Belief Systems and the Social Contract – Preface

“When will that shore appear from which at

last we see

How all this came to pass and for what

Reason?”

Czeslaw Milosz

“Stop believing in anything and you may find that which is truth itself.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Historically belief systems arose from a need to explain the otherwise inexplicable, to effectuate a causality where none could be demonstrated concretely. Thunder, for example, has often been believed to be an expression of power by unknowable forces (e.g., the gods) which control the natural world. That the mind naturally seeks explanations is indisputable. It is not difficult then to accept that “early people” who had no scientific understanding of the forces of nature needed some systematic explanation of the world they were immersed in and so sought such explanations as they could imagine and usually anthropomorphic in nature. If they had no systematic understanding of the dynamics of weather how else could they cope with rain, thunder, and lightning but to ascribe these to mysterious powers higher than their own? The violence of these natural phenomena must have been frightening and awesome (agonistic). Cause and effect are commonplace in human experience and it would have required no great leap of intelligence and imagination to reason backwards: first – I do this and that happens …. and in reverse – that happens therefore someone or something must have done this or that to make all of this (rain, thunder, lightning) happen. What other conclusions could people have come to other than powers beyond theirs? Certainly the hypotheses were not testable and people tend readily to believe ideas which are not testable especially when motivated by fear.

§

Belief systems, explicit or not, offer a practical means of satisfying self-interest in social settings and as such inevitably underlie social contracts. In this sense I use “belief system” as defined by Philip E. Converse: a collection of ideas connected by function. (Philip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics – Ideology and Discontent, 1964) The establishment of government and government services is an example of this. Fire departments exist because within a community there is a self-interest which can be met, it is believed, by joining in what may be properly called a social contract with others who have the same interests in protecting their own property. Of course the matter of self-interest can often scale out to dimensions not thought of initially but rather to fit the times and escalating interests of larger and larger organizations and groups outside an immediate or face-to-face community. However the proposition evolves, self-interest generally precedes mutual interest. This dynamic is seldom acknowledged as most people seem to believe identification of their self-interest with a group’s interest is preferable and more acceptable than appearing to be selfish or having to go it alone.

From these dynamics arise what we call the social contracts which organize the world(s) outside ourselves. Social contracts have ranged over the course of time from the base and primitive (food, shelter, protection from predators, territory, and so forth) to the sophisticated and complex (codes of honor and conduct, social class, community-funded education, international treaties, etc.). Out of these interests arose ritual, superstition,  religion, nations, and the various forms of government to mention but a few.

§

We are immersed from birth in social contracts: social covenants, spoken and unspoken; agreements with friends, family, and strangers; social arrangements tacit and explicit; and all of these being extensions of belief systems themselves implicit and explicit. These constructs have been with us in one form or another, one can imagine, since (and perhaps prior to) the time when our proto-human ancestors banded together to down larger and larger prey to be shared for sustenance. And for as long as these social arrangements have existed so have they been betrayed – that is to say altered without the explicit agreement of all parties. To understand social contracts it is necessary to understand that they are regularly betrayed and that this betrayal often serves to define and redefine them.

“We owe a definite homage to the reality around us and we are obliged, at certain times, to say what things are and to give them their right name.” Thomas Merton

In a New York Times review of a book detailing the horrific experiences of people who occupied the World Trade Center towers which were destroyed ( by people acting on their own religious belief system) on September 11th, 2001, the collapse of the building was cited among other factors as the cause of many if not most of the casualties. According to the review, “The towers had been built under a New York City building code that was quietly modified in the 1960’s in order to make such steel and glass boxes economically feasible. This was a betrayal of the city’s longtime social covenant [emphasis added], stretching back to another of its most tragic moments, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which dozens of teenage girls ended up jumping to their deaths because they were caught beyond hope of rescue by fire in a tall building.” Following the Shirtwaist fire a social covenant to prevent such tragedy arose which was expressed as a New York City building code. From 1911 until the 1960’s this code served its intended purpose – that is until economic interests prevailed not as a result of community consensus but rather as a matter of “quiet” modification of that part of the social contract pertaining to building codes which specified structural requirements for tall buildings – so quiet apparently as to escape public notice or concern. The potential for such a disaster as occurred on September 11th, 2001 was of lesser concern to the decision makers than the economics for those who developed the buildings and whose economic interests prevailed.

