The Broken Social Contract

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It is well-known and accepted that during feudal and colonial times, newspapers and newsletters were written for and published by wealthy interest groups. In fact, for most of history, the crown and the church were the sole purveyors of information. Books and manuscripts that didn’t conform to the norms of the ruling class or church were banned or burned, or just never published.

On the other side, books and manuscripts that promoted moral, political, and legal norms that coincided with the ruling classes were the only sources of information.

Even now, what we learn from encyclopediae, wickedpedia, and google is highly selective. Consider when you seek to learn about the history of moral and political philosophy. On the history of “social contract” and “justice“, we are pointed to the “founders of civilization” and directed to the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.

Plato’s Crito and his Republic was written in support of the masters he served. While other philosophers of the time argued that “justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger”, Plato would defend oligarchies.

When all of Athens knew Socrates was unjustly convicted, Plato’s philosophy, survived for posterity. “Do you imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?” – the Crito by Plato.

Even the often-heard nationalistic and social media outcry “if you don’t like how we do things here, why don’t you leave” – originates with Plato in his Crito. This interpretation is now the norm for most people.

However, Socrates actually argued against the acceptance of a social contract, arguing that the natural world is influenced by its own formed morality, that it is not indifferent or neutral in judging and when creating laws.

Socrates argued that most humans do not actually know what is Good, what is Just, so people cannot be taken to have subscribed to this negotiated compromise (or social contract) at the exclusion of their rights to change unjust actions.

Our written history of the evolution of social contract is influenced by what could be published without consequences. In many parts of Europe, the license to publish was not freely available and subject to royal censor. Historiography remains severely subject to an interpretation that favour leading individuals, the moneyed, and ruling classes.

Individual Thought

Even if we accept that a social contract existed for all of “Western” civilization, it is clear that initially it was inferred only between subjects and individual sovereign entities, tiny nation-states, and existed in the context of a time when free movement of people was possible. You could literally choose to leave and move somewhere else. Perhaps somewhere you liked the laws, which wasn’t uniform across nation-states.

In Greek, the word hairesis (from which heresy is derived) was originally a neutral term that signified merely the holding of a particular set of philosophical opinions. It was encouraged to have different opinions. In the hands of the earliest law-making bodies, those holding different philosophical opinions within a sovereign or subject to a set of rules were often punished.

“The weakest are always wrong in matters of state.” – Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richelieu –

Trust and Transparency
In democracies, Trust and Transparency are key factors necessary for a social contract to function properly. Currently, trust in the institutions of government, civil society, education, business, and the media is very low. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans say “you can’t be too careful” in dealing with fellow Americans.

And trust is also lacking between nations. A 13-nation Pew Research Center survey shows deteriorating trust in the USA government; with “American Interests” perceived to supersede “world interests”. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/09/15/us-image-plummets-internationally-as-most-say-country-has-handled-coronavirus-badly/

The media is criticized as failing in its role of informing society and holding those in power accountable. They are seen to be compromised by increasing bias and supportive of polarization and a greater social divide.

The role of holding power accountable seems to have fallen disproportionately on whistleblowers, or insiders. In fact, it was an insider, and US citizen, Daniel Ellsberg, who released a copy of a top-secret study of classified documents on the unjust conduct of the USA in the Vietnam War (the Pentagon Papers).

Ellsberg was personally attacked and discredited. His own defense was not heard in court. The case was eventually dismissed due to illegal evidence gathering.

The social contract is broken

The current Julian Assange case seems again to be an assault on civil liberties and the social contract. Let’s not forget that the information “leaked” by a US citizen, Chelsea Manning, and its publication by Wikileaks, a limited liability company, under the direction of Assange, is about the publication of details of human rights atrocities.

In fact, the USA is showing how dissenting voices/whistleblowers of unjust actions (by a powerful state) can expect to be treated.

The action is intended to set a precedent against those who disclose details of unjust government actions. It already sets a precedent for those who would like to suppress transparency and accountability, and it is expected to accelerate a feeling that the social contract is broken.