This project first began in 2015 – as we watched the terrorist bombings in Paris, Beirut, Tunis… followed by retaliatory bombings on Raqqa and other areas of a Syria already war-torn and plagued with violence. We watched as the world’s greatest military powers fight the Daesh without any plan for peace-making after, and abandon basic civil liberties at home: The escalation of internal security and intelligence measures in our own societies, reducing freedom and trust among people and government, were enacted without thought for the improved integration of marginalized communities or at-risk individuals. This was coupled with the continued rise of the Far Right, and the growing fear and denial of millions of refugees fleeing civil war in their home countries.
But why not – in the United States (and assuredly elsewhere, in other nations and societies and of the world as well), people have become completely desensitized by numbers. People as well have become wholly dehumanized by them: human beings reduced entirely to stats, facts, and figures. We read about genocide, 300,000 people killed in Sudan, 700,000 Rohingya fleeing Burma, as we butter our toast and pour coffee in the morning. We know about the nearly 600,000 homeless in America – many of them elders, many of them children – and the tens-of-thousands lost annually to gun violence. We hear about these things without giving pause to think of detached limbs, hands and fingers, eyes closed or still wide-open, the faces turning blue.
The average person – instead of stumbling to the bathroom to vomit, or rising from their chair to fight for change and demand justice for those millions displaced or lying dead-and-dying – moves on with their day: We kiss our loved ones, climb into our cars or onto busses and trains, complain of the traffic and the weather and sing along with the latest hit song on the radio. We wonder what sort of day it will be for us, and what we might be able to accomplish. A promotion at work perhaps, or good news from a friend – what will we have for lunch today? Will there be time for happy-hour before returning home for dinner? What show will we decide to watch before bed? And then – what was it that we heard on the news? Another tragedy – simply, another set of numbers.
Indifference, if faced with these horrors directly, would seem unnatural – certainly no human would be able to stomach this sort of anguish! And yet the 1,000, 100,000, 1,000,000 or more who have suffered, continue to suffer, and are suffering today, vanish like a puff of smoke in our minds.
The Role of Society
But we know also that these things do not happen by accident – these acts are not inexplicable, and they are not insoluble. These acts are the direct result of human action, and only the result of human action. And, more importantly, as it is never – and could never be – just one human alone who initiates and perpetrates action of-this-scale; who could perpetuate suffering and death of-this-magnitude, it is the result of human society – these acts are initiated and carried out by representatives of a larger whole, to become an inescapable piece of the larger whole itself.
It does not need to be said, as one needs only to pick up a newspaper, watch the news – or, more accurately in this digital age, visit any social media platform, digital media site, or message board/forum – to find evidence of this that society as it exists today exists as a very imperfect society.
What we mean, specifically, by society: A mass sum of people living together in ordered community; ordered by the overarching rules and laws of nation, or country, with established culture, custom, and tradition – we will focus specifically on the society (the laws, rules, and customs) of the United States of America and those of Germany throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st.
What we mean by imperfect: We can keep the definition of imperfect simply to “deficient” here – but specify that it is so because it does not work for the whole of those who live within it (every member of society, in any such society); it is only, and has only ever been a certain percentage of citizens for whom what we call society, and the “social contract” under which we live, has actually benefitted as-it-should. We pointedly refrain here from saying as-it-was-meant-to, as we do not have any real evidence to suggest that this is true – that society was designed in a different way, or that society as it exists today, by the above definition, was designed as something more-perfect that became perverted, or that it was ever designed to work for each-and-every-one of its citizens equally, considering the high number of those left without equal rights, civil liberties, etc. when it was created in-the-first-place.
It would be easy to argue that society has always existed as such (as imperfect) throughout history, but we won’t take the time to develop that argument here – outside of acknowledging the fact that society would not look as it does today were it not for every iteration of society; every success and every failure of society that has come before: We have built our current society on the successes and failures of those in the past. As a result, many of the world’s greatest minds have been dedicated to the question of why humanity would choose to live under such a social contract when we are clearly much-more-concerned with our own selfishness – why we would willingly give up freedom to be a part of a community or society, (especially one responsible for these many terrible numbers) rather than remain in an anarchic “state of nature” in which we are beholden only to ourselves.
Immanuel Kant, for example, in his Doctrine of Right (1797), held that every rational being had both an innate right to freedom and a duty to enter into a civil condition governed by a social contract in order to realize and preserve that freedom – which might illustrate the role of the individual in this best-possible outcome of societies, as-well-as the responsibility the individual has to that society in ensuring that this becomes the truth of the social contract (especially a society, as we understand it through the tenets of our Democracy, in which the individual plays an active role), as-well-as the responsibility this society has to the individual, and the benefits of honoring the social contract, i.e. what is gained when the social contract is honored by the individual, and what is lost.