§

People know and have known what the structural requirements are to keep tall buildings standing and relatively safe under stress. Those concrete requirements called out in the social contracts as expressed in building codes were, however, believed to be of less importance than economic development, another form of social contract which is popular politically but which contract does not necessarily include all affected parties. One could conclude from this that facilitating economic development took priority over safety for those involved and, since the decisions taken concerned building codes the public trust invested in the government policy makers was betrayed and absolutely so. Expressed as a belief system it is held in some circles that government resources and policies should be directed towards those who would use them to “create” economic development. During the administration of Ronald Reagan this belief system gained wide popularity known in some circles as “trickle-down” economics.

§

Over centuries of recorded history, unscrupulous and self-serving politicians have often created notional belief systems and social contracts by playing up the fears of the general population to gain advantage. To control public opinion, information is withheld, dissenting voices are suppressed or marginalized or sometimes put to death or “disappeared”, truth is misrepresented or distorted. Once people are made to or choose      to believe an idea their fears can easily be manipulated into the political power necessary to carry out any manner of outrage from the persecution of Infidels, Christians, Jews (and currently, Muslims) or any other religious or political group to the conduct of war. It is also helpful to remember that religious belief systems trump social contracts every time. After nearly fifty years of researching these matters of belief and social contracts it is my opinion that it is absolutely that what people choose to believe matters more than what they “know.

§

In the US public education has long been a part of the social contract in spite of the fact that it began as a means of providing industry a stable and properly disciplined work force. Nevertheless, if one analyzes trends in the expenditure of public money it would appear that this contract has been expiring for some time. Expressed merely in the form of public school teacher salaries as compared to, for example, professional athletes or entertainers, it is apparent that the day-to-day belief systems which underlie the belief in the social value of public education have changed. Public school drop-out rates have soared as class sizes have increased; also the perceived value of finishing public schooling much less going on to higher education has diminished. And for those who would seek a college education the situation has been further exacerbated by the costs of higher education which have become out of reach for a great many. Consider the following from a 1994 report given by the Commission on National Investment in Higher Education which outlined a 20-year projection of the health of higher education in America:

“What we found was a time bomb ticking under the nation’s social and economic foundations: At a time when the level of education needed for productive employment is increasing, the opportunity to go to college will be denied to millions of Americans unless sweeping changes are made to control costs, halt sharp increases in tuition, and increase other sources of revenue.” [emphasis added]

Where there was once the Morrill Act of 1862 which created land grant universities for the benefit of all, we now have constrained university budgets often caused not just by lack of available state funds or public unhappiness with taxation but by political factions unhappy with a perceived political and social liberality on the part of faculty. Here is a  belief system operating to undermine a well-established social contract created for the common good, benefiting all both liberal and, one must imagine, illiberal. Once again a notional belief system, in this instance targeting perceived liberality, is being used to subvert a social contract predicated on equal access to higher education for all, liberal or conservative, for the benefit of all. Case in point, The Center for the Study of Popular Culture has been actively lobbying several state legislatures to pass an “Academic Bill of Rights”. The president of this organization has stated publicly that his effort is fueled by the fact that there are generally more professors who are Democrats than Republicans. One statistic cited is that in anthropology, professors who identify themselves as Democrats outnumber those who identify as Republican at a ratio of 40 to 1. These same types of organizations favor closing national borders and requiring universal national identification documents. The same dynamic is also seen in current political attempts to define individuals as “Christian” and therefore most suitable for public office, employment, and so forth. Given these kinds of ideas and their popularity it wouldn’t be surprising to see a rebirth of the “Know Nothing Party” of the 1850s and its “Secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner”.

§

As stated earlier, it is more a case of what people believe that moves them to action than what they know. For example, they may know individuals of a different race or religious group as being honest, decent, patriotic, and so forth and still believe people in that group to be quite the opposite if not a threat. Cognitive dissonance, perhaps. Stupid, perhaps. But that is for each to decide. It is all around. The important idea to take away is that whatever discourse occurs between oneself and others is underlain with vast networks of belief systems that are not always logical, not always made apparent, not always articulated. They may exist completely below the horizons of consciousness.

The principles of democracy as expressed in the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, etc., constitute a social contract. They are not innate but learned. They may rightly be “inalienable” but only for those who understand that these are theirs to have. These principles constitute a belief system which is acquired through experience and each succeeding generation acquires an evolved version of these not as eternal verities but fungible “rules of the road”. As an example, expectations for such principles as freedom of expression or the right to privacy can be diminished by executive fiat, publicly or secretly, without majority exception in exchange for a presumed greater safety from, for example, “terrorism”. The process of “rendition” of “suspected” terrorists used by the Bush administration is a good example of this. Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 government powers of eavesdropping on American citizens have been greatly expanded in contradiction of the US Constitution. The entire democratic belief system thus becomes undermined because it rests not on immutable principles but expediency and cynical use of political power.

