Syria and the hope for a state of nature

“Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least
more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” – F. Dostoevsky


The Syrian conflict has reached a seemingly insurmountable gridlock. The UN estimates of last June state that around 100,000 people had died and around 2 million have fled the country and are now being forgotten in refugee camps. As the civil war continues and numerous lives have been lost, the West remains rather silent. There is not a lot of enthusiasm to intervene in the conflict and when Western states decide something, they do it in a rather clumsy way. We all remember how the agreement concerning chemical weapons came about. It is remarkable how one of the most powerful men in the world, US Secretary of State John Kerry, could only find an agreement with Russia and the Syrian government after an unintended slip of the tongue. However, as we know from Sigmund Freud, a slip of the tongue is never innocent. It is a symptom of the return of some repressed unconscious content. If we want to investigate the Western unconscious we should first examine the context of the Syrian conflict. Afterwards we will relate this to a shift in Western political thinking, personified by Thomas Hobbes, and lastly we will explain the Western strategic blunders. Something about the Syrian conflict disrupts Western political thought and makes it act in mysterious ways.

 1. Syria, a whole lot of nations under God

Even if Syria is a single nation-state, it is misleading to see it as a homogenous entity. The country’s population is a mixture of all kinds of races, religions and ethnicities. The majority of people have the Syrian Arab ethnicity (around 75%) and the Sunni religion (between 50 and 60%). There are however also large minorities of Kurds (around 10%), Shia, mostly Alewites (13%), Christians (around 10%), etc. As a result, it is a dangerous business to talk about ‘the Syrian’ or ‘Syria as a single nation’.

The president, Bashar Al-Assad, is himself a member of the Alewi minority. He, and his father and predecessor, Hafiz Al-Assad, rose to popularity by pacifying internal conflicts between groups. Practically all high official functions are in the hands of Alewites and mostly even of family members of the president. They have solidified an equilibrium of forces where their own position is crucial. When the Assads disappear, the entire construction falls apart and the country is left without any governing institution at all. Beheading the king means beheading all political and executive functions. Ethnic and religious conflict would follow in this power vacuum and a lot of minorities would become victims of violence from the majority population. This means that the position of the president in Syria (but also for other Middle-Eastern countries) is a paradoxical one. On the one hand, he is a mediator bringing balance to very different groups, but, on the other hand, he is himself part of the power constellation he should manage.

 2. Hobbes’s war against war

To see why Western states feel so threatened by the Syrian power constellation, we should turn toward one of the origins of Western political thinking, namely Thomas Hobbes. He was a British philosopher during the 17th century particularly famous for his quotes about ‘the war of all against all’ and for being the inspiration for the eponymous character in Calvin & Hobbes. It is his philosophy of the state of nature that has shaped Western thought.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

Before the advent of the sovereign state, life was ‘solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short’. In the original state of nature there is a constant war going on between people trying to procure their goods and their lives, because everyone has the freedom to act however he pleases. The only boundaries to someone’s actions are the reactions of others. I can rape, kill and pillage as long as there is no one stopping me. In contrast to what we might believe, Hobbes claims there would not be an actual outright war. Instead we would remain on the brink of war without ever starting it. I do not know how strong my possible opponents will be nor can I avoid the chance of misfortune striking me at a bad moment. If I act rationally in my own self-interest, then I will just scare off my opponents. The similarity to Cold War tactics is striking. As a result the state of nature is not a permanent state of war, but a permanent threat of war. The underlying reason for this situation is the relative equality of people. Some are stronger, but others are smarter and still others are more lenient. The differences level each other out and everyone is more or less equal in strength. If some people would be obviously stronger than others, peace would be achieved immediately. They would simply conquer and enslave all opponents and the threat of war would be gone forever. Equality is war, difference is peace.

