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The other day I posted a very long, fairly dense diary on agonistic politics -- a political theory positing that democracy is possible even in societies plagued by irreconcilable differences.  Because that diary received comments like "I wish I could understand what you and your sources are actually saying," "I only got a bit of that," and "have to admit it's over my head" I thought it would make sense to boil down some of the theory into more easily digestible parts.

I'm planning three diaries.  This one will address what political theorists mean by constituting the citizen, the second one will discuss the difference between enemies and adversaries, and the third will apply the theory in a more sustained way to the possibility of the emergence of agonistic politics in Israel/Palestine.

If that sounds palatable to you, follow me over the flip...

In my first diary, I quoted the Belgian (thanks, notapipe) political theorist Chantal Mouffe (.pdf file) to the effect that traditional liberal theory:

sees the individuals as prior to society, as bearers of natural rights, and either as utility maximizing agents or as rational subjects. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible. What is precluded in these rationalistic approaches is the very question of what are the conditions of existence of the democratic subject.

At first glance, it might appear strange to conceive of "individuals as prior to society," but let's think that through for a moment.  In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress approved the following words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,

This, in a nutshell, is a concise statement of the theory of natural rights, which is generally considered to have originated with John Locke.  (For an example of a scholarly opinion relating Jefferson to Locke, see this online essay.)

Locke's theory of natural rights starts with man in an abstract state of nature, in which he enjoys perfect liberty -- there is no government to tell you what you can and cannot do -- but also suffers from absolute insecurity.  If we are all free to do whatever we please, Locke suggests, then we are free to rob from, enslave, and even kill our neighbors if we so choose.  If we wish, then, to enjoy our "life, liberty, and property," we must be constantly vigilant against our neighbors who seek to deprive us of the same.

Insecurity is time-consuming and taxing, and men tire of it.  Therefore, they create government -- what Locke calls "society" -- willingly giving up small parts of their property, their liberty, and even their lives, in order that government can more efficiently protect what remains.  As Locke himself put it in Chapter IX of his Second Treatise on Civil Government:

all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.

To sum up, the theory of natural rights holds that men exist as social beings before they create government, and that they willingly and rationally create government in order to achieve a specific goal.  This is what Mouffe refers to when she says that "individuals" are "prior to society."

Natural rights theory provides a very powerful political model, and it continues to underpin the way the US government is organized.  However, while it does a great job of telling us what we want of government, and why government should provide us with what we want, it does a horrible job of telling us precisely who we are or even why government exists.

The state of nature as described by Locke and other Enlightenment era political theorists (Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, etc.), of course, never existed as such, or if it did (e.g. during the English Civil War, which at times got fairly anarchic) emerged as the result of government having broken down as opposed to having never existed.  The origins of governed society itself lie buried deep in history, well beyond the reach of historians, but we can be fairly certain that the first human groups to establish government already operated as bands before they developed agriculture, cities, and a priestly caste to govern over them.  The rugged individual living on his own, with his property and his family, had no place in the clan-based hunting and gathering bands that characterized human society before we settled down to farm for a living.  For all its flaws, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel offers some interesting speculations about how, when, and why governed society came into existence.  Locke's state of nature is difficult to discern in ancient Mesopotamia...

Contemporary social theorists like Mouffe, rather than positing an abstract social and political identity prior to the existence of governed society, use insights from psychology and philosophy to study how identity is constituted in our world.  They notice that who we are is determined in large degree by our interactions with the people around us.  This sounds unusual, but it makes a great deal of sense once you think about it.

We're all familiar with Hillary's 1996 book It Takes a Village, in which she suggests (from the publisher's blurb):

that how children develop and what they need to succeed are inextricably entwined with the society in which they live and how well it sustains and supports its families and individuals. In other words, it takes a village to raise a child.

Let's think of this a different way.  Imagine a girl, an only child, born to peasant parents in rural China.  If she were raised by those parents, she would have a very distinct image of herself, of her place in the world, and of her social possibilities.  Now imagine that same girl adopted before she learns to speak by upper middle class parents in a prosperous suburb of any American city.  What would that do to her image of herself, of her place in the world, of her social possibilities?

Obviously, she would be an entirely different person.

In fact, we routinely look at all kinds of social relations exterior to ourselves as being of fundamental importance in determining how we do certain things.  How many of us have ever commented on birth order, for example, as a factor explaining certain kinds of character traits?  We expect oldest children to behave a certain way -- even through their adult years -- and middle and youngest children to behave in different ways.

These are exactly the kinds of things Mouffe refers to when she writes of

social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible.

