In the last few months we’ve seen attempts by Kurdistan and Catalonia to gain independence. Both attempts were shot down with non-lethal but overwhelming military force. That’s clearly one difference between those break-aways and the more successful on in Crimea. These events ought to force any thinking person to ask “what is a ‘nation’?” and to wonder how nations establish their legitimacy.
There is a huge body of political philosophy around the topic of “what is a nation?” The prevailing attitudes are shaped by Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and their followers and interpreters. Locke and Hobbes were engaged over the topic of where the authority of the state comes from – is it force, the nature of power, divine will, or something else? At the core of the discussion is the issue of how people went from being ungoverned to governed. It appears that the question of origin of government is resolved: humans never were ungoverned. We evolved as social animals, and society, hence leadership, and thus government, evolved along with us. The thinkers of the enlightenment were still distracted by religion, with its myth of the Garden of Eden and a time where people were not in a society – a myth that is not true: there never was a “state of nature” in which man was un-led and un-governed. If you look at Rousseau’s The Social Contract in that context, he was concerned with explaining how it was that people came to accept government; how they came to voluntarily make themselves subjects.
From what we can see of some of our primate cousins, and the bones of neanderthals (and possibly austrolopithecines) it appears that one of the first things humans did was war upon eachother; it’s possible that enlightenment thinkers had things exactly backwards – war caused government; leadership was necessary because of conflict, and tribal cohesion was necessary because a solitary human was prey. Hobbes was wrong with his idea that the state of nature was “war of all against all” – solitary humans were not fully human; not politically, anyway.
Forts are made so that groups of humans can defend themselves against other groups; it’s a gigantic investment in resources and time to build something like that, but the alternative is worse.
While Hobbes imagines that anarchy would look like solitary humans hunting each other, he ignores the obvious fact that humans hunt in packs; we always have hunted in packs. And, with apologies to the enlightenment thinkers, those packs were proto-monarchies. Humans and government co-evolved; there never was a time when there was no organizing principle in force over groups. When do we switch from calling someone a “tribal chief” to a “ruler”? The only distinction is the number and capability (for war) of their subordinates.
Rousseau’s idea of the social contract was ground-breaking for its explanatory power, even though it was wrong about how governments came into being in the first place: he says government gains its power from the consent of the governed.
[Side-discussion: Many Americans interpret the words “social contract” as a literal contract in the modern usage of the word, as if it were a legal agreement that both parties have negotiated, accepted, or rejected. Rousseau’s use of “contract” is more like “arrangement” or “agreement” there is none of the legalistic baggage of signatures and point-by-point itemization of issues that we might assume come along with a modern contract. I mention this because often I hear people say “I didn’t sign the social contract” – which is usually short-hand for something like “I don’t agree with society’s rules or the government’s laws.” I don’t think that’s a very strong position to take against government legitimacy, and neither do governments. [stderr]]
The idea of the social contract, as an arrangement that allows people to live and cooperate under a government, is that the individual gives up some of their natural rights [per grotius] in return for the benefits of living in society. Society guarantees protection, our right to some degree of personal liberty, maybe the pursuit of happiness – and in return we agree to sometimes risk our lives to defend it, or at least pay our taxes. A cynic would say something like: “we agree to become a cog in the vast machine, in return for the machine’s guarantee that we’ll at least be periodically oiled.” A more profound cynic would argue that the arrangement is similar to that of the shepherd who guards the flock and protects them from wolves, so they can live longer wolf-free lives until the shepherd decides their wool is no longer worth shearing and turns them into mutton stew.
That original old anarchist, Epicurus, withdrew from the civilization that surrounded him, because he did not wish to be part of a government built upon compulsion or force. He didn’t opt out of the social contract entirely, because he remained a civilized man – but he built his own little society around his villa and his garden, based on no coercion at all. Naturally, had the government of Athens wished to prove Epicurus’ point, they could have sent a few troops around and encouraged them to volunteer to re-join Athenian society in lieu of a spear in the guts. That would prove Epicurus’ point but it would not be much of a victory for his little band.
Epicurus and other anarchists (like: almost all of them!) bring a complaint against government that it does not have legitimacy because it ultimately rests its case on coercion. To them, Rousseau, to put it mildly, was wrong: government is not established by and for the people, in operation it is more like a gang that talks softly but carries a big stick.
Robert Paul Wolff’s argument against government is along the axis of opposing government’s collective nature against individual autonomy. Personally, I find it impeccable. How can I give up my autonomy to a government in return for its promise to protect the autonomy it demands I give up?
The language of social contract is particularly relevant today, because the dominant power in the world, the United States, is founded on a bunch of documents that indirectly reference the social contract; it was a very influential idea at the time the North American colonies declared their independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Never mind that the US’ founding fathers didn’t act in accordance to a whit of what they wrote, it’s an important document that has had global influence – if only as a result of the US being the world’s superior military power. This: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” is a statement that the social contract is the foundation of government authority. It’s a leap from Louis XIV’s “L’état c’est moi.” “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” – at the time Rousseau published The Social Contract, it was censored and he was threatened with arrest, because the book was a tacit approval of revolution. Since Rousseau was arguing that the divine right of kings was not the source of sovereignty, and the sovereign had to represent the people; a sovereign who did not represent the people had no legitimacy. The founding documents of the US express that sentiment: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” – in other words, Rousseau had published a blueprint for revolution.
