OUR SOCIAL CAGE AND WHY WE’RE RELUCTANT TO ACCEPT TRUE FREEDOM


Written by Aral Bereux.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

In 1762, a man by the name of Jean Jacques witnessed the publication of one of the most influential books on political philosophy ever written. It was his book. The Social Contract was written in a time of political angst and religious turmoil, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, already fresh in exile, understood how close he was to the precipice as he wandered near the edge with the essays he wrote of autonomy.

In 1762, historical events, such as the Seven Years’ War drawing to an end—a war for global pre-eminence—saw a French Empire in tatters, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s birth was still a consequence yet to be recognized. French Huguenot Jean Calas’ death by torture after being wrongly convicted of murdering his son was an event that inspired another great author, Voltaire, to write on religious tolerance and legal reform, and who, despite using his own platform to mock Rousseau’s writings, still promptly responded to the burning of The Social Contract as an act where those burning it “do not have enough wit to reply to it.” Censorship and tyranny were commonplace, and both Voltaire and Rousseau appreciated the inherent dangers of such. The year 1762 was a rough year, but it was not unlike those preceding it and certainly not those following. However, what perhaps 1762 reflected was a series of actions, consequences and creeping conformities which, in effect, laid the foundations for revolution and a great reset; it wasn’t the first time that humanity had been here, in this condition, and was by no means the last. In 2022, we face similar crossroads with high stakes, consequences and threats.

Despite its controversial nature at the time, Rousseau’s Social Contract helped inspire political reforms and revolution throughout Europe. It argued against divine power and for the sovereign autonomy of the citizen. Rousseau questioned if there could ever be a legitimate authority governing the people without absolute power corrupting those who governed, for to Rousseau, the exchange of freedom for slavery was a preposterous notion. Instead, through his writing, Rousseau presented a direct democracy rather than a representative one so that freedom could flourish.

However, despite Rousseau’s anti-authoritarian attributes, his essay acknowledges the role of government to preserve the freedoms of the individual through the might of the citizenry acting as one, thus ensuring that necessary freedoms are secured by utilizing the “consent of the governed.” This concept is vitally important today. And relevant. But let’s hold that thought for a moment to see where the concept ‘to be governed’ came from and the dangers involved.

WHY DID GOVERNMENT FORM?

The notion of government arose centuries prior, with the Mesopotamians forming a social contract with the people, which eventually evolved into what is known as the social cage; however, it is vitally important to understand why and how this occurred, so we can understand the direction in which we’re heading today. The construct of the social cage in which we find ourselves today is not by fortunate mistakes and coincidence, however much we try to tell ourselves. The construct that we live in today, in Western societies particularly, is not representative of the populace’s will that Rousseau spoke and hoped for, but is rather, a carefully executed gilded cage of invisible bars (benevolently, for which I’ll let you decide) designed to ensure we don’t stray too far from the walls of our society. 

Rousseau’s famous opening quote, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”, from The Social Contract, alludes in part to the restrictions of man by the State. Rousseau spoke of the inequalities that arose from the State’s formation and how humanity became alienated as a result. Michael Mann, a twentieth-century sociologist, explains this further by illustrating how the social cage expands on why this might be when discussing the nature of power and its hold on man’s free will.

WHAT CAME FIRST? THE CAGE or GOVERNMENT?

To leave a ‘social cage’, whether metaphorically or physically, for the freedom that Rousseau treasures thus means to leave the settlement’s safety, to go it alone and risk the dangers of an unknown world outside the constructed boundaries, essentially in a state of exile. This, Mann argues, is what keeps the person confined to the city walls rather than forego the safety of harvests and settlements for an uncertain future, and in today’s context, foregoing social inclusion, culture and employment.

Historically, the social cage formed through the development of agriculture which, in turn, created social networks around trade. This produced a centralized territory to be protected that, in turn, produced private property ownership through fixed pieces of fertile land. The fixed territory (static geography) then caged people more. The territory enabled labor, workforces, and centralized authority (which eventually required the protection of an organized military) to protect and manage the agricultural systems that sustained them.

