The Social Contract and the Neoliberal State: Problems of Obligation and Resistance

The problem of political obligation is a, if not the, central issue of political philosophy. The problem is to offer rational justifications for the state in the face of the philosophical anarchist charge that authority is not self justified. If philosophical anarchism is correct, as it surely is, any system of authority, including that of the state, which cannot meet the burden of justification must be construed as being illegitimate.

Hence the problem of political obligation for states are the dominant form of political authority.

In classical liberal thought social contract theory was one means by which the state was said to be justified as the existence of a social contract demonstrated that the ruled consented to the authority of the rulers. David Hume famously provided a number of powerful criticisms of social contract theory, one of which was that a supposed contract between the governed and the governor was a historical fiction.

Through one bloody artifice after another the state came into being and only later did the philosophers get on to developing theories of political obligation.

The only state that I can think of that could be said to be based on some social contract is, or better still was, the social welfare state. Critical to the advent of the social welfare state was a social contract between capital and labour. The existence of this contract was critical to the reconciliation of the working class to the state, with which it historically had a most hostile relationship as working class communities had a visceral daily understanding that the state was not theirs. They understood that the state existed, to a significant extent, to keep them corralled into their proper place within the overall framework of order.

A bit like the daily understanding that the poorest and most marginalised communities today regard the state. Whatever may be said within the sandstone seminar rooms of philosophy departments regarding the state those for whom #blacklivesmatter understand that whatever the state is, it is not for them.

My remarks above should not be equated to the view that the social welfare state was justified, for it was quite exclusionary and imperial. The arrangement that existed between the citizens of democratic Athens was admirable, but it hardly justified the violent and slave dependent Athenian state. Furthermore, the social contract that underpinned the social welfare state was not drawn by free and equal social agents existing in something akin to a state of nature but, rather, was reflective of a certain prevailing balance of power. Hence usage of the term reconciliation in the above.

The neoliberal state is based on the abrogation, including through the coercive power of the state, of the social contract between capital and labour that underlay the social welfare state. The neoliberal state is not based on a social contract but, rather, is based on its conscious dismantlement in the interests of corporate power and profit making.

One at this point could invoke the classical liberal defence of property rights, but such an invocation would be based on a fallacy. The classical liberal position here revolved on rights to property not on rights of property. As can be seen with Citizens United, so called free trade agreements, corporate personhood and the like, the neoliberal state enforces not the right to property but of property.

If one is true to the contractarian basis to classical liberalism, one would have to be opposed to the neoliberal state. A consistent upholder of classical liberal thinking must regard the neoliberal state as being illegitimate, and thus one to whom we owe no political obligation. Furthermore, adopting the classical liberal or Lockean position on resistance leads us to the conclusion that resistance to the neoliberal state is justified and itself is an obligation.

The neoliberal state in both its internal configuration and its external behaviour is fundamentally illegitimate. You have the right to rebel against it. In fact, rebellion against the neoliberal state is an obligation.

That all follows from standard classical liberal thought of the type that underpins the declaration of independence.