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This Week: Race and the Ideology of Individualism


I’ve been talking about the Social Contract for the past few issues.  This week’s Notes is the second-to-last piece in this series.  In the next issue I’ll tie things up (I hope!) and that will allow us to get back to the usual potpourri, hodge-podge, and general free-for-all that many of you associate with Nygaard Notes.

But the current heavily-researched and lengthy series won’t be forgotten.  Once you know something, after all, you can’t “un-know” it.  You’ll see as we go along that the historical and somewhat theoretical points that I’ve been trying to convey this summer and fall will be important in the future as we go about our business of trying to understand—and change—the wild and crazy world of today.

Happy Autumnal Equinox!


“Quote” of the Week: “Dichotomizing Humanity Between Men and Submen”

Relevant to the subject of the last few issues of Nygaard Notes, here is a quotation from an excellent book published just about 50 years ago, entitled Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective, by author Pierre L. van den Berghe.  He says:

“The egalitarian and libertarian ideas of the Enlightenment spread by the American and French Revolutions conflicted, of course, with racism, but they also paradoxically contributed to its development.  Faced with the blatant contradiction between the treatment of slaves and colonial peoples and the official rhetoric of freedom and equality, Europeans and white North Americans began to dichotomize humanity between men and submen (or the ‘civilized’ and the ‘savages’).  The scope of applicability of the egalitarian ideals was restricted to ‘the people,’ that is, the whites, and there resulted what I have called ‘Herrenvolk democracies,’—regimes such as those of the United States or South Africa that are democratic for the master race but tyrannical for the subordinate groups.  The desire to preserve both the profitable forms of discrimination and exploitation and the democratic ideology made it necessary to deny humanity to the oppressed groups.”

Contracts Between Groups, Not Individuals

Whether we are conscious of it or not, the Enlightenment idea of the Social Contract forms the moral foundation of the United States, and perhaps more broadly of the fuzzy entity sometimes referred to as “Western Civilization.”  Recall that the Social Contract is based on the idea of free, rational individuals emerging from an uncivilized “State of Nature” and agreeing to achieve a more orderly life by agreeing to live together under a government, that is, to live in “society.”  So the very idea of the United States—at least, as it’s understood by most people—is that it has enshrined the principle of government of, by, and for the people, which makes the United States, it is said, “exceptional.” Just a couple of weeks ago (August 31) Hilary Clinton, in a major speech, spoke proudly of “American Exceptionalism,” which she said “means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.”

That idea of the United States as a “champion for freedom and opportunity” is based on the standard mythology surrounding the origins of the United States, in which the nation was founded based on Enlightenment thinking, and specifically on the idea of the Social Contract.

The philosopher Charles W. Mills offers a different way to understand the basic origins of the United States, and of the Social Contract itself.  Mills proposes re-working the idea of the Social Contract, basing it on our understanding of actual human history—not some ideal world where everyone is equal and free.

Mills notes that “political philosophies make general claims about how societies come into existence, how they are typically structured, how the state and the legal system work, how cognition and normative evaluation characteristically function, how the polity should be morally assessed, etc.” (A “polity” is simply an area with a government, such as a city, state, or nation.)

Focus on Groups of People, Not Individuals

Mills notes that “There is never a ‘state of nature’, but always human beings in social groups of greater or lesser complexity.”  And, he reminds us, not all of the social groups have equal power.  Says Mills, “we know perfectly well from history that oppression of one kind or another has been the social norm since humanity left the hunting-and-gathering stage.”  And therefore, “society is most illuminatingly seen as a system of group domination rather than as a collection of individuals.”

Mills reminds us that each phase of human history grows out of the phase that preceded it, and that all along the way societies are created by people, not by God or by Nature.  As he puts it, “the crucial point is that the … structure of domination in question, whether of class, gender, or race, is not ‘natural,’ not the outcome of the state of nature, but a socio-historical product.”

Rather than the mainstream Social Contract, which is highly individualistic, Mills proposes that we think in terms of a set of interlocking contracts that spell out power relationships between groups.  He has written about what he calls the Racial Contract, the contract agreed to by whites to dominate and exclude “non-whites”.  Feminist political scientist Carol Pateman has spoken of the Sexual Contract, which was agreed to by men to dominate and exclude women.

And Jean Jacques Rousseau, who in 1762 authored “The Social Contract,” preceded that work with a book called “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men.”  The Discourse outlined what amounts to a Class Contract, which was “a kind of convention” that “consists of the different privileges which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others; such as that of being more rich, more honoured, more powerful or even in a position to exact obedience.”

