Reviewing Social Contracts in the New Millennium

Reconstituting Home: An OCI’s re-appropriation of his Indian identity

buddhavarapus

Sharat Buddhavarapu | January 10, 2013



Upon searching for “social contract” in Google, one comes up with the Wikipedia article for Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise, which suggests that “For “social contract” as a political and philosophical concept” one divert to this page. The most contentious issue in both the history of the concept as well as Rousseau’s treatise is the problem of the “consent of the governed”.  Rousseau claims that the people have agreed in spirit to be governed, i.e., there is no need for the government to explicitly derive its sovereignty from the people because as it is elected the will of the people is assumed. The section in the article for the philosophical concept quotes David Hume’s objection that though in principle implied consent works, authority figures rarely implement governments that fully allow for the government of the people to function as described in Rousseau’s famous treatise. That is to say: implied consent only seems like a good idea before the people in power get a hold of it.

The 21st century has furnished the modern person with numerous examples of the abuse of this implied consent. Furthermore, the state aroused so much anger from the public in these situations as to result in widespread protests. The governed, outpacing the academics’ debates about whether or not they’ve given consent to their elected governments, have shown that in the face of the decades-long breakdown of modern political discourse, the innumerable scandals involving those in authority, and the lack of movement of the ground-level issues that  matter to them they will rebel. And what’s more, they will force the issue until they get what they want.

Three recent cases come to mind: Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s pathetic speech on television just a few days ago, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s announcement that he has joined a coalition with the Northern League party, and most relevant to Governance Now’s readers, India’s citizen protests in the face of the horrific gangrape.

In the video, Assad called the opposition, which has UN and EU support, “terrorists” to the applause of a crowd of his supporters. Rather than take the video at face value, one is aware that the video is full of a lot of hot air that isn’t going to further the negotiations, that the cheers are from a carefully orchestrated audience, that in all the concessions to a peace process Assad seemed to offer, nowhere did he hint at the possibility that he will step down from power, which is the starting point not only for the rebels but the UN-backed plan.

Thus, even the British foreign secretary went online to tweet: “#AssadSpeech beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing #Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one”. Assad has completely lost the consent of his people if we’re at the point where authorities from other states are willing to publicly state their disgust with his speech. The people, for their part, declared their will when they rebelled nearly two years ago.

The case of former Italian PM Berlusconi demonstrates perfectly why public faith in political leaders has eroded in recent times. Berlusconi’s dual roles as media magnate and prime minister often brought him under the gun for conflict of interest accusations. On top of that in 2011, he was caught having paid a minor to have sex and attempting to hide that relationship. Needless to say, his credibility as a politician has been shot through. So when he declared on Monday that he’d reached a deal with the leader of the Northern League, Roberto Maroni, and that he had to give up his bid to run for prime minister in the upcoming elections, the whole announcement would have been easy to agree with center-left politicians who said “that the alliance was born of desperation”. Sadly, Berlusconi made a fiasco of the simple announcement as well, claiming that he was ok with giving up his bid because he was better suited for the position of finance minister. When questioned about it later, his partner Maroni was unenthusiastic, backtracking on Berlusconi’s confident statement, saying instead: “We’re not naming cabinet names yet” [read it here]. Berlusconi’s antics show that when public perception of a politician have eroded to a significant degree that that politician no longer has any claim on even his former political allies, let alone the people.

All of which leads to the conclusion, similar to that in my first column, that what is in question right now with the protests related to the Delhi gangrape is the government’s right to govern. The government’s continual push to hide the victim’s identity and the media’s complicity with those orders are hurting their perception in the public’s eyes. There is a revolution brewing, and if politicos and talking heads in media don’t grasp this situation quickly enough it could turn ugly. There is no sense in saying they will ever control it again as the revolution is at hand, but they can become willing participants in moving to the future rather than roadblocks to be run over.

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