However, what we need to understand from a historical context, and therefore apply it to today, is that the social cage is held together by the exercise of a permanent coercive power derived from the temporary authority that began with the military and the creation of kings. The transfer from temporary authority to permanent coercive power was an unintentional side effect of military leaders awarded a kingship for their ability to protect their city and can be traced back to Mesopotamia’s early Uruk societies. From this, a rank authority developed along with war leaders (who could easily be contextualized as our elected ‘leaders’ today), moving toward a stratified state that enabled a division of labor as private property ownership forced the rural periphery out and away from the city’s core. Gradually, the successful ‘war leader’ as king gained long-term authority and could attain private resources as a permanent fortification for the temple (seen today in the form of Washington, Canberra or the Kremlin) and a military to fight future wars (Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan). The distribution of private resources to the kings of Mesopotamian times steadily turned representative authority into a coercive power that strengthened as time went on.

This is an age-old tactic. The economic powers gained from establishing private property and agricultural means are no young concept and have become a feature of modern nations. And although this evolution did not become the coercive force that the modern nation-states know it as today, by taking millennia to establish, the precondition of power transference from temporary to permanent was set in motion. In today’s world, no matter the political ideology of the nation-state, citizens experience the inequalities of social closure and social caging.

SELF-SABOTAGE or AN ACT of SACRIFICE?

 ‘Social closure’ results from social caging: it is the “advanced efforts by the powerful to exclude less powerful people from the full benefits of joint enterprises”, according to Charles Tilly, who coined the term. The inequality created from the division of labor, which results from social closure, excludes those of lesser importance and can still be seen today with the mandates imposed for the ‘good of the people’ in the nation-states’ unequal distribution of State-restricted opportunities through rules and limited opportunities among chosen populations. Weber’s ‘social closure’ infers the social relationships between the State and citizens as antagonistic, a centralized authority restricting social freedom—and this isn’t anything new. This model arrived with the emergence of the early State, and from it grew an organization of power based on manipulation and exclusion, which was used to benefit those in charge. Within a vast network of overlapping power, the citizen becomes more dependent on the State—and it is intentional. Just as the Mesopotamians’ social cage became an entrapment for citizens coerced into accepting their new civilization and what therefore developed into the future State, modern civilizations experience similar conditions.

CAGING SOCIETY for the sake of . . .

The Execution of King Louis.

As discussed, the social cage is not restricted to earlier histories, and it is the purpose of this essay to discuss the creeping conformities that placed 2022’s populace at a rare crossroads of either change or more of the same. How we arrived here and the direction we now take will impact civilization for centuries to come, just as it did when the Uruk societies of Mesopotamia choose to award kingships to those of military might. The modern state shares the same qualities as then—and as much as Rousseau’s era in the eighteenth century—and can be explicit in historical events, such as the East and West division of Germany post World War Two or tacitly experienced in nations across the world up until now. Whether by passive or aggressive means, the ‘permanent coercive power’ that is used against those who remain within the city walls is a distinctive modern feature (albeit based on ancient history) of the social cage we all experience. Just as the State did in the French Revolution when Rousseau was alive, the modern twenty-first-century State holds permanent power over its citizens in the forms of ideological, economic, military and political authority. These four systems of power that Mann demonstrated and labeled as the IEMP model surely overlap. As a result, these networks enable the social caging that Mann deliberates and which Rousseau decried.

UNPRECEDENTED WORLDWIDE UNREST in 2019…

Just as the agricultural establishments along the rivers (primarily) in Mesopotamia confined man to the safety of the state’s geographical walls behind the very boundaries that Rousseau reviled, the social cage, originally constructed as a ‘temporary authority’, organizes power in a way that confines human beings behind fixed social and territorial boundaries in modern society. In today’s context, we’re all too familiar with the “two weeks to flatten the curve”, climate change and social distancing mantras.

For Mann, the successful exercise of power requires a social cage restricting the citizen’s option of leaving, a “closing of the escape route,” if you will. This, Mann explains, comes from both geographical boundaries, such as the arid regions of Egypt, or social and cultural boundaries where the “containment of human beings behind clear, fixed, confined social and territorial boundaries” is evident. In today’s context, this has formed by way of ideologies and physical coercion to distinguish those who do from those who do not, via physical international borders to the closing down of boroughs, tokens of facial clothing, and ritual and digital signaling. 

For Mann, the successful exercise of power requires a social cage restricting the citizen’s option of leaving, a “closing of the escape route,” if you will. This, Mann explains, comes from both geographical boundaries, such as the arid regions of Egypt, or social and cultural boundaries where the “containment of human beings behind clear, fixed, confined social and territorial boundaries” is evident. In today’s context, this has formed by way of ideologies and physical coercion to distinguish those who do from those who do not, via physical international borders to the closing down of boroughs, tokens of facial clothing, and ritual and digital signaling. 

