Renew The Social Contract

The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Rights (Du Contrat Social, Ou Principes Du Droit Politique) is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 book on his theory about the basis of civil society, and the relationships that legitimize a government to its subject population.

To accomplish more and enhance personal security, individual humans in a state of nature (i.e., alone in the wild) choose to enter into social contracts for mutual benefit; increased safety is achieved by diminishing personal freedom. This exchange is considered fair when the diminution of personal freedom is equitable and not so extreme as to enslave anyone. The social contract includes economic aspects, for the division of labor, self-defense, trade, property and marital rights, and for the general well-being and continuity of the society.

The only legitimate power, or “sovereign”, over such a society is the “general will” of its people. How the general will (the consensus) of the society is determined is a matter of detail, which depends on the: size, historical placement, geophysical setting and culture of the population in question. The general will is a legislating power that devises the laws — the “rules of the game.”

Government is the application of the laws, to regulate the interactions among the individuals of the society. Government derives its authority from the sovereign, which is the general will of the people; and “government” is objectified by the physical and bureaucratic structures constructed to enact the laws.

Note the flow of Rousseau’s logic: population choosing to socialize -> “general will” or equivalently popular consensus -> power legitimizing government -> sovereign of society -> legislating function -> laws -> government is structure constructed to enact the laws -> the individual’s compliance with laws is simultaneously an assertion of participation in sovereignty.

“The heart of the idea of the social contract may be stated simply: Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole.”

Rousseau’s book inspired revolutionaries and political reformers widely. Its influence can be seen in the Declaration Of Independence (1776), the Constitution Of The United States Of America (1787), the Bill Of Rights (1789), the Declaration Of The Rights Of Man And Of The Citizen (1789), the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights (1948), and in the political awareness of participants in revolutions since those of North America and France in the 18th century.

* * * *

Today, in popular consciousness, the social contract is assumed to be the obligation of government to protect its subject population physically and economically, and to mount rescue and recovery actions in response to emergencies, in exchange for popular support of government through taxation and compliance to the laws.

Most people are workers; to them an important part of their social contract is the presumed agreement with their employers that an equitable exchange of work and money will be assured by compliance with labor law, and monitoring by government regulators. Employers look to government enforcement of regulations against labor actions that are deemed fatal to the conduct of business. This is a matter of judgment, which has been badly skewed by money-power against labor in the United States.

Workers look to government enforcement of regulations against exploitation by excessive hours, under-paid and unpaid work, arbitrary and retaliatory dismissals, harassment, unsafe working conditions; and fiscal mismanagement, irresponsibility and malfeasance — by employers and financial institutions — regarding the employee’s paycheck: pay, taxes, savings, pensions and health insurance.

The social contract between a people and their government always included some regulation of labor-capital relations, for non-communist countries, but this aspect expanded significantly in response to the Great Depression (1929-1953) and in the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after World War II (>1945). Of course, labor-capital relations became a matter of government planning in countries transformed by communist revolutions after 1917.

In the United States, the expansion of the labor-capital regulatory function of the social contract is remembered as the New Deal introduced by the Roosevelt Administration (1933-1945). Its initial phase (1933-1938) was Keynesian economics applied to the expansion of civil infrastructure, and its second phase (1939-1945) was Keynesian economics applied to the expansion of military power. During the Truman Administration (1945-1952) the second phase of the New Deal was adopted as the permanent war economy of the “national security state,” which the United States has become.

In 1953, the US economy returned to its 1929 pre-crash level and the Republicans returned to power as the Eisenhower Administration. While capitalists had always opposed the expansion of labor’s rights and publicly-funded benefits, and government’s protection of them, labor’s New Deal gains remained secure during the Post-War Boom (1948-1971), the period of greatest general prosperity in the United States; and worker protections and benefits were even enhanced by the efflorescence of social, civil rights and environmental legislation during the Johnson and Nixon Administrations.

