Of Hobbes, Locke and Lord of the Flies

This isn’t the same Hobbes from your history class. But it is Hobbes.

This ought to be fun. Prepare to laugh, to cry, to want to hug someone.

To appreciate the political subtext of Lord of the Flies, it is important to understand the way that the institutions of states reflect the worldview of their citizens. When Hobbes and Locke wrote their competing treatises on the relationships between man and the state, they operated within an established economic context. Which kind of government – autocratic or democratic – was best suited to the task of maintaining and perhaps improving on the prosperity of England’s upper, middle and lower classes?

To Hobbes, who viewed life as nasty, brutish and short, and who viewed those who lived it as so base in their instincts that they could not subjugate their individual desires to a common good, the only means of maintaining stability was autocracy. If someone tells people what to do, then they’ll do it. And if they don’t want to do it, we’ll make them. Obedience to authority was the only way to save people from themselves. Locke’s view was different, but not opposite. He believed in the notion that people are blank slates (tabulae rasae), that they are created by experience. His view suggests that man is capable of creating and altering the conditions in which he lives, that man has an efficacy missing in Hobbes’ view.

This is the history Hobbes. See why I put the other one first?

In Lord of the Flies, the boys arrive on the island already familiar with the institutions of democracy. They are choir boys from a Christian school, well aware of their rank within their groups. They are familiar with family authority and civil authority. The institutions they know were created by man and can be altered by man – once another boy can sing C sharp, he can challenge Jack’s position in the choir. While Golding sets up a leadership conflict between the Hobbesian opportunist Jack and the ambivalent parliamentarian Ralph, it is the behavior of the citizens of the state, the worldview of those citizens, that is more important to the politics of the novel than is the leadership of the two main characters.

The boys immediately form a society featuring a separation between political and military power, and a division of labor into specialized tasks related to meeting short-term and long-term (infrastructure) needs. All of the variables that can be controlled are controlled, except the boys lack the means to enforce the rules they create for themselves, and the laziness and short attention span of youth combine with the variables we can’t control (fear, jealousy) to open a window of vulnerability for the exploitative Jack. And here is where the context of the Cold War rears its head.

How can we explain how democratic societies in Germany and Italy turned to embrace fascism, how totalitarianism was able to overtake whatever degree of liberty the people of central and eastern Europe had achieved? Golding suggests that the dissolution of social bonds is the necessary ingredient in the fall of man. Once I fail to realize that it is virtuous to help my brother, or at the very least, it can be in my self-interest to help my brother, I stop helping my brother. Once there are no economic institutions in place to help me see how my self-interest is connected to others’ self-interest, I will begin to care only about my self-preservation.

Witness, for example, the effects of the fall of the Roman Empire. Despite the many times the city of Rome had been sacked in the fifth century, historians assign 476 as the year of the fall, most likely because that is when the government stopped writing checks, so to speak. Once the central treasury stopped writing paychecks to the civil service employees who maintained the roads, once they stopped paying the police and tax collectors, the roads fell into disrepute and disrepair. If your cargo wasn’t hijacked on the way to Marseille, it was quite possibly damaged to the point where the transporting of goods from one place to another was no longer profitable. In a simplified version of cause and effect, the failure of the infrastructure isolates the cities, the institutions of the cities falter.

When the cities can’t provide the specialized labor that allows people to pay for their basic needs – food, shelter – there is a migration back to farming and sustenance living. Cities and their outlying areas, located on waterways and roadways, start to fall victim to Moorish invasions in southern Europe and Viking invasions in northern Europe. Instability forces the small farmer to seek protection from a more powerful individual, and deals are struck which create the feudal system; in exchange for protection from violence, you get predictability. What you can predict is that you will pay a tax to me, pay me to use my mills, pay me for this and for that, and immerse your family in debt to mine for generations to come, perhaps for time immemorial.

I’m not sure if that seems like a natural ending or not, but the original close to this post was post-reading reading, and I am lopping off all the spoilers that were present in the paragraph that used to close this post.

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