Thursday, May 15, 2008

Deliberate Community and Social Contracts

Obnoxious as it may sound, I want to spend a good part of this summer analyzing social contract theory. Step one in doing that involves strange travel advice as a dancing lesson from God.

Two weeks ago, I was standing outside Z'ots, a sort-of 245 hour coffee shop within walking distance of Tulane. While standing with my drink, a man in his young 30s came up and started a conversation. He was all about Burning Man, with a sort of evangelical fervor. He runs a bar in Black Rock City, and upon finding out I was studying political science, he tailored he summation of the experience towards the ear of a political observer.

His important points:
  • Burning Man, as a money-less society, runs on an
    • "economy of personality", where interactions with other people overshadow the movement of goods and services
  • The city is a spontaneous creation
    • Black Rock City is an autonomous community of roughly 30,000 people that exists for one week out of every year...The city is constructed anew at the beginning of the week by the returning residents, and torn down entirely, leaving not a single trace that human beings were ever there, at the end of the week
  • The city, as an independent organic entity, self-corrects
    • BURNING MAN CHANGES FROM YEAR TO YEAR. Here are some of the changes that have warranted complaints from the folks who attended Burning Man when it was 100 people on a beach in the Bay Area: You can no longer bring guns and fire them off into the sky. You can no longer detonate explosives without warning to your neighbors. You can no longer drive your car at high speeds through the city. The city now has roads allowing citizens and Emergency Services to find things.
That's the gist of what made Black Rock City a politically fascinating entity for him to observe, but it wasn't the main point of politics in his conversation. The politics he talked about and felt a part of were the politics of running his camp/bar.

The camp is nominally run by an oligarchic council, of which Ari is the head. This is a position similar to whatever name Russia's autocrat* holds, where the other organ of power offers suggestions and gives consent to policy, but really has no say in ultimately deciding how things are run. He described a power struggle with other oligarchs; two of them wanted to change the system into a formal and not de facto monarchy, and another wanted Ari to allocate funding differently and would gladly change governments to do this. The nature of the power struggle was complaints through a free and open listserv that the camp using to communicate when not in Nevada, and the nature of the struggle was one where the people at the top battled, with the revolting leaders claiming a mandate from the disaffected masses while Ari knew that the disaffected masses didn't care so long as there was a government. Ari, in describing this, said he felt like Stalin as he gave those revolting the choice of leaving his camp or falling in line. Ari elaborated, claiming that had the scale been a nation of millions instead of a camp of 60, the result would have been to order executions. (It is worth noting tat someone who knew Ari was skeptical of this fact as he related it). The end result of the struggle was those revolting quit the camp, rather than go along with Ari.

The point is not the details of this internal struggle - what matters is that in a deliberate community (the camp), which has established its own governing board (Ari and the oligarchy), a struggle over resources (the funds people contribute to be part of the camp) was resolved by having people simply leave the community. This is the first time in recent memory I've heard of a situation where "love it or leave it" actually counts as a valid choice.

Ari went on to say that he is avowedly anti-democracy, that his anarcho-libertarian philosophies don't allow him to trust the masses to think for him, and that democracy is an organ (especially in Louisiana, he made sure to point out) for collective disenfranchisement. His camp, temporary as it is and dependent upon outside factors for its existence, functions as a voluntarily entered into governed body, where people can opt out or make a stab (through the economy of personality) of influencing the autocrat. This was a social contract consented to, not by necessity, but because that is how people would prefer things. Ari's cynicism attributes his perpetual rule to the fact that people don't really care about whose governing them, but I think it has more to do with the fact the people would rather care about other things. For many, politics are something they only think about when terrible things are happening or when they are upset. It's not quiet cynicism, but I think that people don't care about how government functions when they are content with it. One of the tricks with democracy is that it makes people have to think about government fairly regularly, and not everyone wants that.

That's a side note - what matters is that there are situations where people can willingly enter into governance, establish and codify social contracts, and then chose to leave society when the feel the social contract isn't to their benefit. I've written about deliberate communities before, often UU affiliated - YRUU, Church Camp, and in general UU congregations all function as groups people willing enter, and leave or work to change when discontent.

Nations, however, are different. This is a bigger issue, and this is why Social Contract theories exist. People are born into social contracts with their nations of residence, and people have an elaborate series of obstacles in their place when they want to change the relationship between themselves and their government. Emigration is perhaps the simplest, but it requires another nation consent to housing the emigrant, and that can be quite tricky, as US/Mexico relations show. The more challenging but still civil procedure is to run for government offices, to support candidates and to actually try to enter into and change a political system. Reform has, at its heart, the idea of renegotiating the social contract. Lastly, there is open revolt, in the form of either succession or revolution, and that is contentious and violent and has the most uncertain results of all.

Just leaving, finding a new place, and starting a new thing, as valid an option as it is for small deliberate communities, stopped being a valid technique for nations over a century ago, when the Boers went into the African interior, trying to displace the Africans and be free of the British. Now, the nationless spots on earth are international waters and the Western Sahara. It's fitting that Black Rock City, too, finds itself existing in inhospitable conditions. This winds itself back to Frontier theory, where in the US the option was tolerate the rules of the cities or go off into the hinterland. A dual social contract existed then within the same nation, and the choice was available. Today, the option is gone, more or less.

The only exception I can see is the internet.**

*Tsar and easily-dismissed Duma, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, Stalin and the Communist Party Congress, Putin and modern Russia's Duma. The mold is the same, and Ari presented his camp oligarchy using specifically the Stalin metaphor.
** Expect a post on that soon, inspired in part by this.

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