genesis politics

Revisting “The Fraternal Social Contract”, what interests me is the relationship between the narrative account of the creation of the free society and the actual limits of freedom in the social order justified by the narrative. Pateman’s now-famous critique is that contract theorists from Rousseau to Rawls suppose a negotiation between “individuals” which are, implicitly or explicitly, male. Could there be an alternative story of civil society’s creation which would do justice to the experiences of women (and also excluded men)?

I think the effect of any such story would be to complicate the legitimacy of the social and political order, not to establish it. Instead of talking about self-interest, or even about “ascriptive, psychological bonds,” our new creation story would need to talk about subordination and exclusion. But it wouldn’t end there. It would also be a story about the ways that subordinated groups have tried to transform their social orders, trying to fulfill the original promise of fraternal equality but also demanding new principles.  Judith Shklar’s American Citizenship is one example of this kind of story. The genesis it tries to explain is not the rise of a legitimate political order, but the invention of “citizenship” as a category of life activity which entails ties of equality, freedom, and domination – and which, significantly, operates differently depending on one’s social position.

The history of feminist politics and of women’s oppression is one important strand of this narrative, one which needs to be told as part of the story of political genesis, not as something occurring after civil society had already been established. We might think of this as an evolutionary account in which there is no clear boundary between the “legitimate” and “illegitimate” order, or where civil society “came into existience”, but one in which various social and institutional traits are inherited, transformed and abandoned in a continuing process. Asking “what establishes the legitimacy of the state” as a historical question would be like asking “what establishes the human-ness of the first human as against his ancestors”? In short, we trade in our genesis stories for a Darwinian political narrative.


~ by staticandme on February 15, 2009.

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