The Myth of the Truly Isolated Man Is Dangerous, Research Time, 01/08/2014

I’ve been working on a lot of projects since returning from Eclipse Festival last weekend. I’ve gotten back to work at my freelance editing gig, am finishing up the edits to my play script You Were My Friend, preparing for the actual launch of Under the Trees, Eaten, and starting work on a feature film script adapting my old short story about Alice. Also, I’m reading philosophy. Never stopped through the festival, as I would quite often chill by our tent or walk to the chillout stage to read. 

Rousseau was the most liberatory of the
social contract theorists. Even so, he put
people in more chains than he thought.
But Mikhail Bakunin offers more and more philosophical surprises, one of which is a profound denunciation of social contract theory as the central concept of political philosophy. I call it a denunciation because it isn’t exactly an argument in the formal academic sense. Bakunin wrote philosophically dense polemics and speeches, not academic articles or books. His deep thinking and creative concepts animated his writing, but they were always for a different kind of audience and context of delivery than the institutionalized academe of 19th century Europe.

So he doesn’t choose a particular foundational text to analyze per se. Instead, he identifies the main schools of his time’s social contract theory of politics, drops the names of a couple of key authors, and proceeds to target the essential form of the concept, the premises that are invariant across all the different approaches and frameworks a theorist may take while still calling their creation a social contract theory. In a way, it reminds of what Gilles Deleuze does with his philosophical analyses, except with language that is far more direct.

That core premise is that humanity only became social with the foundation of the contract, constituting a proto-state. As a result, the state becomes understood as the primary form of human association. The only means humans have of genuinely keeping order are, therefore, the authoritative arms* of the state like police, schoolteachers, bureaucrats, and the military. Laws, law givers, and the enforcers of law. 

* There are, in English, two key senses to the word ‘authority.’ One is the authority of an expert, and the other is the authority of a political-military power. You obey the former in deference to their knowledge, the latter out of fear for your life. I think I’ll have to incorporate a little Joseph Raz into this dimension of Utopia’s theorizing.

Bakunin denounces this as simply a falsehood: Humans have always lived in social groups, their members cooperating with each other for a common good. We as individuals were born into these groups and raised as members, negotiating our individual identities in dialogue with the social forces such as ethical obligation, pressure toward fairness, and the complex bonds of family, friendship, and community. Contemporary evolutionary and anthropological research has borne out the empirical truth of this notion. Instead of laws dispensed and enforced through authorities and their institutions, we governed ourselves through customs that were always subject to adaptation to changing circumstances or spontaneous transformation through the critical powers of thinkers. This is a conception of politics as immanent to political life itself.

Even in our earliest days, humanity was a social creature.
 It’s fitting that Bakunin initially choose Rousseau’s social contract theory as the primally focal theorist for his conception of social contract theory. He spends much of the relevant section of the essay “Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism” railing against the presumption in most social contract theories that humanity would be inescapably violent to each other without submission to the authority of a state. But this is because of the polemic nature of his style.

Rousseau’s social contract theory is an exception to the principle that a society before the state is necessarily violent. Pre-state people, for Rousseau, are happy and peaceful. And he even describes the social contract as putting humanity in chains. But Bakunin chooses him as the key representative of the theory because, even in their happy pre-state sense, humans are still conceived as isolated. They are naturally individuals. 

Bakunin opposes this, because he understood intuitively, more than a hundred years before scientific confirmation, that we are only complete humans insofar as we are part of vibrant communities of neighbours, colleagues, and friends. This simple fact about the world itself makes every theory of the social contract into false philosophy leading us in directions that are nonsense for human nature itself.

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