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...
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.