The fiscal weight of the Vietnam War, combined with the cost of US social programs, a continuing reluctance to raise taxes and refrain from deficit spending, and a loss of confidence in the US dollar by resurgent European and Asian economies, suddenly sank the US Post-War Boom in 1971. The immediate results were: 1) collapse of the Bretton Woods system (negotiated in 1944) to regulate monetary relations between major industrial states; 2) a sharp recession in the US; and 3) many capitalists lost confidence in US president Richard Nixon because of his drastic, unilateral and impulsive shift in US monetary policy, the “Nixon Shock” that precipitated the economic collapse.

Resentment by the Big Money over the Nixon Shock is probably the reason Nixon’s impeachment and removal proceeded to finality without opposition. The Big Money also decided it was time to invest in a long-term coordinated assault on the social contract, to eliminate all the labor and related social gains introduced since the New Deal — the neo-liberal agenda.

* * * *

The neoliberal agenda is the stated orthodoxy of capitalism, and is advanced in the US by people who describe themselves as politically “conservative”. Ayn Rand (1905-1982) is the literary and philosophical deity of laissez-faire capitalism, and inspiration to later avatars of the cult like Alan Greenspan (Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the US, from 1987 to 2006).

Out of politeness, or as a necessary matter of deception, the actual credo of capitalism is rarely stated because it is: pure greed, get something for nothing, take everything you can get. If you understand fraud, plunder, piracy, enslavement, theft and rape, then you understand the objectivism of capitalism.

We could state the kernel of neoliberal philosophy (never was such an elegant word more brutally misused) with a libertarian cast, as “I don’t want to be taxed by obligations because of what I have, nor restrained by barriers to my grasping for what I want. I don’t want to pay for the expense of government beyond what is needed to protect my horde and enable my take. I don’t want government to enrich people economically beneath me, racially darker, or culturally different.”

If you wish to optimize your selfishness as an economic predator chewing through a prey population with naïve conceptions of its socializing contract, then you need verbal and procedural mechanisms of obfuscation to cloak your naked intent from public view.

Simply put, thieves lie. Lying is the sound of theft, and its literature. Lies are the noise of theft in progress. When you detect lies, you should immediately ask “what is being stolen?” How much better the US would be today if more people had vigorously applied this principle to the speech of George W. Bush.

Recognizing that lies are the sound and scripture of theft, and that “conservatism”, “libertarianism”, “neoliberalism”, “free market ideology,” and other related labels all tag the same camouflaging verbiage shielding pure predatory greed, we can cut through the crap to the objective reality by ignoring all the noise. Every word uttered by capitalist touts is a lie, including “a”, “and” and “the”.

The great and continuing crime of capitalism is the physical and social degradation of the world. The physical degradation exhibits itself as pollution, environmental damage and global warming; the social degradation exhibits itself as the atomization of society, impoverishment, hunger, disease and war. Capitalism does not create wealth; it robs the common good to increase the monetized accumulation of its select perpetrators.

Neoliberalism’s most successful US champion was Ronald Reagan, president during 1981-1988. During careers as a radio announcer in the 1930s, a B-movie actor from the late 1930s to early 1960s, and a public relations spokesman for the General Electric Corporation in the 1950s (where Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was also employed by PR!) Reagan honed his smooth delivery of folksy palaver that later shaped his exquisitely effective psycho-political ICBMs encasing warheads of neo-liberal ideology launched to explode throughout the national consciousness. Reagan’s facility with vocalizing scripted text and maintaining the continuity of his delivery despite lapses of memory or unexpected interruptions gave many the impression he possessed a much deeper intellect than was actually the case. He was the gold standard of neo-liberal touts, as compared to the brass of Rush Limbaugh, the lead (Pb) of Sarah Palin, and the hydrogen sulfide of George W. Bush.

The “Reaganomics” of 1981 combined a tight money policy (imposed by Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker) to control inflation, with reduction of government spending (except for the military where it increased), and reductions of taxes and regulations. Noam Chomsky characterized such economic policies as “bribing the rich.” Despite ignoring the deep recession of 1980-1982 during his first year in office, Reagan managed to bob-and-weave his way out of public disapproval with a subsequent and significant increase in corporate (not income) taxes and a loosening of the money supply for a lowering of interest rates, and so economic recovery before Election Day 1984. The economic gods smiled on Reagan’s second term, and his administration blithely continued slaughtering uppity Central American peasants, shredding the social fabric, grinding down labor unions, and chewing up the environment.

