Hobbes and Foucault: the Mercantile State and the Ontology of Early Capitalis

Pacta sunt servanda

Volume V

By Nicholas Rice YC '23

Edited by Judah Millen '24


This essay will seek to explain the ontology of early capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through the lens of the rise of the mercantile state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[1] Taking Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) as its principal source, it will address this undertaking by placing Hobbes in dialogue with Höffe’s Thomas Hobbes (2015), Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population (1977-8), Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), and Jameson’s The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) to investigate both the relationship between the mercantile state and capitalist ontology and the continuity of this ontology under late capitalism.

Part I will explicate a theory of the mercantile state as enacting a significant break from previous practices of governmentality. We will focus here on its five principal characteristics: first, its systematisation and formalisation of state power; second, its development of new financial instruments regarding corporations, liabilities, and monetary policy; third, its redefinition of the state as the central distributor of material goods and final guarantor of real property; fourth, its modification of inter-state relations through novel systems of diplomacy, forms of military organisation, and practices of colonialism; and fifth, its alteration of the means whereby intra-state power is exercised through the exercise of police power, the collection of statistical information, and the production of ideological control. Part II will then discuss the nascent capitalist ontic structures to which this mercantile state gave rise, specifically: the creation of capitalist temporalities, the reworking of individual subjectivity in terms of the homo economicus, and the development of aesthetics as a tool of state power. Finally, in conclusion, we will comment on the importance of understanding the mercantile state and the capitalist ontology it spawned to understanding the contemporary dynamics of late capitalism.

Part I: The Mercantile State

There are five dimensions to the mercantile state as it constituted a break from the pre-modern Medieval pastorates that preceded it. The first of these concerns the systematisation and formalisation of state power. In Leviathan, Hobbes seeks to describe a state apparatus that could repair the damage and prevent the repetition of political trauma of the English Civil War (1642-51). It is therefore interesting that he devotes considerable time to the explanation of the state as a system (ch 22, §1). For him, human communities are best conceived of as “systems” of “men joined in one interest, or one business” (ch 22, §1). This understanding implies a very different subject-sovereign and subject-subject relation for the modern state than existed under earlier pastorates. Moreover, in conjunction with the distinction he elaborates between regular-irregular and lawful-unlawful systems, we can identify the creation of an entirely new scheme of human behaviour (ch 22, §2-4). This new system is important in two ways: first, in the sense that the delineation between public and private domains allows for the state to regulate private domains where previously they were beyond its reach; and second, in the sense that it allows for the anathemising of all non-state-sanctioned systems as unlawful given their risk to the state as the regulator of the politics of the public square and commerce of the marketplace (ch 22 §27-33).

Having elaborated this belief in the need for a formalised and systematic apparatus of state power, Hobbes turns to the second element of this mercantile system: the development of state-backed financial and monetary instruments as tools of economic regulation. Hobbes is deeply concerned with the asset and liability structure of corporations and other representative bodies (ch 22, §11-24). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, companies in their private ventures and the state in its mercantile projects were both in need of improvements to extant Renaissance legal and economic infrastructure if they were to operate effectively. It is for this purpose that the state began developing novel instruments like bodies of corporate law, principles of contract law, and new practices of financial regulation; the most important of these was the deployment of standardised currency. This standardisation allowed for “all commodities” to be reduced to something “portable” and of “equal value,” and thus for wealth to be made movable such that it may “accompany a man to all places of his resort” (ch 24 §11-13). Standardised currency for Hobbes is nothing less than the lifeblood - “the sanguification” – of the commonwealth (ch 24 §11-13).