How can we leave this state of nature of constant fear? Our fear of death motivates us to sign a social contract in which we collectively delegate our most dangerous rights to a sovereign in exchange for security. If we all give up our right to smash each other’s heads in and give it to one single person to protect the contract from everyone trying to break it, we can all sleep safely at night. The sovereign protects us and, when necessary, uses his right to violence to keep the contract binding. It is therefore the fear of death that causes the social contract to work and constitutes the sovereignty of the state.

If we now look back to Hobbes’s philosophy of the state of nature, it is rather strange it has gone into history as a philosophy of perpetual war. In fact, it is a philosophy of perpetual denial of war. In the beginning there is only a threat of war and politics begin where this threat is eliminated. Nowhere the knives are pulled. War is nowhere exactly by being everywhere. This should make us suspicious. Isn’t something repressed here? It looks like there is some hidden speaking to us on every page between the lines. If we delve into the historical context of Hobbes’s Leviathan, we bump into a peculiar phenomenon left unmentioned. Thomas Hobbes reacted against a multitude of narratives Michel Foucault called ‘The discourse of conquest’. For this theory the state is not a neutral guarantee of peace, but a weapon in the conquest of one race over another. In the England of early modernity a lot of political debates were framed in the terms of race wars. The population consisted originally of Saxons, but in the 11th century William the Conqueror came from Normandy and brought French Normans with him. As a result French law was imposed upon the rest of the people and the Normans also controlled all higher offices in government. Hence the sovereign is not the impartial guarantor of peace Thomas Hobbes wrote about, but a weapon in the war of one race against another. According to this discourse English law is not the protection of the security of the people, but a force of internal colonialism.

This discourse of conquest was particularly popular in revolutionary groups like the Levellers and the Diggers. Those were radical groups of especially Protestants who fought for more equality and popular sovereignty around the days of the English civil war (1642-1651). They view war as the secret of the state. In fact every state is a veil covering up a hideous war of races. Afterwards it depended upon the radicalism of the revolutionary group, what counter-strategies were used. Some opposed old Saxon law against the law of conquest, others deemed the state corrupt whatsoever.

We can now see what Hobbes repressed from Western political memory and why. The discourse that condemns the state to being a simple weapon of race wars risked turning all politics in simple warfare. The social contract risked becoming indistinguishable from the state of nature. When the sovereign is a warlord not protecting a contract of equals, but a domination of one race over another, politics becomes infested with war rhetoric and the potential violence of the state of nature returns to the foreground. Politics then is war through other means. That is why Hobbes wanted to repress the discourse of conquest. When war becomes the actual basis of society, life remains ‘solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short’. The revolutionaries were a threat to peace and to the state. Hobbes banished war from his writings to sustain an order plagued by race wars. There is a specter haunting Europe­ — the specter of race warfare.

 3. There’s something about Syria

We are now in a position to construct a new perspective on the Western reaction to the Syrian conflict. It takes no mastermind to figure out that the Syrian conflict fits more in the discourse of conquest than in Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature. The paradoxical position of Assad as the president is analogous to the one of William the Conqueror. Both are keeping a power equilibrium within the country by letting one group internally colonizing the others. They keep the peace by mediating between the different groups and stabilize the situation by extending the domination of their own group through the assignment of different official positions within the government.

This explains why the West is so reluctant to take a stand in the Syrian conflict. The US and the European states fear that the power vacuum resulting from Assad’s removal will plunge the country in an overt perpetual war. The race war that has remained silent in the background all these years will return with a vengeance. Government control will publicly be a kind of weapon for different groups within society and the sovereignty that should eliminate war from the social body, will itself be part of the war instead.

The repression of the discourse of conquest also explains why the US only wishes to react with minimal measures. For instance, when it was clear that government combatants had used chemical weapons against civilians, Obama only wanted to react with a limited penalty directed against very specific, individual Assad’s strongholds. The goal is to create a state of relative equality of forces, for a Hobbesian state of nature to arise. From this original state a sovereign can be erected on the basis of a social contract. When all parties are entrenched in a situation where forces are more or less of the same strength, a dialogical consensus is the only solution left. War would be once again repressed.

