The Alienation of Society

Yesterday I talked about the general need for societies to ‘maintain order’ in the sense of prohibiting violence from at least a large range of settings, and enforcing this prohibition, ultimately, with the threat of more effective violence. This could be done by a state, with its monopoly of violence, or it could be done in a more thorough-going, anarchic, manner (or perhaps it could be done in some other way).

This was looked at as a practical necessity, but I think it might be more than that – it might be a definitional necessity. To speak of a ‘society’ is not reducible to any simple list of individuals, because they could continue to exist without the society existing (if they all dispersed); society means people interacting in certain ways.

But not just any ways: two opposing armies are not a society, nor are a group of people who stand near to each other without being aware of it. Intuitively, it seems that for interactions to be those constitutive of ‘society’, they must be decidedly non-violent, i.e. ones with a secure, stable exclusion of violence from at least some areas of life.

If society is the exclusion of violence, and the exclusion of violence requires (for the foreseeable future, as long as there is the occasional maniac with a gun) violence to enforce it, this gives society a self-transcending character: it upholds itself by its own violation. The figures of ‘victim of violence’, ‘anti-social perpetrator of destructive violence’, and ‘pro-social perpetrator of protective violence’ all hang over each individual member.

This is a mild dialectical contradiction. By ‘dialectical’ I mean that apparent opposites entail each other; by ‘mild’ I mean that it’s not strictly a contradiction, but it might nevertheless be perturbing to the subconscious, and hard to make emotional sense of. Our emotions are generally less able to tolerate ambiguity than our reflective thoughts.

So we might be tempted towards an undialectical resolution: associate some people with the idea of ‘pro-social, protective violence’, and associate others with the idea of ‘anti-social, destructive violence’. This, it seems to me, is the basic idea of hierarchical political power, which in modern societies is highly concentrated in the state: some people can, in necessary, resort to violence and be perceived as defending society, while others cannot do so without being perceived as attacking society.

(though of course this leaves unspecified what other factors are crucial to such power, either as enabling or as resulting from its existence)

But this turns the dialectical contradiction (acceptable to the intellect, unwelcome to the emotions) into a real contradiction (acceptable to the emotions, unwelcome to the intellect): a rule that applies to some doesn’t apply to others, with no relevant difference.

Of course it’s claimed that there is a relevant difference, such as that citizens have voluntarily promised the government to permit them their monopoly of violence, or that governors are discernibly wiser and of better character, or that God appointed them. But they haven’t, they’re not, and He didn’t.

What this amounts to is a projection or ‘alienation’ of society’s self-transcendence (in its ability to forcibly enforce the exclusion of force) onto a particular social formation.

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One Response to The Alienation of Society

  1. Phil says:

    Great stuff – thanks.

    My only quibble regards violence (which of course is a massively problematic term at the best of times) – as I think a certain level of personal violence (threatened or even actual) may be constitutive of social order rather than destructive of it. (The violence of the picket-line, the tranquillity of the sweatshop.) Of course your ‘dialectical contradiction’ model permits this, but I think it might be more interesting to try and isolate the kind of thing that gives violence a bad name, as it were.

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