuart Mill places liberty above all else. To hint that there is a natural selection taking place is to infer that there is a pre-determined best system of government that we have yet to evolve to.

  5. Will Butler permalink
    October 13, 2010 9:52 PM

    Speaking of states of nature and dystopias, I wanted to make a brief mention of Solnit. Solnit makes all her observations about her “states of nature” after the formation of a civilized society. Hobbes on the other hand speaks of the state nature before any formation of a state. Does anyone else think that a state of nature would differ after the formation of state as opposed to one before any formation of a government?

  6. jaclburr permalink
    October 19, 2010 1:03 PM

    I have often thought this myself, reading dystopian literature in high school english classes. Are we really doomed to all of this? Is life so bad? I believe the answer to be no. To me, I feel people use extremes like these films and novels to prove a point – that if certain aspects of our cultures are allowed to get out of hand, they could turn out like this. In doing so, society can recognize flaws, as well as virtues, and work to better their futures.

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