Of the Social Contract and Gloucester
” What is the object of Human society ? Is it to dazzle the eye with an immense production of useful and elegant things ? Is it to cover the seas with ships and the earth with railways ? Is it finally to give two or three individuals out of each 100,000 the power to dispose of wealth that would suffice to maintain in comfort those 100,000 ? “
Simonde de Sismondi – Studies in Political Economy 1818 – 1836
I recently watched a video on You Tube of Gloucester locals on a roof top porch espousing, “We need to elect … to protect our Money… to protect our Money …” in the local elections.
You can view it here and form your own opinion :
I wondered how is it that particular mantra is what’s most important now to Gloucester or as political thought, even.
The social contract as Rousseau framed it essentially explains that in a state of primitive existence man has all rights and no rules nor governance. In this state of “every man for himself” fatal conflicts are frequent and inevitable and it’s rule by sheer brute force.
In order to avoid that brutish state, people agreed to form a collective and be ruled, for the mutual gain of all.
The assumed contract is explained in three simple points by the time of philosopher John Locke, whom our founding fathers were influenced by: Life, Liberty and Property – property, meaning what you labored to make is yours – what’s yours is yours, not communally owned. It originally meant land as property more than material goods. The right to the ability to grow food and survive was its intent.
Later Property was expanded to mean the pursuit of happiness – the right to exist and achieve whatever your innate and learned capacities could allow.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” is part of our Constitution’s preamble, yet we know, all men are not created equal in strength, nor intellect, but should have the right to reach whatever height they can so long as it doesn’t interfere with other’s rights, nor the collective good.
And we also now know that if you are born into the 1 percent now you are not created equal at all in terms of nurture, political power, ability to have freedom, live where you choose, or live a life of leisurely pursuits.
And if you are not born there, social mobility no longer exists. You will have less nurture, less ability to get a quality education, less chance of getting a high paying job, living in a quality neighborhood or not being the equal of an indentured servant to banks for school loans, mortgage and credit card expenses just to stay even. You will also likely be renting not owning for a very long time. Thus your ability to have a life or liberty or to pursue happiness is far less optimal by birth accident, which the social contract was set up to level towards a more equal equation.
And while these are broad concepts there is universal agreement as to the gist of their meaning.
Prior civilizations understood the social contract. The Roman Empire did not let the top tier of society go below ten percent of the total to maintain itself peacefully for over 500 years. It shared the spoils of wars as well as provided allotments of bread to citizens during hard years.
In an age of machines and cities, the concept of every man owning land and thus the means to survive doesn’t exist – therefore there is a need for some form of allowing for a means to survive economic swings. We now know the means as the various social programs of current government. Such programs are bound to have some margin of error and unnecessary costs incurred. It’s akin to a restaurant factoring in spoiled food costs as part of doing business. That cost is inevitable, and you try to minimize it as best you can.
With constant progress of technology comes the constant loss of employment and continuous job reductions. People can’t go back to subsistence farming, as they have no arable land. Provision has to be made or conditions will rightfully lead to revolt and return to anarchy and a brute state.
The problem with current society in a developed nation like the USA is that it has already devolved back to the more primitive state of every man for himself because economically 1 out of every 100,000 commands the bulk of the resources and wealth, leaving the others scraps to fight over, albeit compared to a third world nation, the scraps are generous.
The elite now operate with little conscience for social consequences of the collective group as a result of that power concentration and its destructive actions.
They no longer believe in a social contract as it has been in the past.
Who needs a social contract if you have extreme wealth?
You can buy elections, private guards, schools, playgrounds, water, anything a government would provide, and get real service. The wealthy do not need to rely on public institutions at all.
If you live in an isolated bubble the notion of a social contract is perhaps meaningless, completely irrelevant.
Why would you want to contribute to maintaining such an antiquated notion in the age of drones. artificial intelligence, robots and G8 summits at Davos?
Or believe the notion of a nation in an age of rampant globalization, which is a mere euphemism for having no corporate national allegiance. (The actual idea of a nation has only existed since Napoleon. It is relatively new in human terms and perhaps was an anomaly. They may no longer be viable as we know them. Smaller regional or tribal units were the norm for millennia and existed as such under large empires.) Are you aware GE paid no US corporate taxes on 19 billion dollars in profits last year? Or that the major defense contractor Boeing is thinking of moving chunks of its production, outside the US now? Under such circumstances the whole notion of a “Nation” begins to unravel into nonsense.
