Chapter Forty-Two: Chains
“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”
Dr. Grover began his lecture on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. He began by asking the students to consider what democracy is and what democracy is for Rousseau.
“Rousseau tells us that man began his life in nature, the Noble Savage, where he was free after a fashion. But when he entered civil society, he lost his freedom. This society which he entered was tied up with the establishment of private property, and the state, but here man loses some of the freedom he enjoyed as a noble savage. Rousseau seeks a way to transcend this condition so that man can again be as free as before, but be both free and civilized, unlike the Noble Savage in the state of nature. He can be free, being his own master, and at the same time protect himself and his property. In other words, it is a three step process, from the Noble Savage, to the man in civil society, to the man who both lives in the civilized state and is free. This is a classical dialectic, Dr. Grover pointed out. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
“Now, in the Social Contract, Rousseau thinks he has found the formula which will again make man free. This will happen when the General Will prevails in society. But what it the general will?
Grover spends some time in discussing what the general will might be. “There are a couple of possibilities. It might be God. This would entail the idea that one becomes free by obeying God. Another possibility is that it might just be what is actually good for society. It might be that which will actually make society better or the world better and is good for the people.
“What it clearly is not, for Rousseau, is the type of democracy envisioned by John Locke, in which the majority rules. The general will cannot generally emerge from an arithmetical politics, because this is what people want, not what they need or what is good for them. It may be, as in most cases, that the people do not actually know what is good for them. That is surely the general condition. It is so even more today, surely, because the media and politicians lie to them at every turn about what is the best for them. Which car, which toothpaste, which campaigning politician and so on, they are told will be best for them. So the people cannot generally reach the general will by voting, except perhaps in exceptional cases. They will end up getting a Ronald Reagan or a George Bush, which is certainly good for some, but is it good for society in general?
“Now it may be that only a minority, only a few know what the general will is. It may even be that only one individual in society knows what the general will is. And then in this case, if it becomes the policy, it would have to be imposed upon society. It would seem that Plato’s Philosopher King would be an example. But maybe also Lenin’s central committee or the ruling vanguard party that knows the truth is best. Then it is the duty of this small group to impose it upon the people and force them to be free.
“So the idea of the general will is really the opposite of libertarian democracy. It is perhaps what has become known as Jacobinism, from the French Revolution. This might be the basis for making society better, but it might also be the basis for authoritarianism, such as Leninism, rule by a vanguard party, an institutional Moses leading the people to glorious revolutionary freedom. Perhaps a sort of civil religion, in the case of Rousseau, that everyone will be pressured into believing and supporting.
Ted pauses to give an example from Henrik Ibsen’s play, “The Enemy of the People.”
“In this play, people come to the small resort town to take the baths. But a local doctor discovers that the baths are being polluted by a local factory. He tries to warn the people, but the town newspaper will not publish his letter because the owner of the newspaper has some money invested in the factory. The doctor becomes the “Enemy of the People,” because he goes against the bourgeois economic interests of the local economy. He challenges what we would today call “the market.” Today the doctor would probably be asked if he was a communist, spreading rumors about the poison in the baths. But, in fact, the market is killing the people, and this is exactly the opposite of what is good for them. The doctor is the Socratic gadfly, trying to save the people, but their arithmetical market politics is herding them toward the cliff like a stampede of mad lemmings. Could anything better depict the condition of society today? Only the doctor knows the general will, but the bourgeoisie do not want to hear it. It threatens their profits. And many of the people do not want to hear it. It threatens their jobs.
Then Grover and the students begin to hear the crop duster planes circling over the building and dive bombing back into the cotton fields, preparing the fields for the new crop.
“See, there they are. Dumping that stuff on our heads,” Dr. Grover points out, “and it will go on for the whole year till the last boll of cotton is picked and baled. They are killing us. Literally. Literally. They are killing us. The market that dictates all this dumping of chemicals is killing us. But the market must go on. The market rules. It is the opposite of the general will, in Rousseau’s terminolgy, but it rules and it is killing people who are going to the hospitals to get their lungs pumped out and dying of cancer by the dozens.”
Grover discussed the political economy of hazardous waste and how the market was shoving it down the throats of the people in the county where he was from up in North Missouri. And the courts ruled that the people could not even give an opinion about it on the ballot, when some local citizens opposed the wishes of the local business clique in the town who stand to profit.
“Did ya hear about their trying to get a toxic waste dump down in Washington County,” one of the students brought up. “And it seems like now they are trying to just keep it quiet so people won’t hear about it.”
“Yes, I know,” Grover said. “Another good example of how the market gives people what is exactly not good for them, although sometimes one can make them accept it by the fact that it provides a few jobs and some tax dollars. This is a case where the people are usually smart enough to reject it so the authorities are afraid to let them vote on it. In this case the majority of the people already know the general will and vote for it. But they may be thrown off the rails by all the corporate lies and propaganda.”
Back to the example of Cotton, Grover went on,
“Now we hear the planes circling over the building and dumping chemicals on the fields, dumping them literally on our heads. Put to a vote, it will likely continue, because of the business interests and simply that so many people in the Delta make their living by working in cotton, in the agro-business industry, which is generally rice and cotton. But what is really good for the people is probably to stop it all together.
