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The BREXIT vote in the UK and Donald Trump’s election as US president were both characterised by angry partisanship, false news stories, and the use of racist and xenophobic language. These failures of civility, truthfulness and tolerance have caused deep disquiet about the impact of the Internet and social media on democratic politics. In particular it is feared that demagogues are using digital media to undermine the proper workings of democracy, replace informed debate with lies and propaganda, and render consensual politics impossible.

In January 2017 I submitted an essay on this topic to the new Nine Dots Prize for original thinking. In particular I explored the way in which the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) might regard the impact of digital technologies and what his suggestions might be for restoring order and civility in public discourse in a digital context. In this effort I was greatly assisted by the insights provided by Michael Oakshott in his book Hobbes on Civil Association. I thought that Fellows of the RSA might be interested in the results of this thought experiment.

Hobbes was responding to a state of chaos, partisan conflict and civil war in Britain of the 1640s and 50s, when polarised and extreme political positions were accentuated by a plethora of printed leaflets spreading fear and false news, and when the entire basis of the state was overturned by the public execution of the King. For Hobbes the first priority of government was to preserve safety and security, and to prevent society descending into a war of all against all. His goal was to find a philosophical basis for peace and for civil association. His attention was concentrated not on abstract principles but on what makes politics practically possible. His answer was the absolute sovereignty of Leviathan, named after a Biblical sea monster of awesome power. Contrary to some critics, Hobbes was not advocating tyranny or the exercise of arbitrary power, but a social covenant that would permit strong legitimate government and effective freedom under the rule of law. His seminal thinking about power and civility may give us a prism through which to look afresh at constitutional politics and what is required for it to function successfully in a digital age.

For Hobbes civil society is a construct, a work of art, and relies on agreed rules, without which there is a state of chaos. Such rules are fragile and temporary, and they rely on the sovereign power of Leviathan to uphold and maintain them with the full force of the law. Leviathan, Hobbes said, should be like an ‘artificial man’ to whose absolute power we voluntarily submit ourselves. This could be a monarch, an assembly or parliament, or some other device. The importance point is that it does not represent a particular political group or interest. Nor does it represent the will of the people. Rather it is the custodian and guardian of the political space within which the citizens live in civility. Its powers are constitutional, not political. They are therefore absolute and unconditional, are a matter of law, and are binding. Leviathan is the repository of a great and residual legal power, to which political parties, interest groups and individuals are all subject. Leviathan does not abolish our freedom but constrains it for the benefit of all, mandating peace and requiring that civil dealings take place within agreed rules.

But how would we go about constructing a digital sovereign? Hobbes argued that sovereign power is required for a functioning political entity, it is a lodestar around which a chaotic political activity can spin, and from which political change can be navigated safely. The digital sovereign must enforce the ground rules under which all politics functions, providing a base line for propriety, public decency and civility. Hobbes had no time for absolute ideas of freedom, which he saw as endangering the whole community. He would perhaps point now to the dawning reality of a world where research into vital subjects such as climate change or economic inequality can be buried or discredited by systematic campaigns of misinformation, where individuals can be silenced by a deluge of personal attacks, or where small numbers of undecided voters in marginal seats can apparently be manipulated by carefully targeted fake news.

Arguably the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China have understood the risks and rewards of the new digital media faster than the democracies. They are already deploying the power of digital technologies effectively in defence of their political systems. We might disagree with the legitimacy of these ruling oligarchies, whilst still noting the way in which they are using the new media to defend and preserve their polities. Importantly they are not merely policing the private use of digital technologies, they are also deploying vast digital resources in order to do so. Perhaps (following Hobbes) we can imagine a digital Leviathan that exists not to preserve the power of a ruling elite but to represent a properly constituted legal power, accepted by the voluntary acquiescence of all those who value tolerance, truth and effective freedom. Russia and China have also understood that digital media knows no frontiers. If the digital Leviathan was created on the basis of western democratic values, its definition of voluntary citizenship would inevitably extend to people all over the world, including oppositionists in Russia and China, creating a universal rule-based digital citizenship. The internet recognises no boundaries, so Leviathan would recognise no boundaries to digital civility. Seen in this light, the recent digital behaviour of both these superpowers begins to look like a pre-emptive strike.