Lampedusa had it right as he described the Prince, following the Garibaldi “revolution” in Sicily in 1860. When his small town’s dissenting votes were not counted, he came to understand this process of undermining a belief system, ” … now he knew who had been killed at Donnafugata, at a hundred other places, in the course of that night of dirty wind: a new born babe: good faith; just the very child who should have been cared for most; whose strengthening would have justified the silly vandalism’s.” He goes on to say that recognizing the nays would have had the net effect of strengthening the win but now, instead, created an undercurrent, a constituency of resistance. He called it a “… stupid annulment of the first expression of liberty ever offered them.”

This cynical deception Lampedusa describes created a disengagement from a purported democratic process. A nascent belief system was cut off at the knees by another and entrenched belief system. This kind of cynicism has been the mother seed of decadence and of social devolution throughout history as it undermines belief in social justice and thus the civil society and its attendant social contracts. We have witnessed this same phenomenon in national elections in the US. The United States of America will not ultimately, in my opinion, be an exception to the forces of history.

§

A civil society is, among other things, a collection of individuals who are not less than the totality of their beliefs, conflicting and often divergent, but who are always seeking safety: physical, economic, emotional. This explains how people can live, and sometimes relatively comfortably, under oppressive political regimes – within societies which require proclaimed allegiances which are antithetical to internal individual belief systems. The societies,are the externalization of the need to be “safe”, a contract among the many who form that particular civil society to create an expressed (but not necessarily internalized nor fool-proof) system of beliefs – a social contract which permits and promotes social action, perceived social good.

Social contracts can and often do require the subordination of individual belief systems and, sometimes, they transcend them but not always. I had the great privilege to work in Poland immediately following the fall of Communism. I worked there over a period of five years and was able to witness, from the perspective of working people, the rebirth of long-suppressed belief systems as represented by religion, democracy, free enterprise, and social equality. It was not easy then and it remains an ongoing process.

§

 During an undergraduate class in what amounted to rhetoric (although I no longer recall what it was formally titled) the professor at one point undertook to provide each student with an evaluation of his style of argument. “Ah, and you, Mr. Corso,” I recall him saying, “… you are exactly like a heaved brick coming through a plate glass window!” What a vivid image that conjured and I can remember little else of the moment save a kind of pride and amusement. Since then we have come far in our ability to visualize the event of a brick’s passage through that conjured window. High-speed photography shows us not just the “main event” as the professor was wanting to convey but also the multitude of subtleties that accompany the brick in its passage through the glass – how, for example, following the initial impact, some glass follows the missile, how some glass seems to fall rearward. Explosive and at the same time subtle and fine grained.

Such too is the effect of ideas as they pass through the walls of individual consciousness. Teachers, charlatans, politicians, religious gurus and preachers, advertisers, messiahs all heave their bricks through the glass of individuation seeking impact, seeking the shattering of the personal belief system and hoping some of their message will follow the trajectory of what is being pitched – whether that be happiness, status, redemption, salvation, security, twenty virgins in the after-life – at whatever insecurities exist behind the glass. Freedom from fear and isolation, to be one with the others, or even better, to be “better” than others. But, no matter which of the above is the “message” there must exist a level of susceptibility, a vulnerability based in insecurity.

Life behind that glass is characterized by loneliness, isolation, and most importantly, fear. In his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, Richard Hofstadter similarly made the case that in politics “… [style] has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.”

A certain paranoia seems to accompany life in this contemporary American society at the start of the 21st century. An individual can do little to deal with international terrorism hence the need to seek apparent safety in numbers, to join in, becomes paramount – the primal need for safety. To give it its name, fear. This need can be satisfied, it is believed, by joining and/or voting for a particular political party or group and a particular political party or group can insure its success by appealing to and stoking this fear. This is the “marketing” of politics in our time. Also, no matter at what level of awareness they are operating, people seek some level of connectedness, to be with others, to be to whatever degree necessary, indistinguishable, and in a seeming contradiction, just different enough – a kind of balancing act, if you will, between a comfortable enough innocuousness and a comfortable enough sense of preservation of self. Such is the stuff of social contracts.