With Alan Greenspan fresh on the job as Federal Reserve chairman, world stock markets crashed in October 1987, the fall in New York on the 19th was almost 23 percent. The US economy absorbed the shock well and trading activity soon recovered, but this jolt initiated a crisis in the tottering US savings-and-loan industry that led to the recession of 1990-1992. Reagan’s second term ended untarnished by recession, but his vice-president and successor, George H. W. Bush was doomed. Bill Clinton, “it’s the economy, stupid!,” became president in January 1993.

* * * *

The George H. W. Bush Administration (1989-1992) had been more concerned to foist neo-liberalism on the emerging post-communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, to redefine NATO as a military tool of American imperial power beyond Europe, and to exert control over Middle East oil, than it was about the misery felt by American workers during the 1990-1992 recession. One would have thought this collapse of Reaganomics, which lifted the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton back into power, would have initiated a reinvigoration of the social contract.

Ah, but Clinton learned that “it’s the economy, stupid!” was a double-edged taunt, that a presidential political career depended on placating the demands not just of the workers who suffered the effects of the economy, but of the capitalists who affected the parameters of that economy: employers, their financiers, and the buyers of deficit-spending bonds. Clinton’s ascendancy may have been buoyed by popular aspirations, but he had financed it with corporate backing. One foot was in the social contract, another in neoliberalism. Could he serve both? No. Neoliberalism is intolerant; there can be no human considerations standing before its imperatives of profitability.

Throughout the history of the republic, there had been presidents with at least several toes on the side of labor and the social contract, for how else could any of the existing labor rights and social gains have been won? The possibility of an American president having both feet in the social contract, like Eugene V. Debs, had been killed in the 1920s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have given us the New Deal, but he was looking over his shoulder at the shadow of Debs, and Roosevelt’s purpose was to save capitalism. The Rooseveltian accommodation between labor and capital — New Deal capitalism — was supported until the Reagan Revolution overturned it. Neoliberalism insisted the US president be its exclusive agent, fully engaged in the undoing of the social contract.

Clinton’s innovation for career success was: 1) to champion the neo-liberal policies of his Republican political opponents so as to vacuum enough corporate backing away from them to stay in power; and 2) to apply his social contract rhetoric to retain popular support despite these actions. In essence, the innovation was expediency; it was called “triangulation.”

Republicans have more difficulty in adopting the triangulation strategy because they are already one hundred percent neoliberal, and voicing any social contract rhetoric is seen as a weakening of their stances. As considerations of the social contract were squeezed out, triangulation moved the popular images of Democrats and Republicans into convergence. The two major parties came to exhibit similar organizational “personas” on the substantial issues of government: the economy, monetary policy, the military, and management of the empire (also called foreign policy).

To enliven the political theater necessary for individuals to attract attention from both the public and potential corporate backers, and to differentiate themselves from their rivals, politicians will seek to splash out on trivial or emotion “social issues” that usually entwine race, religion, sex and death. Affirmative action, abortion and gay marriage are examples. (I suppose that marriage is much too important to ever be gay, and must remain dour.) The convergence of both major political parties to servitude of neo-liberalism has increasingly discouraged the public, and the distancing they feel from their supposed representatives has produced support for third party and independent campaigns that champion the social contract.

The presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 each presented the public with a pair of neo-liberal (major) party candidates who were fairly similar on matters of policy, and only significantly different along parameters of political theater. It is no wonder the outcome in 2000 was a statistical tie, which was called in favor of the deepest prejudices of neoliberalism.

The eight years of the George W. Bush Administration (2001-2008) have taken the US from the relative prosperity and stability of the Clinton Administration to a military quagmire, financial ruin and political disgrace. Blood, treasure and honor have all been lost, and in vast proportions. How could we have expected otherwise, when the entire motivation was the destruction of the social contract to facilitate looting by plutocracy, and the only appeals made to the public by George W. Bush and his would-be successor were to its vilest prejudices and ugliest forms of selfishness?

Today, we await the inauguration of President-elect Barack Hussein Obama on January 20, 2009.