In this thought experiment we can perhaps imagine the digital Leviathan employing ‘block chain’ security and huge computing power to oversee and police big swathes of the Internet, using its algorithms to actively seek out, block or eliminate illegal content, and promote civility, all within the context of agreed rules. It would be an artificial intelligence of a new kind, identifying myriad misuses and learning to distinguish them from the proper exercise of free speech. In doing so it would need to operate within clear legal definitions, flagging and identifying offending items, and its decisions would need to be subject to a legally based review and appeal procedure. However, following the logic of Hobbes, the power of the Digital Leviathan to enforce legal proscription should also be awesome, and should extend to the utmost the cyber-policing of cyber-crime. As we have seen, Leviathan would also be a military asset, representing and embodying the combined digital technologies of the west in fighting cyberwars against its enemies.

So what would happen to corporate internet giants like Google and Facebook, which are already the de facto repositories for our data? Arguably Leviathan would combine features of both. It would allow access to the world’s knowledge like Google, but would do so explicitly on the basis of the agreed rules of the digital constitution. It would be a ‘walled garden’ like Facebook, creating a worldwide platform for the communication of ideas and content, but would be based on voluntary submission of its citizens to its digital sovereignty. The power of Google and Facebook is implicit, and is a matter of some embarrassment to them. The power of Leviathan would be explicit and would represent the articulation of a new kind of digital politics. In practice these companies would need to be absorbed within the Leviathan, but perhaps this is something which they could live with. They too depend on an open fact- and rule-based society for their successful operation. Inescapably political as the internet is, the Leviathan will embody the response of constitutional and law-based societies to digital tyrannies.

But doesn’t the digital Leviathan place absolute power in the hands of the person or persons who control the computer? What seems unambiguous is the pervasiveness of digital technologies. It is no longer possible to treat them as an addition to the old ways of doing things. With self-drive cars, delivery drones, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence just around the corner, the need to adapt our politics to the new reality of the digital age is becoming urgent. Hobbes allows us to consider the constitutional and legal basis required for such a new digital polity. The problems being addressed are as old as politics itself: How are conflicting viewpoints and competing individuals to be reconciled within one polity? From where does such a polity get its legitimacy, and how does it accommodate change? Where does power lie and how should it be exercised on behalf of the people as a whole? Who guards the guardians? But in a digital age the answers to these questions must lie in and through digital technologies, and such technologies must be used to build new constitutional protections. Arguably Leviathan, or something like it, must be created if we are to save democratic politics as it is currently practised.

Like Hobbes we too have brutal examples before us of what happens when politics collapses completely. The endemic violence and inhumanity of the war in Syria and Iraq reminds us of what a war of all against all actually looks like. Under these conditions not only is politics impossible, but human life is reduced to a savage battle for survival. With Hobbes perhaps we should acknowledge that the rights and freedoms enjoyed in a western democracy are temporary and fragile, and dependent on the structures that maintain them. In a digital age we need Leviathan to build and maintain a digital constitution for us and to defend this constitution from its enemies. Leviathan would be a digital sovereign, exercising prerogative powers, maintaining and defending the peace, upholding the law and punishing those who transgress it. It would be a temple, whose sanctuaries are open, a digital projection of our better human nature, championing our humanity and checking our self-destructive impulses. It may require a hieratic class of functionaries to run it, but its role will be like that of an independent judiciary or independent central Bank and, like them, it must be above party politics and faction. Once its ideas have taken hold Leviathan may hardly be noticed. Its potency will be constitutional and will reside in the minds of its citizens.

Is the digital Leviathan really as drastic as it sounds? We are already familiar with the power of a constitution and of the rule of law. As citizens we are asked to submit ourselves to this overarching power, and to obey it, even when its decisions go against our individual desires. Isn’t the digital Leviathan just the way in which we must express in our age one of the most fundamental political realities, namely that there can be no absolute rights or freedoms but that they lead to the abrogation of the rights and freedoms of others? Rights and freedoms must be checked by corresponding duties and constraints, by limits, boundaries and rules, applied for the benefit of all. Each digital citizen transfers his rights to govern himself to a sovereign ‘actor’ as part of a solemn covenant, submitting himself to the law for the sake of peace and security and in order to enjoy an effective freedom, and to operate as a political being in the public sphere. As Hobbes understood clearly, the alternative is not more freedom, but no freedom at all, as civil conflict and war, corrosive, vituperative and violent, renders all politics impossible. At a time when we are unthinkingly giving our personal data to corporate internet giants with little thought for the political consequences, is it not time for us to ask like the founding fathers of a new era what is required of a successful digital constitution?

A former senior City solicitor, Graham Henderson FRSA is now an arts leader and cultural entrepreneur, with extensive experience of developing and curating exciting multi-disciplinary arts programmes.

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