Wednesday 20 June 2007

The Social Contract

We have been quite light hearted here of late, but I'm being shamed into returning to the murky waters of our oppressed existence. Electro-Kevin has been doing posts on society and government without me, David Anthony seems to think it's time to get thinking again and Ruthie has started posting about philosophers too.

Perhaps it's time to get back to basics and wrestle with what the social contract itself is all about.
For that, we need to go to Rousseau, who really unravelled everything, going further then Hobbes or Locke did, and penetrated far deeper.

Here he outlines the social contract;

'MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.

If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: "As long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for, regaining its liberty by the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it away." But the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from nature, and must therefore be founded on conventions. Before coming to that, I have to prove what I have just asserted.

THE most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family: and even so the children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved. The children, released from the obedience they owed to the father, and the father, released from the care he owed his children, return equally to independence. If they remain united, they continue so no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention.

This common liberty results from the nature of man. His first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself; and, as soon as he reaches years of discretion, he is the sole judge of the proper means of preserving himself, and consequently becomes his own master.

The family then may be called the first model of political societies: the ruler corresponds to the father, and the people to the children; and all, being born free and equal, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage. The whole difference is that, in the family, the love of the father for his children repays him for the care he takes of them, while, in the State, the pleasure of commanding takes the place of the love which the chief cannot have for the peoples under him....

....THE strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of the strongest, which, though to all seeming meant ironically, is really laid down as a fundamental principle. But are we never to have an explanation of this phrase? Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will — at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?

Suppose for a moment that this so-called "right" exists. I maintain that the sole result is a mass of inexplicable nonsense. For, if force creates right, the effect changes with the cause: every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right. As soon as it is possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience is legitimate; and, the strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest. But what kind of right is that which perishes when force fails? If we must obey perforce, there is no need to obey because we ought; and if we are not forced to obey, we are under no obligation to do so. Clearly, the word "right" adds nothing to force: in this connection, it means absolutely nothing.

Obey the powers that be. If this means yield to force, it is a good precept, but superfluous: I can answer for its never being violated. All power comes from God, I admit; but so does all sickness: does that mean that we are forbidden to call in the doctor? A brigand surprises me at the edge of a wood: must I not merely surrender my purse on compulsion; but, even if I could withhold it, am I in conscience bound to give it up? For certainly the pistol he holds is also a power.

Let us then admit that force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers. In that case, my original question recurs....

...EVEN if I granted all that I have been refuting, the friends of despotism would be no better off. There will always be a great difference between subduing a multitude and ruling a society. Even if scattered individuals were successively enslaved by one man, however numerous they might be, I still see no more than a master and his slaves, and certainly not a people and its ruler; I see what may be termed an aggregation, but not an association; there is as yet neither public good nor body politic. The man in question, even if he has enslaved half the world, is still only an individual; his interest, apart from that of others, is still a purely private interest. If this same man comes to die, his empire, after him, remains scattered and without unity, as an oak falls and dissolves into a heap of ashes when the fire has consumed it.

A people, says Grotius, can give itself to a king. Then, according to Grotius, a people is a people before it gives itself. The gift is itself a civil act, and implies public deliberation. It would be better, before examining the act by which a people gives itself to a king, to examine that by which it has become a people; for this act, being necessarily prior to the other, is the true foundation of society.

Indeed, if there were no prior convention, where, unless the election were unanimous, would be the obligation on the minority to submit to the choice of the majority? How have a hundred men who wish for a master the right to vote on behalf of ten who do not? The law of majority voting is itself something established by convention, and presupposes unanimity, on one occasion at least.

I SUPPOSE men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.

But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert.

This sum of forces can arise only where several persons come together: but, as the force and liberty of each man are the chief instruments of his self-preservation, how can he pledge them without harming his own interests, and neglecting the care he owes to himself? This difficulty, in its bearing on my present subject, may be stated in the following terms:

"The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before." This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective; so that, although they have perhaps never been formally set forth, they are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised, until, on the violation of the social compact, each regains his original rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty in favour of which he renounced it.

These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one — the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms:

"Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."

At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will. This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons formerly took the name of city, and now takes that of Republic or body politic; it is called by its members State when passive. Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and severally are called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State. But these terms are often confused and taken one for another: it is enough to know how to distinguish them when they are being used with precision.

THIS formula shows us that the act of association comprises a mutual undertaking between the public and the individuals, and that each individual, in making a contract, as we may say, with himself, is bound in a double capacity; as a member of the Sovereign he is bound to the individuals, and as a member of the State to the Sovereign. But the maxim of civil right, that no one is bound by undertakings made to himself, does not apply in this case; for there is a great difference between incurring an obligation to yourself and incurring one to a whole of which you form a part.

