Scholars of the renaissance era like Hobbs, Locke, Proudhon and Rousseau discussed social contract as an implied understanding between individuals for authorizing powers to the state. However, the social contract among humans precedes the state and has always been an underlying characteristic of human civilization, which was voluntary in nature. With the advent of state, it became enforceable. Its shape will remain crucial to our societies in future as well.
Human development is closely linked with social behavior. The way people interact with each other is of far greater significance than how they interact with the rest of the universe. Human interaction has a great potential for creating synergies that can lead to great developments, as are evident in the modern world that we live in. Today, with the aid of science and political order, humans enjoy unprecedented luxury, which also allows a level of individualism that would have found it difficult to survive in an earlier era. Yet, it would be a folly to discard or ignore the role of our social bonds and behavior in the future evolution of human society.
Human civilization has always been at the root of our development and enrichment. This civilization gradually developed from a very early stage of human existence.
During the prehistoric times, it was mostly the tribal form of civilization that prevailed, wherein people of the same clan, living together, worked together to hunt for food, and fought together for their common safety and survival. Even in those early stages of civilizational development, there used to be an implied contract – in the form of an understanding – whereby members of the same clan and tribe would not kill or harm other members and work together for common purposes of the tribe. Most of this social contract was voluntary, though once someone violated it, he risked being excluded from the group and even face retaliation for his misconduct.
In those early stages of human civilization, human survival depended to a large extent on the support of other humans. Hence, social exclusion or boycott carried with it consequences that were far more serious than today, and constituted a deterred far greater than the punishments and penalties imposed by law today. This ensured that people scrupously followed their social obligations.
As society became more sophisticated, the tribal existence gave way to family based rural societies, where people organized themselves as families, sometime extended ones, and many of these families often lived in close proximity with a lot of social interaction in the form of villages. Most of these village communities were also based on a voluntary code of conduct that can be equated with modern concepts of morality and ethics. Though many of these village communities did have village elders or a village head, it would be fair to say that by and large, such rural society existed, survived and thrived mainly on the basis of that voluntary social contract among its members that simultaneously promised and demanded a certain set of reciprocal obligations related to respect for each other, a cooperative and friendly attitude and sharing of tangible and intangible resources.
In rural societies, a large number of which still thrive in Asia and Africa, the society consists of a relatively smaller number of people, who mostly know each other directly or indirectly. In such communities, any errant behavior, where someone does not honor the unwritten social laws of the community living, gets identified and labeled very fast, and is shunned and discarded by the rest of the people, even if there is no formal mechanism for penalizing him for his misdeeds. This peer disrespect and discard is one of the primary factors that pressurize people to follow the community traditions and behave in accordance to the expected norms. It is not surprising then, that even without any formal law and order machinery, police or courts, the village communities are still relatively free of crime when compared with their more developed urban counterparts.
This voluntary social contract, wherein people follow certain norms and traditions of civilized behavior even in the absence of any written contracts, enforcement agency and government is what defines the human civilization. Human existence and development over the many millenniums owe their sustenance to this voluntary contract between men and women.
Modern state and governments, with their all encompassing control and authority over our lives are a somewhat recent development in human history. No doubt, there used to be kings and emperors, who ruled large kingdoms and empires. However, in spite of all their power and resources, the overall control that they exerted over people was limited. Until the age of modern renaissance in Europe which led to modern science, modern political state and modern industrialized cities, the society was largely governed by its voluntary social contract that arose from the traditions of civilization.
This does not mean that the State was not existent in earlier times. It only means that the role of State was restricted to limited functions such as keeping foreign invaders at bay and preventing any parallel criminal authorities from exploiting power. But it did not extend to control and regulate our daily lives in the manner the modern State does. Of course, the life was relatively unsophisticated and markets were not that developed either.
