Friday, June 27, 2014

on Social Contract Theory, in which nothing is said of Plato

            In order to start my head working on the questions around social contract theory, I put it to several of the members of my philosophy group.  I asked some specific questions which, as first questions often do, led down some rabbit holes.  Most of the folks in my philosophy group are at the very least slightly opposed to the notion of government at all.  This is not an uncommon phenomenon amongst predominantly young, male, childless human beings, but I also don't want to knock it on those grounds alone.  The theme that kept coming to the surface was that "the" social contract (the exclusivity is a problem in itself) infringed upon freedoms to pursue one's desires.  This is the key word here:  desire.  It should also be noted that most of these young men are most decidedly not the kinds of anarchists you would worry about running around raping and pillaging.  While this is a common perception of anarchists, I can safely say that most of these young men are, frankly, some of the most trustworthy individuals you could meet.  They exemplify Brother Thomas's ethical anarchist, who I believe is borrowed from Robert Nozick.
            On the one hand, I take desire very seriously, because desire is not always and only an expression of "I want the candy bar."  Desire is also often an expression of "I don't want to give you my food because I'm hungry," "I want to have sex with the people I choose," or (for full dramatic feminist effect) "I don't want to have sex with you at all."  Even apparently frivolous desires — for example, let's take a child who is whining, "I want the candy bar" — have at their roots profound terrors and neediness.  The child in this instance, after millions of years of evolutionary programming, craves high-carbohydrate foods.  We all know this feeling; think of the last time you tried to stop shoveling cookies or potato chips into your face.  The prefrontal cortex and its worries about sexual attractiveness in the blip of modern life we find ourselves in has got nothing on the appetite.  So here's a kid, acting like the little animal that he is, that we all are, and we have the audacity to forget our own rampant appetites and declare his desire to be petty.  Or, to add another layer, we fail to note that the last time we were at the grocery store, his baby brother did get a candy bar when he asked for it, so now the terrified creature is checking to see if the importance of his nutritional requests still rate as highly as those of his chubby-cheeked usurper.  Again, we are the ones who minimize the importance of this desire.  We are the ones who fail to take it seriously.  Desire should always be taken seriously.*
            And this is just a child asking for a candy bar.  Never mind that critics of social contract theory are asking why they must have money they earned** taken from them to finance things they may very well not want to finance.  Myself, I would prefer my tax dollars not be used to kill children.  And yet, that's one place they go.  Many people may not even want to finance the building of roads, or other things most of us consider essential, specifically because the money was taken without their consent.  The point, for an anti-statist, is not necessarily the specific places tax dollars go, but the fact that they are taken without consent.
            But these are, frankly, the predictable responses to questions about social contract theory.  And the truth is, they get mired pretty quickly in discussions around that one word: consent.  Did I consent to this or not?  Is there such a thing as implicit consent?  How is consent obtained/arrived at?  Is it unethical for a group of humans to choose an action when even one member of the group dissents?
            The truth is, my eyes start to glaze over it when a conversation turns towards consent.  Consent, especially to Americans, is so bound up in notions of individualism and freedom as to make it nigh on impossible to have a conversation about it with any American (yes, even the supposedly free-thinking ones).  Consent means something far, far too simplistic and also tends to require that it be explicit.  I.e., I have to sign my name on a piece of paper in order for my demands to be taken seriously.  I have to say, "Yes, you can take that percentage of my income to finance things like welfare programs and road construction."  The other, nastier side to this coin, though, is that a person also has to explicitly say "No" in order for undesired sexual intimacy to be considered rape.  Once we put pressure on anyone in discussing consent, it quickly becomes obvious they would prefer to never even recognize the existence of implicit consent (or lack thereof).
            We are obsessed with this notion of consent because we believe in a fundamentally atomist conception of humans.  We genuinely think of ourselves as a bunch of Robinson fucking Crusoes, on our own little islands, engaging or not engaging in social and economic activities with other Robinson Crusoes.  We believe that we are individual, liberal (in the Enlightenment sense, not the current sense), rational creatures that, given the freedom to do so, will go around making the best decisions for ourselves while allowing others to do the same.
            Bull-fucking-shit.  In the words of the immortal Tyler Durden, "You are not special. You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We're all part of the same compost heap. We're all singing, all dancing crap of the world."
            So this is where I was stalled for quite some time.  There are the Enlightenment ideas of social contract theories, and these modern critiques of social contracts.  But the critiques are based in a notion of individualism and free will I don't subscribe to.  More egregiously, in my opinion, they keep you skating around on the surface.