Attention must further be called to the fact that public deliberation, while competent to bind all the subjects to the Sovereign, because of the two different capacities in which each of them may be regarded, cannot, for the opposite reason, bind the Sovereign to itself; and that it is consequently against the nature of the body politic for the Sovereign to impose on itself a law which it cannot infringe. Being able to regard itself in only one capacity, it is in the position of an individual who makes a contract with himself; and this makes it clear that there neither is nor can be any kind of fundamental law binding on the body of the people — not even the social contract itself. This does not mean that the body politic cannot enter into undertakings with others, provided the contract is not infringed by them; for in relation to what is external to it, it becomes a simple being, an individual.

But the body politic or the Sovereign, drawing its being wholly from the sanctity of the contract, can never bind itself, even to an outsider, to do anything derogatory to the original act, for instance, to alienate any part of itself, or to submit to another Sovereign. Violation of the act by which it exists would be self-annihilation; and that which is itself nothing can create nothing.

As soon as this multitude is so united in one body, it is impossible to offend against one of the members without attacking the body, and still more to offend against the body without the members resenting it. Duty and interest therefore equally oblige the two contracting parties to give each other help; and the same men should seek to combine, in their double capacity, all the advantages dependent upon that capacity.

Again, the Sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs; and consequently the sovereign power need give no guarantee to its subjects, because it is impossible for the body to wish to hurt all its members. We shall also see later on that it cannot hurt any in particular. The Sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be.

This, however, is not the case with the relation of the subjects to the Sovereign, which, despite the common interest, would have no security that they would fulfil their undertakings, unless it found means to assure itself of their fidelity.

In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself; and, regarding the moral person which constitutes the State as a persona ficta, because not a man, he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being ready to fulfil the duties of a subject. The continuance of such an injustice could not but prove the undoing of the body politic.

In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.'

Powerful ideas of course, and ideas which had their moment and were to have an impact on The Age of Reason, and indirectly the revolutions of America and France.

But here you find the clearest explanation of the true and proper relationship between government and people, a contract which should never move away from its proper balance.

When it does YOU are the loser.

So, looking at our society now, looking at the social contract, are we being ripped off in the power stakes?

Are we free?


Anonymous said...

(Caveat: as an American, I am responding with the history and outlook of such)
We take our individualism so seriously that, indeed, many inherently reject Rousseau's assertion of the importance of the collective over that of the individual. Yet we took on without murmur the yoke of collectivism when we began to strive for the "average" in the mid-thirties. With the advent of the Gallup poll, Americans began to see what their neighbors thought, how they felt, and the weird extremes that no one wanted to relate to. These polls turned against us, and have manipulated us for the past 75 years.
The societal collectivism that Rousseau asserts is perfectly balanced demands not just the giving up of the individual, but also engaged interaction--the type of interaction that is nearly impossible in our currently defragmented society. A defragmented society which I blame partly on the myth of the "Average American."
So to answer your question, yes, we enjoy the illusion of freedom, because we have chosen to pay bureaucracies (via taxes, our sons, certain "rights," etc.) to dole out our meager "freedoms".

Anonymous said...

I've read this post 5 times and I still can't see the gag.
What's the joke ??
And why aren't I listed on your most brainiest blog-roll, fucker...

Anonymous said...

Did you type all this in yourself? Gosh you have been busy....I had to study Rousseau as part of my politics degree, which was so long ago, that he actually came and gave a few of the lectures himself (Ba bum ching!)

OK, I actually did meet Hayek though..

Anonymous said...

Did I mention my MA in Strategic Studies or my Certificate in Law and Society? No, I think I forgot...

Anonymous said...

Office computer guys are going crazy, because I sat and read your entire post! LOL

It's too close to a long weekend for me to blog about anything more serious then the color of my new computer, or, stupid traditions nobody even knows about... :)

I'll be back on Monday, and try to fish out a deep thought in the shallow waters that is my mind! Pinky-swear! ;)

have a good weekend

Anonymous said...

Gosh what a powerful post. I think we all aspire to your superior intelligence. This is certainly one for Graachi. I do wonder if we try to analyse everything too much.

Anonymous said...

Well, so much for a little light reading but leave it to you to make me think! Ouch! I know as an American I take a lot of things for granted. I like to think I am an individual but we are all really just part of a collective.

Anonymous said...

I just kept going and going and going! You are like the Energizer Battery of Blogging! Freedom is an illusion!

Anonymous said...

Helen- It doesn't demand the giving up of the individual in my opinion. Rousseau was seeking to find some legitimate basis for the executive. His poit was that often social orders have their origin in brute force, and as such we have no moral compunction to obey, if the force is resistable. Only a fair social contract can justly command our respect.

