Behemoth and Leviathan

Behemoth and Leviathan

In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the leading journal in its field, a close observer of the political situation in Latin America (J. Rapley) sees this continent on the way back to "the middle ages". Why? Because in that region the quintessential distinction between order and chaos, or between law and crime, is becoming blurred step by step. This is said to apply above all to big (mega-) cities.

Governance, the argument goes, takes on a new meaning, viz. bargaining and coming to terms with the forces of chaos (gang leaders etc.), instead of fighting and defeating them. On second thought we have to admit that similar signs of a "failing state", albeit less far advanced, can be detected in more "civilized" areas too, like some neighbourhoods in New York, Paris, London, or, to a lesser extent, even Berlin.

Metaphorically speaking, we are witnessing the return of Behemoth, that frightening monster mentioned in the Old Testament, as introduced to the realm of politics by Thomas Hobbes. In this modern context it symbolizes destruction and decay.

The other side of politics is represented by Leviathan, the "mortal god" of order. And while this monster, due to Thomas Hobbes, has embarked to a literary career of sorts, Behemoth’s fate was to lead an afterlife in virtual anonymity. The unequal impact, surprising at first, can be explained by the simple fact that Leviathan is the monster of our dreams, hidden or not.

Political thinking as we know it has always been a science of order designing regimes strong and clever enough to guarantee, above all, internal peace. For some peace would include a certain degree of liberty or privacy, others have maintained that there can be no peace without property; and Hobbes emphasized the importance of peace "sans phrase". It has been with regard to these convictions that institutions have been constructed, be they authoritarian, be they liberal ("checks and balances") or democratic ("to empower people").

On the other hand; Behemoth has been, by and large, taken for given, a state of affairs sufficiently described by that famous phrase of Hobbes – a life for all which is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". That is imaginable, explicit, self-explaining, deterring, and final. Why bother then?

Let us keep in mind that Hobbes envisions a conflict between opposites that are represented through identical symbols – law and chaos are both monsters, after all. From which follows that a legal system may well turn chaotic as chaos may, upon closer look, reveal an "orderly" structure. In short, antagonism seems to level off, and ambiguity is creeping in.

Research on Leviathan belongs under the category of governance studies. It used to be a "natural" domain of disciplines like law, economics (institutional and otherwise), political sociology and political and administrative science. After what has been said, two things can be taken for granted:

  • The study of governance has to include Behemoth, the "dirty" side of order
  • The new study of governance has to rely upon a new pool of disciplines

Which disciplines – this is a question not to decide a priori. But it is fairly safe to say that the expertise emanating from and contributing to the general topic of law and society is predestined to play a major role.