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There never was a social contract

The social contract has not been broken — there never was one single social contract in the first place. What being a good citizen costs, whether it’s possible at all, and what you get from this “deal” is different if you’re poor, Black, gender non-conforming, Disabled, or a high-school droput, than if you’re a educated urban white man in their 50s. We know this, but the dispassionate pseudo-objectivity of social contractarian reasoning obscures it. 

The theory of the social contract is based on the idea that individuals are naturally inclined to value freedom from interference, and to value individual independence. We all share a desire to be as free as possible, but we recognize that we must give up some individual liberty to maximize our freedom as a society. How much, what kind of freedom is a fair trade for the common good, and what our expectations of state agency should be, are the core questions of social contract theory. 

When we use contractarian reasoning, we explicitly aim to be rational and, as much as possible, objective. We step outside our individual contexts and think about the general will, the common good, what any reasonable person might agree to. We think about what is a fair bargain for everyone — how much freedom to give up for how much security. 

Objectivity in an imperfect world

Thinking this way sets up a tension. The social contract is supposed to protect people who wouldn’t thrive under anarchism (or whatever state of “lawlessness” is supposed to be the alternative). It’s supposed to protect people who can’t protect themselves in a way that doesn’t come at too high a cost to anyone else. But these most vulnerable people are also furthest away from the “ideal” rational actor who comes to the table to negotiate the social contract. Children and disabled people cannot disconnect from their needs for care, and many are not able to give the same kinds of consent that adults and abled people can. To include “less-than-ideal” rational actors in social contract negotiations, then, requires that their interests are taken up by proxies. 

The further away the hypothetical bargainers in the social contract get from you and me, the less reason we have to consider their imaginary beliefs and decisions as having any normative force on us. Why should I feel bound by what this hypoemotional phantom of me (or someone else’s model of me) supposedly would agree to in conditions of perfect objectivity? Creating a bargain that marginalized people can only take part in via mediators risks erasing them from the conversation on what counts as justice for them — what they can expect from those with power. 

The burden of affective liberty

One of the precepts of social contract bargaining is that hypothetical agents coming to the table to negotiate the rules of being a good citizen must do so in as independent a state as possible. 

Close affective bonds between people are considered an impediment to the clear-minded reasoning necessary to determine the common good. The name for this concept is “affective liberty,” freedom from involuntary emotional connections with others. 

But this idealized independent individualist who wants only to maximise their rational self interest didn’t come from nowhere — as a child they were nurtured by others who did not consider their relationship to be an easily fungible, loose connection, as Carol Pateman argues in one feminist critique. Social contract theory is parasitic on (feminized) emotional labor while valorizing liberty from it.

Charles Mills argues along similar lines in The Racial Contract, that the kind of individual that is held up as a paradigm of reasonability can only operate in a society that oppresses racialized bodies and devalues their labor. The social contract that applies to us all is justified by only a small number of us, and the rest are either substituted by proxies or silently forgotten. 

Even John Rawls, whose veil of ignorance argument is perhaps the most important development in liberal political philosophy of the last century, revised his beliefs about how a just society should be structured significantly in his later years. Rawls came to understand that society could not make progress towards justice for everyone without a significant transfer of the means of production. 

A queer perspective on the social contract raises immediate questions about the presuppositions we have about what people ought to want, the kinds of lives they should desire, who decides what’s “reasonable,” and how people who don’t fit into those norms are considered. We are not all perfectly rational and interchangeable actors, who come to the table with the same natural desires, and reasoning as if we are cannot be an adequate justification for our current fucked up society’s inequities. Queer subjects have different priorities, different orderings of desire, that resist categorization and identification with straight society and sometimes seem to actively undermine the idea that we’re all looking forward to a better future. Too many of us are missing from the contractarian model of social and moral life, and accepting a social contract based on gestures towards inclusivity leaves many of us behind

The correct answer to “how would a marginalized person feel about the social contract?” is “I don’t know, let’s ask.” Not “let’s take a guess from an impossible standpoint outside individual and global narratives of history.” What a flourishing life and justice actually looks like in practice must be informed by referring to the people with the least power and privilege, not the most.

For that to happen, we first need to stop thinking of society like a Prisoner’s Dilemma. A more promising way to think through how to address our social problems together is to talk about them in their full context, with all the messy history of oppression, imbalances in power and privilege, queerness, hopefulness, and despair. To talk about ways we can care for each other that have normative force because they’re rooted in respect for these differences. Not because they were created by the people we’d imagine ourselves to be if we hadn’t lived the lives we have.

To believe that there is one social contract that is the same for everyone, and that can be “fixed” with just a few minor changes to policing is to buy into America’s marketing department. You know the slogans: Equal opportunities for all, anyone can achieve prosperity for themselves if they just work hard enough, you have nothing to fear if you’re innocent. We know these are empty promises that actively impede our chances of imagining a better society, but somehow we can’t seem to give them up. 

We don’t have to see ourselves as participants in a game where we win if we maximize our own self-interest. This way of thinking of ourselves and others leads to some pretty dreary visions of the future. 

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