The Social Contract

Much of modern political philosophy has focused on the concept of the Social Contract.  The Social Contract is a philosophical attempt to explain why people form and maintain a given social order, why people would give up various individual freedoms to join a society, and what the society provides for them in return.  It is, essentially, the fundamental agreements between the individual and the organization of society.

Social Contracts are usually not the fundamental documents of a given society.  They are usually philosophical concepts that explain why individuals should obey the fundamental order of society, and all the regulations that lawfully come out of that process.  Some influential examples:

Thomas Hobbes essentially believed that people needed to be ruled by an absolute sovereign because we would otherwise all kill each other, both justifying in his mind why society was formed and why it should be maintained.  John Locke had a similar view of human nature as Hobbes, but thought that people could choose what specific freedoms to give up to the State (the right to kill other, for example), and the State would only exist for specific, limited reasons, mainly neutral protection of everyone’s life, liberty, and property.  Rousseau believed that through some magical process, citizens meeting in popular assemblies could create something called the General Will, and since the General Will came from this process of popular sovereignty, it was everyone’s duty to obey (or be forced to obey) it.

There are, of course, many problems of the very concept of the Social Contract by most philosophers who have used it.  Probably the most glaring, in my view, is that these theories are not contracts at all.  Contracts assume that all parties involved have consented to the agreement.  This was not the case in the formation of most societies.  Humans never lived as isolated individuals in our prehistory, at war with each other, fighting all the times for scraps of food.  This ignores some of the most widely accepted and understood aspects of homo sapiens, especially the fact that we are helpless at birth, and require years of a caring, supportive environment to survive to adulthood.  The norm was for humans to be in large extended families, clans, and tribes, which is far from many of these philosophers’ perspective on the “State of Nature.”  Even if such a state of existence did exist, it is extraordinarily unlikely that people in that condition would gather at a meeting place, come up with a Social Contract, and formally start a new society.  (This concept is absurd sounding enough from the very biased perspectives of modern anthropology, but looks evem more ridiculous when we take into account the feminist perspectives of human ‘prehistory’, such as Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, or Marylin French’s Beyond Power, accounts that seem to have more and more supporting evidence each year as anthropology and archiology rid themselves of long standing biases.)

Standard contracts also are negotiated, written, and the parties sign them.  This is simply not done with the Social Contracts of dominant culture.  Who remembers when they signed on to obeying the US Constitution?  Unless you were in a situation where you took a special oath for some reason, like joining the military or immigrating, you never did.   Did you have a chance to argue out of that pesky sixteenth amendment, because you didn’t want to agree to the income tax?   Lysander Spooner infamously made a fanstastic legalistic argument that the Constitution only actually applied to those people who personally signed it, and why their signatures have no authority to compel others to obey what they claimed to agree to on our behalf.  Other anarchists, like Proudhon, argued that the only contracts that needed to exist were the ones that individuals made freely with each other, and that the State was simply an unnecessary oppressive organization that should be done away with.

While flawed in many ways, the concept of a Social Contract is very useful in others.  Many philosophers believed that the social order must be based on dome degree of the “consent of the governed,” and if the State ever violates these fundamental agreements, then citizens have the right and duty to change the unjust laws or even (depending on philosopher) the social order itself.  This idea has become so pervasive in the modern world that almost every type of government (including extremely authoritarian regimes) needs to claim that it is acting in the interests of it’s citizens in order to appear legitimate.  How the “consent of the governed” is measured is a point of major debate.  Ultimately, in modern regimes it comes down to who controls the military, and whether or not key sectors of the population support, are indifferent, or actively work against the regime.  The recent disposal of the president of Honduras has all of these factors playing out at the time of writing.

Does a Social Contract have any relevance in PostRev?  In societies that have goals such as egalitarianism,  integrated labour/economic systems, and participatory government, Social Contracts are much more revelant, as more is expected from both the society and the individual contributions to that society.

At Twin Oaks, members sign a membership agreement upon joining.  In essence, this document says that the joining member agrees to follow all of the community agreements, and in return the community will commit to providing for the member’s food, housing, clothing, health care, and so on, to the best of the community’s ability.  As opposed to typical jurisdictions in dominant culture, where obedience to the ruling authorities is assumed, intentional communities usually have these agreements (whether written or unwritten) where the joining member formally agrees to the basic Social Contract.  (Agreeing to the Social Contract does not mean that one wholeheartedly agrees to every community agreement that exists or will be made in the future in the Rousseauian form of Social Contract and General Will, something that will be discussed often in later posts.)

The Social Contract varies from community to community based on the focus and goals of that particular organization (for example, religious communities will obviously have more of an agreement to focus on their spiritual practices).  Like constitutions of States, Social Contracts of intentional communities can not necessarily be derived from simply reading foundational documents, although such documents can often give good indications as to the nature of the Social Contract.

I would argue that the Social Contract of Twin Oaks is as follows: the community will provide for all the material needs of the members, and many material goods beyond the minimum level as long as they are made accessible in an egalitarian system.  The members in turn are expected to contribute at least an equal amount of labour towards providing these community services, and in general are expected to have liberty in what they choose to do with their time beyond those obligations.

There are many additional goals of the community listed in the bylaws, and many different things many members try to make Twin Oaks to be, but I believe that this labour/economic system is essentially the core agreement.  Labour is important because it is not necessary to have money or other resources to “buy in” to the community to join, as it is with many other intentional communities, only a willingness to contribute the minimum labour requirements to the community.  If that labour contribution ever stops (as in when one decides to drop membership), the benefits of the community also stop.  This doesn’t mean that this is the only agreement one needs to follow to be an ideal member of the community or stay out of conflict, nor is this the only thing the community provides to its members.  It is, however, one of the most long-standing core agreements that most members have held in agreement for the existence of the community.

Important differences between this PostRev type of Social Contract and most Western philosophical ones:

  • Notwithstanding the above point about the membership contract having more in it than that essence of the Social Contract, it is an actual written contract, signed by the joining member and representatives of the community.
  • The joining member is freely and actively choosing to abide by the terms of the contract, as opposed to the assumed obedience to things like the US  Constitution or the Crown.
  • Members can take an active role in modifying the terms of the Social Contract.  While this is possible in dominant culture, it is much easier (although often still quite challenging) to change the relationship between a member and one’s community compared to the citizen/State or subject/ruler relationship.

~ by Ethan Tupelo on 02009.07.04.

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