In a general sense, there has constantly been a significant attention paid to the problem of historical emergence of human society. Political theorists have been presenting various visions of the origins of human society, and some of them have managed to constitute the mainstream account called the social contract theory. Basically, social contract theory declares that the formation of society and the establishment of the state were made possible by people’s free agreement based on the recognition of the necessity of abandoning the underdeveloped state of nature. Once social contract theory was constituted, mainly due to the effort of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has been posed as the core element of the liberal political philosophy and ideology. However, there were different implications of social contract theory frequently exposed. One of such implications was presented by Charles W. Mills in his book “The Racial Contract”, which was based on the claim that there actually had been strong racial component in the process of the historical emergence and further development of human society. Even though such claim seems to be exceedingly controversial and precarious from the point of view of dominant discourse, it appears to have its own peculiar line of argumentation which is definitely worth attention and careful consideration.
Mills’s Racial Differentiation
As far as Mills’s argument is concerned, the conventional social contract theory tends to camouflage a significant racial component which necessarily has to be accentuated. As a matter of fact, there already was a clear racial differentiation during the existence of the state of nature which, according to authors of the social contract theory, preceded the genuine human society. While the traditional social contract theory depicted the state of nature as the temporary living condition of generally equal individuals, Mills highlights that there was a clear demarcation line between the white and non-white individuals, which signified a crucial difference in the scope of the factual rights between these two groups. Moreover, it is precisely the existence of that demarcation line that defined the course of further development of human society as well as the factual form of its emergence.
According to Mills, state of nature is considered to be fully dominated by the whites, and further adoption of a social contract is to be regarded as a manifestation of that domination. In this respect, the preliminary identity of the whites is constructed in a way that their otherness from non-whites is strongly emphasized and their presupposed superiority is being constantly represented in a discourse. The perception of the non-white other appears to be dictated by sharp repulsion combined with the sense of concealed menace, and each particular non-white person is being seen, as Gordon (1995) suggests, “as a limb of an enormous black body” (p. 105) deprived from all possible attributes of individuality. In this context, there is no actual reference to a person in its sublime whites’ conception; rather, non-whites are depicted as subpersons who are not fully human and therefore have an inferior schedule of rights and liberties applying to them. Basically, non-whites are considered to be not more that savages who do not need to be granted with any rights just because even if they were provided with such a privilege, it would be still impossible for them to handle it in a proper way. Thereby, white domination in the state of nature remains constantly reproduced under an unspoken assumption of its full correspondence with a natural state of affairs.
However, the very practicability of further existence of the state of nature appears to be questioned at a certain historical point. The peculiarity of this shift lies in the fact that, according to Mills (1997), the decision to leave the state of nature is actually taken not by dominated non-whites, but by dominating group of whites. Even though the whites hold the supreme position in the state of nature and enjoy numerous privileges that the non-whites are completely deprived of, fundamentally anarchic essence of the state of nature keeps posing a constant threat not only to dominance of a certain group, but to the life of each of its inhabitants as such. Thereby, as Mills (1997) describes, whites for some time share the state of nature with non-whites, but then they realize the necessity of leaving it, which marks the end of the state of nature and the emergence of the genuine human society.
Social Contract and Establishment of the State
In their effort to leave the state of nature, whites seek to increase the level of their own safety by adopting the social contract which predetermines the establishment of the state as the centralized institution that is supposed to maintain the order and apply the violence to its perpetrators. Even though such arrangement is seemingly oriented towards the improvement of overall living conditions, its imperceptible objective is to preserve the status-quo of the domination of white people over non-whites. Presumably, non-whites would never agree to exploitative terms of the abandonment of the state of nature, but they appear to have no choice other than accept that imposition and thus let the existing configuration of power relations be transmitted from the state of nature to the newly established civil state in a practically unamended form. Furthermore, while the social contract in its traditional reading appears to just a specific, discrete event that founds society, the racial contract, which is actually being enforced in above conditions, might well be expected to be continuously reproduced later on, which provides the current configuration with sufficient rigidity and significantly reduces the chances to transform it in the future.
