The first lines of the 1981 movie Escape From New York sound ominous, but they pretty much reflect the country’s attitude toward New York City in the 1970s and ’80s:


“In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country… The rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out.”


That fear and loathing of New York City was also to be found in a less apocalyptical movie about New York street gangs called The Warriors that came out in 1979. The plot summary says the action takes place “In a future, dystopian New York City, [where] turf gangs and cops rule the streets.” The fear and ennui about what New York City was then, according to popular perception (or perhaps popular imagination), was seen in headlines and news stories about constant crime, anarchy, and a downward spiral to the quality of life. The perception was that the city was in an ethical tailspin to ruination.


What was daily life really like in the five boroughs of the City of New York in the 1970s? For that, we rely on newspaper accounts from the New York Daily News (which called for the city to get tough on crime) and on Jonathan Mahler’s book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning. It will be necessary to display a certain amount of philosophical flexibility here, but it is our contention that the aforementioned media portrayals reflect New York City’s slide into something similar to what 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as a “state of nature” in which ethics had no place and life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”


What also must be taken into account is the historiography of Hobbesian interpretations. An article in the London Review of Books said that scholarship on Hobbes “suffers from incompleteness, unreliable transcriptions and an often arbitrary choice of copy-texts” (Malcolm, 1984). For example, Howard Warrender’s translation of De Cive shows how Hobbes’ thought on natural law evolved into his much better known Leviathan. (De Cive says that government represents the will of the people it governs and, since a monarchy was the least corruptible type of government, it was therefore the best government; this idea is developed further in Leviathan.)


Hobbesian Values


Hobbes gave us a new understanding of political philosophy in Leviathan (1651). Unlike philosophical predecessors such as Aristotle, who argued that the polis is prior to the individual, and that the human good is objective and pursued for its own sake, Hobbes argues that the state is conventional, not natural, and that ethical values are purely subjective:


For these words of good, evil, and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves, but from the person of the man (where there is no commonwealth) or (in a commonwealth) from the person that representeth it, or from an arbitrator or judge whom men disagreeing shall by consent set up, and make his sentence the rule thereof (Leviathan


Without something like Aristotle’s ultimate value or telos as a foundation, Hobbesian ethics look radically different from traditional understandings. For Hobbes, “good” simply means “object of a desire,” or what a person tends to “move toward.” Whereas Aristotle once offered “eudaimonia”—a robust and objective notion of human flourishing and success as the picture of human happiness, Hobbes offers only “felicity”—“A continual progress of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter (Leviathan I.xi.1).” Hobbesian felicity, unlike Aristotelian eudaimonia, is purely instrumental, and can never be satisfied. Each success in satisfying a desire creates new opportunities to desire other things. The result is “A perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death… He cannot assure the power and means to live well which he hath present without the acquisition of more (Leviathan I.xi.2).”


The Hobbesian picture of human nature describes three causes of conflict. The first of these is “competition.” We often desire the same thing, and as Hobbes notes: “If any two men desire the same thing…they become enemies (Leviathan I.xiii.3).” A consequence of our equality is the belief that we have equal chances of satisfying that desire, so neither of us backs down and we come into conflict.


A second source of conflict is what Hobbes calls “diffidence.” Diffidence reflects desire for security. Even if people are not particularly caught up in cause #1—competition—and if they are satisfied with relatively little, they still have to think about self-defense, and that leads to aggression. If people are not in direct competition currently, it’s rational to believe they will be soon, so everyone should launch a sort of pre-emptive strike.


As a third source of conflict, Hobbes cites “glory.” Glory reflects a desire for reputation, and makes it very difficult to take pleasure in the company of others. Despite our equality, it’s natural for a person to believe him/herself superior. Yet in the state of nature we are all equal, so a belief in superiority falls under the heading of “Vain-glory”—“which consisteth in the feigning or supposing of abilities in ourselves (of which we know are not) (Leviathan” Since I have an exaggerated sense of my own value, I’ll pick a lot of fights. Sometimes I’ll fight because your behavior seems to dishonor or disrespect me (I think I’m worth more than I am, remember, so even if you treat me exactly as appropriate, I still may take it as an insult).


