Leviathans

Four thousand years ago they knew the world would end the same way it began: with dragons. Humanity’s first experiments with the state, city, and surplus were also experiments in myth. As infrastructures—nutritional, mythical, political, material—began their slow, millennia-long thickening into the Anthropocene, gods slew dragons. In Sumer and Ugarit, Urartu and Akkad, people told stories of dragons’ defeat: Tiamat and Leviathan, Behemoth and Rahab. All of them were symbols of chaos, threats to an abundant natural order subdued by Baal or Marduk or Yah. These battles were also part of complexity’s first political theologies. Bronze Age kings legitimated their reign by styling themselves servants of the gods that slew chaos and brought order. Even the Hebrew god defeated Leviathan, though this battle was redacted out of the Torah and relegated to the Psalms. In humanity’s first experiments in bigness, then, Leviathan was an enemy of the state (see Day 1985; Gunkel 2006; Levenson 1987).

Sacred kingship had a good run—scattered adherents remain to this day—but took one of its earliest, most decisive hits in early modern Europe. During the English Civil War, Roundheads challenged the divine right of Charles I. The challenge turned into a beheading, and the war sent royalists like Thomas Hobbes fleeing to France. Searching for certainty, Hobbes imagined a new Leviathan who could secure an orderly world and ensure that England’s nasty and brutish civil war would also be short. This Leviathan’s rule was rooted not in its calibration with mythocosmic order, but in a neo-Epicurean appreciation of the rational self-interest of citizens faced with overwhelming power (Kahn 2004; Stewart 2015). Ernst Kantorowicz (1957) once wrote that the king had two bodies, but in Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece to Hobbes’s Leviathan, the king had amassed over three hundred. Leviathan’s deductive philosophizing was defeated by an air-pump (Shapin and Schaffer 1985), but its publication joined punitive deterrence and the social contract in a marriage that continues to this day. The king was no longer the enemy of Leviathan; he was Leviathan.

Draft for the frontispiece of Leviathan
Draft of the frontispiece for Hobbes’s Leviathan.

In the three hundred and fifty years since Leviathan, humanity has perfected the art of mastering bigness through corporations. These leviathans—legal entities treated as people—have an unparalleled capacity to organize time and space extensively and intensively. Robert MacIver (1939) called the modern industrial state a New Leviathan. Franz Neumann (1963) christened its fascist variant Behemoth. Modern logistics, beginning with D-Day and the war in the Pacific, were largely created to overcome them, thus making our own leviathans stronger. The Internet, for some a symbol of decentralization, was a piece of Cold War social science invented to ensure that the American leviathan would always have a head, no matter how many nodes were destroyed.

Today’s leviathans seem invulnerable because of their scales. Immortal, they outlive the lawsuits of those who oppose them. Intangible, they dwell offshore and beyond sovereignty—unless, that is, they make their own. Max Weber (1978) argued that leviathans, rationally developed, were the most efficient sort of organization for mobilizing action. For Louis Brandeis (1914), this bigness was a curse not a blessing, and size was inherently noxious because of the uses to which it could be put. Today, in the Anthropocene, we have learned the power of the leviathans that have swallowed us.

The curse of bigness is not merely that leviathans are too successful, not just that they turn exploitation into overexploitation. Another source of their power is their ability to insulate individual humans from moral responsibility. As Robert Jackall (1988) points out, in corporations decisions are pushed up but responsibility is pushed down. Their mistakes—the oil spills, the malfunctions, the violence—are never the leviathan’s error. The guilt is borne by the faulty part, the contractor, the rogue employee on a frolic of his own (Gaddis 1994). Or, better yet, responsibility falls in the interstices between people. Even if they weren’t too big to jail, leviathans’ distributed corporeality is unincarcerable. Our ethics of individual responsibility is inadequate to an age of distributed agency.

Scale also facilitates disavowal. Once, Leviathan was a symbol of chaos. Today, leviathans work through externality, pushing the entropy they create outside of themselves, their balance books, and their commitment to transparency and sustainability. Within, there is order. Without is somebody else’s problem. Unintended consequences, structural effects, collective action problems: these are how the world ends with dragons.   So we build larger and larger leviathans to enclose what was once disavowed. The United Nations. Global emissions standards. The International Council on Mining and Metals. World banks and courts. The Subcommission of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which officially named the Anthropocene itself. Our attempts at smallness continue too: zones Occupied to create a space where size does not crush possibility, truth revealed by Anonymous networks that create scaled effects without producing a corporate body. Even corruption—for what else is corruption but an affront to routinized bigness?—has the potential to disrupt.

The end is a distinct possibility. Our leviathans may end the Anthropocene not long after it began. We already have visions of this apocalypse, complete with dragons. The Talmud (Baba Bhatra 74b) teaches that God originally created two leviathans, male and female, but God slew one of them lest they reproduce and their brood destroy the world. When the world ended, it says, there would be a feast for the faithful when the meat of this leviathan would be served under a canopy made of its skin. They knew the world would end the same way it began: with dragons.

Taming our bigness, harnessing our leviathans, imagining forms of empowering smallness: these are the central challenges of the Anthropocene. Connecting individual responsibility to structural injustice; building an enduring empathy for people affected by slow-motion disasters, not just photogenic, cataclysmic ones; describing complexity clearly; explaining indeterminacy rather than gesturing at its beautiful inscrutability: these are the tasks for which our lexicon must be deployed. In the future, we will sport with leviathans.

References

Brandeis, Louis. 1914. Other People’s Money, and How The Bankers Use It. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.

Day, John. 1985. God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gaddis, William. 1994. A Frolic of His Own. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Gunkel, Hermann. 2006. Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton: A Religio-Historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

Jackall, Robert. 1988. Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kahn, Victoria. 2004. Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640–1674. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.  

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. 1957. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Levenson, Jon D. 1987. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. New York: Harper and Row.

MacIver, Robert. 1939. Leviathan and the People. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press.

Neumann, Franz. 1963. Behemoth: Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944. New York: Octagon Books. Originally published in 1944.

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and The Experimental Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Stewart, Matthew. 2015. Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: W. W. Norton.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press.