Egypt and the State of Nature


I don't much like government, and pretend to love chaos. Watching news reports from Cairo forces me to admit hypocrisy. The fact is, I want chaos on my terms. The state of nature terrifies. As a general rule, I would prefer not being murdered, the victim of theft or otherwise terrorized by others. If I am an anarchist, I am a reluctant anarchist, and that makes little sense.

Millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets. They have discovered the power of no. They have simply walked away from the prevailing norms governng Egypt, and from Honsi Mubarek. Mubarek's regime is teetering, and may soon crumble.

Of course, the sight of a toppling pharoah inspires feelings of both elation and terror, depending on where you sit. Those oppressed and without a seat at the limited abundance Egypt has to offer celebrate. Those with a stake in the way the game of life is played under Mubarek are terrified. Say what you will about the current regime, but it imposes order of a sort, with winners and losers. Remove that order and all stand on the cusp of loss.

Hence, the state of nature, the grand fiction of liberal democratic political thought.

Myths of origins, golden ages, paradises, times before things went bad, are a staple of civilization. We tell stories to one another to situate ourselves in space and time. Myths of origins help us develop a critical detachment from the status quo. We can gauge how far removed we are from justice by measuring today's society against an imagined golden age. A related set of myths relates visions of the end of things, when justice triumphs -- the apocalyptic dream. The present is always suspect, tense and filled with uncertainty.

The state of nature is a common trope in our political thought. As used by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, it became a rhetorical tool that helps to sketch out the metes and bounds of legitimate authority. We once enjoyed natural liberty. What happened? Why do we not now? What consequences follow?

For Hobbes, the state of nature was a place of terror. We were free, but our lives were solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. We entered civil society to tame the beast within. We yielded natural liberty for security. The sovereign has power we have freely given. Hobbes was, after all, a totalitarisn.

Anarchists see the state as an enemy, and view its elimination as a return to natural freedom. Utopian visions say that in the absence of coercion, love and a proper regard for one another will set us free to live at ease, and without the oppressing hand of government. I want to believe that. I really do. But what I believe is that left to our own devices, we'd dash one another's brains to smithereens. In every breast sleeps a killer. Deny it at the cost of becoming a hypocrite yourself. My anarchism extends simply to the proposition that government is yet another gang, another group bent on limited ends that will result in divisions of humankind into winners and losers. Temperamentally, I favor the underdog, so I distrust government.

So I watch Egypt today and I am ambivalent. Yes, Mubarek is tottering and may soon tumble. Chaos looks liberating. But chaos is a brief holiday from the hard business of organizing millions of people into something like an organism capable of acting without devouring itself. Egypt seems poised at a crossroads today. It is returning to something like a state of nature. What brave new world will emerge?

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