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John W. Murphy
Globalization and the Need for a New Social Contract
Many critics have argued for quite some time that the modern world is not a very pleasant place. For example, Marx recognized that majority of persons are alienated. For the most part, they feel powerless, empty, and have little control over their lives, even the most intimate aspects. Their government is their adversary, while their jobs offer little pleasure or security. They have been transformed into mere consumers, who evaluate their personal worth almost exclusively in terms of commercial values. Even their personal and family identities are linked closely to the norms of monetary exchange.
Durkheim takes a slightly different tact on this issue but arrives at a similar conclusion. The modern world, he claims, reflects deep seated anomie. Because of the emphasis that is placed on individualism, there is no basis nowadays for social cohesion. As persons turn increasingly inward and pursue their own goals, the social world appears to be fragmented beyond repair. In this regard, persons are constantly lamenting the loss of community. They are strangers to one another and have no way of establishing a more productive relationship. In the end, only a reality sui generis can be relied on to create social unity and any sense of moral order. And this theoretical demarche results in a situation that can be very repressive.
More recently, some writers have begun to notice a breakdown in the social contract. They claim that no-one feels any obligation to anyone else. Basically persons are adversaries in a cruel and harsh world. Principles such as love, charity, or mercy are assumed to be expressed merely by idealists, or those who have had the luxury of escaping from the difficulties of everyday existence. Accordingly, in the absence of a social contract persons are free to enrich themselves without any regard for the common weal. Lost is a general sense of humanity, whereby persons understand that their fates are linked together. Few people appreciate that everyone is cheapened when even the exploitation of a few unpopular individuals is not openly confronted.
As a result of this situation, some critics have begun to write that new social contract is needed. In this regard, institutions such as the government should be viewed as a collective product, and not simply the means whereby one group is encouraged to control others. The point of this critique is that persons should join forces regularly in order to solve common social problems and live in harmony. Others argue, however, that the contract is the wrong metaphor to describe intimate relationships. Indeed, their contention is that contractual relationships epitomize alienation, rather than solve this condition. The world should be better united, but this end cannot be achieved through the efforts of a social contract.
The Market and the Demise of the Social
Various authors, but especially in Latin America, do not believe that the current anomie is an accident of history. Modern societies are not simply unfortunate and thrown into this situation. Neither natural laws nor cosmic forces are the cause of the current breakdown of community or the rupture of the social contract. The balkanization of social life, instead, is the logical outcome of a particular world-view that has gained almost unchallenged dominance during the last twenty years and presently shapes social reality. Latin American writers such as Alejandro Serrano and Franz Hinkelammert refer to this imagery as the “Total Market.”
Their point is that the market has become the dominant metaphor used to describe both personal and collective identity. Of course societies have always had markets and recognized the legitimacy of commercial values. But as Serrano and Hinkelammert note, something new has occurred in today’s society. In short, the market has become an idol, and thus this mechanism does not represent simply one set of values among others. There is no longer any competition among values; nowadays any trait that is not economic in nature is rapidly marginalized.
Essential to the world-view of the marketplace is the individual. Specifically noteworthy is that persons are encouraged to pursue their own so-called preferences, without recognizing the desire or ambitions of others. Successful traders, in other words, are not mired in values or issues that might compromise the exercise of economic rationality. Homo economicus is portrayed in an atomistic manner, and engages others solely for the purpose of achieving some advantage during the trading process.
As Hayek describes the market, only individuals are capable of acting rationally. Groups always act on the basis of emotions, and thus try to manipulate economic interaction in ways that, in the long run, are harmful to the economy. Additionally, Hayek believes that because no-one can comprehend all of the signals that emanate from the market, any attempt to plan an economy to foster the collective good is doomed to fail. For this reason, he asserts that order at the market is spontaneous. Reminiscent of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, although less ethereal, individual traders who strive for personal gain somehow promote the welfare of the community. Rather than a type of cosmic force, the market reflects characteristics that are presumed to be a part of human nature.