            There are two fundamental problems I see with social contract theories.  The first is in Brother Thomas's aforementioned essay:  personification of the state.  (Note that he calls it "personation," but as this is a technical term for a type of voter fraud, I'm changing it slightly.)  The state, or as we tend to put it when being honest in our conversations about politics, "the government" is very much perceived as an individual with which we must contend.  We see this all the time in discussions of international conflict:  nations are discussed as though they were individuals.  "Iraq" and "Britain" and "the United States" and "China" all say and do things just as though they were real live people.  "They" form treaties.  "They" fight with each other.  The degree to which we do this is repeatedly demonstrated by the way minority ethnic groups are forever breaking off and insisting on having their own nation states.  I may not like the way Israel treats the Palestinians, but the Jews got something that the rest of us seem slow to acknowledge:  modern humans only respect a group of people as being culturally distinct and deserving of basic respect if they have a nation state they can point to as home.  The Kurds caught on long ago, but the Entente wouldn't let them have their own nation state after World War I because it didn't serve their (the Entente's) interests.  Luckily for the Kurds (and unluckily for the Arabs in Syria and northern Iraq), ISIL may very well create that new boundary for them.
            The most obvious examples of how this happens are of course the actual personifications of nations.  In the U.S., we have Uncle Sam.  In Britain there's John Bull, in France there's Marianne, and in Russia there's the slightly unoriginal Mother Russia.  But these images simply embody the psycho-social process that already occurred:  imagining countries to be individuals.
            This seems to be at the heart of social contract theory, and in fact teases out what I think is a certain ambivalence/confusion in social contracts.  Namely, who the hell is the contract with?  Sometimes we speak as though it is with our peers.  Sometimes as through it was with "the government."  When we speak in the latter form, we are employing this personification; as though "the government" were not simply a group of individuals employed by us to make our lives easier.  But we forget this.  We forget it when we let "the government" send people to jail for getting beat up by the cops.  I forget it when a cop issues a silly order for no reason other than that he likes to watch people obey him, and I have to fight my own impulse to do as he says.
            We forget it for good reason.  Seattle City Light, the monopoly with which we must do business in order to have electricity in our homes, recently got a gigantic pay bump approved after Seattleites pretty well made themselves heard in saying it should NOT pass.  It turns out that representative democracy combined with rampant capitalism and consumerism doesn't make for high levels of citizen invitation/involvement.  Hence, our alienation and propensity for talking about governments as though they were their own little personages.
            But while we may forget for good reason — and certainly the causes and problems listed above, along with a host of others, are not about to go away — it remains not the case that a nation state is a person.  It's not.  Did you notice that?  It's NOT.  So you can't very well have an agreement with "it" at all, because it isn't really an it.  This, as we all know, is the reason for that joyous experience of having one branch of the government — say, DSHS — tell you that yes, you will get to purchase groceries while unemployed, while another part — I don't know, let's say the Employment Security Department — declares that you now owe them back-money because you failed to cross a t.  If an individual person behaved so bizarrely, you'd wonder about their sanity.  My point is, nation states are not people, and social contract theories (or some versions told from some angles) depend upon this notion of personhood.
            But there is a second absurdity in social contract theories:  cartography.  I had a hard time getting my hands on this one until I realized something:  part of the reason social contract theory emerged was to find out what justified governing people at all, in lieu of divine right.  So the old school way was to say that God had granted a king some kind of special juju, and that was why he got to shoot you if he didn't like you.  Then some more progressive philosophers came along and tried to both explain why he got to shoot you, and try to create some basic constraints so that most of the time he couldn't (at least not and get away with it).  In other words, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau (but especially the latter two) were trying to come up with an explanation for the justice of government that wasn't a simple "might makes right."
            If we look at cartography, on a first, simple level there is the question of the arbitrariness of drawing a boundary and saying that one set of agreements ends there, and another begins with another group of people.  It's possible (and in fact likely) that the Europeans who initially generated their versions of the social contract — namely, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau — didn't see the contracts as ending at the boundaries between nations.  Because after all, Spain and France were both civilized, Christian nations, so most of the same rules applied.  That is, according to forward-thinking Europeans of the Enlightenment, the validity of government itself stemmed from its roots being in the consent of the governed.  This was true for all civilized people, i.e., all Europeans.