In a general sense, the establishment of the central government appears to be the core element of the arrangement which denotes the abandonment of the state of nature and transition to the civil state. As Mills (1997) highlights, the liberal-democratic state of classic contractarianism abides by the terms of the social contract by using force only to protect its citizens, who delegated this force to it so that it could guarantee the safety not to ever be found in the state of nature. Certainly, the initial level of safety which was thought to be typical for the state of nature differed greatly depending on particular author who depicted it. Nevertheless, it is precisely the problem of individual safety which is generally thought to have provoked the collective action of adopting the social contract and establishing the civil state. For example, Hobbes (1651) describes the living conditions of the state of nature as “the war of all against all” where the life of any individual is continuously endangered by the aggressive attitude of other inhabitants who enjoy unlimited freedom and elaborate it in an uncompromisingly selfish way. In such context, the establishment of the sovereign government appears to be essential for the very survival of people who are said not to be able to restrain their savage instincts and keep living in a peaceful manner. According to Hobbes, once the sovereign government is established, it sets the rules of the interaction within the society and makes all people follow those rules at all times, thus ensuring the maintenance of the social order. Somewhat different vision of the state of nature was presented by Locke (1689), who considered people incapable of exhibiting such enormous aggression as Hobbes described; nevertheless, people were said to be incapable of living in the perfect peace as well, and the need for the instance which would be able to guarantee safety was still present in the state of nature. For the sake of assuring the inviolability of natural property of each person, which included individual right for life, liberty, and estate, the state was eventually created. Another account on the purpose of the civil state was proposed by Rousseau (1754), who declared that the ultimate goal of the state was to let people transcend the natural limits of animals and elevate to the level of genuinely moral beings. In this respect, the state was supposed to serve as the primary agent of the promotion of the morality among the people and as the main controller of the sustainability of people’s progress on this normative path.
Mills’s Purpose of the Civil State
The account on the nature of the social contract and the purpose of the civil state presented by Mills (1997) substantially differs from the vision proposed by the conventional contractarianism. According to his account, once the state was established, it inherited the racially motivated configuration of power relations which was typical for the state of nature. The manner in which the racial contract was embedded in the operation of the state changed with the lapse of time. In the first period, the white supremacy was explicitly fixed in the whole of the normative grounds which the state operation was based on. During this period it was perfectly clear that whites were the privileged race and that the egalitarian social contract applied only to them (Mills, 1997). Later on, discriminatory standpoints were gradually disappearing from a formal discourse, but factually existing forms of power relations which had deeply rooted in various social practices and attitudes still were present and still determined the maintenance of the privileged position of the whites. In this respect, the state appeared to be the instance which had seemingly been created in order to benefit all but in fact was just elaborated as an instrument of reinforcing the dominance of one group over the other, and the implicit racial contract just improved its resistance to any possible future revision since any activity aimed at revision lied behind the adopted framework of allowable activities the adherence to which was supposed to be strictly controlled by the state.
As far as Mills’s argument is concerned, a traditional social contract theory is insufficient due to its fundamental accentuation on a free consent of the people while adopting the agreement on the establishment of civil state. As a matter of fact, a complex and deeply rooted structure of the white’s supremacy over the non-whites literally did not leave any possibility that any social agreement could ever be reached on equal terms. Basically, if a certain group is regarded as the savage one and totally deprived from all possible rights and liberties, it seems to be very unlikely that the process of the modification of the current sociopolitical arrangement would grant despised members of that group any additional privileges. Mills (1997) appears to be fully convinced that such course of events was impossible from the very beginning and any modification of sociopolitical arrangement was not supposed to affect the existing configuration of power relations in a significant way. Quite conversely, once the civil state was finally established, it started operating on the basis of explicit recognition of the domination of the whites’ and constantly reproduced that domination through its legislative and punitory activity. In this respect, the legitimacy of the state which was founded on the basis not social but racial contract was actually the legitimacy in the perception of a single racially differentiated group of the whites, and this sort of legitimacy completely differs from the inclusive legitimacy in the perception of free and equal people, which was envisaged by the Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other representatives of the conventional social contract theory.
In a conclusion, it needs to be highlighted that the social contract theory still continues to serve as one of the core elements of modern liberal political philosophy and ideology. However, even though its main standpoints seem to be broadly recognized and accepted, it is useful to encounter with an alternative vision which proposes a completely different framework for the exploration of the same phenomena. Mills (1997) and his theory of the racial contract appears to be very controversial and at the same time very useful for casting a look at the concepts of a dominant discourse from an alternative angle, which contributes a lot to the development of the modern political thought on the whole.
- Gordon, L. (1995). Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism. N.J.: Humanities Press.
- Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan.
- Locke, J. (1689). Two treaties of Government.
- Mills, C. W. (1997). The Racial Contract. N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
- Rousseau, J.-J. (1754). Discourse on Inequality.