All of these factors combine to produce a natural state of war. In such a state, there is no ethics, no law, no injustice, and no right or wrong. As Hobbes describes it:


Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is every man against every man. For WAR consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherin the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known (Leviathan I.xiii.8).


In such a state as Hobbes imagines, we avail ourselves of the “right of nature.”Each of us has the right to do anything deemed necessary to survive (Leviathan I.xiv.1). Since this is a subjective issue, it effectively means each of us has a right to everything. That said, we remain governed by three “laws of nature.” The first law concerns seeking peace: “that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.” The second law concerns the right of nature: “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as often as provision has been made for the peace and his own defence, to lay down his right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.” The third law concerns agreements, and commands that “that men perform covenants made” (Leviathan I.xv.1).


It is through these laws that we can get ourselves out of this state of war and establish a sovereign. That sovereign will be the power that overawes us and checks those three causes of conflict. Since we endeavor to achieve peace and must be willing to lay down our natural right when our safety has been secured, we can covenant with one another to establish a sovereign who will have the unlimited right to do anything necessary to get us out of the state of war.


Hobbes yearned for order and stability in society. If Hobbes lived in the New York City of the 1970s, would his approach be any different? It is our contention that his work would be remarkably the same (perhaps Leviathan would be titled “Mayor” or “Police Commissioner”).


Mayoral Campaign of 1977


One example can be found in the mayoral campaign of 1977. On August 29, Daily News reporters Beth Fallon and Robert Carroll wrote a series of candidate profiles on the seven Democratic candidates (the Republican Party was such a non-factor in the city that year; it was thought certain that the Democratic nominee would become the mayor). All of these Democratic candidates—Bella Abzug, Herman Badillo, incumbent Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo, Joel Harnett, Percy Sutton, and eventual winner Ed Koch—promised to reform the juvenile justice system, put more cops on the street, and toughen sentences on the convicted to try to curb crime.


The death penalty was also an issue in the campaign, even though the city could not impose it because capital punishment is a state issue and not left up to municipalities, regardless of size or turmoil. Of the seven candidates, four favored the death penalty: Badillo, Beame, Harnett and Koch. Indeed, Koch actively made it a part of his campaign. The Daily News endorsed Koch in an editorial published August 24: “More than any of the others, Koch has shown that he has a clear vision of the hard, unpopular decisions which must be made to save the city” (authors’ emphasis).


The media at the time framed New York City as a place where residents were ready to wage war against strangers. They could see Hobbes’s “competition,” “diffidence,” and “glory” at work. The Daily News’ endorsement of Koch was a way for the media (though perhaps it didn’t know it was endorsing a Hobbesian viewpoint) to say that a larger police force—and a death penalty—was a step to initiating a Social Contract that Hobbes would recognize and endorse.


Hobbes argued that all political obligation is founded on consent or created by the ends of the sovereign. “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them (Leviathan II.xxi.21).” Since the obligation of the subjects (read: New York City residents) lasts only as long as the sovereign (mayor) can ensure stability, then once crime is rampant, or once the media starts reporting that crime is rampant, then the subjects would have no ethical obligation to obey the sovereign.


Blackout of 1977


Another example that will support our thesis is the public’s reaction to the blackout of 1977 that left the city in a true Hobbesian state. The blackout began the night of July 13 and power was slowly restored during the daylight hours of July 14. The Blackout History Project at George Mason University summed it up this way (despite the hyperbole):


On a hot July night in 1977, the lights went out in New York City. The purr of air conditioners, cooling millions of New Yorkers, was replaced by stultifying silence—and then the sound of breaking glass. Faced with the second blackout in twelve years, New Yorkers responded with resilience as well as violence. Many stories emerged from the night of July 13th that revealed New Yorkers’ divergent feelings about the city in which they lived. In some places, neighbors helped neighbors, and strangers helped strangers. Yet, at the same time, neighborhoods throughout New York exploded into violence. Stores were ransacked, looted and destroyed. Buildings were set ablaze. And the police, for the most part, stood helpless. In these stark contradictions, an unusual yet definitive moment left its mark on New York history.


In some communities, people found solace in the streets, where they swapped stories, chatted with strangers, and enjoyed an unelectrified nightlife. In Greenwich Village, for example, the streets became an improvised festival as people strolled out to witness the city without power.


