The Social Contract
The Development of Modernist Ideology

The Emergence of Civil Society

 In his text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Beacon Press: 1976), Thomas Khuns teaches us that major paradigm shifts are realized in relation to a number of smaller shifts that make up the social fabric that is part and parcel of such a shift. In this context then, I wish to refocus our attention from the epistemological developments attributed to the works of Descarte, Locke and Kant, and the concomitant wars that served to replace the rule of monarchies with rationally structured civil societies, to those of the social and quasi-scientific theories that were beginning to bear fruit in the fertile soil of modernist thinking. Specifically, I wish to consider the impact of the Social Contract theory and how it may have served as the conceptual breeding-ground for class, sexual, racial and ethnic prejudice.

In keeping with my desire to break from traditional academic scholarship in favor of utilizing my story-telling talents, you should bear in mind that I am not interested in telling you any necessary truths. Rather, I merely wish to play the role of an alchemist and conjure up a magic mixture of elements to add to my caldron of European history so that we can see if they produce and explain social structures capable of leading to the oppression and domination of our fellow human beings. Naturally, I believe myself to be cheating since the oppression and domination of some human beings by others has already taken place within our Western European societies and the theories listed above have in fact served to provide the ideological context within which such treatment of human beings has come to pass. Therefore, I am simply leaving it to you to do the math. Make no mistake about it, however, if I were committed to following traditional academic standards, I would be left virtually speechless and none of what I believe is obvious about the effects of modernism on the development of Western European civilizations would ever come to light in quite the same way.

By eliminating the role of deities from the ideological fabric of society it became necessary to find a replacement for an external force outside of the individual that could serve to provide social cohesion and order. It was in this context the Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed their theories and understanding of the social contract. Interestingly, each version of the social contract differed in very significant and revealing ways. For the purpose of our story I would like to consider the differences between these versions to see how such differences might shed light on the development of civil society that was taking place at the time.

Hobbes posited that in a hypothetical state of nature all men are completely free and have the right to take what they want from life. However, this right serves to pit every man against one another in a constant battle to the death. From such a view of nature he goes on to say that the highest human necessity is self-preservation and that such a constant state of war is not in man’s best interest. Therefore, it is on the basis of self-interest and materialistic desires that man is inclined towards peaceful co-existence. Thus, from such conjured premises Hobbes believes that man is able to enter into peaceful societies by engaging in a social contract with one another. In this view, a society consists of individuals living under an agreement that can be authoritatively enforced by a sovereign to whom each individual agrees to subordinate a portion of their rights to natural freedom to ensure peace and common defense. Although it was possible under such a scheme of things for the sovereign to be either a monarchy, an aristocracy or a democracy, Hobbes himself was in support of the continuation of the monarchy.

In the opinion of John Locke the natural state of mankind is anarchy and this would be true whenever legitimate government is lacking. On this basis alone, I believe that the difference between Hobbes and Locke is already so significant that it warrant our immediate attention. In Locke’s view, man is a political creature by nature and the lowest state of development is anarchy. It seems easier for me to grasp such a state because I can imagine what might have been going on to protect children, propagate life or conquer wildlife and prey. In the state of nature posited by Hobbes, man does not appear to be at all gregarious. I have trouble imagining a state of nature where death to anyone and everyone else is the best and only guarantee to self-preservation. Anarchy, or the absence of law, does not necessarily mean the lack of cooperation between individuals.

For Locke, there is inherent in a state of nature the law of nature which is the human faculty of reason. The problem with anarchic societies is that the law of nature is misapplied as no specific interpretations are written down or acknowledged and each man would misapply reason in their own case. Thus, while in the state of nature man has a right to be ruler and king of his own domain and over his own possessions, the enjoyment of such a right is very uncertain due to the constant threat of invasion by others as kings and rulers of their own. It is for this reason that man is willing to leave the state of nature and enter into a social contract for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates. Under the social contract individuals agree to surrender certain freedoms enjoyed in the state of nature in exchange for the order and protections provided by a state authority governed by the rule of law.

As the third of three successive thinkers to address the notion of the social contract between 1645 and 1754, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had the distinct advantage of having learned from the efforts of Hobbes and Locke. Unlike the state of nature in Hobbes where every man is at war with every other man, we find in Locke a state of nature where man is seen as inherently gregarious. However, this is where the similarity between Locke and Rousseau diverges dramatically. For Locke man is equipped with the faculty of reason which is unfortunately misapplied under a state of anarchy and requires a mutual commitment to the social contract wherein the government of individuals is structured under rule of law.

In Rousseau we are told that man is a noble savage that is subject to being corrupted by society which is, allegedly, artificial to human nature. What I find most fascinating about Rousseau is that he seems to have taken the gregarious nature of human beings suggested in Locke and “romanticized” backwards to a state of nature that could then be viewed through “rose-colored glasses”. It’s no wonder that he would conclude from this perspective that the imposition of abstract social structures would be harmful to his noble savages. What is important for our story is not that we understand how he came to hold such views but what such views might mean for the development of modernist ideology.

Rousseau’s romanticized and abstract ontology is based on the fundamental belief that humans possess positive self-love, a predisposition for self-preservation and the faculty of reason. In this context he was able to contend that the superimposition of social structures and the development of society would lead to a growing sense of interdependence that would ultimately force humans to compare themselves to one another and, in the final analysis, create unwarranted fear which would serve as a foundation upon which to take pleasure in the pain or weakness of others. It is the relationship between our interdependence and such antagonism with which I am currently interested.

Rousseau’s most significant contribution to the development of modernist ideology is not in explaining how individuals evolve within societies to become antagonistic but, rather, in revealing that they in fact are antagonistic to one another within the fabric of society. In this context, many of the laws and the basic rights of individuals that we find in the Constitution of the United States of America, for example, can be traced back to the view of civilization and society espoused by Rousseau. As a sort of side note, I would like to interject here that in Rousseau’s day and age civilization and society had been changing and evolving for thousands of years. Thus, the antagonism that Rousseau describes were in a certain sense self evident, observable and part of the human condition.

As Rousseau canvassed the social fabric of his day to better grasp the effects of society’s imposition on the human condition within the context of his developing theory of the social contract, he was able to make some very significant observations. The most important observation for our purpose was to note that population growth and the development of agriculture, metallurgy, private property and the division of labor, led to an increased interdependence and inequality. It is important for us to realize that these observations are made within the context of what Rousseau refers to as the “original contract”. In this context we can say that the original contract is similar to Locke’s anarchic state of nature wherein human beings are seen as gregarious and capable to cooperating with each other while misapplying their faculty of reason. Thus, for Locke as well as for Rousseau society is already in operation prior to the implementation of the social contract. Rousseau see’s the social contract as an alternative to what he considers to be a fraudulent form of associations.

Social inequality, for Rousseau, was an integral part of the original contract precisely because the wealthiest and most powerful members of society were able to trick the masses into having it instituted as a general feature of human society. While Locke never postulates or examines what sort of human relations may have evolved or developed within an anarchic state of nature, Rousseau observes that the imposition of society without the benefit of the social contract degenerates into a state of inequality without law or morality and that as human beings we must adopt a social contract under laws or risk perishing. For Rousseau, entering into a social contract by abandoning our natural rights to submit to the authority of the general will of the people is the only means by which we can be assured that no individual will be subordinated to the will of others and that we all collectively author and obey the law.

The purpose for our having considered the role of social contract theory in the development of modernist ideology has been to consider how such theories may have served as the conceptual breeding-ground for class, sexual, racial and ethnic prejudice. While social contract theories alone cannot be considered the cause of such prejudice, it can be considered a fundamental element of the social fabric.