Why a State I: Can An Imagined Justice Justify Unjust History? Research Time, 16/10/2014

I always found it saddening that most undergraduate philosophy courses, until you got to about the third-year level (and sometimes not even then) didn’t require the students to read whole books, only isolated chapters and excerpts. I say this because it’s often the less-widely read, later chapters in historically remarkable books of philosophy that offer the stranger, more difficult, and more intriguing arguments and concepts. As I was reading Anarchy, State, and Utopia on the train yesterday morning, I found one such strange passage.

The 7.15 train from Hamilton to Oakville is actually a wonderfully relaxing place to read philosophy. It takes about half an hour from Hamilton’s GO station, and the first ten minutes of the trip from Hamilton to Aldershot station by Waterdown Road is entirely without stops. It’s the second morning rush hour train to leave from Hamilton station in a 15 minute period, containing the overspill from the 7.05. As a result, it’s never packed until it actually reaches Oakville, at which point it turns into an express straight to Union Station at the perigee of Toronto and I get off the damn thing.

Instead of a collection of elected representatives, imagine a
giant meeting of shareholders in citizens. It's not as
difficult as you might imagine.
This strange passage, whose precise meaning and implications still puzzle me, is Robert Nozick’s story of the Demoktesis. It’s an alternate history of the social contract that brings about what he calls the more-than-minimal state, a government that supplies social services, levies taxes, builds common infrastructure, and so on. 

In this social contract narrative, a democratic socialist government arises from a series of free agreements among people to sell oneself into slavery to the other. Because a person is now a saleable commodity, one can distribute ownership in oneself by selling shares. When everyone has opened themselves to shareholder ownership for various reasons, the society reaches equilibrium when everyone owns a single share in everyone else. In this circumstance, everyone owns a piece of each other, and gathers together in regular shareholder meetings to decide on policy for the governance and maintenance of their common property, each other and the land on which they live.

You never read this part when you look at Nozick in an Intro to Political Philosophy course. 

Nozick ends the chapter with an explanation of what this alternate social contract story was all about. Most prominent social contract stories in the history of philosophy legitimate a democratic state government through an invented narrative that institutes governmental powers, people’s rights and responsibilities, and representative political structures through free agreements for mutual protection and service provision. Nozick offers an alternative narrative that foregrounds the elements of slavery in the construction of the modern state with all its taxation, social services, and overkill military expenditures. 

It’s all well and good to point out the ultimate paradox of democratic states: we build protections for freedom of expression and association into our government to enshrine individual and social freedoms and broad democratic rights to participate in governance and control one’s own life, but the state itself has always been an institution whose goal is controlling its populations. 

This is why tight controls on the powers of the police and military are essential for maintaining democracy: without such controls, the state will inevitably go to war on its own citizens. The state was birthed in war with its own citizens. The state defines membership in such a way that it either piggybacks on an existing tribal ethnicity (ex. Salafist Islam, Sinhalese, French) or creates one (ex. American, Italian), to the exclusion of those who are different. We must constantly monitor this institution, the state, so that its natural tendencies to internal and external violence don’t carry us away into destruction.

So I am frustrated that Nozick seems more concerned with whether imagined narratives of social contracts born from free agreements among politically equal individual agents are just, when understanding our real-life history is what we have to contend with as philosophers and as people facing terrifying political turbulence throughout the world. To be continued . . . 


  1. Nozick's Demoktesis doesn't sound a million miles away from Wired Magazine's idea of utopia: http://www.wired.com/2014/03/going-tracked-heres-way-embrace-surveillance/

    1. It sounds like something I often joke about: the blackmail singularity. When a critical mass of people have been recorded on social media doing something humiliating, it would be impossible to suffer from that humiliating content thanks to a ubiquitous glass houses problem.

      This is a joke.

  2. But it's not a joke -- it's shorthand for how the revelation of hypocrisy leads to greater tolerance. The surest way to legitimize a taboo practice is to demonstrate that a large portion of the population already practices it in veiled form: 'co-veillance' achieves that.

    1. I kid, because such a situation is genuinely funny. Social tolerance does change when people understand that their neighbours, friends, people they genuinely respect take part in these behaviours. But it's one of those slow transitions that, if I can put my dramatist hat on for a second, results in a lot of awkward humour.

      The reveal at the critical threshold would be fascinating to watch: people expecting humiliation and only receiving a shrug of the shoulders. I can imagine people upset that their once-dangerous behaviours have become so normal: "Man, I used to be cool."

    2. I'm not necessarily sure that mass co-veillance is the best approach, though, if only because of the large amount of collateral damage people would face until we get to that tipping point.

    3. Well, don't you think people should now prepare for the collateral damage, since some version of co-veillance is coming sooner or later? (And you're right, that most of it will be met with shoulder shrugs.)