At one stage in the farcical feature film Blazing Saddles the main protagonist is condemned to die. With an eye to the racial overtones of the movie, the executioner tells the black man that “everyone is equal in my eye.” While in the normal run of things there are factions and sectarian conflicts predicated on numerous factors, including race, there is a state of egalitarianism on the scaffold.
Death is the great leveller. To highlight the ubiquity of taxation Benjamin Franklin once quipped about ‘death and taxes’ but in the era of the welfare state, tax havens, and corporate tax breaks, such a quip resonates to a lesser degree. Still, while a broad base of taxation is one of the features of modern mass democracies, what is more surprising is the theoretical basis of modern democracies. This basis is in fact rooted in death, or more precisely fear of death.
Thomas Hobbes was the thinker who did most to inaugurate modern democracy with its mass of individuals who are atomized. Hobbes was well ahead of his time and harmonized his political support for authoritarianism with the science of his day, a science which is still very much the backbone of modern day science.
Hobbes had little time for humans but yet sought to study them and build a comprehensive political theory that took into account man’s psychological dispositions. Hobbes identified man’s lust for power as critical. However, a political theory could never be based on a continual power-lust because political theorists seek some moral foundation as a justification for obedience to a higher authority.
In Book I, Chapter 11 of Leviathan, Hobbes identifies two common factors that assure obedience to a higher authority. First, there is the desire for an easier life. Secondly, there is the fear of death or also wounds. However, it is the fear of death that is critical because men strive after power in any case whether in the state of nature or in a commonwealth.
Death is that ‘X factor’ which really distinguishes a Hobbesian commonwealth, the genesis of modern democracy, from a state of nature where men live a bestial existence.
That is not to say that Hobbes intended his speculations to be taken to extremes. He was looking for some common ground, the preservation of life, by which men would accept civilized existence. In contrast to Hobbes, the telos of mass democracies is the continual search for equality. This quest for complete equality is ‘in the future at some stage.’
And, to a degree the quest will be realized; everyone will find equality in death. The only problem with such a radical democratic quest for perfect equality is that it can only be realized in the most useless condition, that of a state where men are in a state of perfect un-freedom. But perhaps, the constant regulations, rules, and unnatural strictures that are placed on people in the welfare state – the state that is the vehicle for equality – demonstrate that the ideal of perfect democracy and equality is that of a living death.