This comes about in two forms;
1. Our private contract with society as a whole.
2. The general public contract with the executive we put ourselves under.

He acknowledges an element of compulsion in this by arguing that our right to negate this puts us in the dubious position of being totally free, a society of one, as it were, but then we find ourselves at war with the society we have rejected; this is the basis of criminal justice.

So the first point serves our own intersts; if the contract exists it makes sense to be part of it.

The second point is that the executive (and legislature) are secondary creations of that contract and exist for the general good. If they do not serve the general good, it is legitimate to remove them.

In other words, the majority of us should enjoy happier lives as a result of this contract than we would do if we had not entered it.

I don't think that means mentally anaethatised lives, fed on Big Brother or Pop Idol.

As to your point about collectivism, how would you define society, if not as a collective?
Individualism taken too far (as now) strikes at the very core of everything we have acheived.

Fingers- No gag, sorry. Our glorious rulers may be jokes, if not very good ones. But they shouldn't be.
I have two blogrolls, one of which I have no control over, it's done remotely, the other of which is there primarily for my benefit.
Are you fishing for inclusion...?

Mutley- Pretty much everything is available online these days to copy and paste.

I always thought there was a creative genius in there somewhere...

Heart- I'm glad you found the time, don't let the Computer Geeks get you down!!!
Enjoy your weekend too!!!

Ellee- Superior Intelligence not mine, I'm afraid, just like reading clever guys.

Poody- We are a social species, that is why have acheived what we have.

Anonymous said...

Jenny- It is, as we live now. In some sense it's always a paradox, be cause our own fredom in one area is curtailed by allowing others the same, but in a balanced society, we'd all gain from the deal.

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a thought-provoking post. I think it's one for Gracchi, too. The part that stopped me in my tracks was the bit about man maybe "enjoying the rights of citizenship without the duties of a subject" and, OK, if we change the word "subject" to "citizan" then I would say that is where the danger lies in the UK now. Many people don't think they HAVE any duties and in there I would say that there is, perhaps, a "duty" to vote. This is where, I think, our society is breaking up.

Anonymous said...

A trenchant analysis Mr.Crushed by Ing Soc. Agreed- the people alone are sovereign, they possess inalienable rights and government exists to carry out the general will.
In terms of the current global rise of militant Islam, we would also do well to remember Rousseau's injunction that tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship. Something for the current crop of European leaders to reflect on....

Jean-Jacques Rousseau also realised that the idea of human beings uniting through rational self-interest, actually leaves them lonely, favors relationships of hypocrisy and exploitation, and turns them away from politics. Again something for the current political class to reflect upon....

Anonymous said...

'Are we being ripped off in the power stakes ?' 'Are we free ?'

People have never been more individualistic and therein is our country's weakness by fragmentation. If you are asking 'are we free ?' I would counter 'from what ?' Free from supra-national meddling ? No. Free from state interference ? No - but then people used to be largely conformist and the state didn't need to interfere.

Anonymous said...

Actually, blog-roll was the wrong term. I was referring to your list of serious, brainy, thought-provoking blogs.
TWG raises some big issues, you pompous ass.
BTW, I'm well impressed Mutley met Salma Hayek; she's a hornbag.
I once met Jack Nicholson in a sports bar in Tokyo; he's a complete cunt...

Anonymous said...

Fingers- Stop being a jealous twat.I am sure if he had a " sniffling prick" section you would top the list. Really, except for sexually dysfunctional what other list do you expect to make???

Anonymous said...

That's rich coming from you.
One spanking and you moved blogs.
I'm a little apprehensive about roughing you up again; one more move and even your stalkers will have trouble finding you...

Anonymous said...

Welshcakes- Or it could be a gut instincyt that they are being ripped off. I think deep down, most of us realise that life for most of us should not be the hopeless drudgery, punctuated by reality TV, that it has become. Technology was supposed to free us, not enslave us. People are rebelling against the skewed contract, exactly as Rousseau said was justified.

Istanbul Tory- Current party politics exploits self interst, or class interest. I cut those passages out as too long winded, and potentially diversionary, but I'm glad you noted their excision.

E-K- until your last sentence, I was nodding with agreement.
It's not about conformity.
It's about a society being structured so our interests march together.
Not so much a pipedream as you might think.
Our future now is more closely linked to our brother man than ever before.

Fingers- If you heard me speak in reality, you'd know I was a jumped up working class barrow boy, but thanks.
I'll consider it :)

Freya- Well, there could be others...

Anonymous said...

NO, You delude yourself my friend,Fingers,I shut my blog to get rid of the undesirables. You mistake kindness for weakness,which is typical of someone of your ilk.