Hobbes and the War Machine

Here is my take, from something I am currently writing, on how we might interpret Deleuze and Guattari’s war machine, as just another front in their resolute and consistent campaign to overturn Hobbes in every respect…


Deleuze and Guattari do not discuss the city or the urban much, if at all. But they do offer lots of ideas on the question of space. For example, their account of desiring-production fleeing the apparatuses and tracing out a new land parallels their discussion of the nomad, a free element who moves across smooth space and remains beyond the reach of the striated space of the State. The State and its striated space is a central concern for Deleuze and Guattari, especially in A Thousand Plateaus. They even theorize a whole concept, the war machine, designed to work in and through smooth space and in opposition to the striated space of the State. The war machine is a complex concept, but I think it is important to understand it as an instance of their desire to confront Hobbes.

For Hobbes, we agree to submit to the authority of the State in order to bring ourselves out of the state of nature, which for him is necessarily a state of war. That is because in the state of nature anyone can, at any time, kill anyone else. Hobbes calls our condition in the state of nature bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of each person against every other person. For Hobbes our life in the state of nature–that is, life outside of (or prior to) State authority–is necessarily a state of war, a miserable state of constant dread that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, Chapter 13). For Hobbes we enter into a state of peace, of civil society, of commonwealth, only when we agree to surrender our own power, the power that is originally ours, to the State. Hobbes’ argument here forms the glowing core of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the war machine–it is a machine whose purpose is to generate war in this Hobbesian sense: war as a condition outside the State, a life in which we have not surrendered our power to the State. Of course, Deleuze and Guattari do not accept Hobbes’ argument that such a life would necessarily be a bellum omnium contra omnes. Rather ‘war,’ or life outside the State, is instead a radically open proposition. For Deleuze and Guattari, in our life outside the State we can choose relations of peace or war; we can choose to thrive or destroy ourselves. Hobbes thought we were naturally inclined to war. Locke, for his part, thought we were naturally inclined to reason and peace. Deleuze and Guattari, much more plausibly, suggest that in our life beyond the State we are capable of the full range of human relations. And so for them the question is: what kind of human community the war machine will build, what kind of life the nomads will trace out for themselves in smooth space. The only thing we know for sure is that they will be operating beyond the State and its oligarchical structure, its striated space, and they will be actively warding off the State’s re-imposition. They will refuse Hobbes’ contract, refuse to surrender their power to the State, refuse to be captured by striated space. Instead, they will retain their own power, and they will use it to move through smooth space, to create according to their desire, and to manage their affairs for themselves.


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