Hobbes, Hont and commercial society

In 2009 Istvan Hont delivered the Carlyle Lectures at Oxford on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith. These were (posthumously) published earlier this summer as Politics in Commercial Society: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, ed. Béla Kapossy and Michael Sonenscher (Harvard University Press, 2015). They make for an intriguing and sometimes a quite frustrating read, not least because they contain many bold and provocative claims, often with only minimal evidence adduced in their support. While the book is principally about Rousseau and Smith, Hobbes plays a crucial part in Hont’s genealogy of the concept of commercial society in the opening chapter, which might be of interest to visitors of this site. I also suspect that most discussions of the book will (rightly) focus on Hont’s interpretations of Rousseau and Smith, but his analysis of Hobbes also merits consideration.

The term commercial society is generally associated with Adam Smith, and this is where Hont’s genealogy begins, but as the term is often used imprecisely he looks for a later category to help capture its meaning. Hont adopts the distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft from Ferdinand Tönnies, which he takes as translations of Hobbes’s distinction between ‘union’ and ‘concord’, most prominent in The Elements of Law and De cive (I don’t know Tönnies well enough to assess whether this is plausible). ‘The concord–union distinction’, Hont assures us, ‘was the central plank of Hobbes’s attack on republicanism and resistance theory.’ (6)

Hobbes is important because his theory of the state is based on union, not concord. In denying that the state is based on concord, as Hont understands Hobbes, he denies ‘the political efficacy of natural sociability as the foundation of the state in any of its forms, including the utilitarian bonds created by commercial reciprocity’, or what Hont proceeds to call ‘commercial sociability’ (6–7). For Hobbes, the state is not based on any pre-existing concord or consensus grounded in human sociability. It is instead based on the unity produced by individuals consenting to be ruled by a common power, which they do out of fear for their lives. While it’s certainly true that Hobbes denied that we’re naturally sociable, it’s less clear whether he had in mind what Hont terms ‘commercial sociability’, and I would need to see a lot more evidence before endorsing the conclusion that Hobbes ‘dismissed commercial sociability as ultimately irrelevant to his purposes.’ (7)

Hobbes, of course, claimed that all societies originate in love of self, which in De cive (i.2) he cashed out in terms of utility and glory. Hont is well aware of this, but thinks that utility does not play much of a role for Hobbes; in so far as he has a theory of commercial sociability, it is ‘underplayed in his system’ (7). To say commercial sociability is underplayed is already to take a big step back from the claim that it is ultimately irrelevant, and Hont more sensibly proceeds by emphasising that it is not as important for Hobbes as glory, or the psychological need of recognition by others. Indeed, for Hont, ‘the politics of recognition was Hobbes’s—not Rousseau’s or Smith’s—invention.’ (12)

There is a lot going on at this stage in Hont’s genealogy and there are two more general points worth highlighting. First, Hont acknowledges that everyone at the time, Hobbes included, knew that the politics of pride and recognition (glory) was closely bound together with the politics of markets and economic cooperation (utility), but he nonetheless proceeds to talk of their contrast and opposition. I think Hont is right to argue that the relation between recognition and utility is key to understanding the politics of commercial society in this period, but presenting this relation as antagonistic is less helpful, especially when trying to make sense of someone like Smith, who famously wrote that ‘it is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty.’ (TMS, I.iii.2.1) We pursue wealth because we desire recognition, in other words.

The second point worth highlighting about Hont’s discussion of Hobbes is that he silently shifts from analysing commercial society (Smith’s term) to commercial sociability. Hont never explains the precise relation between these two terms and I think this causes problems for his argument throughout the book. Without detailing these problems here, it hopefully suffices to point out that commercial society, for Smith at least, is one of four historical forms that human society has taken, whereas commercial sociability, as discussed in relation to Hobbes, is an explanation of why humans associate together in the first place. These are not one and the same thing, so greater clarification of how they are related would have been very helpful.

Returning to the genealogy of the concept of commercial society, how does all of this relate to Rousseau and Smith? Hont’s answer is that ‘Tönnies points us toward the idea that the unstated third person in any Rousseau–Smith comparison is Hobbes.’ (8) Of course, even if Tönnies thought that Hobbes’s concord–union distinction was of great significance, more needs to be said to establish that Rousseau or Smith (or anyone else writing between Hobbes and them) read Hobbes along the lines Hont suggests. Hont thinks that the all-important connection can be found in Smith, who ‘brought up the notion of commercial society in a context that is directly related to the Hobbesian genealogy.’ (8)

This claim is absolutely crucial, but unfortunately the evidence underpinning it is decidedly shaky. Hont argues that in ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith repeats the concord–union distinction without using these terms, and then inserts a third, intermediate term in between … Smith outlines three forms of society: that of love, fear, and utility.’ (9) Alarm bells started ringing for me when I read the words ‘without using these terms’– the claim that Smith is engaging with the Hobbesian genealogy rests on a passage where he  neither mentions Hobbes nor uses Hobbes’s terms!

That passage is TMS, II.ii.3.1–3, but it’s far from clear to me that Smith is even discussing three different forms of society here. In so far as Hont’s reading seems initially plausible, it’s because he presents the third paragraph before the second and quotes neither of them in their entirety. But read in the right order and in full it appears that Smith is contrasting two types of society at most: one based on love (or concord) and one based on utility. The third paragraph does not refer to a society based on fear at all and instead makes the point that society might subsist without beneficence, but not without justice. So not only does Smith neither refer to Hobbes nor use his terms, he doesn’t even draw the same distinction.

This is a very critical note on which to finish, but ultimately I find Hont’s genealogy of the concept of commercial society unconvincing, especially the connections with Hobbes. There is, of course, a lot more that could be said about the implications of all of this for Hont’s reading of Rousseau and Smith, but that’s a story for another day.