Qotd: Allott on the State of Nature thesis in international law

(Neo-)Realists presume that the Hobbesian state of nature thesis (which is in itself not based on empiric observations about mankind’s ancient history) also applies in international relations. Allott would disagree.

Epistemically dubious, historical only in form, and suspiciously convenient in its content, the idea of the state of nature made possible the creation-myth of social contract theory, a theory about the origin of human society in general. Social contract theory was always seen to rest on a paradox – that people in the state of nature freely choose to give up their natural freedom for the unfreedom of society. It is a paradox which echoes a paradox of theodicy: why would a perfect god create an imperfect universe? Social-contract philosophers rightly devoted little attention to this obvious problem. The important historical question is: why did such a plainly paradoxical theory establish itself in the social consciousness of societies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? The answer must be that it was a theory which fitted the nature of a deep-structural social transformation, as the displacement of social power in favour of a newly dominant social class needed a displacement of old theories about the source of ultimate social authority – whether God, the king, or tradition. Social contract theory made it possible to suppose that a society is made by and for its members, that they are the authors of all social authority, that they are the lawgivers of the law to which they are all subject. In other words, the paradox of social contract theory made possible the foundational paradox of liberal democracy, and its noble lie, that the people are their own subjects. However, beyond the sphere of the national societies a strange thing happened. The idea of the pre-societal state of nature was commonly used to characterise the essential nature of inter-societal relationships, but it was not used as the basis of a creation-theory of a contractual international society. International pre-society was left with a vestigial law of nature, of increasingly dubious epistemic status, and with a sort of pre-legal system, which came to be known as international law, containing, like Locke’s state of nature, shadows and echoes of the familiar furniture of societal legal systems. Why was the society-forming surpassing of the myth-theoretical inter-societal state of nature not postulated as a theory of an international society? Why was the ancient idea of a natural society of all human beings simply side-lined in international social consciousness? Why did Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx abstain from extrapolating their society-forming theories to the level of international society? Once again, the answer must be that a class which dominated the relevant area of social consciousness felt no need to transform the theoretical content of social consciousness beyond the limits of national society. To be more specific, an old-regime ruling-class managed to retain its dominance over international social consciousness, long after it had lost dominance over social consciousness within some national societies.
The urgent effort has now begun, centuries late, to find within international social consciousness an appropriate theory of the nature and purpose of international society, the society of all societies.

Philip Allott, International Law and the Idea of History (1999) 1 Journal of the History of International Law 1, 10f.

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