Published directly after the victory of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes’ treatise of man, Leviathan, was seen by many as justification for the past nine years of bloody battle. In it, Hobbes argues that to stop man descending into the selfish and wanton creature that is his natural state, a commonality must be found and a ruling power in place; found in the creation of a Commonwealth – or Parliament to some. Through his writings he describes how the larger needs of a commonwealth can lead to a greater richness of society, while also noting the pitfalls of sovereignty and religion.
But what of his writings, 350 years later. What would Hobbes have to write about now? Has anything changed that much? The simple answer is no. Human-kind still longs for power and while corrupting, that tribalism holds us together through many things. But the tribalism of shared governance and sovereign nations has given way to a new Leviathan in today’s millenium. This Leviathan spans continents and governs many a life, but is seemingly beholden to no-one.
Big Business started coming on to the scene around the turn of the century, with monopolies for oil and other amenities bursting into existence with the birth of that capitalist breeding ground, America. While monopolies had always been around, they had largely been under the control of or belonged to the ruler of a nation or empire. A gradual change in Britain’s laws after the 17th century’s Glorious Revolution enhanced the rights of the shareholder and enhanced protections for businesses, laws that were heavily replicated in the US declaration of Independence in 1776. In America, the layman could become a holder of vast wealth seemingly overnight. The birthing of millionaires such as J.P Morgan (who had a monopoly on copper that ties him to the quiet downfall of Nikolai Tesla) and John D. Rockefeller (the father of the oil industry through the creation of Standard Oil) created webs of power that did not beholden these men or their morals to anything sovereign or religious. It could be argued that such power and influence attributed to a man with no ties could take him back to his most primitive; solely looking out for himself, as in the dawn of humanity Hobbes may argue.
One hundred years down the line and business has become of number one importance to us as a society. We work to aid the turning of societies gears, and these turn because of a healthy economy which in turn responds to the demands of the market. We are beholden to the market. Sovereign leaders and elected governors make their decisions based on the markets more often than they do the will of their people. Just as in the past religion ruled conscious thought, so now business-acumen and adherence to the company line rule our thought processes. The public work and toil for the business they work for, with the wealth of the business coming before the health of the worker. With the rise of zero-hours contracts the threat of termination looms with every last-minute shift you’re thrown that you can’t do and the pressure to perform often outweighs the actual value of the work.
This method of mental ransom isn’t too far flung from the methods of the church in Hobbes’ era of blooming parliament, where excommunication awaited anyone that spoke against the establishment. If someone were found to have been preaching against the churches teachings, or even extrapolating on religious thought without the churches consent, they could expect ostracisation from society. Public services would no longer be available to them, they could no longer apply for jobs and people would steer clear of them to avoid tingeing themselves.
This may seem a bit far fetched but these methods of excommunication are already in effect in today’s world. Journalists in China, a country seemingly sovereign but increasingly taking over from the United States as a centre for commerce, are finding themselves unable to access healthcare, purchase tickets for travel out of or around the country and they are even finding themselves unable to buy groceries. This is not an accident, it is the expression of China’s social crediting system; whereby “good” behaviour in society is rewarded and “uncivil” behaviour is punished. In the most recent cases however it seems that punishable behaviour includes speaking against the government and attempting to call it to task.
While this relates to the powers of government not big business, it is important to note that government was the new way forward when the church wielded these powers of excommunication in the time of Leviathan. Cromwell’s parliament was the savior of England, lifting the chains imposed on society by religion and providing new opportunities to the leyman. So if governments are now brandishing the sword only religion could previously lift, what’s the new Leviathan rising from the depths that we’ll be beholden to next?
In recent years, it could even be argued that people are affected socially by the culture of their business more than the geographical culture surrounding them in the city they live in. Work dictates the hours you sleep, who you socialise with, how you act with other people and moreover, how you see the world. A rise in sales-like jobs such as recruitment could aid a sense of opportunism for many. Great for them, not so great for the people that they are going to take advantage of, in a work setting or outside of it. A strong business culture encourages tribalism. Look at the best companies around the world and they are all described as having a strong sense of “culture”, like ExxonMobil and Apple which encourages its employees to act a certain way and think a certain way about their business dealings. The imperialistic nature of how Exxon conducts its business acquisitions is one of the reasons for their success, and why its former CEO Rex Tillerson was selected to serve in the White House as Secretary of State in 2017. He is not the only businessman to have found a senior position in the whitehouse but this trend has become even more apparent under Donald Trump with good and bad businessmen being given senior roles in US affairs. This says much about the direction of US interests and the spending of taxpayers money with the survival of business prioritised over people and citizens. However this is not just a trend in the US, countries all over the world are following the lead of maintaining a healthy economy over a population. Great Britain is a leader in choosing money over mankind and it’s recent decisions in regards to Coronavirus, namely allowing business’ to stay open while simultaneously telling people to steer clear and offering no help in law, have cemented this view in my mind. But with more and more countries beholden to the economic goals and deadlines of the IMF and World Bank, I fear that citizens coming second to economic growth is the new normal.
If writing it now, I have no doubt that Hobbes would include business and its role in society in his treatise Leviathan. How he may write about it though I could not tell, as he would no doubt see the burgeoning wealth and good grace that it would bring along with the social advancements and economic growth. But would he also see the darker side, of monopolies and cheap labour, of manufactured debt and bankruptcy? Maybe he would, but unfortunately that’s just up to you.