It all changed during the last millennium, with the advent of modern state, particularly the democratic one, where people chose their representatives, who made laws which were then forced upon the people, using the power of the organized state. This development was also associated with the rise of modern science, industrialization and urban communities, where the populations were large, mobile and often migratory in origin. As a result of increasing population, it became virtually impossible for people to know every other person. As a result, anonymity gradually the order and the personal relationships were no more enough to create adequate peer pressure for ensuring adherence to the traditional voluntary social contract of smaller, rural communities.
There were several other factors that also contributed to the development of the modern state. One of them was migration of people en masse from rural to urban centers, which resulted from industrial revolution. As people from far and wide, with different cultures and traditions, converged to the new centers of industrialization, a new cosmopolitan community began to get formed in the new cities that lacked in strong culture, values and traditions of earlier human societies.
With increasing anonymity of the individual, the peer pressure that made people stick to the voluntary social contract, was gradually lost.
It was in the background of these developments that modern state emerged as the all encompassing, omnipotent authority that was imposed by the people upon themselves to ensure that their life, property and interests were protected from other members of their community, and the common resources and public goods were taken care of.
Contrary to the civilization created out of the voluntary social contract, the modern State is based on the concept of enforceable social contract. In the modern State, the social contract is not implied. It is usually codified in the Constitutions, laws and rules, and is enforceable the State organs like government, police and courts. Unlike the voluntary nature of civilizational laws, often referred to as social values, morality and ethics, the enforceable state laws bind every citizen with an obligation and a threat of retaliatory punishment by the State.
The evolution from civilization to the modern state can actually be defined as the evolution of the social contract among people from a voluntary, implied state to one that is explicit and enforceable. This evolution is led, to a large extent, by the evolution of traditional, typically small, rural communities into large, modernized, individualistic, anonymous, urban communities, where peer pressure is too weak to be a force in ensuring adherence to voluntary social contract. This explains the need for enforcement among our societies.
As a result of this evolution, the State and its organs have to occupy a major part in our lives. We are no more bound by what our neighbors and other members of society think of us, but we cannot get away with the laws of the State that oblige us to do or not so something. In most cases, laws represent the need of the society, but even if the laws are not so benevolent, we have little choice and have to abide by them. Codified laws also mean that the same set of values now become enforceable across the length and breadth of the State. It leads to a homogenization of society, while cultural characteristics get obfuscated with time.
Civilization remains at the core of our existence, even after the development of modern state. Thankfully, civilizations are very robust and adaptive in their character, and do not easily give way, even when faced with authority, challenges or disaster. Twentieth century was characterized by the best of both worlds, as the human civilization continued to prosper, even while the modern state also matured and grew to unprecedented proportions. The results were great scientific advancement, great demographic expansion and creation of incredible wealth.
Unfortunately, the twentieth century was also witness to some of the worst catastrophes that arise from the dominance of States. Given the historical tendency for States to dominate others without regard to social values and harmony, the rise of State power and the growth of nationalism also led to adversities never experienced earlier by mankind. The worst human self destructions in human history occurred during this period, with World Wars, civil wars and genocides spread throughout the globe.
Looking at the way our society has evolved during the last few centuries, one can safely conclude that while human development, particularly economic aspect of it, has seen great unprecedented heights, the same cannot always be said about our civilizational aspects, like ethics, morality, values and personal honor. Then, there is a all pervading growth of commerce, which has now become big enough even to dictate its preferences to the State actors.
While market forces work wonders for our prosperity in the short term, their long term impact is yet to be fully assessed. An before someone reminds us about what Keynes said about the long term, it is worth remembering that while Keynes is dead, as he predicted, the human society is still there and hopes to survive. States and markets have become an essential part of our existence, but we have also become wiser about their limitations and failures.
The twenty first century is unique and different from the last century in the formation of virtual networks that connect individuals across the globe, giving rise to a hitherto social phenomenon. This phenomenon is as big as the industrial revolution and growth of States, but it is difficult to foresee how it will impact the human civilization and its longevity. For one thing, we are becoming more supportive of the need to protect our environment. It is also possible that a build-up of these networks will gradually redefine our social values and may even give rise to a new universal social contract.
The extent to which it happens will define the future of mankind!