The Social Contract

Cornel West also contended that those in international society who seek to address injustice, social malaise, and social misery and in turn foster a “social contract” of sorts “must think in epochal, not apocalyptic, terms.” Although what is going on now in our world may seem “apocalyptic” to certain people, the reality is that similar circumstances and situations have arisen in the past. In epochal terms, what we are experiencing in the Western world in the 21st century has also occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries as well, in the sense that the 19th century ‘Napoleonic Wars’ of a hegemonic nature led to what was seemingly a “social contract” between Western nations in the form of the “Congress of Vienna” in 1815, and the hegemonic Nazi wars of the 20th century led to a “social contract” between the world’s major powers in the form of the “United Nations” (UN). 

Now, in the 21st century, the need to create a “social contract” between the world’s major powers and between various actors and stakeholders in international society arises from the breakdown of the previous “social contract” as a result of America’s hegemonic wars. But as things stand, not only are actors, stakeholders, and major powers in international society having trouble agreeing on the principles of a new “social contract,” but the programs to address injustice, social misery, and social malaise are not there either. The absence of a “social contract” due to the inability of actors, major powers, and stakeholders in international society to agree on the basic principles of a “social contract” fosters a broader situation which plays into the hands of the American right-wing. As Richard Rorty argued: “That shift toward the right is likely to continue – and the poor will keep right on getting poorer – despite the fact that all our politicians subscribe to all the good old egalitarian principles.”

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, social order “is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights.” But Rousseau added that social order and the rights that sustain social order “does not come from nature, and must therefore be founded on conventions.” For one convention of social order to come prior to all others “is the true foundation of society.” In a “state of nature” which is void of social order and which arises as the result of the breakdown of the one convention of social order which comes prior to all others, Rousseau contended that for everyone who is caught up in this “state of nature,” the reality is that “the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state.” In essence, this “state of nature” is a “primitive condition” that can “subsist no longer” and in turn “the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.” 

Rousseau argued that a “social contract” which in turn establishes social order arises when there is “a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance” of the obstacles which reinforce and invigorate the aforementioned “state of nature.” Simply put: “This sum of forces can arise only where several persons come together.” In a “social contract” which brings people together, each individual is essentially “giving himself to all” yet “gives himself to nobody” and in turn “gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.” In essence, a “social contract” is an “act of association” which in turn “creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will.” 

Rousseau is perhaps the foremost of primary sources who covers the issue of the “social contract.” An exploration of some secondary sources regarding the issue of the “social contract” will take place in my next piece. 

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