The third major development in the emergence of the mercantile state concerned the advent of the state as the principal guarantor of economic goods. Hobbes identifies the state as responsible for the “concoction,” “preparation,” and “conveyance” to “public use” of the “materials” and “commodities” necessary for the nutrition and procreation of a commonwealth (ch 24 §1-5). The state does this both through the regulation of the “labour and industry of men” and through the appropriation of “native” (i.e., domestic) and “foreign” (i.e., imported) commodities (ch 24 §3).[2] From this understanding of the state as the agent principally responsible for the material organisation of society, the additional understanding of the state as guarantor of all property is derived. We are commanded to accept that “all estates of land proceed originally from the arbitrary distribution of the sovereign” (ch 24 §6) and that the state retains radical title to all real property, regardless of deed or title held by a subject. By giving to the state these two explicitly economic functions – organising the distribution of material goods and guaranteeing the sanctity of property – Hobbes gives it an implicitly mercantile function as the principal economic agent operative in a market.[3] This status as principal economic agent is even more apparent in light of Hobbes’s explicit endorsement of colonialism. His understanding of “plantations” and “colonies” as the “procreation” or “children of a commonwealth” implicates an understanding of the importance of the colonial “metropolis” or “mother” as not only the principal financier and governor of the colonial enterprise but also the spoke of the wheel to which all colonial profits are ultimately returned (ch 24 §14).

The problem of inter-state relations between mercantile states engaging in competing colonial projects directs us to the fourth dimension to the mercantile state: the diplomatic and military means whereby these mercantile practices were engendered and enforced. Foucault does not argue for the abiogenesis of mercantile regimes of accumulation; rather, he argues that they were engendered from without by the development of “diplomatic instrumentation of permanent and multilateral diplomacy” between European states and the “organisation of professional arm[ies]” (312) by those states. The development of these capacities in some European states created a commercial-administrative arms race, whereby growth in the mercantile power of some European states as a result of successful colonial activity triggered the advent of analogous innovations in other European states who both envied these powers their empires and feared their greater administrative and commercial capacities.

While these military and diplomatic factors assisted in the development of mercantile practices from without, the fifth and final dimension to the mercantile state concerns their development from within through the deployment of police power, informational control, and ideological persuasion as tools of intra-state power consolidation. The first of these tools of power consolidation, the police, are understood by Foucault to be “the set of means by which the state’s forces can be increased while preserving the state in good order,” (313) presaging later Weberian definitions of the state in terms of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The police are concerned first with monitoring “what men do”, that is, “their activity” or “occupation” (322); second with guaranteeing the population “the necessities of life” (324); and third with supervising “the circulation of goods, of the products of men’s activity (325). Though Foucault is quick to assert that this exercise of police power by the mercantile state does not entail the existence of what he calls “the fiscal state,” which is interested both in the population and “their money,” (323-4) it appears as though this conclusion is entailed by the fact that the police are fundamentally regulators of economic activity. If the mercantile state, as Hobbes suggests, can only operate by the aggregation of monetary tokens of value based on a shared assumption of their being only one degree removed from an object of intrinsic and inalienable value held in trust by the state, then it follows that the movement of money within this state–through labour and production–implicates fiscal and monetary control of the economy by the state. Further, if we are to see the police as not exercising this kind of control, then it makes it difficult to see the importance of the transition from mercantile to capitalist regimes of accumulation that are more dependent on the monetary and fiscal dynamics engineered by the state to optimise relations between consumers and producers (Foucault 322). Equipped with this understanding of the police as an economic implement, we see that they execute the logic of a state that “is no longer commanded by the immediate problem of surviving and not dying but is now commanded by the problem of living and doing a bit better than just living” (Foucault 326); that is to say, the problem of organising life around the pursuit of economic efficiency.

