Preliminary Reflections on ‘Social Cohesion’ (Part III)

This text is written as part of the 2022 Humboldt Residency Programme’s work on the topic ‘social cohesion’.

As a scholar of rhetoric, my first impulse when confronted with an unfamiliar concept is usually to try to understand what French philosopher, rhetoric scholar, and philologist Barbara Cassin would call its world-effect: what image of the world is constructed within the confines of this specific concept. As the concept of ‘social cohesion’ is entirely new to me, this is thus what I will now attempt to do. More specifically, in this text I want to understand what makes it possible to even ask such a question, the question of the cohesion of a people. To answer this, I believe we have to start with a simple, yet extremely difficult, question, namely: What makes a people?

The problem to which a notion like social cohesion refers, is the supposed contemporary division in the people, as if the people today was particularly wrought with internal strife, as if our current sufferings stem from a lack of social cohesion. More specifically, there is, as we have heard, that there is a lack of cohesion around even the most fundamental aspects of the liberal democratic framework, what Rousseau would have called the social contract. And without this contract, the social fabric as we know it would disintegrate. As an answer to this lacking social cohesion, many are asking themselves about how to develop a rhetoric capable of counteracting the success of supposedly authoritarian and anti-(liberal)democratic movements (and perhaps to convince these citizens and their political representatives about the values of liberal democracy). Others highlight the importance of hearing and acknowledging the grievances of the people (even though the liberal minded among us might not always like what they hear). But what they have in common, what is pointed out, is the need to recreate social cohesion in some way. To restore or to create unity within the people. But wouldn’t it be easier, as Brecht suggests, to simply elect another people?

So, at the heart of democracy is its greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness: the people as its sovereign. But at the same time, the people is not only a problem of democracy. Couldn’t we say that any form of government, regardless of its nature, always rules over a people. What is, one could ask, the aristocrats, the tyrant, the revolutionary guard etc. without a people to govern? Nothing, I assume. There cannot be someone governing without the governed, and this entity is what we know as the people. But this means we have to ask the question what comes first: the sovereign or the people? In democracy, this becomes even more difficult: Is the people first an entity to be governed? Or is the primary form of the people that appears in history a sovereign?  

Let us look a bit deeper into the problem of the relationship between the one who governs an the one who is governed. Already Aristotle told us that a king who no longer cares for his people becomes a tyrant. An aristocracy who no longer cares for the people becomes an oligarchy. And a polity which does not have the best interest of the people in mind, turns into a democracy, (an ochlocracy) or a mob rule. This is an idea that also returns again and again in modernity, but in slightly different way. For Aristotle, the good of the people was equal to the good of the community. So, if someone seemed to for instance be causing trouble, the best thing was to just excommunicate him, if that was what the people wanted.

So, to retain social cohesion in Ancient Greece, the demos could simply decide to expel or get rid of those deemed to threaten to the given order. The most famous example of this was, of course, Socrates, sentenced to death for introducing new gods and corrupting the youth. Hence, rather than posing a threat against the rights of the individual, the community was always given priority. The threat was, thus, when either the people or an individual had abandoned moderation (i.e., the proper way to manage a community) in favor of short-termed gains. For instance, Athenian speaker and rhetorician Isocrates, in a speech held to urge the Athenians to seek peace with its former allies, whom they were fighting in the so-called social war (in the middle of the fourth century BCE), said the following:

I observe, however, that you do not hear with equal favor the speakers who address you, but that, while you give your attention to some, in the case of others you do not even suffer their voice to be heard. And it is not surprising that you do this; for in the past you have formed the habit of driving all the orators from the platform except those who support your desires.

As we can see if we keep reading the speech, Isocrates issue with his fellow Athenians was not that they didn’t respect the isêgoría, the right of every Athenian free man to speak his mind at the assembly, but the long-term goal of Athens prosperity. To drive his point home, he employs a metaphor, likening the state with the family, saying, “while you know well that many great houses have been ruined by flatterers and while in your private affairs you abhor those who practice this art, in your public affairs you are not so minded towards them.” I.e., they are telling you what you want to hear (that the war will bring riches to Athens) instead of what you need to hear (although the peace is more costly now, it will be better for the future).