The key point is that it wasn’t individual men who “signed” the Sexual Contract; it was put in place to benefit men as a group, by excluding women as a group. And it wasn’t individual whites who “signed” the Racial Contract; it was put in place to benefit all whites, by excluding all “non-whites”.  The same with wealthy men; the Class Contract was put in place to benefit the wealthy as a group, by excluding all of the non-wealthy.  In Mills’ words: “All whites [wealthy, males] are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites [wealthy, males] are not signatories to it.”

While the Social Contract has inspired millions with its vision of equality and democracy, it does a lousy job of helping us understand the actual history of nation-making over the past 500 years.  After all, as Mills reminds us, “the assumptions of the mainstream contract in its contemporary form, presuming universal inclusion and general input, handicap the apparatus in tackling the necessary task of corrective justice by, in a sense, assuming the very thing that needs to be substantively achieved. Once one adds women of all races, and male people of color (to say nothing of the white male working class), one is actually talking about the majority of the population’s being excluded in one way or another from the historical contract, and its present descendant!”

Addressing the community of philosophers (who help to maintain and propagate the standard mythology), Mills urges thinking “out of the box” of Social Contract theory with its fantasy about equally-powerful individuals agreeing on the shape of society.   Says Mills, “The simple central innovation is to posit a group domination contract which is exclusionary rather than genuinely inclusive, and then rethink everything from that perspective.”

In place of the standard Social Contract, Mills proposes that the three Contracts—Class, Gender, and Race—be thought of together as what he calls The Domination Contract.  “The class, sexual, and racial contracts each capture particular aspects of social domination (while missing others), so that, whether singly or (ideally) in combination, they register the obvious fact that society` is shaped by the powerful acting together, not individuals acting singly.”

By way of better understanding the idea of Domination Contracts, the next article offers extensive excerpts from Mills’ book The Racial Contract, in hopes that the collection of provocative thoughts will help us open our minds to the radical misunderstanding of history that we’ve all been fed since the day we were born.

The Racial Contract, and Beyond

In her 1988 book The Sexual Contract, political scientist Carole Pateman begins like this:

“Telling stories of all kinds is the major way that human beings have endeavoured to make sense of themselves and their social world. The most famous and influential political story of modern times is found in the writings of the social contract theorists. The story, or conjectural history, tells how a new civil society and a new form of political right is created through an original contract. An explanation for the binding authority of the state and civil law, and for the legitimacy of modern civil government, is to be found by treating our society as if it had originated in a contract.  

“The original [i.e. “Social”] contract is a sexual-social pact, but the story of the sexual contract has been repressed. Standard accounts of social contract theory do not discuss the whole story and contemporary contract theorists give no indication that half the agreement is missing. The story of the sexual contract is also about the genesis of political right, and explains why exercise of the right is legitimate—but this story is about political right as patriarchal right or sex-right, the power that men exercise over women. The missing half of the story tells how a specifically modern form of patriarchy is established. The new civil society created through the original contract is a patriarchal social order.”

Another aspect of the contract that has been repressed is the power than white people exercise over people who are not white.  In his 1997 book The Racial Contract (which was inspired by Pateman), philosopher Charles W. Mills explains that the Racial Contract is a set of formal or informal agreements among white people (specifically white men) “to categorize the remaining subset of humans as ‘nonwhite’ and of a different and inferior moral status, subpersons, so that they have a subordinate civil standing in the white or white-ruled polities the whites either already inhabit or establish or in transactions as aliens with these polities, and the moral and legal rules normally regulating the behavior of whites in their dealings with one another either do not apply at all in dealings with nonwhites or apply only in a qualified form …, but in any case the general purpose of the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them.” [slightly translated by Nygaard from the original academic jargon]

What follows is a collection of quotations from Mills’ book, The Racial Contract.  (Why do I excerpt Mills and not Pateman?  I found Mills’ text more “excerpt-able” than that of Pateman.)  Even though Mills is here referring to the Racial Contract, his points apply more broadly.  As Mills himself says in a 2000 article, “I will focus specifically on race, but many of my points will be valid for gender also.”  And I think they are also valid more generally to the concept that Mills developed later, which he has named the Domination Contract.

There is some repetition here, and that’s intentional.  I expect that, for some of the white readers of Nygaard Notes, certain of these ideas will be hard to grasp.  So, please keep reading, and see how you feel about these strange ideas by the time you get to the end.  OK?  Here we go…

In the last Nygaard Notes I quoted Sir Isaac Newton saying “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”  Sometimes what we call “madness,” or “dysfunction,” is explained by its usefulness to the powers that be.  Here’s how Mills puts it: “In effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.”  (“Epistemology” is the theory of knowledge, specifically how we justify our beliefs.)