One reason, in my opinion, why so many Americans can so easily give away their rights in exchange for an illusory sense of security is that the majority of them have never been made to make sacrifices for it. No personal price for freedom has been paid by the average American today but has been paid for them by others, they have had no active part in forming the social contract. Also democracy itself as a living thing has little or no intrinsic value to many people nor do they feel any personal responsibility for maintaining it. Few bother to understand issues or to qualify political candidates. To quote a 1999 article on Salon.com “Is Voter Ignorance Killing Democracy”, by Christopher Shea, “On a typical election day, 56% of Americans can’t name a single candidate in their own district for any office.” [emphasis added]. Recall, if you will, the founders’ concept of an “informed electorate” and what this means to Americans today.

In a culture defined by fear and insecurity and so susceptible to the marketing of the illusion of security, security will be paid for at the price of once cherished freedoms. There are very many groups organized to fragment the social contract, to play groups off on one another. These groups support politicians, television personalities, and other celebrities in general. Political parties have been and are instruments of social fragmentation. Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party accomplished stigmatization of “welfare mothers” which meant blacks during his presidential campaign. Now “illegal immigrants” are a target, this term referring to Hispanics, as are “terrorists”, referring to middle eastern people especially those of Muslim faith. We are devolving at an everyday level to less and less of a civil society as competing groups scramble and scream for attention. The so-called “Birther Movement” is a perfect example of this fragmentation. Take a walk through a suburban mall and read the “messages” on t-shirts. Lewdness is commonplace, crude and rude have become the norm. Drive around town and observe the nearly absolute absence of courtesy as people cut one another off, give each other the one-finger salute, and are generally inconsiderate. Not of least consideration is the absolute obsession with the “life-styles of the rich and famous”, with celebrities and their antics. Keeping in mind that each individual is a constellation of beliefs acquired throughout life all of which are brought to bear on the social contract many of which are often contradictory, the prospect of reversing current social trends is not exactly hopeful.

Can there be anymore a universal social contract? Probably not. Was there ever? Perhaps not but maybe something close to it. In modern times World War II was most likely the last great period of near unanimity in the body politic of the United States. There are no guarantees this society, this 21st century culture known as the United States of America, is going to endure in the manner envisioned by its founders. In fact it is a ready guarantee that it will not. What exactly it will evolve into is uncertain but given the state of the world as it is now one must be, I am sure, prepared for far fewer personal freedoms sad though that may be.

The purpose of this book will be explore the history of social contracts and beliefs. I will show how these two vital human activities interact and how they influence each other both for good and for bad. Beliefs can be and frequently are dangerous most often because they are irrational and based on fear. I will discuss the contemporary issues within the social contract and the various agendas at work. Ultimately I will show how the social contract is being subjected to the destructive forces of power-seeking and greed. I will cast these in a contemporary context and, so far as possible, with examples from my own experiences.

Americans who think what happened to Europe during the Nazi reign couldn’t happen in this country would do well to think about this quotation made by Pastor Martin Niemöller after they came for him. He was arrested and spent the war in various concentration camps. He was certain it wouldn’t “happen to him”. :

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out–

because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–

because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–

because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–

because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me–

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

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2 Responses to “Belief Systems and the Social Contract – Preface”


  1. 1 s. bradley June 28, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    EC,
    Always interesting, as usual. Reading the reference to the review of the book covering the failure of the Trade Center buildings, I’m stuck by the idea that man’s work must always meet certain expectations…even decades after the execution of work based on the state-of-the-art at the time. The fact is, both buildings withstood the worst-case damage envisioned when they were designed; being hit by the largest aircraft of it’s day. Neither building failed after the impact and structural damage caused by those aircraft. Presumable,if Manhattan were stuck by an atom bomb, people would protest that buildings there were not built to withstand such damage and that NY building codes were inadequate. I suppose we could build cities designed to withstand atomic attack, we could build cars that would survive head-on collisions at 100 mph, and we could all wear body suites that would protect us from gunfire,falls, heatstroke, drowning and all of life’s other assaults. At some point, however, we all have to face the facts of our own mortality and settle for a reasonable compromise. I envision more and more unrest and more questions about our social contracts with each other and the civil government at large as this nation unwinds and our expectations being threatened, abandoned or
    modified without our approval. The “contract” of the future might change from person to person and week to week if this nation really goes into the kind of decline experienced by every other great power since history started getting recorded.

    Best SB

    • 2 Emanuele Corso June 28, 2011 at 2:00 pm

      SB-There is a great series of DVDs on the history of NYC. The last one of about 7 or 8 was devoted entirely to the 9/11 attack. I’ll get a reference to it for you. Also, the information I used in the article came from the NY times which reported on the event. I don’t disagree with you about accepting risk as a part of life and I lament the growing “nanny state” but general safety requirements which protect innocent people are necessary.


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