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Tags: social contract, superego, id, Foucault, Nietzsche, Freud, Hobbes, social pragmatism, romanticism, primary process, sociability, linguistic competence, spirituality, The Matrix, dystopian capitalism, thinking, self-thinking idea

Everybody is well aware of dystopian features of investor supremacist capitalism: corporate profiteering from environmental destruction, war, addictions, and rigged markets; broad injustices of stark inequality and brutal imperialism. However, to eliminate such problems through reform of institutions has proven to be vexedly complicated, to say the least, partly because there is nothing near a consensus on what effective reforms might look like.

Romanticism to the Rescue

An overriding cultural romanticism comes to the aid of this situation like a shining knight. Romanticism is the attitude that it is better to get lost in an artistically appealing story or image than to face the ugly political reality. “I can’t do anything about it, so thinking about it is a waste of time.” Romanticism includes a strong stream of nostalgia for an appealing image of the past, galant knights (heroic warriors, cowboys …) and damsels in distress, an image made appealing and profoundly deceptive by being decontextualized, oversimplified, and glamorized. Such romanticism motivates a lot of tourism to European castles, gardens, and museums. Romanticism includes the tragic view of the human situation: ugly political reality is inescapable so, since nothing can be done, enjoy the stories and images. Fixation on the past makes romanticism politically conservative, and conservatism is a kind of romanticism that appeals especially to the comfortably well-to-do, but remarkably, the dominant romanticism helps keep just about everyone from being too upset about the problems of capitalism. “At least this horrible arrangement produces opportunities for entertaining and monumental beauty”, and with romanticism beauty is truth, the essential value of anything is revealed in its beauty. Art is worth more than truth.

One side of the coin of romanticism is accepting that an ugly political reality is unalterable and so pointless to think about, and this is how everybody is brought up and educated to be socially pragmatic, to accomplish the best we can personally within social and economic arrangements as they exist, and the central message of that education is that the only alternative to conformity is self-destruction; that nobody could ever devise anything better than investor supremacist capitalism. The message is that arrangements are far from perfect or even fair, but the imperfection results from a flaw in human nature, competitive self-interest, and you can’t change nature. Nor can you change the organization of nature in a food chain, a hierarchical chain of command, the Great Chain of Being. The best you can do with the better impulses of human nature (ephemeral but recurring) is to soften some of nature’s worst brutality, which is what political and legal institutions are set up to do, especially in nominally democratic states. In effect, this seems to have made the utilitarian utopia a reality: the greatest happiness actually possible for the greatest number.

But I’m OK

So you might say, it doesn’t matter to me if investor-supremacist corporate culture controls my lifestyle and thinks of me as something like livestock, because I’m not living like livestock. I have a decent job and leisure to enjoy reading widely along with encountering a variety of cultural works. I enjoy life with my friends and family with whom I talk freely about anything. We talk about life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, politics, religion, war, peace, morality, and human rights and fulfillment. I never miss an opportunity to vote. The retrograde cultural attitudes of some collective of the wealthiest does not hinder me in any decisive way. Without the current economic system and arrangements of civil law and administrative institutions I would be hunting and gathering in the woods, fighting off bandits, subsisting on a dirt farm, or herding goats, reindeer, or bison. I’m happy to support the way things are right now.

Social Contract and Competitive Materialism

This socially pragmatic outlook is as minimally metaphysical as possible, brandishing an ideology evolved for an era of science. Religiously dictated metaphysics-of-far-horizons is still strong as a romantic undercurrent, of course, but, if pressed, a pragmatic person will not insist on any particular religious transcendence as the justification for a sovereign society (authoritarian and starkly unequal), but instead will invoke something like an implicit social contract, a rationalist idea introduced into modernity by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) with the intention of avoiding religious metaphysics. The social contract idea works with the more scientistic kind of metaphysical assumptions that Hobbes held about human nature, what could be called the competitive materialist view: that human nature benefits dramatically from being repressed and controlled because, as naturally atomized personal lust for possessions, power, and adulation (praise, prestige, pageantry of status) it is innately too competitive to form the stable relationships involved in complex collective organization. In social contract ideology, there is an assumption that sovereign authority and force is an expression of the benign intent to impose humane rules on competitions for worldly goods, rules instituted so that nature (primordially brutal) can remain ecstatic and so motivating, but moderately restrained within a cultural framework of peace, complex co-operative stability and security, minimizing harm and maximizing the benefits of collaborative effort. On this view, restraining the primordial ecstatic brutality requires maintenance of authoritarian social structure, supervisory control of the majority of people by a sovereign institution with overwhelming power.