While the police are concerned with the material enforcement of the logic of the mercantile state, statistics are deployed as a tool of informational control to enforce it discursively. These discursive and material infrastructures of state power interdepend, meaning that the “police and statistics mutually condition each other” (Foucault 315). Taking “statistics [as] … the state’s knowledge of the state,” (Foucault 315) we can infer that the mercantile state relies on informational control of its resources – i.e., its economic materials (Foucault 335), population (Foucault 323), and territory (Foucault 291) – to operate efficiently. It is only via the enactment of this statistical episteme that objects like population, territory, and mercantile economics begin to form: they are each ways of defining and organising the objects of a new regime of governmentality. Following the material force of the police and the discursive power of statistics, the final element of the set of intra-state forces that act to enforce mercantilist logics is ideological. Höffe locates in Hobbes early forms of statism (Höffe 146-7); for Hobbes, it is necessary to engage in an extended explication of the “state of nature” (Hobbes ch 14 §1-4) because it is only against this understanding that his ideological belief that “the state is supposed not to make human life itself possible but to make our shared human life possible” (Foucault 133) can be motivated. Equipped with an understanding of the state as “artificial man” (ch 17 §13-5), Hobbes is able to suggest that the state function in a mercantile manner as that principal economic agent in which we have our economic being; only through the state can the violence of self-interest be co-ordinated, regulated, and curbed to maximise productivity and minimise inefficiency. The ideological status of this belief is conveyed in Hobbes’s description of the role of religion in a civil commonwealth (ch 12 §20):

The first founders, and legislators of commonwealths among the Gentiles, whose ends were only to keep the people in obedience, and peace, have in all places taken care; first, to imprint in their minds a belief, that those precepts which they gave concerning religion, might not be thought to proceed from their own device, but from the dictates of some god, or other spirit; or else that they themselves were of a higher nature than mere mortals, that their laws might be more easily received.

Though Hobbes’s commonwealth is distinct from that which he is here describing, he elaborates in Part III: Of a Christian Commonwealth the Christian-inflected state ideology in his commonwealth. The Hobbesian state takes on the ideological qualities of religion in that its absolute sovereignty offers a frame of reference in which human action takes on meaning and consequence and without which human action would be meaningless and inconsequential.

The synthesis of these five elements constitutes what is described implicitly in Hobbes and explicitly in Foucault as the mercantile state. Foucault devotes considerable time to the exposition of the consequences of these mercantile practices; for him, mercantilism is “a technique and calculation for strengthening the power of competing European states through the development of commerce and the new vigour given to commercial relations” (337). The ambition of the mercantile state is the production of “large numbers of docile workers” to ensure stable commercial practice (344); for this, it requires four things (Foucault 337):

First, that every country try to have the largest possible population, second, that the entire population be put to work, third, that the wages given to the population be as low as possible so that, fourth, the cost price of goods is the lowest possible and one can thus sell the maximum amount abroad, which will bring about the import of gold [or] the transfer of gold into the royal treasury.

In locating its telos in the strengthening and expansion of commercial relations, the mercantile state makes of itself solely a “regulator of interests” and discards its claim to “the transcendent and synthetic principle of the transformation of the happiness of each into the happiness of all” (Foucault 346). Given this commercial ambition, Foucault errs in identifying commerce as the instrument rather than the object of mercantile state; in other words, when Foucault declares that “raison d'état makes the singular growth of each state power as its other objective with, at the same time, commerce as the instrument of this growth,” (337-8) it is the converse that is true: commerce is the end, the growth of the state power the means. Even if we see the evolution of the mercantile state as biphasic, its object remains commercial rather than political: first, there was a political shift that involved the defining of “a new art of government in terms that were no longer [in] … conformity to the order of the world, to the wisdom of the world, to that sort of great cosmo-theology that served as the framework of the arts of government in the Middle Ages” (Foucault 347-8); then second, there was an economic shift that “introduce[d] us … to some of the fundamental lines of modern and contemporary governmentality” (348) in the form of the mercantile state. With its object being purely commercial, the mercantile state no longer required the same sort of moral justification demanded of the pre-modern pastorate: its sole justificatory principle was the effective management of a mercantile economy. Conveniently, the belief in stable natural laws of economics meant that “the basic principle of the state’s role, and so too of the form of governmentality henceforth prescribed for it, [was] to respect these natural processes, or at any rate to take them into account, get them to work, or to work with them” (Foucault 352).