Thomas Hobbes, as he wrote in Leviathan (1651), believed in the need for order under an Absolute Sovereign – an absolute-authority in-power to keep peace, and gave little regard to the individual, or individual freedom, in society. People were, in his view (without the precincts of society) quite savage, and lives lived in the State of Nature were “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Society, no matter the freedom or individuality that might be given in exchange, was the only answer; the only hope for a decent life and living.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau disagreed, and challenged this idea almost a century later in The Social Contract (1762), and his most-famous idea, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” Rousseau believed that modern society suppresses the physical freedom and creativity with which we are born – and to which we have a natural-born right – and does little to secure civil freedoms for the sake of which we entered into “civility” in-the-first-place. Subservience to government, especially a far-reaching, over-arching supreme government, was, he believed, inherently irrational.
In a better world, the violence I described in the first paragraphs would exist only as a natural response to the suppression Rousseau described – the human penchant for rebelling against irrational authority; to break free from the chains of government. As the anarchists have said, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” paraphrased from Russian social anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin’s The Reaction in Germany (1842) –
“We exhort the compromisers to open their hearts to truth, to free themselves of their wretched and blind circumspection, of their intellectual arrogance, and of the servile fear which dries up their souls and paralyzes their movements… Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!”
And supported by the belief that such chaotic war-mongering, violence, selfishness and greed is the result of society – not, as Hobbes believed, that societal authority provides the order otherwise missing from our natural state – and also by those who advocate humanity was in-fact a much-more peaceful species as hunter-gatherers, before the formation of society, of culture, of the social sciences and the identities we have derived from them – something of a return to an anarcho-primitivist state.
But the reality of our world today is that it is in fact the opposite: It is the result of obedience to such authority. The institutions of this authority, and those who adhere to them, clashing with others; following without-question political, and/or religious leaders; clinging to systems of belief that become dogmatic and dominate worldview and life – it is not freedom that this sort of violence seeks to find then in the light, it is power, it is to be right and only right. It is to gain purpose through label, and to be judge and justice in a world that quickly becomes unfamiliar when it turns a different way.
While such thinkers, philosophers, politicians, and poets have been discussing society’s contract for centuries, eons, or longer – and many of their ideas have been put into practice; still exist today – it is ultimately modern society with which we will concern ourselves: Society as it exists now; the lives of individual citizens as they exist within society (under social contract) today, as-well-as what rights those individuals should enjoy (deserve) with, or without, society’s rules and regulations to guide, and/or limit them in a society quite different – though, in a great many ways, also very similar – to the ones in which they were writing. We use these texts only as root for how we arrived in this society, and to help explain how history’s most-terrible events, e.g. the Holocaust, chattel slavery, etc. came to be, and also: How people – how we, the members of society – continue to remain so at-odds and unequal even as we proclaim freedom and justice come as the result of equality first, and as we continue the struggle to move in that direction: Individual views of equality v. those of greater society.
The (In)equality of Man
This discussion of equality – the equality, or consistent lack-thereof of humans; the rights of individuals living in society – is not a new one. Aristotle, long before our “modern” society (with modern rules, regulations, customs, etc.), and long before many of the texts we will use as basis and for reference as well, believed and taught that men are not created equal – are not created to be equals; are naturally inequal. Some are meant to rule, and some are meant to be ruled. As he said in Politics (c. 4th Century BC), “…some designed for slavery and others for dominion…”
This approach, as I find this at odds with fundamental views of morality, humanity, and the rights of the individual, is to level the playing field and unpack the idea of society, and its institutions, in order to understand the thoughts, actions of individuals therein. We seek also to establish the understanding that there is no universal standard of, or universal standard for, human worth, i.e. there is no proof that any-or-all human beings born cannot, do not, have the ability to choose their own path, as is part of their Right to Life and as a natural part of their Self and their existence; will not serve a purpose for betterment of their society as-a-whole, the entirety of the human race or in their own lives and immediate community – As Friedrich Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) wrote, “But whoever considers the fundamental impulses of man with a view to determining how far they may have here acted as INSPIRING GENII (or as demons and cobolds) will find that they have all practiced philosophy at one time or another…” – which we translate something along the lines of, “I am less concerned with known genii of history, and more concerned with the number of unknown, nameless genii who have lived-and-died toiling away in the fields.” Consequently, we are not concerned solely with established moral authorities (of government or religion) or other moral authorities in power – we are ultimately as-much concerned with that which exists within the quieter corners of society, the day-to-day thoughts and actions of figurants as they go about their lives.