Here’s Mills on the dehumanizing effects of white supremacy: “European liberalism restricts ‘egalitarianism to equality among equals,’ and blacks and others are … excluded by race from the promise of ‘the liberal project of modernity.’  The terms of the Racial Contract mean that nonwhite subpersonhood is enshrined simultaneously with white personhood.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Mills on the systemic nature of white supremacy: “Economic structures have been set in place, causal processes established, whose outcome is to pump wealth from one side of the globe to another, and which will continue to work largely independently of the ill will/goodwill, racist/antiracist feelings of particular individuals.  This globally color-coded distribution of wealth and poverty has been produced by the Racial Contract…”

Mills says that white supremacy is a foundational characteristic of the European project of the past 500 years: “Insofar as racism is addressed at all within mainstream moral and political philosophy, it is usually treated in a footnote as a regrettable deviation from the ideal.  But treating it this way makes it seem contingent, accidental, residual, removes it from our understanding.  Race is made to seem marginal when in fact race has been central.  The notion of subpersonhood, by contrast, makes the Racial Contract explicit, showing that to characterize things in terms of ‘deviations’ is in a sense misleading.  Rather, what is involved is compliance with a norm whose existence it is now embarrassing to admit.  So instead of pretending that the social contract outlines the ideal that people tried to live up to but which they occasionally (as with all ideals) fell short of, we should say frankly that for whites the Racial Contract represented the ideal, and what is involved is not deviation from the (fictive) norm but adherence to the actual norm.  The ‘Racial Contract’ as a theory puts race where it belongs—at center stage—and demonstrates how the polity was in fact a racial one, a white-supremacist state, for which differential white racial entitlement and nonwhite racial subordination were defining, thus inevitably molding white moral psychology and moral theorizing.”

Mills on the whiteness of academic philosophy: “Now by its relative silence on the question of race, conventional moral theory would lead the unwary student with no experience of the world—the visiting anthropologist from Galactic Central, say—to think that deviations from the ideal have been contingent, random, theoretically opaque, or not worth the trouble to theorize.  Such a visitor might conclude that all people have generally tried to live up to the norm but, given inevitable human frailty, have sometimes fallen short.  But this conclusion is, in fact, simply false.

“Racism and racially structured discrimination have not been deviations from the norm, they have been the norm, not merely in the sense of de facto statistical distribution patterns but in the sense of being formally codified, written down and proclaimed as such.  From this perspective, the Racial Contract has underwritten the social contract, so that duties, rights, and liberties have routinely been assigned on a racially differentiated basis.  To understand the actual moral practice of past and present, one needs not merely the standard abstract discussions of, say, the conflicts in people’s consciences between self interest and empathy with others but a frank appreciation of how the Racial Contract creates a racialized moral psychology.  Whites will then act in racist ways while thinking of themselves as acting morally.  In other words, they will experience genuine cognitive difficulties in recognizing certain behavior patterns as racist, so that quite apart from questions of motivation and bad faith they will be morally handicapped simply from the conceptual point of view in seeing and doing the right thing.  The Racial Contract prescribes, as a condition for membership in the polity, an epistemology of ignorance.”  To put it simply, when it comes to understanding and coming to terms with our racial history, white people in the U.S. are socialized to unconsciously live by the saying, “I don’t know and I don’t want to know!”

Mills on the damaging effects of de-racializing our history: “Now if the ‘Racial Contract’ is right, existing conceptions of the polity are foundationally deficient.  There is obviously all the difference in the world between saying the system is basically sound despite some unfortunate racist deviations, and saying that the polity is racially structured, the state white-supremacist, and races themselves significant existents that an adequate political ontology needs to accommodate.  So the dispute would be not merely about the facts but about why these facts have gone so long unapprehended and untheorized in white moral/political theory.  Could it be that membership in the Herrenvolk, the race privileged by this political system, tends to prevent recognition of it as a political system?  Indeed, it could.

Mills on the responsibility of white people to actively counter their ignorance: “Realizing a better future requires not merely admitting the ugly truth of the past—and present—but understanding the ways in which these realities were made invisible, acceptable to the white population.”

In the next Nygaard Notes I’ll discuss some of the ideologies and ways of thinking that have survived into the 21st Century and that continue to do their job of making many realities invisible to the white population.

“The United States’ Power Is Inherently Virtuous”

The New York Times has “a new column that explores the ideas and context behind major world events,” which they call “The Interpreter.”  On September 8th The Interpreter column highlighted President Obama’s early-September visit to Laos.  With this visit, Mr. Obama became “the first US president to return to the scene of one of US imperialism’s bloodiest crimes,” as the World Socialist Website put it.

