Here’s a scenario for you: you have a time-machine, but it will only travel back to Christmas 1996. Labour are obviously about to win next year’s election, and you’re allowed one bet, on this question: who’s going to be the most influential political philosopher of the next decade? Granted, it’s a funny sort of time-machine, but where does your tenner go?
You can quickly rule out Marx and a century-and-a-half’s worth of acolytes. (You’re not that naive.) Liberal-egalitarians like Rawls and Dworkin, too: the infernal Fabian (no, Tourettian) urge to twiddle and tinker isn’t dead yet. Maybe you’d go for someone new? John Kay, business economist, coiner of the “stakeholder society”, has been seen hanging out with the right crowd (but is just about to be dropped). And Anthony Giddens is probably too short a price to be worth a bet. With Clinton in the White House and the SPD sure to win in 1998, a Third Way three-way seems inevitable.
I tell you who you wouldn’t have picked, though: Thomas Hobbes. Which is a shame, because you could probably have named your price, and by next Christmas you’d be in Barbados with your feet up. Because he just keeps cropping up, again and again. You might even say that he’s enjoying a renaissance, if it weren’t for the fact that the old royalist was anything but a renaissance man.
… nothing the sovereign representative can do to a subject, on what pretence soever, can properly be called injustice or injury
The former head of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Stevens … says: ‘I genuinely never thought I’d say this, but I am now convinced that the monster who executed this young woman in cold blood should, in turn, be killed as punishment for his crime.’
And from Leviathan again, chapter 28:
It is manifest therefore that the right which the Commonwealth (that is, he or they that represent it) hath to punish is not grounded on any concession or gift of the subjects.
From the theorists of the Roman state to its fullest expression in HobbesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Leviathan, the central question of political theory was just this: how do we ensure order? And what are the respective roles of individuals, communities and the state?
Which is about as good an ancient genealogy of fascism as you could manage in two sentences.
Actually, there’s a bit of tragedy in here, too. Scrape away all the quasi-totalitarian, communitarian-lite, speech-writer’s guff, and Blair almost gets it right. He flirts with the answer. He quotes R. H. Tawney approvingly. The same R. H. Tawney who in Equality (1931, p. 291) wrote:
Though an ideal of equal distribution of material wealth may continue to elude us, it is necessary, nevertheless, to make haste towards it
There’s more. Blair, from the same speech:
Poverty and exclusion from the material norms of a prosperous society provide fertile ground for crime. Anti-social behaviour is more common in poor areas. Richard Sennett has written persuasively about the way the basic courtesies diminish with increasing material inequalities. The social capital literature also provides a large body of data to show that respect and trust are less evident in areas of high deprivation.
But this suggestion is left to hang. The policy implications are ignored: not Blair’s “Neighbourhood Renewal” or “the New Deal for Communities”, surely, but straightforward redistributive taxation. The dirty word of noughties politics. Could it be true? That the PM suspects the answer to this drip-drip of low-level criminality and disengagement just maybe lies somewhere in the gross and increasing maldistribution of wealth and power? That he isn’t bold enough to do anything about it?