Social Contracts, Civilisation, and Rioting: the concept of ‘order’

I’m watching the situation in Thailand with ongoing anxiety. I may post something more focused on it in the coming days. But for now I want to ask a philosophical question that it raises. What is ‘order’?

On the one hand, the government’s recent decision to attack the Redshirts with lethal force, firing live ammunition, etc. seems to be very clearly a breakdown in order, a move towards a state of greater social disorder or chaos.

On the other hand, a large part of their claimed justification, and the demand placed on them by many of their supporters, is to ‘restore order’, to bring an end to the disruption that the Redshirts had produced.

This isn’t a strict contradiction – but it at least throws into relief the tensions and uncertainties involved in this idea of ‘order’. If we look for helpful comments from dead philosophers, we first find a lot of dubious stuff about ‘corresponding to God’s plan’, or ‘in line with the structure of reality’. In Plato’s caste system or the Indian caste system, order (‘justice’, ‘dharma’, etc.) is largely concerned with each person doing ‘their’ thing, the particular form of activity assigned them by reason, by their own nature, or by the universe. This is not be much help.

A more helpful tradition to look at, I think, is ‘social contract’ theories, as developed by people like Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke and Rawls, which all, in different ways, direct our attention towards the image of people passing from a chaotic state to an orderly state by a collective act analogous to a contract.

What social contract theories serve to emphasise is the reciprocal nature of social order: like a contract, it involves individuals taking actions that both enable, and rely upon, others taking similar actions. It also indicates why order is a good thing: namely, that it enables co-operation, and that it secures predictability.

So far, probably, so obvious. But I want to make an adjustment to the standard picture we get from social contract theorists. This picture tends to deal with only two states: the state of nature, where there’s no order, and the civil state, where there is order.

But it seems to me that there are actually several states, arranged in ‘tiers’. What makes me think this, in particular, is my experience on protests, and the interactions they involved with the police. What those experiences – and the way people talked about them – showed was that there are a lot of steps you can take that disrupt and abandon one layer of social order, but not those below it.

For a start, one can be ‘disorderly’ without breaking the law: one can do things that subvert the normal way that spaces are used and life organised, but that don’t lead to the involvement of the police or any legal penalty.

A simple example is the way that marches block traffic; a more interesting one is this protest in 2007, where an art exhibit (a crack running down the floor of the Tate) was turned into a protest by having lines of people link hands over it.

But then, even when the police are there – even when they’re actively trying to stop you doing whatever it is you’re trying to do – often they won’t use physical force except the most nominal kind: that involved in blocking movement with one’s own body. And everybody else follows the same protocol: if you want to stop the police getting somewhere, you block them with your body, or you link arms and push. You hope that both sides, despite directly opposed aims, will refrain from hurting or striking each other (consider what these folks here are chanting, and the conceptual distinction they’re trying to make).

As I understand it, in many legal systems, to shove against someone is technically a criminal assault: intentional, non-consensual physical contact. But a line seems to exist, an unwritten distinction, between body-blocking and the sort of contact we think of under the heading ‘assault’ – that involving use of a limb.

But even when blows are being traded, there is still order in a certain sense. Even when people are willing to hurt each other, even when riot police are controlling a riot, they don’t try to kill each other. They use tear gas, but not mustard gas; batons but not axes; rubber bullets but not live ammunition.

When live ammunition, or otherwise lethal weaponry, is being used, the situation is plausibly called ‘a state of war’. The frightening thing about recent events in Bangkok, we might say, is the progression from a state of riot to a state of war.

But even in war, there can be rules: about the treatment of prisoners, the desecration of corpses, the targetting of non-combatants, etc. If live ammo marks the transition from riot to war, then things like shooting children mark the transition from war to barbarity.

That gives us at least 5 different states, different levels of order, ranging from most ‘civil’ to least: normality, ‘shoving’, riot, war, barbarity. (note sure of a good term for the second one – ‘enforcement’? just ‘force’?)

At each stage, we relate to other people via a set of reciprocal assumptions: that as long we respect certain boundaries, they will too. In this sense, all of them are social, except barbarity.

I want to use these ‘levels of order’ to suggest a way of meaningfully using the concept of ‘civilisation’. To be civilised is to respond to a breakdown at one level of order by going down as few levels as possible.

One aspect of civilisation, then, would be respecting the right to protest, not being ‘heavy-handed’. A slightly different aspect of the same thing would be the right to be deviant and bizarre, without facing violent sanction. A society where any disorderly public congregation is met with drawn swords, or where any violation of custom provokes violent fear and rage, is to that extent a barbaric society.

Another thing to look at is criminal punishments. What chiefly distinguishes modern systems of punishment from older ones is the growth of imprisonment as a replacement for bodily punishment – brandings, beatings, mutilation.

Now, this shouldn’t be overstated or sanitised: for one thing, being imprisoned very often exposes people to repeated bodily assaults from other inmates or from guards. But the driving sentiment behind it, I think, is an attempt to be ‘civilised’: to remain at the level of ‘blocking movement’, and not the level of ‘striking with limbs’. Similarly, what do critics of capital punishment say more often than that it’s ‘barbaric’, or inconsistent with a ‘civilised’ society?

This concept of civilisation and barbarism certainly needs a lot more work – one major issue is how it relates to breaking, taking, using, entering, etc. property. But I’ll throw it out there nevertheless. And I’d like to draw a few quick conclusions about it:

Firstly, it partially vindicates the idea that ‘we are becoming more civilised’. This process is not uniform or homogenous – witness, for example, the horrors of modern war, with its countless burning civilians – but it’s real and I don’t think it’s accidental.

Secondly, it allows us to say, in a perfectly neutral and non-partisan way, that the claims of civilisation are characteristic of the political left more than the political right. On treatment of criminals, behaviour during war, attitudes to protest or the right to be deviant, it is typical of left-wing attitudes to seek the greatest degree of civilisation. This, of course, might not be a good thing – it might be an unrealistic or inappropriate desire for civilisation.

Thirdly, the highest degree of civilisation would belong to a society that dealt with breakdowns of order on the same level as they occurred, or higher: that met active violence with violence, but met disruptive but non-violent actions with non-violent methods. But this would be a society in which no institution had the right to initiate violence, i.e. in which there was no state. Such a society, that is, would be ‘anarchic’ in the sense used by anarchists.

Anarchism, then, is the logical maximum of civilisation: to put it another, pithier, way – a way handily symbolised to the famous A-in-O symbol to the right – anarchy is order.

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One Response to Social Contracts, Civilisation, and Rioting: the concept of ‘order’

  1. Pingback: Against the Social Contract | Majestic Equality

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