Part II: The Ontology of Early Capitalism

With this understanding of the mercantile state of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in mind, we are able to draw some conclusions about the ontology of early capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The first element of this capitalist ontology is temporal. The pre-modern pastorate operated on an eschatological timeframe: its role was fundamentally that of a steward, guarding over its congregation of souls until the eschaton. Its reign is thus necessarily bounded in time: the meaning of our lives takes on form in a context of complete knowledge and finite scope. The modern mercantile state, in contrast, operates in a blank infinitude of time; in this unscripted temporality, we are free to inscribe cycles of ascendency and decline, linear trajectories of progress, or stochastic and non-diagrammatic patterns of free or determined contingency. Foucault discusses this temporal shift here (355):

Raison d’état basically posited as the primary, implacable law of both modern governmentality and historical science that man henceforth has to live in an indefinite time. There will always be governments, the state will always be there, and there is no hope of having done with it.

The ontology of capitalism thus renders immanent in the state the eschaton that the Medieval pastorate located beyond its bounds: the state is the only eternity we can hope for.

This sense of time is apparent in Hobbes, who rejects a temporality organised around the finality of Christian eschatological notions of a divine finis ultimus or summum bonum in favour of a Whiggish meliorism of liberal change. For the Hobbesian state, “felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another: the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter” (ch 11 §1). Only in death, at which point the earthly state surrenders sovereignty over its subjects, are we relieved from this desire for material improvement (ch 11 §2-7). This understanding of time ties human flourishing to the incessant pursuit of material improvement and is thus consonant with the pace and trajectory of transactions under capitalism. “Since life is a motion,” (ch 1 §4) Hobbes argues, our happiness proceeds not from the ataraxic tranquillity of the Stoics and Epicureans, the postponement of pleasures of the Aristotelian Scholastics, the abstract contemplation of the Platonists, or the radical uncertainty of the Sceptics; rather, it follows from the continuous and unending prosecution of a search for greater pleasures, which, in the context of his advocating a mercantile state, are best understood as material pleasures achieved through mechanisms of production and consumption. Otherwise put, our greatest happiness is in “always progressing towards ever further ends with the least hindrance” (ch 11 §15) so as to achieve “continual success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time dareth, that is to say, in continual prospecting” (ch 6 §58). Though for Hobbes happiness may be our governing end, happiness for Hobbes is conceived in a manner amenable to consumerism under capitalism as “a continual progress of desire from one to another” (Höffe 120).

It is worth noting that this radical re-engineering of the ontology of time – from the Christian temporality of the Medieval pastorate to the capitalist temporality of the modern mercantile state – was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of rupture. As Deseure and Pollman argue in their analysis of collective memory in early modern Europe (318):

Many of those who experienced the Reformation and great civil wars of the period experienced a sense of rupture that was actually as profound as that of their successors around 1800 and with quite similar results; the same melancholic nostalgia, the same impulse to preserve the relics and remains, are in evidence. Yet we will also show that in the 1600s these feelings did not, apparently, lead to a lasting sense of change. Instead, within a generation or so people reshaped their image of the past in such a way that it could be reintegrated with their present selves.

An enormous experience of mnemonic rupture thus characterised the rearticulation of time under the mercantile state in the seventeenth century; over time, however, this temporality was naturalised and came to rearticulate past experiences in a manner amenable to the emergent ontology of capitalism. Having interrogated the metaphysics of time in both Hobbes and Foucault, we can understand the temporality of capitalism as engendering a sense of accelerating motion through uniform and infinite time towards an unattainable telos of constant material improvement.

The second element of this nascent capitalist ontology concerns its humanism. From the governance of souls by the pre-modern Medieval pastorate, we have arrived at the regulation of economic activity under the early-modern mercantile state; from the subject as eternal a soul motivated by rational appetite and best described by the blank Cartesian cogito, we have arrived at the subject as homo economicus, rational economic actor who behaves according to predictable material patterns (Höffe 113). To identify this new humanism, we need look only at the fact that Hobbes’s political philosophy, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language all begin with an analysis of the individual. In seeking to codify the ideational structure of the mercantile state, Hobbes needed to begin by re-theorising the individual as the foundation of that new regime of accumulation (Höffe 109). The product of this re-theorising was an understanding of the human as homo economicus (ch 10 §18-25):

The value, or worth of a man, is as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power: and there is not absolute; but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another.