Compare this to the voice of Immanuel Kant, notoriously ambiguous in his feelings towards the French Revolution. This is what he is writing in a public pamphlet on peace, published just a year after la Terreur. After telling us that a form of government can first be divided into how many people are ruling (one, a few, or all), his second categorization of governments relates to how it makes use of its sovereign powers. Here, a government can be, as he puts it

either republican or despotic. Republicanism is that political principle whereby the executive power (the government) is separated from the legislative power. Despotism prevails in a state if the laws are made and arbitrarily executed by one and the same power, and it reflects the will of the people only in so far as the ruler treats the will of the people as his own private will. Of the three forms of sovereignty, democracy, in the truest sense of the word, is necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power through which all the citizens may make decisions about (and indeed against) the single individual without his consent, so that decisions are made by all the people and yet not by all the people; and this means that the general will is in contradiction with itself, and thus also with freedom.

So, Kant was in no sense a democrat, but a republican. Considering the question of whether one, a few or all should rule, he was less clear, the important thing was that whoever ruled, did so in a way that it protect the freedoms of the individual. Hence, from Aristotle to Kant, we find the idea that the will of the people needs to be contained, since the will of the people does not always coincide with what is the best for all the people. As Rousseau puts it, the individual will does not always coincide with the volonté générale. The difference is whether “all the people” means the people as a unity or as a collective of individuals. So in this sense, it seems as if the people as an entity to be governed pre-exists the sovereign, which then comes in to make sure that the people can fulfill its potential.

During our weeks here, what returns in the discussions regarding the problems of social cohesion is probably a sentiment of a more Kantian variety: the most obvious example is how right-wing populists and extremists threaten the rights and safeties of minorities, how their authoritarian tendencies allow for the prosecution of political opponents, etc. But we also hear the problems described in a way that offers a more ancient, or if you will, Aristotelian, inclination: I am here thinking about the argument that the grievances of the people must be listened to and acted upon by the elites, since this is for the long term good of the community as a whole. But what we have here are, still, two very different notions of the people: one seeing it as a congregation of individuals, and the important thing is just to make sure that every person will not see their individual rights violated in any way, and one in which the whole creates something greater than its parts (the people is more than the sum of its individuals), meaning that the good of the people must sometimes guide us, even though a part of the citizens might find themselves on the shorter end of the stick.

Although we haven’t actually reached the creation of a people, to me, this discrepancy points to precisely this question: these different notions illustrate the fact that a people is not a natural phenomenon which simply appears out in the wilderness, which is why we should ask the question: how does a people come to be? And I know, for empirically minded people, this question might seem absurd: why should we ask about how a people is created? Peoples are out there, and they have been out there for millennia. Sure, once they were maybe going under a different name, the Roman populus are now the Italian popolo, the demos of Athens, Sparta, Boethia are now the demos of Greece. But what we are missing when taking the people for granted are the ambiguities which come with the term, and more precisely, we are missing the opportunity to understand what made these differences possible.

Let us therefore begin with some well-known narratives telling the tale of the creation of a people. Kant explicitly bases his argumentation on Hobbes notion of an original bellium omnium contra omnes, that the natural state is defined by everyone’s war against everyone. Here we find the famous contractual theory, the idea that humans, in the state of nature, lives in a constant war for survival, but that these individuals, at some point, realized that the protection and social freedoms offered by communal living outweighs the complete freedoms offered by pure anarchy. Compare this once again to an ancient source, more specifically young Cicero’s handbook on rhetoric De Inventione. In a reflection on the origin of oratory, Cicero equates it with the origin of human society, writing:

For there was a time when men wandered at large in the fields like animals and lived on wild fare; they did nothing by the guidance of reason, but relied chiefly on physical strength; there was as yet no ordered system of religious worship nor of social duties; no one had seen legitimate marriage nor had anyone looked upon children whom he knew to be his own; nor had they learned the advantages of an equitable code of law. And so through their ignorance and error blind and unreasoning passion satisfied itself by misuse of bodily strength, which is a very dangerous servant. At this juncture a man—great and wise I am sure— became aware of the power latent in man and the wide field offered by his mind for great achievements if one could develop this power and improve it by instruction. Men were scattered in the fields and hidden in sylvan retreats when he assembled and gathered them in accordance with a plan; he introduced them to every useful and honourable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty, and then when through reason and eloquence they had listened with greater attention, he transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk.

