Hobbes and Dystopias

The Hunger Games Mockingjay (Part I).


After seeing the midnight premiere of the new Hunger Games movie a couple of weeks back, my mind’s been fixated on the idea of a dystopian society as cinematically portrayed by this drama-infused motion picture. The concept of a futuristic dystopia actually seems to be quite popular in pop culture today as many movies and tv shows feature this type of action-packed drama (think Divergent, The Walking Dead, Maze Runner, and so on). A characteristic that all of these movies and tv shows have in common is the idea that society as we know it will one day digress into an uncivilized and oppressed state, where corruption runs rampant. Most movies picture it like this: the setting is a broken-down city that is either run by a politically strong, tyrannical, leviathan-like leader, or the state is in complete anarchy with no form of Hobbesian sovereignty to be found. Whether the plot concerns the former, like in Fahrenheit 451, or the latter, like in The Purge, the general consensus among Hollywood writers, producers, and directors is that civil society as we know it is tumultuously going downhill. *Cue Chicken Little’s “The sky is falling!”*

The popularity surrounding dystopias in movies and shows is actually quite thought-provoking. It begs me to ask the question: Why are all portrayals so innately pessimistic? Is the demise of civil society a looming inevitability that we as members should fear the future? Well according to Hollywood, the answer would be yes. Consequently, the depiction of a destroyed futuristic city runs counter to the theory proposed by Thomas Hobbes, which ensured that a social contract would provide a balanced society and a civilized state.

So, where did Hobbes go wrong? (Of course all of this is hypothetical, as we can’t actually peer into the future and see how and if society ends on a traumatic note.)

First, let’s take a look at the context behind these poorly depicted future civilizations. An idea consistent with Hobbes, and what we see on the big screen, is the idea of a state of nature. Movies often depict anarchical states as being consistently involved in warfare, whether there is literal violence or simply a consistently defensive mindset. This, as Hobbes once famously noted, is the result of the lack of property laws and effective enforcement-requiring individuals to always be in close watch of their belongings. This directly translates with Hobbes’s quote that the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” These hopeless cities depicted in the state of nature seem to advocate for a hero or leader much like Hobbes’ leviathan, to save the city from its corruptive state.

Thomas Hobbes, renowned political theorist and creator of the social contract.

However, when looking at other cinematic dystopias, they portray a contrastingly different situation, in which society is run by a ruler in a harshly oppressive system, where the citizens are unhappy and inevitably rebel out of disobedience. In these movies, it seems inevitable that the reign of any absolute sovereign will end in the abuse of power, necessitating an uprising among the people. This particular storyline is not limited to these dystopian movies, either; historically, the abuse of power has led to rebellion and many a sovereign’s downfall (some examples include, but are certainly not limited to, Louis XVI in the French Revolution, King George during the American Revolution, and Tsar Nicholas II at the popular uprisings in Russia during the First World War). It could be argued that these rebellions are the breaking of Hobbes’ social contract and thus the dystopian image is not the result of following Hobbes’ ideals. However, the awful conditions leading up to revolution, both in the movies and in real-life examples, do not necessarily advocate for a Hobbesian approach to government.

That leaves us with the remaining questions: Are these two extremes the only possibilities? And is it inevitable that society will eventually self-destruct either as a result of chaos or the reign of a tyrannical ruler?

In conclusion, the imperfect societies that we see in movies and tv shows depict exaggerated dystopias that have a small likelihood of ever occurring, at least in our current society. Movies, like the Hunger Games, do inspire thought by questioning Hobbes’ theory, in this case disproving (of course, only cinematically) both the idea of a successful social contract, and the idea of a sovereign ruler. I think it’s crucial to note that Hobbes’ viewpoint is very narrow and only tests one potential institutionalized system, providing evidence of potential errors. At the end of the day, most Hollywood-filmed productions create stories, no matter how distorted, that display instances of intense drama for bringing people to the box office.