So what is the basic message conveyed by the market? Most important is that a community is not intentionally created. Stated differently, there is no social contract that is operative at the market place. Therefore, any social good that may result from trading is purely coincidental. At best, the collective impact of trading is an afterthought, rather than a concern that motivates successful traders. In the end, a community is antithetical to the market; in effect, there is no community of traders, except in the most abstract or rhetorical sense.
Social fragmentation, therefore, is to be expected, and perhaps even extolled as indicative of freedom. Children begin to learn at an early age that traders are adversaries, and that any collaboration among them is momentary and purely strategic. Moreover, any attempt to insure intentionally the collective good is presumed to require the sacrifice of personal initiative and freedom. In a society that is regulated by the market, the absence of social solidarity becomes a way of life. Autonomous individuals may enter into a contractual relationship, but only to protect and perpetuate their respective advantages. The social world thus becomes a lonely and hostile place, where persons survive by outwitting others. Marx describes this outcome by declaring that persons who live in capitalist societies tend to lose their “species-being”, or their general sense of humanity.
Restoring a Sense of Community.
Almost everyone, on both the Right and the Left, nowadays laments the loss of community in modern society. Persons are moving away from cities, abandoning certain jobs, and changing their life-styles in order to restore meaning to their lives. Of course, organized religion has begun to play a larger role in this process, along with other community groups. The aim seems to be the creation of a commodious environment, where persons can find personal fulfillment and exert some control over their daily schedules.
Sometimes persons begin to talk about immersing themselves in the activities of their neighborhoods. Central to these descriptions is the absence of any reference to society as a system. This imagery is part of the pervasive alienation; such imagery, in other words, is too sterile and offensive. Many contemporary critics have supported this desire to temper alienation and have introduced softer images to portray a community. New metaphors have been invented, including the quilt, rhizome, and montage, to convey the intimacy that is sought to be a vital element of a neighborhood. Such a community, for example, is not a cold and impersonal system, but rather a friendly and inviting place. The idea that a new social contract should be enacted is a facet of this trend.
But why is the social contract a focus of attention? Assumed by a contract is that persons are free, rational, and capable of entering voluntarily into relationships. Coercion and manipulation are not identified usually as part of negotiating a contract. In fact, contracts are touted to be completely optional. As a result, all of the relationships that ensue are presumed to be acceptable, and even beneficial, to all of the parties involved.
But the contract has a dark side. For example, Henry Maine adopted this metaphor to characterize modern society as a place where no-one can be trusted and a person’s word means little or nothing. Implied by the formalization of relationships is that persons are suspicious of others’ motives, and thus interpersonal commitments must be rigorously codified. A written record must be available that can be used to resolve all disputes, for otherwise personal interests will cloud every issue. The assumption nowadays is that as soon as the ink dries, everyone begins working behind the scenes to find loopholes and other ways of reinterpreting and reworking the contract. To borrow from Weber, a spirit of distrust has begun already to pervade society once a contract must be invoked to secure solidarity.
In view of this problematic aspect of the contract, commentators such as Serrano suggest that a social contract will not be successful unless this relationship is predicated on themes or traits held in common. The assumption is that if these commonalities are present, persons will be reluctant to violate the rights of their comrades. Persons who are foreign and different should have these fears, but those who have sufficiently similar backgrounds should have no reservations about contractual relationships. Serrano and others such as Habermas seem to think that a “cosmopolitan perspective” is available to supply this common framework.
A cosmopolitan vision, however, is not necessarily appropriate for sustaining a contract. Because this principle represents a rendition of social ontological realism, commonality is enforced by a reality sui generis. The result is that persons must internalize this ideal or archetype, or have no legitimate avenue to enter into a contract. And because this sort of abstract principle is considered to transcend specific cultures, for example, the resulting norms can be treated as absolute. In fact, the strength of the cosmopolitan vision is derived from this status. Nonetheless, the personal freedom, autonomy, and rationality that are at the core of a contractual relationship are undermined by this universal foundation. A reality sui generis imposes behavioral parameters through the exercise of unquestioned moral authority. But as should be noted, this coercion is anti-thetical to the spirit of the contract. A relationship that is prescribed a priori cannot be thought of as voluntary.