Once again, we see that humans before the creation of society are not properly human, they are physically strong, like animals, but they aren’t capable of a properly good and human life, i.e., to use reason. And reason, logos for the Greeks, can only be found in community. Hence, in an imagined pre-social time, we do not encounter individuals, who through their reason and economical thinking decides to come together to create a society, but instead, these humans are created in and through being a part of society.

So, what Kant and other early moderns such as Rousseau have in common is the idea that the natural or pre-social human, still always thinks like a homo economicus. This figure is already an individual, always acting in accordance with the logic of maximizing profits, which is also why this individual chooses to enter into the social contract, giving up individual freedoms for the freedom offered in the general will. And it is through this expression of the general will that creates the people, meaning that the people as a unity, logically must precede their expression of themselves as sovereign. But, as countless thinkers have pointed out apropos contract theory, also this economic logic is a relational, and therefore social. In other words, the social contract theory takes for granted the very thing it sets out to explain, the existence of a social people. So, what is it that makes this individual as homo economicus possible?

As Foucault noted in his lectures from 1978, a great transformation of political thought took place during the early modern period. At this time, the economic logic was taken from the sphere of the family, more specifically the family manor, and applied on the sphere that we today know as the political. Take for instance Rousseau’s first lines of his Discourse on Political Economy from 1755:

Economy. The word comes from the Greek oikos, ‘house’, and nomos, ‘law’, and originally meant only the wise and lawful government of a household for the common good of the whole family. The meaning of the term has since been extended to cover the government of the greater family, which is the state.

The metaphor, as we have seen, existed already in antiquity, but it is here given a more prominent position. However, as Foucault goes on to point out, what defines this literature was not only how it made use of a new logic of governing, that of the economy of the family, it was also, to a very large degree an anti-Machiavellian literature. To many in the political sciences, Machiavelli represents the beginning of the modern, so-called realist, school of political thought. It usually is highlighted how, in Machiavelli’s time, the first steps were taken towards the creation of the modern nation state and the international sphere that we are living in today, and Machiavelli was supposedly the first to think this situation in its proper terms: there can no longer be any overarching power, no pope, or church or holy emperor, that can resolve disputes. Every prince, king or nation state is stuck in an anarchic field where the only thing of that matters is military and financial power. To these realists, Machiavelli was only interested in the “effectual truths” of politics, not giving heed to issues of morality or values so dear to for instance the idealist strand of political thought. He only cares about how one obtains and keeps power.

But this image of Machiavelli does not necessarily capture his actual thought. Rather, as Foucault points out, it is a construction of, in particular, the 19th century and the early thinkers of political science. Against this, Foucault claims that the anti-Machiavellian nature of this new form of governmental logic, defined as it was by economy, points out that the scandalous nature of Machiavelli was that he represented an antiquated form of governmentality, that of the medieval prince. For a prince, before the advent of capitalism, the important relationship was that between himself and his territory. This relationship was always external, the prince existed in a separate realm, and tried his best to secure the territory and to use it to his own advantage (it might be fertile, rich in minerals, it might be strategically good, it might have a lazy population, a hard-working population, a rebellious population, etc. all features that the prince can use to his advantage, or to work around in order to keep it). But as we saw with the quote from Rousseau, within the economic logic, the state is a family, where the prince is the father and the people are his children. And just as father loves and cares for his children, he feeds them well, educates them etc. in order for them to grow up and continue on his legacy, becoming even more prosperous, a prince must treat his children, the people, in the same way. They are no longer just a resource, like an iron mine or a fertile valley for growing crops. Instead, they are what we, with this horrible modern expression, would call “human capital”.

This is a reading which finds much backing in the text of Machiavelli, as for instance in The Prince, when Machiavelli brings up how the strength of principalities should be measured, he begins by writing:

There is another consideration rightly to be borne in mind when inquiring into the characteristics of these principalities: and that is whether a prince has territory such that, in case of necessity, he can stand alone, or whether he must always have recourse to the protection of others.