In other parts of the city the experience was starkly different. News broadcasts reported outbreaks of violence, looting, and fires. Areas of Harlem, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx experienced the most damage, where thousands of people took to the streets and smashed store windows looking for TVs, furniture, or clothing. In one report, 50 cars were stolen from a car dealership in the Bronx. The police made 3,776 arrests, although from all accounts, many thousands escaped before being caught. 1,037 fires burned throughout the City, six times the average rate, while the fire department also responded to 1,700 false alarms. New York's streets teemed—and sometimes burned—with life.


Hobbes’ pessimistic outlook on the human race was perfectly in line with the looting during the 1977 blackout, and the media’s reporting of the looting played along the same theme. The police were powerless to stop the looting (at least according to media reports) and there were loose street alliances formed among looters to keep that extreme liberty to take what they wanted. In the absence of the sovereign everyone has a right to everything.


But yet, according to the media reports, people did not want this state of nature/freedom. The Daily News framed it in terms of anarchy. Hobbes said human reason led us out of the original state of nature, and the media would say that reason would lead New York City out of the state of nature by restoring the power (literally) and powers that be (metaphorically). As Mahler wrote (p. 218) the Daily News and radio stations WINS and WCBS reported that city was “urban decay on fast forward.” How to try to reverse that? Simple: Get the lights on and get civil authority back in control.


Concluding Thoughts


Clearly, we have had to take some liberties in our application of Hobbes. Among other obvious problems, New York’s mayor has to work within the limits of constitutional civil liberties and is constrained by state and federal law. This is precisely the sort of divided or limited sovereignty that Hobbes argued is doomed to fail.


Hobbes’ rather pessimistic philosophy rules out saints in its account of sinners. Naturally, there were those who disagreed. John Locke was one of them, and he said that people form governments out of convenience rather than need. He also said the contract between a people and the government was a matter of choice with duties on both sides of the equation, which meant a bad government could be replaced. In 1977, this is exactly what the Daily News advocated in its news stories, even as it continued to paint life in New York City as nasty and brutish.


David Hume would also dispute Hobbes. He took his cues from British sentimentalists who believed that people generally acted in such a way that would bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Hume argued that people praise benevolence and condemn intolerance. Even the Daily News noted that the city was not in complete meltdown during the 1977 blackout.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said the explanation of causes (i.e., the “why” of things) was paramount and gave us our first glimpse of comprehension. So, somewhat akin to Hobbes, he would argue that through the Sturm und Drang of history we have cobbled together the society we have today. And he would also say that obeying the laws of the state is the prime ethical duty, just as Hobbes would argue that obeying the king/Leviathan is all-important. The Daily News, in its 1977 stories on the mayoral election and the blackout, seemed to sigh and reminisce for a time when laws were obeyed, God was in His heaven and all was right (or at least ethical) with the world.


Hegel, an idealist as opposed to Hobbes the materialist, intersected with Johann Fichte’s theory of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In the case of New York City in 1977 the thesis is that the media were painting a Hobbesian portrait of the time via coverage of the mayoral election and the blackout. This was also the theme used in Hollywood to paint a rather desperate picture of Sodom-on-the-Hudson. The antithesis of that theme is that New York may have been on a downward spiral, but as Locke would say, the people elected the government they needed and did what had to be done to produce a better city that survived a terrorist attack in 2001.


And that brings us to the synthesis that although Hobbes may have seemed to have been right, at least according to the media and Hollywood in the 1970s, the city nevertheless endured and prospered. As Fichte and Hegel would say, that synthesis is the first thesis of the next ethical problem. The fun continues.


  • Joseph Marren is an associate professor and chair of the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State (NY), and Jason Grinnell is an associate professor in the Philosophy Department there. They may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..




Hobbes, Thomas. (2004). Leviathan: With an Introduction by Jennifer J. Popiel. New York: Barnes & Noble. [Original version published in 1651.]


Mahler, Jonathan. (2006). Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning: 1877, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City. New York: Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Malcolm, Noel. “Citizen Hobbes” in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 19 (18 October 1984).


Waldron, Jeremy. “A Mistrust of Thunder and Lightning” in London Review of Books, Vol. 22, No. 2 (20 January 2000).


Withington, Phil. “Modernity’s Bodyguard,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 35, No. 1 (3 January 2013).