His understanding of all individuals as equal actors (ch 13 §1-3) – not in a normative sense of deontic worth but a positive sense of productive capacity – who possess value insofar as they produce utility and rationally seek to maximise that utility, is conducive to a reworking of the concept of the human in a manner amenable to capitalism. This new understanding of the homo economicus ran counter to prior Christian understandings of subjectivity but excluded entirely their possible validity, since for Hobbes “it [was] impossible that a commonwealth should stand, where any other than the sovereign, hath a power of giving greater rewards than life, and of inflicting greater punishments than death” (ch 38 §1).

The final element of this early capitalist ontology, the germs of which are apparent in the description of the mercantile state offered above, concerns the function of aesthetics. By aesthetics, we do not mean “a language of art” but “a social phenomenology” that concerns “itself with all that … follows from our sensuous relation to the world” and “the way reality strikes the body on its sensory surfaces” (Eagleton 53). That the state is concerned with reason is apparent in Hobbes; this is the natural consequence of its being grounded in the rational monism of his materialism. Aesthetics, however, deals in non-rational particulars as opposed to rational generalities: it is basically concerned with the world of sensuous empirical experience for which reason – even in the form of Hobbes’s excruciatingly detailed and mechanistic account of experience – cannot account. As Eagleton explains, if early capitalism was to ensure its longevity as a regime of accumulation, it had to enmesh itself in the way people experienced the world (54-55):

Power, it was seen, must no longer remain imperiously indifferent to the senses, but must infiltrate them from the inside in order to regulate and control them more effectively. … The whole concept of the aesthetic was thus indissociable from an emergent project of bourgeois political hegemony, redefining the relations between law and freedom, mind, and the senses, individual and the whole. … The aesthetic was the way power, or the Law, would be carried into the minutest crevices of lived experience, inscribing the very gestures and affections of the body with its decrees. … The aesthetic signals the birth of a new kind of spontaneous consensus among social subjects, one whose locus is neither the state (ultimately a coercive force) nor civil society (a place of atomised, competitive individuals) but the realm of ‘culture’ itself.

Hobbes’s Leviathan is deeply involved in the motivation of an aesthetics amenable to the ontology of early capitalism. This is apparent throughout Part I: Of Man of Leviathan, which is fundamentally concerned with re-theorising the ontic and epistemic assumptions on the basis of which we experience the world. The sheer materialism in terms of which he conceives of our physical and mental lives lends itself to a way of feeling the world that takes reality to be atomistic, quantifiable, material, and typological. This aesthetic perception of the world is clearly amenable to a capitalist ontology that endorses that quantification and organisation of human and material capital on atomistic and typological lines in order to maximise a materially-quantifiable profit.

This flattened aesthetic experience of the world engendered by early capitalist ontology is reinforced in Hobbes by the obliteration of the ethical as an aesthetic category. This is apparent in his typology of things good in contemplation (pulchrum), things good in effect (jucundum), and things good as means (utile), (ch 6 §5) all of which operate on a levelled positive understanding of the categories otherwise understood as normative. The normative overtones that characterise our sensuous experience of the world are discarded and replaced with a positive ethics: for Hobbes, all normative assessments are levelled and rendered intelligible in terms of positive mechanistic functions of attraction and aversion (Höffe 110) and descriptive categories of natural philosophy (Höffe 111). Hobbes thus seeks to reorient the way we experience the world such that we no longer attribute to phenomena innate normative statuses (Höffe 110-111), suggesting instead an epistemology – to use Kantian terms – that favours the ratio cognoscendi over the ratio essendi. Thus, a capitalist aesthetic that conceives of the world in terms of labour and capital is born.


