Thomas Hobbes's Capitalist Man: Does Modern Technology Show him to be a Democrat or a Fascist?

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Drawing on work of critical theorists from the left -- particularly Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno -- this paper is meant to be a critical reassessment of Thomas Hobbes' contribution to the modern understanding of human nature. While it is uncontested that he is an early proponent of popular sovereignty, Hobbes' clear defense of absolute monarchy sometimes obscures the fact that his is also a revolutionary attempt to characterize man as a democratic being. Breaking with Aristotelean orthodoxy, Hobbes argues that men are equal by nature, and that the destiny of beings so equal in power and reason must be capitalism. For Hobbes, it is under capitalism that man will develop the technologies capable of democratizing society economically, if not politically. Such thinking certainly underpins modern economic orthodoxy, particularly as it is expressed in Milton Friedman's dictum that the legally bound pursuit of profit guarantees a maximization of individual freedom.
Hobbes' view seems to be born out by the democratization of production under conditions of seventeenth and eighteenth century capitalism; not so, however, by capitalism's more recent development. Since the mid-nineteenth century, capitalism has embraced increasingly effective innovations in the promotional technologies of commercial mass culture. Under the guise of creating a democratic culture -- culture for and by the masses -- these technologies have been used first to effect a commodification of culture, and then a commodification of experience. The result is an attendant enthrallment of entire populations to capitalist interests, which mass culture conflates with those of Hobbes' popular desire. Does Hobbes mischaracterize capitalist man, then, or does he describe him all too well? That is, should we have not seen the truth all along: that the inherently anti-social character of Hobbes' natural man is more likely to render him fascist than democratic?


Keywords: Hobbes, Modern, Human Nature, Democratic Man, Promotional Technologies, Mass-Culture, Capitalism, Production, Critical Theory
Stream: Technology in Community
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Thomas Hobbes’s Sovereign Man


Dr. James Cunningham

Instructor, Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Ryerson University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

James Cunningham graduated from University of Toronto, in 1998, with a PhD in Philosophy of Education. Since January of 2000, he has been an instructor at Ryerson University, where he teaches more than 18 different courses in philosophy. While his interests are primarily in critical theory, Cunningham has also given numerous conference presentations on topics in Existentialism and Phenomenology. He has also presented on Media Ethics.

Ref: T08P0074