My understanding – although I must read him properly – is that Hobbes broadly distinguishes between the state of nature and the social contract.
The state of nature is radically asocial. Individuals appear as Cartesian material bodies, confronting each other as separate and non-aligned extensive forces – as a set of differentiated and distinctly antithetical interests. There is nothing good that properly links people together. The state of nature renders us all wild and ravenous beasts. The only good is the particular good – that we survive and continue to eat. The only bad is that we perish and are eaten. The latter is at least general. It is a shared interest and this is what ultimately provides the basis for individuals to forsake their individual interests and enter into social relations. They accept the social contract and monarchical power in order to not constantly risk dying at the hands of others.
The social contract then emerges from fear and from a repression of ravenous impulses (at least at the level of the individual; there remains of course tremendous scope for collective violence). The social contract is an imposition that suspends the conditions of nature.
Yet how valid is this distinction?
Is collectivity really alien to ‘the state of nature’? Don’t all kinds of non-human animals collaborate in all kinds of ways? And even as a human, is it ever possible to clearly delineate absolute individual autonomy? If we encounter separateness and distinct, interested identity it is more as an epiphenomenon that has its basis in layer upon layer of social being (starting with the relation to parents, etc.). If there is any such thing as ‘the state of nature’ then it would have to be characterised by non-identity and constant relations of intimate exchange rather than any sense of radical individuation.
Equally, where is there any sense of a social contract? Whoever had an opportunity to reflect carefully on their best interests and sign or not sign up to the society in which they are born? We find ourselves within the social contract from the outset, just as a child finds themselves caught up in parental bonds before they have any opportunity to realise any potential for independence.
The historically and culturally variable rules that characterise any specific social system are not a guarantee of human exceptionalism. They stem from and are related to all kinds of systems of interaction that need not be specifically human – that align with the never purely determined ‘state of nature’. If nature is understood as the potential implicit within any given material-existential context then nothing we as humans can do can escape from nature. The social contract is as natural as the state of nature is riven through with artifice and invention.
Quite simply, our position is complex. It is neither given nor entirely freely determined. It is neither natural nor entirely artificial. There is no state of nature. There is no social contract. There is something else.