It’s a deeper cut into the authority of the state than Wolff’s opposition of autonomy and state authority, since it is contingent on the state’s behavior, not a fine point of philosophy. Anarchists who warn us that the state is founded on the threat of violence are right, but Rousseau’s charge is that the state that is not meeting its ends of the bargain is not legitimate; what is the bargain? It is to seek the general good. That’s all expressed in the form of the rule of law, the detailed bill of rights that enumerates what the citizen gets from the state in return for the loyalty they show, and the liberty they give up. And that is where I see the deep rifts forming in the nations we see, today, confronting democratic popular uprisings.
The first case is the US. Since the beginning of the red scares and the J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US has begun to increasingly shamelessly violate its own rule of law. We have seen tremendous erosion of the constitutional requirement for Congress to control war and the budget. We have seen violation of the 4th amendment, and the government continues to assert its unconstitutional power to inflict capital punishment. We had COINTELPRO. We have Gitmo, and drone assassinations of US citizens, approved by a classified court. The US government has stomped all over the rule of law, in ways too numerous to list – and that’s without even talking about slavery, the breaking of treaties with the Indigenous People, and the disenfranchisement of the Jim Crow period (which continues today). When you throw in things like asset forfeiture and violent, racist, policing, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the US is a failed state; that it is not living up to its part of the social contract.
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it
Powerful words. Lies, from a failed state.
I’m thinking of this in particular because of the Kurdistan independence vote, which was quashed with military supremacy, and the Catalan independence vote, which was suppressed by violent policing and an internal purge. The Spanish Government said the Catalan independence vote was “unconstitutional” – by which they meant there is no provision in the rule of law – but Rousseau has written them a justification for dissolving the political bonds between Catalonia and Spain. The same justification is written for Kurdistan. When the cops began to beat the protesters, the Spanish Government had tacitly admitted it had no legitimate claim to govern (else, why would the cops need to beat protesters?) and when the Iraqi Government deployed artillery and American-made M1 Abrams tanks against the Kurds they admitted they had no legitimacy to govern, either (after all, why else would they need Abrams tanks?). The razor blade hidden in Rousseau’s justification of democracy through a social contract is that most governments don’t meet the high standard that he set.
It is not good for him who makes the laws to execute them, or for the body of the people to turn its attention away from a general standpoint and devote it to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs, and the abuse of the laws by the government is a less evil than the corruption of the legislator, which is the inevitable sequel to a particular standpoint. In such a case, the State being altered in substance, all reformation becomes impossible. A people that would never misuse governmental powers would never misuse independence; a people that would always govern well would not need to be governed.
If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed. It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without the form of administration being changed.
In fact, I can confidently lay down as a principle that, when the functions of government are shared by several tribunals, the less numerous sooner or later acquire the greatest authority, if only because they are in a position to expedite affairs, and power thus naturally comes into their hands.
Jean Jacques Rousseau The Social Contract, book III chapter IV
It’s not quite cut and dried: the other people in a country have some interest in the fortunes of the state; if a supermajority of the population in a region vote for independence, what about the other citizens on the other side of the country? There were massive majorities for independence in Catalonia, Kurdistan, and Crimea; the rest of the countries did not have similar majorities. In other words, the rest of Spain did not agree. How do we resolve this? In Spain, the government has charged the Catalan independence leaders with sedition and rebellion and is trying to have them extradited from Belgium so that they can be punished. Authoritarianism and fake democracy continue to dominate the world’s politics.
“We are all just prisoners, here, of our own device.”
I need to note that Rousseau appeared to be arguing that the only democracy worth of the name was direct democracy – one person, one vote. Which, in Robert Paul Wolff’s analysis, is also the only democracy that has a chance of balancing the autonomy of the individual against the nation – however, Wolff argues that a direct democracy must be based on a heavy supermajority (on the order of 95%) so that there is no possibility for a “tyranny of the majority” to arise. Wolff uses that unlikelihood as a reason to disqualify direct democracy as a legitimate political system.
Rousseau was a complex man – probably he’d be diagnosed with a disorder like schizophrenia, today – full of contradictions and grudges. Contradictions: he wrote one of the first books on child-rearing, but abandoned his own offspring to a poorhouse and never met them. Grudges: he was from Geneva, Switzerland, where his father had come into conflict with a fake democracy; Geneva operated based on a political system that looked like a democracy, but was actually run by a secret “little committee” that controlled all the votes. There was no popular vote; the franchise was only available to the bourgeoisie, and even they didn’t realize their votes weren’t counted in any way. Rousseau appears to have formed a lasting suspicion of representative democracy. Rousseau would quickly recognize the US as a pseudo-democracy; his senses were already attuned to detect them.
I included the pictures of the Staigue Fort because it’s emblematic, to me, of early government. Doubtless some leaders were trying to foster the good for their people, and they built fortresses because they had to, to defend themselves. Yet, to what degree was “self-defense” their desire to preserve their own power? Kings and lords have always known what happens to defeated kings – it’s not good for them, or their people, unless they’re bad kings. The bad kings are the ones, in days gone by, who had lost the favor of the gods. War is inextricable from the state. As an anarchist, and a skeptic, I don’t see states as doing much else of importance. Neither, it appears, do they – they always keep the swords sharp so they can turn them on the enemies of the people, or the people, whichever, whenever, whatever.
The cover of the copy of Rousseau that I included is interesting. Translated roughly, it reads:
Edition without cover-boards, with an additional letter from the author to the only friend left to him in the world.
I believe it is an 18th century bootleg.