A New Contract: Habermas vs Lévinas.
One of the central themes of Habermas’ work is the democratization of modern society. He wants to expand the so-called public sphere, so that the government is no longer controlled by a small group of elites. At least in his early work, he believed that capitalism was problematic in this respect. Those who own the means of production or manage the interests of capitalists monopolize almost every aspect of social life. Hence all discussions are severely restricted. As noted by Marx, the values of the capitalist class eventually provide the justification for establishing and maintaining the most important institutions.
In order to redeploy these organizations, and make them more inclusive, a new way of conceptualizing order has to be developed. Persons have to be able to confront and engage one another more openly and freely than in the past. No longer can institutions be viewed as autonomous and representing unquestioningly a dominant set of values. The capitalist class, in other words, must compete with other groups for recognition, if a more open and just society is going to be created. In order for real democracy to work, institutions have to be based on the best argument rather than entrenched power.
Given Habermas’ goal of a creating a more participatory society, he seems to reject the standard idea that institutions must represent a reality sui generis. Instead, these organizations should be a product of true dialogue that he believes will occur in “ideal speech situations.” Within these domains all proposals are supposed to receive a fair hearing, instead of being evaluated and dismissed as irrational and unacceptable a priori. The presumption at this juncture is that capitalists and their supporters have tended to characterize and dismiss automatically as utopian any claims that do not reflect the norms and values of this economic system. In short, Habermas wants all persons or groups to be approached and judged in their own terms.
Nonetheless, questions arose almost immediately about the basis of order in Habermas’ scheme. What norms, stated simply, are available to support dialogue? Considering that Habermas never thoroughly rejected the Enlightenment tradition, he has provided a fairly standard answer to this query. That is, certain norms would have to be accepted as universal; consistent with the realist tradition, a single and uniform basis of dialogue would have to be identified and acknowledged as valid by all participants. As a result, the standard or traditional principle of sameness becomes the foundation of order. Accordingly, the required commonality is established by isolating and idealizing select traits that all of the legitimate participants are thought to possess. The result of this strategy is that all of those involved in an ideal speech situation have to assimilate to particular norms, and thus dialogue is not necessarily inclusive. Full participation is restricted a priori by these a-historical standards.
To avoid the homogeneity and reductionism that accompanies Habermas’ rendition of order, Lévinas adopts a different approach to understanding dialogue. As opposed to Habermas, he rejects completely dualism and the accompanying realism. With respect to this change, Lévinas argues that order must be unmediated—in his opinion, there are no archetypes that can be invoked to provide the uniformity that is believed traditionally to be central to maintaining order. According to Lévinas, order must emerge directly from the various cultural differences—personal, social, and cultural—that realists contend are incapable of supporting social order. Instead of an abstract basis of commonality, dialogue must originate from another venue of interaction. Order must emerge from intersubjective experience rather than a mechanism that transcends this domain.
Lévinas proposes that dialogue can occur directly between persons, without the mediation of abstract normative standards or ideals. According to his proposal, commonality is predicated on the premise that persons have immediate access to one another. In terms used by Nikas Luhmann, order is engaged and preserved through the recognition of difference rather than sameness. At the level of intersubjectivity, persons can meet one another as true others, as unique and authentic individuals and groups.
Most important at this juncture is that a basis of order exists that precedes the enactment of a social contract. Persons experience a foundation of togetherness that is not momentary or contrived; they exist together at the level of intersubjective experience. They always confront one another without mediation. In this sense, a social contract only obscures this connection, and stipulates when and why persons should understand themselves to be acting in concert. But before any contract exists, persons address one another.
Because persons share an existential space, a sufficient amount of commonality is present for a social contract to be enacted. Through this openness to others, mutual projects can be developed. But within the context supplied by Levinas, have the conditions been established so that persons can unite without suspicions? Some writers say no because they believe that his analysis is fundamentally a-political. As result, “I” and “Other” unite simply for a limited period of time, and otherwise they are merely presumed to be related. Togetherness is something residual. Clearly such a relationship is hardly profound or sincere. Moreover, again similar to a contractual bond, persons are not required to foster or protect one another in Levinas’ scheme. All that is required is a minimal amount of civility and reciprocity. In most instances, however, such a relationship does not necessarily promote fairness and justice.