When your government leaders and presidential candidates like Mitt Romney keep most of their investments in offshore tax havens, when Congress exempts itself from insider trading for years and the Supreme Court gives corporations rights as people and unlimited ability to influence elections, what does a “Nation” mean aside from suckers to exploit?
It’s a long way from the society of Jeffersonian notions, of our younger democracy or New England town hall meetings. The age of robber barons wasn’t this warped in terms of income inequality or political power of a minority. It only took 400 families to contribute the bulk of 250 million to superpacs for the 2016 presidential elections, and many of them donated to both sides. It’s obviously a blatant attempt by the super-rich to buy influence and protect their interests above all.
That is only ten percent of the 1 percent – a tiny fraction of 360 million people living in the USA.
One could label it as: Tyranny of the extreme minority.
The bulk of the 1 percent no longer create, produce or trade any products. They are not entrepreneurial, merely wealthy. Reliance on living off one’s investment income is to lack the drive needed to be prosperous and thus protect wealth.
Hearing the phrase “to protect our money” repeatedly espoused, one can’t help but feel that there has been a real shift in the local demographic.
Lost is the moral imperative for the health of the commonwealth being paramount as the political concern.
Lost is any comprehension of being part of the tribe or that we are all in the same boat.
It sounds like we may well be headed in the national direction.
This is not the Gloucester I have known in the past.
But then we are merely a microcosm of the USA now, not an island apart from the mainland. We are suffering from the same dissolution of the social contract, albeit on a smaller scale.
We are becoming less of a working man’s town each year. The demographic is now bipolar, consisting of rich or working poor.
It’s become far less affordable than a mere six years ago. The fact that St. John’s Church and Action, Inc. are both currently exploring affordable housing projects attest to that.
The failings of the social contract will only become more visible here as time goes on.
Gloucester has always been a place where you had to realize you were all in the same boat, far more than surrounding communities, because of the staggering loss of life yearly, for a century or more, to fishing.
The wealthy here had investments in the boats, shore facilities and banks and were linked to the local industry and workers. They attended worker weddings, baptisms and funerals.
The wealthy and summer residents now are disconnected from the local banking, industry or businesses by and large. They are no longer interwoven in the community in ways wealth was in the past.
We are no longer in the same boat.
Some have bought up the surrounding houses, which they impeccably maintain empty, as investments, not to have neighbors. Something that was inconceivable growing up here as much as the idea of gated enclaves were or the rocks along the back shore being labeled Private when the city always rebuilds the road and shuffles the rocks back, after hurricane storm damage.
That is not healthy for community or maintaining the social contract.
And a lot of the new people recently moved here with no sense of place nor understanding of what’s made Gloucester the Community it is. And indeed they want to change it. It doesn’t suit them the way it is. Frequently you hear they want it to be more like where they just came from.
I fully agree we have plenty of room to improve various aspects of our town. We tend to let it happen more organically based on need or function more than looks or perceived convenience, which is an old New England Yankee conservative value hold over, that is a strong part of our local character.
There is little understanding from the people pushing beautification schemes like the Harbor Walk or other luxury tourism or gentrification scheme changes, that once that’s accomplished it won’t retain the characteristics they moved here for, if they actually stay long enough to experience that change.
It’s obviously not easy to mend the social fabric once structural changes as such occur and people’s allegiance to the social contract dissolve at a national level.
One shouldn’t have to wait for another great war to have the body politic realize it’s all in the same boat again.
Or that there is still good reason to maintain the Social Contract.
I should hope locally we want to elect new people to have them protect our quality of life here, protect what we value as a community and elect those who will work to strengthen our community, respect its diversity and try to ensure it remains affordable for young people who want to live, work and raise families here.
I also hope that the local mayoral and council races stay non-partisan and whatever party you’re from or its current platform questions do not matter, nor need to be discussed.
Gloucester has always left partisan politics aside, to its merit, and positions on pressing Gloucester problems were the only matter of importance in local elections.
We’ve always operated as a large New England town meeting, in essence, despite being a city for a long time.
Otherwise Gloucester will turn into just another anywhere USA by the sea summer tourist town for the aging affluent and be but a shadow of a real place.
It’s always been valued as a very real place, which is something that should not be lost or given up easily.
Electing those who would use our collective resources wisely, for the good of all of the residents, is the place to start for maintaining it as “Gloucester” going forward.
Granted, it’s is a bit more democratic notion. As such, it better adheres to the social contract.
Ernest Morin is a native of the City and a socially concerned documentary photographer.