The Times column—which ran in the news pages, not the editorial pages—was entitled “Acknowledging Thorny Issues Abroad, Obama Reframes American Power.”  Noting that it has become “practically routine” for Mr. Obama to “acknowledge the United States’ unsavory history in a country he was visiting,” the Times told readers that “This week, it was the C.I.A.-led bombing and paramilitary campaign that devastated Laos during the Vietnam War.”

The basic facts are not in dispute.  The President himself “recalled that the United States had dropped more than two million tons of bombs on this country during the height of the Vietnam War, more than it dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II. That made Laos, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in human history.”  Added the President, “Villages and entire valleys were obliterated. Countless civilians were killed. That conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a wrenching toll, especially on innocent men, women and children.”

Noted the Times, “While the president stopped short of apologizing, he was, in his words, ‘acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.’”

It’s stunning to hear the President equate the “suffering” of the victim of a historically bloody assault with the suffering of the country which assaulted it, but that wasn’t the most interesting comment in the column.  Towards the end of the column we read a number of statements that could only be written by someone who has accepted the Social Contract mythology that I’ve been discussing for the past couple of issues of Nygaard Notes.  Listen:

“Critics worry that Mr. Obama’s statements undermine the United States’ image as an intrinsic force for good in the world—an image that, to them, is central to American identity and power.”  The Times then turned to “Jeremy Shapiro, the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, [who] said this idea, though widespread in the United States, is something of a fallacy. Only Americans believe that the United States’ power is inherently virtuous; elsewhere, people see this idea as not only false, but dangerous.  ‘The disjuncture in the way that this is seen abroad and at home is one of the huge problems in U.S. foreign policy,’ said Mr. Shapiro, who is American. ‘This is an image that Americans have of themselves but is simply not shared, even by their allies.’”

Who are these “Americans” of whom the Times speaks?  Do indigenous people in the United States see U.S. power as “inherently virtuous”?  Does the average person of African descent see things this way?  I think not, but the Times, in its attempt to “explore the ideas and context behind major world events,” certainly does, as it later restates the point, telling us that “After World War II and decades of Cold War-era interventions, that message—of American power as inherently virtuous—became ingrained in American identity.”

I would venture to say that this may be generally true for white people in the U.S., in whose interests “American power” is most often deployed.  The fact that the nation’s Newspaper of Record can unself-consciously refer to something they call “American identity” as if there were a consensus on it’s virtue is a marker of the whiteness that is so large a part of the “identity” of Big Media.

Finally, just as the President could not bring himself to apologize for the criminal actions of the state of which he is the leader, neither can the Times acknowledge the criminal nature of the massive bombing of Laos.  As the Times has it, “When [the President] hints that the United States has caused harm abroad and perhaps even made mistakes, it squares American rhetoric with reality as the world perceives it.”

We know that the Propaganda system is truly doing its job when it appears to be remarkable for the President of the United States to admit that the U.S. government is not infallible (it has “perhaps even made mistakes”!).  When the day comes that the United States’ Newspaper of Record can “interpret” past U.S. behavior not as a mistake, but as an imperial war crime of the highest magnitude, then we’ll know that the voices of the people—ALL the people—are beginning to be heard in the halls of power.

This Just In From the World of Sports

Many of you have perhaps heard about a professional football player named Colin Kaepernick, who plays quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.  He has been in the news lately because he has been refusing to stand during the National Anthem, which is played before the start of every NFL football game. (Why in the world is the National Anthem played before virtually every sporting event that occurs in the United States?  How bizarre.)

Here’s how Kaepernick explains the motivation for his protest:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The New York Times reports that “Kaepernick, who is biracial and was adopted by white parents, said he had discussed his feelings with his family and, after months of witnessing recent civil unrest, he decided to be more active.”

All of which leads me to highlight what might appear to be a throwaway comment in the Star Tribune Sports Pages of September 8th.  In one of the endless stories about the [then] impending start of the professional football season, a Star Trib discussed a bunch of players at the quarterback position.  In that context the following paragraph appeared (all of the names are names of NFL quarterbacks):

“The Panthers-Broncos rematch comes Thursday night as the NFL kicks off its 97th season with Peyton Manning retired, Tom Brady suspended, Tony Romo injured, Case Keenum standing up for Los Angeles on one side Monday night and Colin Kaepernick kneeling down against America on the other.” [Emphasis added by Nygaard]

“Against America”?

This raises a question: Is the Star Tribune writer simply not aware of the motivation for Kaepernick’s protest?  Or does he think—as a lot of white people seem to think—that being against racist murders is to be “against America”?  Learn more about Kaepernick’s protest—and sign the petition of support for it—HERE.