Dussel and the Philosophy of Liberation.
Without a doubt the desire to formulate a new image of order has merit. But the question is whether or not a true community can be created by a method that portrays relationships to be momentary or strategic. Writers such as Enrique Dussel do not believe that the liaisons promoted by a contract lead to social solidarity. Specifically, simply tolerating the autonomy or uniqueness of others does not necessarily end the manipulation or exploitation of persons. Throughout history, but especially in modern capitalist societies, he contends that contractual relations have bred rivalry and distrust among citizens.
Influenced immensely by the writings of Lévinas, Dussel believes that a community can be engendered only through authentic encounters among persons. But he moves beyond Lévinas. Most important, Dussel argues that approaching the “Other” as truly other is not a passive process. Others should not be simply acknowledged and then abandoned; they should not be merely tolerated and then treated as potential adversaries. Similar to Lévinas, Dussel assumes an unmediated relationship with the “Other” signals the onset of a new morality that is incompatible with the social contract. But he maintains that more a humane world cannot be advanced unless the conditions are generated that allow everyone to live a dignified and productive existence.
Dussel’s extension of the philosophy of Lévinas reflects his experiences in Latin America. In this regard, Dussel understands that contractual bonds are not often equitable or conducive to widespread inclusion. Citizens who have lived in some of the most deplorable authoritarian regimes have had rights that were guarantee by contracts. The problem with these societies, however, is that the conditions were not instituted whereby the integrity of persons is protected. Dussel’s point is that recognizing the autonomy of others does not automatically arouse or foster any other moral obligations. In other words, unless the proper conditions are in place, focusing on the uniqueness of persons can simply result in more sophisticated and intense attempts at manipulation and social control.
For this reason, Dussel proposes that the recognition of others must be accompanied by systematic interventions designed to protect the implied social and cultural differences. In the opinion of Dussel, Lévinas does not focus enough on this issue. Dussel, on the other hand, makes explicitly clear that the uniqueness of others must be protected by policies and practices. Acknowledging otherness is meaningless unless, for example, economic and other forms of exclusion are attacked. With respect to contemporary philosophy, Dussel contends that Lévinas’ work implies political obligations to protect and defend the uniqueness of others that have been ignored by many of the scholars and practitioners who have adopted his perspective on otherness. Without these interventions, Dussel argues that the recognition of the other can be a very shallow principle.
Fragmentation and alienation have become pervasive in the modern world. In order to correct this situation, some writers are calling for the promotion of a new social contract. The assumption is that increased solidarity will result from this development. As a consequence of this new social bond, persons will begin to recognize that they have a fundamental moral obligation to care for others.
But other authors contend that such a goal cannot be achieved through a social contract. Simply put, a contract is ephemeral and based on the notion that persons are adversaries. Lasting solidarity, therefore, cannot be forthcoming from a contractual relationship.
Lévinas and Dussel, on the other hand, recognize that persons are basically connected at the intersubjective level. They have an existential connection that precedes the finalization of any contract and provides them with a common fate. And the moral sentiment that extends from this understanding requires that the integrity of others never be violated. Where Dussel differs from Lévinas, however, is that he believes systematic interventions may be necessary to guarantee the humanity of others. Recognizing the other as a unique interlocutor demands that persons be given the latitude to exist as they desire, without violating the intersubjective bond that joins them together.
Especially important at this juncture is that morality can exist in the sphere between persons. Prior to any contract, persons are linked together and share a social space. They are not simply atoms who may choose to unite to fulfill a particular need or resolve some conflict. Persons are joined in a much more profound and lasting way. The “I” and the “Other”, accordingly, have similar integrity that must be actively promoted. This moral imperative is revealed in the authentic presence of the others, a long time before a contract has any relevance.