The basic point is that our identity, our image of ourselves both to ourself and to others, is created through the social relations we have with the people around us.  You can state that more strongly -- our only identity is that conferred by our social relations -- or more weakly -- part of our identity is constructed socially -- but the basic point, it seems to me is inarguable.  In some very real way, we are who we are because of our interactions with others.

In part ii of this series, we'll look at a particular kind of social relations: relations of antagonism.

Originally posted to litho on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 10:06 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The Weak Version (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, npbeachfun, heathlander

    is true, IMOP, without question.

    Thinkers as divergent as Marx and Heidegger, Sartre and Sandel have argued for a similiar conception  of identity.

    I will watch with interest how you develop this in the next few diaries - specifically what you feel follows from this politically.

    I would rather vote for what I want and lose, than vote for what I don't want and win. Eugene Debs

    by tgs1952 on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 10:23:12 AM PDT

  •  Even before government there where clans/tribes (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, npbeachfun, heathlander

    Locke's theory of natural rights starts with man in an abstract state of nature, in which he enjoys perfect liberty -- there is no government to tell you what you can and cannot do -- but also suffers from absolute insecurity.  If we are all free to do whatever we please, Locke suggests, then we are free to rob from, enslave, and even kill our neighbors if we so choose.  If we wish, then, to enjoy our "life, liberty, and property," we must be constantly vigilant against our neighbors who seek to deprive us of the same.

    When has humankind ever had perfect liberty? It seems we are very dependent due to our social nature evolved from survival needs.

    Seems to me, clans and tribes were more flexible to change due to turnover in leadership, but the evolution of the tribe lead to governments with  written rules and regulations, more stable and enduring.

    It's easy to start a war, but very hard to stop one.

    by mattes on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 10:36:25 AM PDT

  •  Cheers, very interesting (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, mattes, npbeachfun

    I look forward to the rest of the series.

    The great 20th century humanist Erich Fromm made a similar point vis-a-vis the relationship between the individual and society (see his 'Fear of Freedom' and 'The Sane Society'). He criticised thinkers like Sigmund Freud for their assumption that human nature is completely internal and unalterable - that human nature and the human psyche effects and shapes society, but not the other way around. Fromm said no, it's actually a two-way process, with the human nature/psyche and society shaping and effecting each other. This latter view seems far more credible to me.

  •  Brilliant litho (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, heathlander

    Have you read any of Col. R.G. Ingersoll's speeches? I keep wishing someone like him would show up-

    "Making yourself feel big by making other people feel small, is wrong." Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer (-6.88, -6.26)

    by npbeachfun on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 10:55:40 AM PDT

  •  George Mead (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, npbeachfun

    takes a social-behavioristic stance on this.  His claim is so strong that he believes that without having a certain sort of society, it is impossible for members to have a self.

    You can read through his various works online at the Mead Project.  

    Hmm, I just tried going there and I get a 404 error.  Hopefully, they'll have it fixed soon, I need to use it for my own research.

    •  However, I do believe the Locke school of thought (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      litho, npbeachfun

      has its uses, limited as it is. For example, it (if I've understood it correctly) views healthy government as having the minimum necessary authority, power and domination required to safeguard peoples' security. In other words, what follows from Locke's view is anarchism (if you substitute the 'state' for localised structures of authority).

      •  I tried to acknowledge that in the diary (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        npbeachfun, heathlander

        by noting that Lockean theory is a powerful political model that underpins the contemporary organization of the United States.

        Limited government, it seems to me, is an essential condition of democratic society.  It becomes problematic, though, when we think through the theoretical implications of natural rights.  Part of agonistic politics, I think, is to reseat democratic polities on a more substantial and theoretically defensible foundation.

        There are things I definitely like about Locke.  The state of nature is not one of them.

        (His sexism and elitism aren't too cool, either, but we've developed ways historically to work around those...)

  •  Locke's state of nature is like (0+ / 0-)

    Rawls's original position, not offered as an actual moment in history but rather as an ideal-type of situation. Hence, it really is part of social contract political theory, much like Rousseau's famous line: "Man is born free but everywhere is in chains."

    Your Ayn Randist reading of Locke and Jefferson is neither necessary nor, IMHO, persuasive.

    Al Gore should be president.

    by another American on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 11:39:10 AM PDT

    •  Nice ad hom (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      there, aA.

      Of course, there's nothing even close to Randian in the diary, which in fact links Locke (and by extension Jefferson) to Rousseau, Hobbes, and Montesquieu.

      And, while I do argue that the ideal state of nature never existed, the main point of the discussion is to show that social contract political theory constructs the individual as existing prior to political society in order to contrast it with critical social theory, which holds that individuals can only be understood as a product of the social relations they exist within.