[On November 11th I received the following item, which I have not been able to confirm:

“Enjoy a funny election postscript from a source in Washington D.C. It is widely reported that a large group of people were tossing rolls of packing tape over the fence at the White House last night — there were NO arrests — and the Secret Service agents were reported to be laughing too hard to do much about it.”

Perhaps apocryphal, certainly indicative.]

* * * *

Why was Barack Obama elected president? Because the American people want to share in the benefits of the American Empire.

Let us characterize votes for Obama, McCain and Baldwin (Democratic, Republican and Constitution Parties, respectively) as votes in favor of the American Empire; votes for Nader, Barr and McKinney (Independent, Libertarian Party and Green Party, respectively) as anti-imperial; and votes for Nader and McKinney as purely social contract votes. We find that the electorate split 98.93 percent pro-empire, 1.07 percent anti-empire (these add to 100 percent); and that only 0.67 percent of the voters (1 out of every 150 people) expressed an unqualified endorsement for restoring the social contract, and an absolute rejection of neo-liberalism.

We each have a personal socialist and a personal neoliberal within us; the proportions of each vary widely among individuals. Our personal socialist is that part of our consciousness that welcomes sharing and sacrifice in exchange for the company of like-minded people. Our personal neoliberal is the pure Freudian id that wants what it wants, and exults in the success of the hunt like a cat proudly tossing its kill, and feeling the thrill of warm blood spurting against its tongue as it sinks its fangs into the fresh limp flesh of its victim.

Nobody likes being taken for a fool or treated like a waste product by a remote juggernaut of exploitation. People want to feel secure that they can sell their labor with dignity and be assured of steady work and good wages with adequate buying-power to support families in decent circumstances. Obama was elected because a majority of the voters saw him as their best chance of restoring the social contract to achieve this end throughout the country.

Working people also want to satisfy their personal neo-liberalism, with fattening 401k portfolios and rising real estate values, which they dream will fund the comfort, leisure, travel, hobbies, luxury purchases and health care of their retirement years, and their financial legacies for their children. Obama was elected because a majority of the voters saw him as their best chance of protecting them as savers and small investors, and of assuring them equal access to profit-making participation in the financial markets, which would now be well regulated to eliminate “insiderism”, and to ensure financial security.

While there is an obvious racial-equality symbolism in Obama striding triumphantly into the most exclusive of white men’s clubs, the White House, there may be an even wider resonance with the popular imagination, for the inclusion of us, the suckers excluded from neoliberalism’s prosperity club. Obama was elected because the voters are fed up with having to pay heavily to maintain the high profits of the crony capitalist elite that destroyed the financial industry and savaged people’s accounts and assets and futures.

Those of us in the 0.67 percent and the 1.07 percent understand that Obama is 98-plus percent mortgaged to American capitalism and its empire. We do not expect him to be an agent of revolutionary change. However, he could reprise the Rooseveltian bolstering of the social contract. Seventy-six years after the dawn of the New Deal, Obama faces the challenge of initiating his national administration from the rim of a freshly opened, deep economic chasm of such horrendous grandeur that history might record the following period as the Grand Canyon of Depressions. Like Roosevelt, Obama could realize that the press of dire economic circumstances combined with his party’s prodigious electoral success have given him all the power he needs to revamp the rules of American capitalism sufficiently to placate the masses, and to command capitalist cooperation in this effort because they would be sold on Obama’s reassurances to shield them from truly revolutionary reforms. Obama was elected because 98-plus percent of everybody wants the game to continue so they can have a turn and a chance of winning.

What we, the one percenters, can hope for is that Obama “succeeds” — within the limited scope we realize political success is confined to — by repairing, conserving and expanding the social contract. We can pressure, cajole and remind the Obama Administration to consider the impact of its proposals and decisions on the social contract: “does this include everyone?,” “is this a rip-off of the many for the few?,” “will most people accept this as fair?,” “will this raise up the fortunes of workers?” Using this line of reasoning, we will have more leverage to influence policy than by attempting to impose one percenter specifics on major areas of government oversight (e.g., energy, economic and monetary policies, foreign policy), since our voices are muted to at most 1/98th the volume of the pay-per-access capitalist channels.