In this context, it is vital to understand why the vast majority (around sixtyish percent) insist on conforming to these constructs so far mentioned—the ‘positives’ if you will, that, despite the citizen being coerced via power to stay, allow the citizen to experience the benefits of technological advancement as well as a consistent civilization that is protected by the military. Although there are positives to living within the social cage, the advancements of the nation-state also rely on the same interwoven networks of power to sustain its function. Thus, those who oppose are seen as a threat, a cause of disruption and possible fragmentation. You see, if the disintegration of a society occurs, as was seen in 2019 in Venezuela, or with the French protests, the Hong Kong protests, or Greece’s financial crisis, a nation-state’s social order, along with its networks of power, begins to fail. At extremes, failed states occur. Arguably, most nations today can fit into this latter category with their infrastructure and services collapsing as well as the State’s failure to protect populations against violence while systematically neglecting to govern effectively with state revenues, health and education. By examining this, one can argue both sides: are today’s governments fearful of their own demise through the collapse of their system, or are they genuinely fearful of the collapse? Michael Mann’s IEMP model of the ideological, economic, military and political networks of power overlapping to create the social caging of citizens, which is being implemented by the State today, begs many answers and even more questions.

…A GENIE in a BOTTLE

       Nonetheless, the question of how the social cage came into form and how it influences the State and citizenry through social closure provides only one side of why the social caging model is so incredibly successful in the post-modern world. The durability of State authority over the populace has not always been strictly successful. The revolt between the Hutu state and Rwandan Tutsi provides a modern example of where military groups separate from the State to work against it in what preceded the Rwandan massacres. In Rousseau’s time, the French Revolution also demonstrated a separation between a monarchical ruler and the citizen overthrowing an old regime to form the state’s Republic. Both instances show the likelihood of the State suffering initially from the mobilization of the citizen, in what could be considered a result of the divisions of labor Weber described and Karl Marx only hoped for. Michael Mann’s model of power is facilitated by the citizens rather than the state to achieve their goals in both Rwanda and eighteenth-century France. However, for the number of examples where this occurred in history, there are more examples of the State successfully dominating and caging the citizen into passive compliance. Why this occurs needs to be examined to understand the reasoning behind the States’ success in doing so.

Just before early 2020, in mid to late 2019, explicit examples of events resulting from the symptoms of social caging, the unrest of massive amounts of populations worldwide, were seen with the rise of the French Yellows Vests protesting for change against a government using violence to quell civil unrest, the protests in Hong Kong (or now in China) against the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party, or the austere policies implemented in Greece to restrict citizen finances and spending. In France, there was and still is political distrust. In China, military suppression and ideology coerced Hong Kong citizens and ‘disappeared’ those who refused to ‘play ball’, and Greece’s issue is one of political and economic policy coercion. Each event shows the workings of the power networks Mann discusses as necessary elements for effective social caging in a permanent coercive manner, and when they fail, it begs the question of what coercive means ‘they’ will resort to.

       The argument that social caging is a precondition for the transformation of ‘temporary authority’ into ‘permanent coercive power’ is warranted. The arrival of 2020 witnessed growing unrest tamed by lockdowns and an invisible enemy the governments perpetuated. Power, as discussed, becomes centralized when the conditions are right, set by the overlapping four networks of power that Mann discusses: ideology, economics, the military and politics. As each network occurs within the geographical area of the nation-state, the social cage strengthens, making it difficult for the citizen to leave or disobey. As a result, infrastructure (facial recognition, surveillance, censorship, etc.) grows to support the population, and the State must adapt to support and protect its growth.

As history dictates, the exchange of power from temporary to permanent was initially unintentional but now forms the basis for the modern State. Although there are some benefits to the social cage in the way of technological advancement and social groups and resources, the inequality and division that are now seen in a post-Covid era only fortifies the nation-states’ power over the citizen. Just as history notes in Mesopotamia and as modern times experience, social caging perpetuates the States’ control over their populations. The true risk, however, is when a State begins to fail and when the division of labor creates a unification among similar social groups to unite against the political authority as a response. One, I think, we might be witnessing now.

Little by little, how we arrived at this critical juncture, those conformities of which we were warned and the power the governments worldwide now exert needs to be examined.

The white elephant in the room needs to be addressed.

We are not as sophisticated as we like to imagine.


This article is a free and open source. You have permission to republish Our Social Cage and Why We’re Reluctant to Accept True Freedom under a Creative Commons license with attribution to the website intheattic.media and author Aral Bereux.

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