A gaggle of students’voices arise questioning how this could be done.
“What are we going to do here if we don’t grow cotton,” one student said. “We have to grow cotton. Stopping it would ruin the businesses of many farmers and others in the area.”
“Well, yes, that is what I was pointing out,” Grover says. “People will insist on planting cotton even if it kills every last man, woman, and child in the country, because it is so much in the blood and also the economic blood of the Mississippi Delta. It is actually part of the economic structure of the local economy. So it would cause much dislocation for some people at first.”
“But, there is the idea that sometimes people have to be forced to be free,” Grover continued. “Left to their own choices, people may never make the right choices to be free. In this case, to be free of chemical pollution. To be sure, they are making economically rational decisions, but these rational decisions are killing them and their families. They are what Amartya Sen calls “rational fools,” Ted drove the point home. “The economists love these decisions that are prefectly utility maximizing and rational but which put people flat in the grave.”
He wanted to say “fucking grave,” but held back the fucking.
“Of course it seems a contradiction to say one will force individuals to be free, but it has some truth. Take the example of a drug addict. Left on their own, they will do everything in their power to keep getting and taking drugs, or also an alcoholic. They will go right on destroying themselves. They have to be confined and forced to go cold turkey to get cured and rehabilitated to being a productive human being.
“Just as in this case, the Mississippi Delta is addicted to growing cotton. It needs to be forced to be free, if it is going to be a safe place to live. Growing cotton is not even profitable. It loses money. It is not even rational from an economic standpoint. The planter banks will not even loan the money to plant cotton unless they know the farmer is in line to get his dollars at the end of the year from the government. The farmers plant cotton and the government buys their votes with subsidies and the people are sent to the graves with cancerous lungs. Growing cotton here is completely superfluous. The market is already flooded by cotton from Egypt and Gujarat in India. What the farmers are really growing is not cotton at all, but federal dollars for their Lincoln Town Cars, and cancer for the local population.
Ted was starting to be a raving maniac communist, now, but the students understood that he wasn’t shitting. It was true as fuck and they knew he was spelling out the political economy of the Delta, to a T. Even Cotton State University was tied into a network of farmers pulling down a million dollars a year from Washington in cotton subsidies. Sixty Minutes even did a documentary on it, rather scandalous, but business as usual in the Delta.
“Look,” Grover continued, “how this chemical so called crop protection works. Here come the boll weevils. First, you spray a couple of times a year to stop them. But then those that survive breed and evolve a new tougher species and one has to spray four times the next year to stop them. And so on. Now the farmers are spraying them twenty times a year and they still cannot stop them. But they are stopping the people and putting them in the grave.
Ted pointed out that in Nicaragua they had figured out how to control the weevels with natural methods without using chemicals. Yes, the chemical industry or so-called crop protection industry has a hand in keeping farmers growing cotton where the society would be better off it they were growing something else.
“Then after controlling the weevils, the farmers have to spray again to make the leaves fall off the cotton so they can pick it,” Ted pointed out.
More planes were buzzing and dive bombing overhead.
“Here they come. See, just listen,” Ted said. “They keep dumping this stuff on our heads. Killing us. Someone needs to say: Stop! Stop, you idiots.”
A plane is dive bombing back to the fields. “Bbbrroooooooommmmaaaaaaaa…..” the crop duster pilot pulls the lever to lay down another swath of deadly chemicals as the plane buzzes across the long, flat, field and circles to dive down again.
“Don’t you know that you are killing us and yourselves? Stop it. Just stop it. We have to force you to be free.”
So the dilemma exists for us right here that libertarian democracy is a real danger to the health and well being of most people.
“Getting back to Rousseau, the philosopher thinks he has resolved the contradiction between government authority and being free. Forcing people to be free with the general will. When it comes to things that will kill you, one can make that a relevant point. Perhaps the old fascist slogan: Obedience to the law is freedom holds in this case, depending upon ones values.
“But giving priority to health and the ecology will never be done under the logic of the market in the capitalist system, Grover pointed out. We can find any number of examples in the US today. The damage done is called externalities by economists. People dying of poison is just an externality and it is never a consideration in deciding what is rational in the market.”
“In a more general sense,” Ted argued, “Rousseau has not resolved the contradition between authority and freedom. And he has provided the formula and rationale for a dictatorship if taken to its logical conclusion. The rationale is for a Jacobin democracy, which can force the good as well as the horrible on society. The dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants was a great concept, but became a disaster in the hands of Stalin.
“As someone who really wants freedom, as a sort of philosophical anarchist,” Ted argued, “it seems to be a dangerous concept when applied across the board. The right of political dissent is precious against both governments and the prejudices of societies. On the other hand, majoritarian rule can only result in good government when one has a highly educated people and people’s opinions are not shaped by massive corporate or political propaganda. Neither condition is seen in contemporary so-called capitalist society.
“Let us continue next time, and watch out for those crop dusters. Think about these issues and bring some intelligent comments next time. See you next class.”
Dr. Grover collected his notes. He didn’t know to what extent he was getting through to them. Some students actually liked the discussion. The crop dusting planes were providing a nice prop to illustrate his points.