It is even possible that one percenter perspectives on pressing issues of little public interest (sadly), like the imperial wars for land and oil and against Islam from Palestine to Pakistan, will be carried along by our discussion of the domestic social contract, and tinge Obama Administration awareness. (Illogically optimistic.)

* * * *

Let’s imagine a possible inaugural address by Barack Obama. It begins with gracious salutations, and then to the first substantive declarations.

“The greatness of America is in the unity of its people. It is by sharing both the burdens and the rewards of American life that we enable each other to succeed, both as individuals and as a people.

“When we allow ourselves to see divisions among us, we divert our national strength into frictions that can lead to bitter conflicts, based on race, or economic class, or region, or differences of social orientation. America would have no future if we allowed intolerance to dominate our thinking.

“But, I know that is not the case, and the proof is in the fact that I am standing here, before you, today. I know that my success is based on the love, care, teaching, good will, decency and tolerance offered by family, friends, teachers, and many other Americans going back generations, who contributed to make this country what it is, which allowed me to be fed, clothed, housed, educated, taken care of when ill; to have economic opportunities, and to be able to raise my family with a sense of security. I am immeasurably grateful.

“When you recognize such gratitude, you become aware of your responsibility to the future. The torch has been passed to us, to create the reality of America, everyday, by the care of our families, by our work, by the way we treat each other. All of this creates the America that our children are born into, and that must sustain them. We repay our gratitude for the America we were given, by continuing it, maintaining it, continuously recreating it, and improving it, so we can pass it on to the following generation with pride.

“It is impossible to experience this gratitude if you are unable to include the entire spectrum of people across this nation as being part of your idea of America. Who are the real Americans? All of them. Which of them are important for your well-being? All of them. Which of them are you concerned about in times of adversity? All of them. Which of them are you willing to share the burdens of sustaining America with, and which of them are you willing to share the rewards of prosperity with? All of them.

“My administration will face many specific national problems, and make many detailed decisions. However, there will only be one guiding principle to my choices of action, and it is this: is this in the best interests of the nation?, is this for the greater good of all Americans? This is my social contract with you.

“Each of us must make the honest effort to work for the betterment of ourselves, our families and our communities; and each or us must accept every other American as an indivisible part of our personal community. It is our unity that uplifts us, protects us, and inspires us. Dare to be grateful and embrace the entire nation, and in return it will embrace you.

“Given the circumstances our nation finds itself in today, I can guarantee you that many changes will be made. I am not going to ask for your patience or tolerance with these decisions, because that places you in a passive role. Instead, I will adhere to our social contract, and ask for your energy to be applied in the many ways you create America daily, because it is you, the people of the United States, who are the real agents of change. This country is the sum of how you engage with each other.”

* * * *

What can we expect? Probably more than Bill Clinton, probably less than Franklin Roosevelt.

My WAGs follow (G in WAGs = guess).

WAG 1: Obama will last through two terms, and will be young enough and popular enough to win a Senate seat again.

WAG 2: Joe Biden will run in eight years, and probably pick a female VP, perhaps black, but most definitely a governor or senator.

WAG 3: But, not Hillary Clinton who will challenge him unsuccessfully, looking more weathered and less appealing (speaking politically) with each election cycle. Bill is unlikely to age as an enviable marital asset, and Hillary will eventually get hooked off the presidential contenders’ stage, leaving tears of rage and claw marks.

WAG 4: Republicans will try cloning the cell samples taken from Ronald Reagan and locked in a cryogenic safe at an undisclosed location, in a desperate effort to grow a winning candidate for 2016.

What should we one percenters do? What we know is right, and what gives our lives meaning. So, enjoy life (it beats the alternative).

A la batalla!