So, as an adolescent, it seems that you are offered the contract: accept the grim reality that decrees the necessity of sovereign authority, submit to supervision within the chain of official power, do your best within the incentives and rewards of the status quo, keeping your egoistic assertion and thinking within practicality as dictated by social norms and nature (as conclusively disclosed by science), and, in return, the institutional system will shield you from the worst ecstatic brutality of nature. It will help beautify the human condition for you. The social system accomplishes its promise with bread, circuses, and a sense of participation and belonging, a personal identity from having a defined place within the Great cosmic Chain of Being as it extends, as it must, into social structure. What the socially pragmatic person accepts in return for embracing the sovereign hierarchy worldview is the promise of employment to be rewarded through some degree of access to the consumer marketplace: tv, cars, homes, fun fads and fashions, drugs and alcohol, social media technology, tourism, dramatic stories and images, movies, music and dancing (all unevenly delivered), but even more important, a personal narrative of place and identity within an impressively idealized institutional and human structure.

Although there is no literal social contract (and never was one to launch civil society) the idea provides an easy and intuitive way for individuals to conceptualize their relationship to the broader structure of a complex society. There is a widely shared and rather wishful assumption by individuals that something binds the broader society to us just as our personal vulnerabilities and needs bind us to the society. So, in that sense, there is a virtual social contract, but it is a projection from individuals onto our surroundings rather than an offering to us from the civil society.* That act of projection is inseparable from accepting, internalizing, the society’s hierarchy of esteem and sovereign supervision as a personal guide or roadmap of thinking.

Thus Spoke Foucault … and Nietzsche

The socially pragmatic espousal of social contract ideology was recognized by Foucault, for example. Foucault’s post-modernist analysis of power combines Hobbes’ idea of the social contract with something like the idea of “the matrix” as depicted in the movie The Matrix (1999), if we take the situation in that movie to be a metaphor for the emotional control of masses of generally co-operative people by means of strategically crafted messages originating from an institutional entity which is minimally disclosed and yet which, by its messages, decisively influences certain crucial perceptions and opinions on a mass scale. (For example, in Medieval Europe that institution was the universal Church of Rome, and today it involves the high priests of investor-supremacist capitalism, something like the international collective of corporate and financial executives who protect capital wealth. In both cases nominally sovereign national governments are subordinate.) In Foucault’s view, everybody chooses voluntarily to participate in constructing the social grid of unequal power and wealth under supervisory direction from the minimally disclosed sovereign entity, and so to conduct personal thinking within the hierarchical conceptual patterns intrinsic to the social contract idea, and to accept the personal identity cashed out (literally) from competitions within the economic system.

Foucault’s thinking was much influenced by Nietzsche’s. However, Nietzsche launched a critique of the citizens of modernity (the last man) as abandoning the primordial ecstasy of life for the safety of herd-like forms of behaviour, internalizing the norms of bourgeois society (the social contract) to such an extent that it is nothing short of a prison, self-supervised internally by each individual. This personally internalized regime of supervision became known as the “superego” and was an important idea in the work of Sigmund Freud**. Nietzsche claimed that the degree of shelter taken within the safety of the superego was separating individuals from the ultimate source of vital ecstasy which is the primary process of personal subjectivity, something he called “id”. Nietzsche thought that primary subjective process is ecstatic will to power, and that the most urgent need of modern people was to revitalize ourselves by unleashing that primary process, our individually autonomous will to power. Interpreted as a response to Hobbes, Nietzsche’s message was that the social contract is killing us by blocking the sources of vitality within our personal subjectivity and replacing them with the specious safety of cookie cutter ambitions, expectations, and satisfactions, and in the process drifting us toward the nihilism of utter predictability. Nietzsche’s concept of primary process is pretty much identical to that of Hobbes, and of course immediately suggests the dystopia imagined by Hobbes: the war of all against all, the dominance of the strongest and a fascist adulation of masculine strength, competitive spirit, and kinetic action: the blond beast. Fortunately, Nietzsche was just as wrong as Hobbes was about the specifics of primary process, even though he was right about the spiritual lethality of the superego. So, a re-thinking of primary process is crucial, and that means doing exactly what romanticism rejects, thinking philosophically.