But although it seems reasonable to assume that the anti-Machiavellian literature to a large extent was defined by this economic logic of the family, we do need to ask ourselves: was this change in governmentality really a complete rejection of Machiavelli rather than an attempt to counteract the discovery that he had made. A point in case can be found in Rousseau, who, in his famous text on the social contract, rightly criticizes the family metaphor he had employed almost a decade earlier, now claiming “in the state this love is replaced by the pleasure of being in command, the prince having no love for his people.”

Rousseau’s most interesting contribution in this context is, however, how he asks the question of the peoples making. Against Grotius’ claim that “a people may give itself a king” Rousseau urges us to do the following: “before examining the act by which a people elects a king, it would be well to examine the act by which people becomes a people”. In a section filled with positive references to Machiavelli, Rousseau seems to abandon the idea that the people simply comes together of their own volition. Instead, in a very Machiavellian way, he imagines a legislator, the person capable of bringing the people into being through his first, sovereign act. He writes:

The man who dares to undertake the establishment of a people has to feel himself capable of changing, so to speak, the nature of man; of transforming each individual.

This is a properly Machiavellian image, the idea that it is only the sovereign act that is capable of bringing about the people. However, Machiavelli even goes further than this: it is not only in this imagined past, where a mythical legislator steps down from heaven (Rousseau actually says that gods are needed to give laws to men) that this creation of a people takes place. Rather, it is necessary for every prince that wants to keep power over a territory to shape it into his image. This cannot, as he constantly notes, be done freely, but it has to be done taking into account the current situation.

If the ruler wants to keep hold of his new possessions, he must bear two things in mind: first, that the family of the old prince must be destroyed; next, that he must change neither their laws nor their taxes. In this way, in a very short space of time the new principality will be rolled into one with the old. But when states are acquired in a province differing in language, in customs, and in institutions, then difficulties arise; and to hold them one must be very fortunate and very assiduous. One of the best, most effective expedients would be for the conqueror to go to live there in person.

What the distance from Machiavelli to Rousseau might teach us is the need for a sovereign intervention in times of trouble. During the chaotic time in Italy during the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century, there was, at least in Machiavelli’s eyes, need for a brave man capable of grabbing Lady Fortune violently, and to use the opportunity to mold the Italian people in a way that ensures stability. As Althusser points to in his reading of Machiavelli, this creation of order through the inaugurating act of a sovereign returns in comments on Machiavelli from Rousseau and Hegel to Gramsci, all living through similar times of turmoil, forcing them to reflect upon the nature of the state.

Hence, following the early modern thought on the forming of a people suggests that it is actually the authoritarian right that, in a sense, is correct: we can not imagine that we would be capable of developing the correct rhetoric or install the proper processes to avoid the disintegration of social bonds. What is needed to restore order in a capitalist system is the sovereign intervention, the act of drawing the line, of reintroducing normality. This was Machiavelli’s great revelation, and why he was always made relevant when this task seemed most urgent: in the build up and aftermath of the French revolution, in the break down after the first world war, and perhaps also today. And this was also why he was so scandalous in his own time: the family was supposed to be natural and thus god given, not the effect of some performative act. To this speaks also a time with which our own shares many similarities. I’m thinking here of the revolutionary year of 1848. As Marx noted in his The Class Struggles in France, treating the rise and fall of the revolutionary government in Paris and the events that eventually saw Napoleon III become president and emperor: “Napoleon was the common name for all the parties in coalition against the bourgeois republic.” Napoleon named the reactionary act of sovereignty, installing a new people and returning France to order, just as his uncle had achieved (as Marx noted in the Holy Family) by substituting permanent revolution for permanent war. 

The issue with this reactionary authoritarian thinking can be found in their belief that this act will usher in a new era of stability, perhaps even a sort of end of history. But within capitalism, no such authority is possible. It is rather, as Marx and Engels had written nearly ten months prior to Napoleon’s inauguration as president in December 1948: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht, und die Menschen sind endlich gezwungen, ihre Lebensstellung, ihre gegenseitigen Beziehungen mit nüchternen Augen anzusehen.”