Manuel Garcia, Jr. is an occasional writer who is always independent. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Manuel, or visit Manuel's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 18th, 2008 at 7:54am #

    enriching selves by deceiving/lying/threatening just might be the oldest profession.
    but US deceiving class did not have to fight off communism/socialism as did euroasian deceivers.
    euros were also busy w. big wars to be able to deceive as much as deceivers in US which was never attacked. thnx

  2. Ron Horn said on November 18th, 2008 at 12:44pm #

    The concept of a social contract was a byproduct of the newly risen capitalist class in France. It was created in order to de-legitimatize the rule of the aristocracy and Feudalism. It was used to establish the rule of the emerging class and appealed to universal humanistic values in order to enlist the support of all citizens. It has always been a bit of a con, but all ruling classes resort to that sort of thing. Witness the use of patriotism when ruling classes want to wage war using their subjects to fight it. Before the US Revolutionary War Tom Paine was a passionate and serious advocate of such principles, but after it was over he found himself both ignored and vilified. Madison, Hamilton, and others of this new class set about to subvert popular democracy and to establish the rule of the wealthy based on the ownership of economic property including slave property.

    The new ruling class of capitalists found it expedient to replace the rule on the basis of Divine Right with concepts of private ownership of economic property using contract law to support it. The Social Contract replaced Divine Right as a basis for the legitimacy of capitalist rule. Hence it still assumes a ruling class in a class structured society.

    It seems to me that the time has come for a new paradigm to be established to conceptualize societies. Actually I think that it is of critical importance to the survival of the human race that we do so. The ruling capitalist classes can only do one thing—continue to accumulate wealth through the exploitation of labor and materials to produce goods for mass consumption. This process requires energy which is diminishing, and it results in environmental (and human) degradation to the point where our eco-systems are threatened. This has been well known for the past forty years, but capitalists can’t stop wasting resources and fouling up our environment. They are like heroin addicts always looking for the next short term fix to make them feel good.

    A new, more suitable paradigm would be one where no one can own the fruits of anyone else’s labor, where economic property is truly social property because it is the end result of humanity’s legacy to the current generation. And only if the current generation rules as a society can they assume responsibility to pass onto the next generation a sustainable and healthy economy.

  3. joed said on November 18th, 2008 at 1:18pm #

    is there any possible way the amerikan people will do something other than leave things up to the govt. i dont know about the rest of the world and i thought if any peoples would do something about the murderous bush/cheney gang it would be the french people. but it seems the french are as frightened of their govt. as the amerikans are of theirs. sacrifice and hardship is the only way to truely effect real change. change for the betterment of all peoples is perhaps never going to happen. the outlook for humans is bleak. would it be so tragic if the survivors of a hollocaust were all dick cheney clones.
    my guess is that humanity is too weak and stupid to survive much longer. seems humans don’t even know they are in trouble right now.
    like leonard cohen says, “I have seen the future brother, and it is murder.”

  4. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 18th, 2008 at 2:41pm #

    ron horn elucidates the sit’n in his own way. i say probably the same thing but array it in different words. eg, i speak oft ab structure of governance.
    it favors the rich people. and not just in US. i think it’s a panhuman trait to manage people by various ruses: ‘promises’ (which i evaluate as lies), evocation of dangers, demonization of other folks, miseducation, etc. it’s nice to read confirmation of my own observations. tnx

  5. Bob said on November 18th, 2008 at 3:34pm #

    The social contract. Nice concept, I personally would love to see it implimented.

    Here where I live a court actually stated that the ‘social contract’ doesn’t exist. There is the governed and the governors. the law and its givers and people who are obliged to obey it. Responsibility only flows one way, from the governed to those who governed. No responsibility flows the other way.

    I wonder when Tom Paine’s writings will become dangerous and proscribed?

  6. kalidas said on November 19th, 2008 at 9:41am #

    A society of cheaters and the cheated.
    Name one which is not.

  7. Alex Kexel said on November 20th, 2008 at 1:06pm #

    What would the world look like if you one-percenters won?

  8. Manuel Garcia, Jr. said on November 21st, 2008 at 11:07am #

    Hello Alex,

    I’d like to see the Cuban Revolution extend to the Canadian border, but that’s just me, probably because I like the music. A more traditional response is to imagine the state that could exist on the basis of the issues advocated by these groups:

    Ralph Nader, Independent


    Cynthia McKinney, Green Party

    Public Citizen

    I think of one percenters winning as the same thing as the people, in general, winning.

    Manuel Garcia, Jr.