May Day Talk: What is “the Social Contract”?

The theme for the Radical 1st of May in 2019 was “Challenging the social contract.” After the demonstration we all went to MúltiKúlti for food and conversations. Here one of our members, Ole Sandberg (who also studies and teaches philosophy), gave a brief introduction to the philosophical concept of “social contract theory” and why it matters in our daily lives and struggles. Read it below.


What is social contract theory?

Technically, it is a philosophical argument to justify political authority.

It is the answer to the question: “why should we obey the state and its rules?”

The answer provided by the social contract theory is “because we made a deal!” or… “well, you would make this deal if you were given a choice.”

In the old days the answer to the question “why should we obey the feudal lord and work for him” was “because he got the land from the king” and if you asked what gave the king the authority the answer would be something like “well because his father was the king” or “because God gave him that authority.”

Of course, what is not being said, but which is always understood, is that if you don’t obey your feudal lord or the king then you will be killed. Their political authority might be justified by appealing to something “higher” but if that argument fails violence will make sure you understand. Authority and the right to rule ultimately comes from the sword.

The first theory of social contract understood that.

Justifying State Power

Thomas Hobbes lived in a time of political unrest, civil war and religious disagreements. He thought it was ridiculous in that situation to argue that the king had some divine right to rule simply because his father had it or because God gave it to him. Those arguments no longer worked. And Hobbes certainly did not believe in them.

But that did not mean he believed people could simply ignore political authority. The bloody civil war was a result of people no longer accepting the rules or the rulers. The result was terrifying – people killing each other. He didn’t care much about which king had the right to rule or what mystical powers gave him that authority. He just wanted people to stop fighting and to accept some kind of ruler. In Hobbes’ theory the authority of the ruler comes from this: that he can get people to stop fighting and ensure an ordered society.

Which is something we should all have an interest in. We all want to live in peace, right? Civil war is terrible, so if the only way to prevent that is that we all unite under one common ruler, then that is the legitimacy of the ruler.

This is one of the first philosophies in the period to justify political authority not by appealing to divine powers or mystical birth-rights but by saying to those who are governed that the government is in their own best interest. You might not like the hierarchy, but you would hate the alternative.

Hobbes paints a picture of the alternative: the state of nature where everyone is free to do whatever they want. There are no authorities, no rulers, and no rules. There is also no cooperation and no society because people can and will lie and cheat and steal and kill each other whenever it is to their advantage. You might have absolute freedom but you live in constant fear.

The standard story is that this situation was intolerable so people came together to make a deal: They would give up their freedom in order to get stability, security and prosperity. They would agree to give one person – or one institution – the power to rule over all of them and punish those who did not follow the rules.

This is the social contract. It is called “social” because it is not a legal or a political contract. It was made before there was any political or legal institutions. It is the agreement that established political institutions and gave them their legitimacy.

Hypothetical Consent

Of course, very few people believe there was ever a time where such a contract was made. And even if there was, we could still say “why should we be bound by a promise that our ancestors made a long time ago?” We did not agree to it, so it is not a real contract – a contract is something you personally consents to do. There is no consent in this. It is not valid.

That would be missing the point of the story. The point for Hobbes is not to describe a historical event but a possible future: What will happen if we stop accepting the institutions of hierarchy and power. If we do not want chaos and civil war to happen, then we should accept the systems of power that maintain order.

So if we really think about it, if we were given a contract to sign today, then we would consent. The social contract is then an ongoing hypothetical consent. We should act as if we had signed a contract because if we – hypothetically – were presented with one, then we would sign it.

You have probably all heard this argument in one form or another. When people say “what would happen if there was no government, no capitalism, no bosses, etc? It would be chaos, it would be Venezuela, it would be rule by the strongest – is that what you want?” If the answer is “no” then you must accept the status quo and the powers that be. They might suck but the alternative is worse. So the argument goes. As if there are no other possible forms of society.

There are also other ways to say the contract is valid.

Implicit Consent

Implicit content means that whenever you use the benefits of some kind of system then you sort of agree to the rules that upholds that system and provides the benefits. You have also all heard this argument before. For example in idiotic phrases like “ah! I see you’re criticizing capitalism – and yet you’re writing on a computer that is produced by a capitalist company! Hypocrite!” Or “so, you’re against your government, but you don’t mind driving on the roads provided by that government do you?” Or in Hobbesian terms: “If you enjoy not being killed all the time by your neighbors then surely you have consented to the state which made the police and the laws that prevent them from killing you.”

The argument here is that you have actually accepted the rules by performing certain actions – you might not know it but you have, because those rules where implied when you did your actions. It’s kind of a trick. You do one thing and suddenly you’ve bought a whole package because you didn’t read the small print. This idea is common in all sorts of areas in our society. Often people believe in it without even being aware of it.

Take for example the situation where a guy offers a woman a drink at a bar. They’re having a nice conversation, she wouldn’t mind having a drink. He’s offering one. Why would she not accept it? Well, as you know, she might be aware that he might think she has agreed to something more if she accepts that drink. And he might feel cheated if she refuses that implicit contract, and then he might use violence to punish her. That is a situation she wants to avoid. Even if he meant no such thing by offering her a drink – even if he had no further expectations than to keep a nice conversation going – the fact that others in society would have these ideas now make it a relevant thing for both of them to consider.