      •  Not at all. (0+ / 0-)

        Perhaps I misunderstood you, in which case I apologize, but it seems to me that you are counter-posing a view, with which you agree, of individuals being constituted, at least to some degree, by their relations with each other in society, on the one hand, and a view, with which you disagree, of individuals being constituted prior to and outside of such social relations. Further, as I read the diary, you identify the latter view with Locke and Jefferson. In calling this a Randist view of these thinkers, I did not mean to imply that you agree with Rand's world-view, but rather that you are reading Locke and Jefferson as, at least to this extent, Randists.

        Moving on, no one with eyes in her head can deny our location in webs of social relations. See, e.g., Obligations. by Michael Walzer, recently republished in a new edition.

        But our groundedness in societies does not negate the usefulness of the state of nature, the original position, and possibly other constructs, in thinking about the origin and nature of our rights and responsibilities. For Rawls, at least as I understand him, for example, it is the thought-experiment of abstracting away the particularities of our real identities that helps generate principles of justice.

        Another way of looking at the issue is to ask: Do we have any rights simply by virtue of being persons? Or, are all of our rights, to the extent they can be called rights dependent on our social locations?

        I hold to the former view. I await with interest anything you may have to say on the matter. But please be less thin-skinned. I'm not trying to make you out to be a fan Ayn Rand.

        Al Gore should be president.

        by another American on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 12:57:47 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Against Theory. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I read your original diary and the article that was its touchstone.  It is hard to read, not because it is long, but because it is abstract.  Some highlights from the original article get at the meat better.

    "During the interwar period, a small but important group of Jewish thinkers (Judah Magnes, Buber, Arendt and others) argued and agitated for a bi-national state. The logic of Zionism naturally overwhelmed their efforts, but the idea is alive today here and there among Jewish and Arab individuals frustrated with the evident insufficiencies and depredations of the present. The essence of their vision is coexistence and sharing in ways that require an innovative, daring and theoretical willingness to get beyond the arid stalemate of assertion and rejection. Once the initial acknowledgment of the other as an equal is made, I believe the way forward becomes not only possible but also attractive." . . . .

    [A] republican multinational state needs no common nationality to assert itself on democratic grounds. All it needs is a unanimously acknowledged political arena. It need not suppose nationhood or communal belonging as the basis for the solidarity and trust needed to sustain its (agonistic) democratic rule, but only the "community" of agonists; of citizens who identify with a multilevel political arena -- internal, communal, then inter-communal or domestic national, then inter-national.

    . . . . While the multiculturalists still hold to the liberal-national assumption that nationhood is somehow important for democratic rule, and while they may consistently invoke that nationhood on behalf of democratic participation and legitimacy in the subunits of a multinational state, they still cannot introduce a new and different legitimation principle -- federation -- for the central unit; they must provide reasons for why patriotism shouldn't fail and why a break-up shouldn't happen in their desirable state.

    Returning to Hizbullah, by sticking to jurisdictional -- in contrast to territorial -- forms of consociation in political representation, the party is already doing well from the point of view of achieving a stable and legitimate multinational state. Secretary General Nasrallah does indeed categorically, and rightly so, reject the idea of a territorial federation, as this rather liberal-pluralist idea would only strengthen general disengagement, retreat, entrenchment, insularism, and secession, not to mention the presently all-too-impeding danger of an "Iraqisation" of Lebanon.

    The party does well, too, by having inculcated such a laudable inter-communal contest and patriotic heroism that won it recognition, even from the pro-Western Fouad Siniora government, as a national resistance movement not to be confused with those militias that took part in the civil war and that were to be disarmed in accordance with the Taif Agreements. . . .

    The ability for each community to contest publicly and defend its confessional convictions is another reason. Agonistic democracy is good for Hizbullah's own sake and for the sake of every comprehensive philosophical view involved in Lebanese political life. Hizbullah need not stick to a constitutional general discourse and abandon its traditional specific narratives. The party need only combine Lebanese citizenship with confessional identity and fatherland related discourse with Umma related narratives. . . . Hizbullah should try to convince in national-rational arguments and yet freely attempt to convert in a communal-passionate style.

    Lastly, maybe the Lebanese National Dialogue should resume after all, but in the open air of a fairground like Beirut, and in well- organised non-violent public political and cultural tournaments, instead.

    In a nutshell, what is being argued is that you can have democracy even when people hate each other and there is no common set of values, so long as political institutions are viewed as legitimate and there is a shared buy in to a national political process.  At, least, that is what I gather.

    The implication is that you could have a one state solution in Israel-Palestine that would work, as long as some core process and civil liberties consensus existed.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities" -- Voltaire

    by ohwilleke on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 12:53:20 PM PDT

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