Sociability and Primary Process

The most obvious thing wrong with social contract theory, which purports to explain the necessity of, and the marvellous benefits of, social hierarchy, sovereignty, and authority as the crucial enablers of organized society, is the hidden-in-plain-sight reality that civil and stable social relationships are mainly founded on the nurture and linguistic/ sociability culture practiced and taught by women in their caring for infants and children***. The building of sociability accomplished in that effort does far more to establish civil society than any overpowering hierarchy, and the basic human sociability that it expresses and builds from establishes that Hobbes and Nietzsche were profoundly mistaken about primary process, the basic subjective mechanism of human nature. Personal linguistic competence from long nurture and interconnectedness within small collectives, normally curated by mothers, is a sufficient foundation for the broader sociability and interconnectedness of complex society, unless the society is distorted by arrangements that violate the fundamental spirit of sociability. History reveals, partly in the intractable problems of capitalism, that the intent and culture of sovereignty is very far from benign, but instead is an institutional expression of top-down human-on-human macro-parasitism, to protect the special advantages of human macro-parasites, inseparable from the sovereign claim of ownership of individuals (the herder’s herds). That culture of sovereign macro-parasitism is the source of, rather than the remedy for, the persistent dystopian features of the most advanced societies. Sovereign force (or an agreement to accept it) certainly did not create civil society nor is it required for the ongoing stability of civil society. In the actual absence of a demonstrable divine right, no claim to sovereign supremacy has any legitimacy.

It is quite possible to separate participation in the productive processes of civil society (as a necessity for survival) from thinking within the social contract conceptual system, from limiting personal thinking to institutional norms as a road map of reality. You don’t have to think anything in particular about the fundamental human condition to participate rationally in co-operative systems of production, distribution, and consumption. Since the social contract is posited by the individual, it can be voluntarily un-posited. Any framework that individuals project onto our social surroundings can be questioned and dissolved to think differently about personal identity, sociability, and human relationships. It is quite possible to thrive economically at the same time as evading and even subverting the prevailing romanticism (both sides of its coin) which swaddles the pragmatism of living by the social contract. To move past romanticism means to question the premise that there is an unalterable political reality embedded in nature and especially in the primary process of human nature.

Philosophical Thinking

Romanticism is a rejection of philosophical questioning/ reconceptualization in favour of an emotional immersion in drama and beauty. Philosophical thinking is a personally creative reconceptualization of the human condition, but rethinking human nature and personal identity does not depend on the eventual result of reconceptualization. The essential autonomy of the act of thinking is already accomplished and experienced in any turning to personal subjectivity in a questioning search, in an openness to more than previously thought or suspected, a letting it be what it is, no matter what previous expectations and assumptions might have been, searching experience without preconception. Doing that is what is blocked by the romanticism of the social contract and by social pragmatism.

Spirituality: An Idea Thinking Itself

What is essential to the primary process of individual subjectivity is the ideality or spirituality necessary for the projection of creative interventions from personal interiority into the brute actuality of nature through acts of the body. Spirituality is not about moral ledger keeping nor about personal individuality being an illusion which masks an eternal and universal essence, origin, and destiny. Rather, it is about autonomous creative freedom at the level of the embodied individual, within a surrounding actuality which otherwise stands as the antithesis of freedom. The world of brute actuality is very different from our common sense impressions of it because as individuals we project past and future, which are spiritual non-actualities, onto an actuality that exists without past or future. Freedom is made possible by that creation of temporality, the idea of a mutable future partly pre-figured by an increasingly remote past, created subjectively in the service of constructing a sustainable embodied life-flight into a receptive future. As spirituality, your identity is an idea thinking itself, which is to say a directional bearing and force of creativity largely defined by a particular embodied past and a projected personal future of interventions into local actuality, both past and future being strict non-actualities and so your ideas. It is about constructing a sense of expectation in flight, including expectations about the range of free discretionary intervention. That is your own idea of yourself because ideality, thinking or spirituality, can exist only at the level of the embodied individual. This is not a Platonic idea, eternally unchanging, inactive, and as such remote from mundane events and appearances. There is no creativity or freedom in that conception. The primary process is maintaining spirituality, which is to say unceasing newness and incompleteness, transcendent temporality. This reality of human nature puts creative thinking at the core, exactly what is ruled out by the social contract.


To think is to assert an autonomous spirituality as a self-creating idea. In primary process you recognize your primordial autonomy of curiosity, questioning, of encountering, opening,  and intervening in actuality, of creative re-conceptualization. Actuality is still actuality, but there is more than actuality. You are autonomous spiritually, even though not metabolically. Individual autonomy was at the core of what Enlightenment rationalists meant by “rationality” as primary process. However, this thinking is not a rule-governed procedure and is not restricted to language, numbers, or mathematical figures. You don’t need supervision or doctrine about this. To think is to embrace spiritual autonomy. It certainly does not negate sociability, because it must recognize equal autonomy in everybody.


* This brings to mind Kant’s categorical imperative, but the categorical imperative does not remove creative judgement from the individual and is not a blanket submission to existing norms.

** Please see posting 79, January 15, 2015, Two Lessons from History: Mutable Reality.

*** Please see posting 99, November 2, 2016, What is Patriarchy?

Copyright © 2017 Sandy MacDonald.