This highlights that a social contract is not one we have agreed to, but a set of norms and rules that others have made and that we now have to live with even if we do not want to. It is not a legal contract – no judge can find her guilty of breach of contract after accepting a drink. But it does have social and even legal consequences when cultural norms are used to justify certain actions against those who disobeyed the expectations.

This is not Consent

A social contract is used by liberal theory to justify political power. It is the only way liberalism can reconcile the contradiction between their claims of valuing liberty, autonomy and freedom on the one side, and political authority and rule-following on the other. The model they follow is that of the capitalist market place: Two equal individuals can come together to sign a contract where they promise to do certain things and by doing that they voluntarily give up their freedom to not do those things. A contract is made freely and by choice. So if political society is based on that model we are all free even when we have to obey authority.

This is of course wrong on so many levels. First of all, a normal contract is specific. Both regarding the actions it entails and the period it covers. The social contract that is claimed to be the basis for political authority is not specific: the institutions of power can always make new rules that you have to follow long after you agreed to anything. And it is not for a limited period but for ever. It is like going in to a store to buy one item and suddenly being told you have agreed to buy whatever the store tells you to for the rest of your life.

Second, a contract only comes into being when the parties who agree to it sit down and write it. But as the example with the drink shows, we find ourselves in social contracts all the time that we not only did not agree to but also had no influence in writing. The contracts exist before we do and the rules have been made before we get a chance to consent to them or reject them. Our actions and our thinking is formed by these rules. No wonder it is so hard to imagine alternatives to hierarchy, authority and capitalism – these are the institutions we are born into and fill up most of the space in our lives. We have very little idea of what it would be to live without them. So when someone tells us it would be chaos and violence well… maybe they’re right? We don’t know. We have not been allowed to find out what the alternatives are.

Behind the Contract is Power

The reason I started with the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes is that he is the most consistent and honest social contract thinker. He is wrong but he is consistently wrong.

The standard story of his theory is the one I’ve told you: In the state of nature free individuals came together to give up their freedom in order to establish political power and get security. But that is not actually his theory.

Hobbes knew that power had to be established first before it could get people to give up their freedom and accept it. His actual theory is that some gangs would eventually take over a territory and their strongest or most cunning leader would rule it with force. The ruler would then get everyone to accept his authority and eventually people would come to see it as a good thing as peace eventually got established.

So the contract is first established with violence. The power structures and hierarchies first make the rules and then we get a chance to accept them. This means the social contract is always designed to benefit those in power. Even when parts of the contract are good things – things like human rights or worker welfare, things that limit what those in power can do to us if we play by their rules. Those things can always be set aside and bend when those in power do not feel like following them. Because ultimately the power structures come first and the social contract is just the lie that they use to get us to accept them.

When we play by the rules of the social contract we do not necessarily endorse the rules or the contract. We might have no other choice. But the rules are never made to enable us to challenge the contract or the power structures. We have the freedom to not accept the authority of a capitalist boss but it comes with the freedom to starve to death. If we want actual choice we have to break the rules of the social contracts that we do not accept.

This is why statements like “if you want to change things you have to follow the proper rules and procedures” and “of course you can express your discontent but you have to do it in civil and polite way” are traps designed to shut you up and to prevent any change.

How can you follow the proper procedures in a system that is designed to prevent changes to that system? What is the advantage of civil discourse in a system where you do not have a voice? Those rules are not made for you.

If we play by their rules, we lose

Refugees in Iceland are told to follow the proper asylum procedures. But these procedures are deliberately made to prevent their cases to be properly examined. Of course they have to do something else. And when they come to the parliament and demand to be heard, they are told they are not speaking in the right debate or to the right people – but there is no debate within the system where they can be heard or people within it who want to hear, so of course they have to create some new rules.

This is not just true for refugees but in a sense for all immigrants in this country. When we are told to not complain, not criticize, to be thankful and to accept Icelandic society as it is without trying to change anything, this is another version of the implicit consent argument: Since you are here and enjoy some of the good things about being here, you have to accept the whole package – it’s part of the contract whether you agree to it or not.

Actually this is not just true for immigrants but for Icelanders as well.

There is a strong cultural demand here in Iceland that you are not supposed to speak badly about someone in public and thereby ruing their reputation. What if that someone did something bad? Something that is against the rules? Something that hurt you?

Well, of course he shouldn’t have done that, but first and foremost you broke the rules when you spoke up about it. People will refuse to listen to you, and they might even punish you by ruining your career or making you a social outcast. The social contract that we do not speak badly about each other in public (complaining behind each other’s backs is another matter) is well intended. It is to make a nice society. An orderly society. A peaceful society.

But it is also made to maintain the order of that society, and as such it primarily benefits those who are privileged within that order. Those who do not have much power do not benefit from following those rules. They need to break them in order to be heard. They need to challenge the social contracts that legitimize the power structures.

But when they do so, they risk being punished, because just like in the old days of kings and gods, the final argument of those in power is to defend themselves with the sword. Behind the peace and order is always the threat of violence against those who challenge the order.

So we cannot challenge the social contracts alone as individuals. We have to do it together. And we cannot merely reject one of the rules that keep a few of us from doing what we want. To be successful we have to fight together against the whole power structure that makes the rules.

Patriarchy, capitalism, political hierarchy, nationalism, hetero-normativity, colonialism, and so many other systems of power, all rely on a number of implicit and explicit social contracts. These systems of domination are built in to the contracts. They are what the contracts are designed to uphold. They are designed to keep us all down.

Together we can tear them up. Together we can not only break the rules but destroy the paper they were written on.