There is an episode in the classic Twilight Zone series which, I believe, is relevant to the contemporary political landscape.
In this episode, an Air Force test pilot suffering from amnesia wanders through a town empty of people. He enters a gas station, a police station, and a diner finding all the common accoutrements of life, but without the people that give the inanimate objects meaning and purpose. Gradually, his temperament evolved from confusion to frustration to anger to disconsolate weeping.
Physically, he never changed from the man that first entered the town, but on a mental level he underwent a dramatic shift. He was the same. The town was the same as any other American town. The only aspect not the same was the absence of people. This absence was so abnormal that the character just wanted out, to awake from the nightmare and live in a normal world filled with the living.
And, that is the most basic psychological fact: people need people. Humanity, as a species, needs social contact in order to function properly. Without each other life does not hold meaning or purpose. Much as the insentient needs the sentient to give it meaning and purpose, so does the sentient need each other. Societal relationships are the heart of the human experience.
A community can be defined as a unified body of individuals; united in meaning and purpose, and sharing common values. We are not detached entities buzzing in our own separate vacuums, but are beings sharing a common space with other beings. Our words and actions influence each other, to the point that groups of individuals united in a common cause, or working towards a common goal, may generate a commonly shared feeling, or understanding, they will achieve their goal, no matter the obstacle. This is collective efficacy and it is a positive psychological development. Just ask any sports team or military unit.
This collective idea that unites humanity can also be seen in the realm of thought, or our very understanding of existence. There are three levels of the human mind: the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Carl Jung noted that the level of the unconscious could even be further subdivided into the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. In the collective unconscious the shared experiences of the human and pre-human species are collectively stored. These experiences are universal and contain the totality of our ancestral experiences. This concept eventually leads to the archetypes and comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell, where all humanity shares the same psychological myths imprinted upon their genetic code through the process of evolution.
We share goals. We share human experience. We share each other. We are all linked.
This leads to the contemporary political landscape and the philosophical argument being waged between Republicans and Democrats about the nature of humanity and the importance of social relationships. The following video that aired at the Democratic National Convention was widely lampooned by Republicans:
The point of contention concerned the statement, “The government is the only thing we all belong to.” Republicans, and Fox News, used the statement to insinuate Democrats believed we belong to the government as articles of property or as a commodity. This is counterintuitive as just a few moments before the same video stated, “We do believe you can use government in a good way.” Slaves cannot USE their master. The reasonable conclusion is that Democrats believe in the common belief of all Americans: that we use the government as we would any other social club, whether to better the shared human experience or, returning to the concept of collective efficacy, to attain a common goal.
There are many definitions to the term “belong.” Republicans used the one most advantageous to their criticism, ignoring the context of the video which is contrary to their argument. If one listens to the entire video, especially the statement of citizens using the government in a good way, then the term “belong” simply means being a member of a social club or other organization. If my son becomes a member of the Boy Scouts, I do not weep, wail, and gnash my teeth at the thought of the organization owning my child, but that he is simply a member, one of many, belonging to an organization that he can use to better himself or his immediate environment.
Congressman Paul Ryan argued that when he gave his oath upon obtaining congressional office, he swore his service not to the government, but to the People. When deconstructing the statements of the DNC video it would appear that Congressman Ryan, unwittingly, is in agreement. There is a reciprocal relationship between the People and the government, where the latter is a social construct created by the former, and which the former, by their very membership, are the latter.
This can be explained another way. When we are born in the United States, we automatically become citizens of this nation. We are members of this nation. The nation does not own us. We own it by our very membership because we are the United States. The United States would not exist without our membership. In much the same way, the government would not exist without our membership or consent to exist.
This is the basis of the social contract.
In the beginning, humanity existed within the natural world acting as hyperindividuals, free of all social constructs or responsibilities. Whether one looks at the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke (a favorite of conservatives), or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this natural state of humanity did not work. Humanity acting only within their own self-interest precipitated the necessity of the creation of government as a mechanism of safety and security. By shared agreement, humanity willingly relinquished some of their freedom in order to create an agency to protect their basic rights. There is even an escape clause written into the social contract that states, if the government acts in a tyrannical manner, not living up to its stated responsibility to its creators, then it may be disbanded and reformed. A return to the natural world is not possible as we are unable to live in such a state in harmony. The government is necessary.
This is simple common sense.
There is an important philosophical argument at play in the upcoming presidential election. It involves arguing whether humanity exists as hyperindividuals or collective members of the same shared community and human experience.
Hyperindividualism is a sociological term defined as “the tendency for people to act in a highly individual way, without regard to human society.” When we consider the current Republican platform to be based upon hyperindividualism, it must be noted they do not do this consistently. It is more of an economic hyperindividualism, whereas on a social or personal level they advocate a theocratic model. There is almost a sociopathic tendency within hyperindividualism, and it is a philosophy running counter to the human condition, especially when seen in the light of Locke or Rousseau.
Social constructs are necessary. The government is necessary. We all belong to these organizations, but they are owned by us. The creation cannot own the creator. It is a fallacy to believe this to be the case.
Rousseau wrote, “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” The general will is our will and it acts in our best interest because it is humanity which is the primary agent. We need each other and we need the constructs we created to maintain security and harmony in our lives.
Secretary of State Clinton was correct all those years ago when she wrote It Takes a Village. It truly does, otherwise we would just be lonely souls pressing the panic button.
Cross-posted at Salon Jacobin.