In this paper we have used Hobbes’s Leviathan and Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population to elaborate a fivefold understanding of the mercantile state as it appeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and a threefold understanding of the early capitalist ontology to which it gave rise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By turning in conclusion, to Jameson, Harvey, and Baudrillard we can identify in the late capitalism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the consequences of the early capitalist ontology of temporality, humanism, and aesthetics we discussed above.

Jameson, in his seminal diagnosis of the condition of postmodernity under late capitalism, offers us Lacan’s notion of schizophrenia as an “aesthetic model” (29) through which to conceive of our experience.[4]
This schizophrenia is characterised by a sense of the accelerating pace of temporal change, with “our utter forgetfulness of the past exhaust[ing] itself in the vacant but mesmerized contemplation of a schizophrenic present that is incomparable virtually by definition” (6). Echoes of the experience of rupture and the emergence of a capitalist temporality in the sixteenth and seventh century can be heard in this analogous diagnosis of an experience of rupture in the late twentieth century.

Where Jameson illustrates the continuity of this capitalist ontology of time, Harvey demonstrates the persistence of the humanism of the homo economicus in an even more radical form. The capitalism of the late twentieth century, Harvey argues, is characterised by a rage against the humanism of the Enlightenment legacy (41) that saw the homo economicus as a perfectible rational agent. The ontology of capitalism he implies gestures increasingly toward trans- and posthuman futures wherein we have abandoned the human subject as an inefficient generator of economic profit. The resistance to human peculiarity and irrationality nascent in the ontology of early capitalism finally manifests its basically misanthropic drive towards a techno-capitalism sans humans.

Finally, in Baudrillard, an aesthetics of late capitalism is described that echoes embryonic qualities of the aesthetics Hobbes offered us earlier. Where for Hobbes things were reducible to a normatively-blank atomic materialism, for Baudrillard they have progressed to the level of pure physical irreality, defined by a “generalised aesthetic of simulation” (25) and “aesthetics of the hyperreal” (29). From the materialism of Hobbes, we now have arrived at the hyper-materialism of Baudrillard, wherein the simulation of the material object replaces its immanent reality. As made apparent by this brief excursus into Jameson, Harvey, and Baudrillard, the basic ontology of capitalism elaborated in Hobbes’s and Foucault’s account of the mercantile state endures but is accelerated under late capitalism.



Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Paris, Éditions Galilée, 1981.
Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. New York, Picador, 2004.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1990.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Höffe, Otfried. Thomas Hobbes. Albany, SUNY Press, 2015.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, Duke University Press, 1991.
Eagleton, Terry. “Aesthetics and Politics in Edmund Burke.” History Workshop, no. 28, 1989, pp. 53–62.
Chapter in Edited Book
Deseure, Brecht, and Pollman, Judith. “The Experience of Rupture and the History of Memory”. Memory Before Modernity: Practices of Memory in Early Modern Europe, edited by Erika Kuijpers, Judith Pollmann, Johannes Müller, and Jasper van der Steen. Brill, 2013, pp. 315-329.]

  1. It is not the intention of this essay to identify a concrete or definite turning point at which the mercantile became capitalist or the pre-modern, modern; rather, it seeks to identify historical trends relevant to these phenomena at play in the period. ↩︎

  2. This emphasis on imported commodities is of particular importance given Hobbes’s later emphasis on the importance of the state as a colonial actor (ch 24 §14). ↩︎

  3. Given the total freedom of the sovereign to assert radical title over all real property, Hobbes essentially demands our acceptance of an arbitrary-naturalised set of historically-contingent landowning elites. This understanding of the sovereign as the final decision-maker in economic matters lends itself to a mercantile understanding of the state as the principal commercial agent in the market, acting as the central node of all commercial activity. ↩︎

  4. Jameson offers the following description of Lacan’s notion of schizophrenia (29):
    Lacan describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning. The connection between this kind of linguistic malfunction and the psyche of the schizophrenic may then be grasped by way of a twofold proposition: first, that personal identity is itself the effect of a certain temporal unification of past and future with one's present; and second, that such active temporal unification is itself a function of language, or better still of the sentence, as it moves along its hermeneutic circle through time. ↩︎

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