While this does not directly reject Aristotle’s theory (I do not directly reject Aristotle’s thinking…), or the countless others who developed this idea further between then-and-today – that some are born to rule and some to-be-ruled, as our theory would simply reinforce the notion that each-and-every individual does play some role in society – we simply cannot, and will not advocate for any such understanding as it has existed in society thus far –
Humans have neither the intellectual capacity, nor the moral right – and therefore do not have the ability to – to decide which individuals belong to which category; to designate who belongs to any such category, and, ultimately, that any previous attempts to establish such rules and designation have not only failed miserably, but were also immoral, and reprehensible to begin with – especially as these attempts have far-too-often been rooted in, and were designed based on subjective, capricious factors including race, religious faith, ethnicity/ethnic background, “class,” country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, and/or family history.
Though it does deserve to be said: Humans have been trying – i.e. there have been tangible results that can be pointed to and pointed out that indicate a certain trend toward a more liberal equality, toward moral progress, and a better grasp of what society not only could, but should mean for all its inhabitants: Previously normalized policies, e.g. the subjugation of women, enslaved black Americans, legal segregation of races, etc. are no longer licit or protected exclusively by the system – and while the remnants of such policies remain; the echoes of these constructs which defined our country and others for centuries still linger, the removal of them must be considered forward movement… saying, ultimately, that society does have the potential to improve, and does have the potential to be better for all.
But while great strides have been made, and we will not ignore this progress and the social change and awareness that has occurred, and continues to occur, particularly in recent history – we do not reject the argument that this progress-and-change has moved toward a “better” society – we must also address any sort of moral progress concurrently with the level of violence, the number of casualties, the countless dead from war, etc. as well as the imbalanced power structures through race and class that continue to exist within society, i.e. the number of people who have been left without equity in the wake of this progressive society – we must understand both, and cannot ignore the implications.
It means also that I cannot quantify at-this-point things that might be considered universally “good,” or universally “bad,” as the notion of good and bad, or right and wrong, is currently based on subjective rule of law – moral contractarianism – which change from place-to-place and instance-by-instance, constantly in-flux, as well as an economic system of having or not-having, and, often, the tenets of religion – which are notoriously inconsistent when put into practice by humans – as well. I will begin then by denying the notion that there exists already some universal law that can, could, should, or would govern what might be considered “good” or “bad” when it comes to the actions of man, in any, every, all cases, i.e. moral absolutes. Our focus will remain on simple truths: I will attempt to address and work with that which exists, as it exists, as the result of our social contract, i.e. examine the general day-to-day in society as it stands today, in order to create an objective view of society’s potential, and have a rational, objective understanding of our history as well.
Too will I try and understand the purpose of our institutions (the institutions that make up society, i.e. the authorities of society and all of its machinations) as they do not to allow the individual to stand still. Rather the opposite: The purpose of our institutions is to propel the individual, and, more importantly, the individual as a member of society, and thus society as-a-whole, forward and toward some form of “better” existence. When they fail to do this, they fail to serve a purpose in society, and must be removed.
I hope, at some point, to be able to define exactly what “better” means – from both a moral and from an actionable standpoint, for both the individual and for society as-a-whole. What I will ultimately prove (or at least attempt to prove – as I cannot guarantee a change in the mind of the reader, nor will I say that I will be able to offer any sort of guidance, or “answers” that the individual would not be able to find on their own), is that each individual does have the capacity to create such a reality for his/her/their self, and present objective attestations to establish reality both as it exists, and as it could be, to create a better model for both the self and the community, and offer established truths which might help the clarify the questions of humanity and morality and authority which haunt us like spirits; questions we ask of ourselves and others every day; questions that, if remained unanswered, un-pondered, and unaddressed, come to define us without our permission.
I will do this by creating a guide for morality, while simultaneously denying that any such guide for morality could ever truly exist. This sort of paradox – like the Cretan who declared that “All Cretans are liars” – which may seem absurd at first, will (with a certain, undying hope) lead us to the simple truths of “goodness” and peace we seek, so that, when asked whether we believe the individual is better equipped to live in and under the rules-and-laws of society, or completely “free” in state of nature in-some-form without restrictions, rules-and laws-of society, without any-sort of artificial authority, we can answer with a simple, and confident “yes” to both.