            Where these same rules did NOT apply was outside of Europe.  So a group of white dudes could go into the Americas, take over a bunch of land (we will look over for a moment the wholesale slaughter this entailed), even sign a treaty with a local tribe, and then when some new resource was discovered over on the tribe's land — the tribe's land which had been granted as their land by the contracts created by the white dudes themselves — the borders would simply be moved.
            So imagine, if you will, Land X, where social agreement Set X applied.  Say, property and wealth are patrilineal; the folks in Land X are English.  X=patrilineal.  Then there's Land Y, where social agreement Set Y applied.  In this example, property and wealth are matrilineal.  I happen to be thinking of the Sioux, but this is just for thought experiment's sake.  Y=matrilineal.  According to the very social contract philosophy conceived of by the white dudes and their ancestors, the very social contract theory they would insist is what makes them civilized, the set of agreements is formed by the people in that society, in that space.  The Sioux, in this example, have their way of doing things.  They've agreed on it.  Hell, they may even have a few anarchist dissenters who want to do the whole thing patrilineally.  But they've decided, as a group, within these boundaries arbitrarily drawn up for them by the white dudes, that for them, it's matrilineal.  Those patrilineal dissenters have tacitly agreed to matrilineal descent by living in these boundaries.  By using even one of the tribe's blankets to keep warm at night.  The validity of matrilineal descent is generated by the Sioux people themselves, again, according to the Europeans' own ideologies.  But now that the new resource has been discovered, suddenly Set X's rules spill into Land Y.
            I do realize that there's precedent for this.  It's called "conquering."  Except that the treatment of the Native Americans, along with millions of other people unfortunate enough to be colonized by Europeans, wasn't even good old fashioned conquering.  (In my example, it wasn't conquering.  There was also lots of conquering.)  When Europeans violated agreements and treaties and boundaries with the Native Americans, they were mocking their own social contract philosophy with every lie, every theft, every violated contract.
            "Well, we've found these borders don't work for us anymore, so we're going to move you into...  Wait, where are we moving them?  Oh, that's right!  The desert!"  Notice that:  "We're going to move you."  In other words, fuck all of our own proffered enlightenment thinking about the validity of government growing up out of the consent of the governed.  The Sioux may have consented to their own governance just fine.  But in truth, the validity of government comes down to one simple thing:  force.  Power.  Might makes right.  The very principle that thinkers like Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau were trying to take apart.
            This of course doesn't disprove the validity of all variations of social contract formation.  It's even possible that might does make right.  I mean, anything's possible, right?  My point is that the same folks who developed  theory that said might does NOT make right, that power was not the principle upon which government/governance was formed, ended by shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Well, I guess might does make right."  Might, and cartography.
            One could argue that they just didn't live out the philosophy the right way.  I get this line of reasoning.  I find myself using it with painful frequency whenever I hear about terrible human abuses within religious institutions.  It's a dance that compassionate Christians and Muslims know all too well:  "No, no!  The religion itself is about love and acceptance and community!  Not sin and death and judgment!  We swear!"  But as people of color throughout history have probably thought many a time to themselves, "You keep saying that white civilization and history aren't intrinsically oppressive, but if it always, always, always plays out that way..."

*  It should go without saying, but of course "taken seriously" does not equate to "gratified."

**  Just my little anti-capitalist side-note:  I'm not totally into this notion of "earning money."  Our entire economic system is so abstracted and inhuman, it's difficult for me to believe I should take it seriously in a concrete and human world.  Obviously, to some extent, I do take it seriously by participating.  But I'd just like to reserve the right to believe I'm participating in bullshit.


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  2. oh myyy.2. leaning against the post of my porch, semi-periporticular, smoking my american spirit from the box with the amerindian on the cover, i was struck by just how much there is here. despite your disclaimer, the philosophy group is plato, but without probably being willing to drink the hemlock of socrates. further, you have provoked me to think that there have been so far only two clearly distinguishable philosophies, plato and hobbes. just as the schoolmen were the last depeche blurb of plato&co., so deridda and such ilk were the last depeche blurb of hobbes. it remains to be seen who is the ur-philosopher of the water in which we swim, although i am thinking it is probably some algorithm.
    and let me give you kudos for quoting mr. durden, who has the wonderful nature of being as much helena bonham carter as brad pitt.