This however also leads to the question why Western policies on Syria have been such a failure. It is not, as some leftist critics claim, because the West is trying to impose its imperialist agenda on the Arab revolutions. It should be clear by now that the thesis of Western imperialism in the Arab Spring revolutions is a complete myth. The US or other Western states have not imposed Western sovereignty in Egypt, Lybia, Syria or whatever other country through puppet-presidents. As a matter of fact dictators like Mubarak or Assad fit more easily in the category of ‘puppets of the West’ than people like Morsi or the Syrian rebels.

The real reason for the failure lies at the core of the Hobbesian narrative. Hobbes bases the transition from the state of nature to the social contract on the fear of death. He therefore presupposes every fighter prefers life to death. This appears to be false. The Jihadi, for example, do not fear death at all. On the contrary, their battle is a way of affirming a life beyond death. I do not mean to say that all fighters are medieval knights placing their religion and superstitious beliefs about virgins in heaven above their individual lives. This lack of fear is not archaic, but modern to its core. Exemplary of this modern fearless death is, for instance, a pamphlet of a German philosopher, Max Scheler, called ‘The genius of war and the German war’. In this text, written during the First World War, the catholic philosopher claims that war delivers us an experience of collectivity no longer found in our modern era of decadence and individualism. Here death is not something to be avoided, but something to be sought, found and conquered by the individual to rise up to the level of a collective experience elevating man above himself. The same discourse is used to legitimate Jihadist warfare. Actual life is not good enough. It is decadent because of Western values. By facing and conquering death, this life can lift itself up toward a more real and authentic life. Death is only the gateway toward the good life.

The Syrian conflict shows that the Western unconscious has come back to haunt us. Our entire political culture is based on the repression of a discourse where politics is war by other means, but in Syria this war is starting to become reality. The West certainly tries to reinstate the state of nature for a peaceful sovereign to arise, but the necessary conditions for this effort are not present. When people no longer fear death there is no reason to demand security from a sovereign. This can only end in two ways: either the West deals with its unconscious, or its unconscious deals with the West.


Further reading

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.
M. Foucault, Society must be defended.
M. Scheler, The genius of war and the German war.



3 thoughts on “Syria and the hope for a state of nature

  1. Well, you can analyze Syria and Assad according to Hobbes frame of thought, but yihadism is not related to Western political thought, nor is it modern. It is rooted in the tradition of martyrdom (shahid), and follows the logic of war in Islam, which in this case doesn’t follow the rationale of fear of death but the rationale of compensation in the hereafter.

    • Thanks for the critique, Eva. I must say, however, I think we are more in the same page than it seems. The point of my article is that the West tries to frame the Syrian conflict into a Hobbesian framework, but fails. This failure is accountable to the fact that yihadists do not comply to a basic presupposition of Hobbes’s philosophy, namely the fear of death. The Syrian conflict looks more like the discourse of conquest Hobbes reacted against. I am not saying yihadism is a direct descendant of this discourse, but that they are structurally similar. Secondly, although I tend to agree that the Jihad is not Western, I think there is a case to be made for its modernity. In contrast to premodern Islam, today’s extreme versions of Islamism propose the Quran as the foundation of reality and society. This search for foundations and the subsequent will to fight for it, are specifically modern aspirations. A medieval Muslim, just like a medieval Christian, was not concerned with the question of the foundations of life and the beyond, for the answers were self-evident. The fact that the questions are asked at all, even if answered in a very dogmatic way, makes Islamic fundamentalist discourse, in my opinion, a modern phenomenon. Kind regards, Tim Christiaens.

      • Thank you for you answer Tim. I agree with you that Islamic fundamentalism has a contemporary dimension which, in my opinion is enhaced by the challenges posed by Western modernity in its global scope. But its doctrinal core -supporting the Quran as the basis of social life-, can be traced back to authors like Ibn Taymiyya in the 13th century, and from there on to other authors like Abdul Wahhab, etc., authors who articulated the principles of nowadays fundamentalism. Kinds regards, Eva.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s