Monday, December 1, 2014

Georg Simmel: Subordination under an Individual

Although we all live in the dream of freedom and equality, the truth is that in real life we relate to others in an unequal relationship. We are at least either slightly subordinate to them or slightly super-ordinate to them. In our modern age there is a tendency to regard all unequal relationships as scandalous, but Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff looks at the whole question of unequal relations are natural and social. All social relationship involves some sort of inequality.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

Now the point to keep in mind about domination is that no domination is complete. If it were, "it would annul the very notion of society." Only when "direct physical violation" is involved is there total domination; otherwise the question is merely a question of the price of freedom. Our submission to domination merely demonstrates that the price is more than we are willing to pay. Thus "coercion" is always a relative affair.

In other words, "Relationships of superordination and subordination play an immense role in social life." Take the question of "authority." In some cases a "person of superior significance or strength" may enjoy "an overwhelming weight" of power through his personal qualities. In other cases, it is the institution -- "state, church, school, family, or military" -- that "clothes a person with a reputation" for dignity and power way beyond his individual qualities. There is, in addition, a reciprocity between leader and led, which is shown in the case of the popular journalist, who must lead his readers where they want to go.

There are, writes Simmel, three kinds of subordination: under an individual, a group, or a principle. In this post we shall investigate subordination under and individual.

Subordination under an individual can be looked at in two ways. First of all there is the notion that the "will of the group has found a unitary expression or body" under its superordinate leader. Secondly, there is the resentment of the leader by the led; "the group feels itself in opposition to its head and forms a party against him." These two forces that seem in opposition are in fact both necessary, for
Man has an intimate dual relation to the principle of subordination. On the one hand he wants to be dominated. The majority of men... seeks the higher power which relieves them of responsibility... But no less do they need opposition to the leading power[.]
Thus, in politics, no matter how much people argue and conflict they have a common interest in limiting the power of the government, even in spite of the practical necessity of a strong government.

Of course, subordination under an individual does not always lead to unity. The oppression of dissidents by a central government does not necessarily unite them; the children of different mothers in a harem "are always hostile to one another."

How to unite the quarreling factions? One method is a "higher tribunal", usually an intellectual resolution of differences; alternatively the ruler can set the quarreling factions to work on a common task. Christianity, of course, subordinates all beings alike "to the divine principle." Another method is leveling, the tyrant's policy of equalizing all his subjects and preventing the emergence of any rival centers of power. The conversion of Rome from a republic to an empire reduced the Romans to the level of the peoples the republic had subjugated.

It is much easier for a single individual to dominate a large group than a small group. This is because in a large group people devolve into a "mass" but retain their individuality in a small group. Large legislatures may seem more democratic, but Alexander Hamilton pointed out that a large legislature will be run by the few.

A different dynamic applies when the ruler faces not a levelized mass but a pyramid. In this case, of course, the "power of the highest echelons withers" unless designed by the intention of the ruler, as we see in the articulation of a great army. The basic problem of a pyramid organization is that people do not always match their position in the organization, and it is hard to judge their suitability until they actually occupy their position.

But a pyramid can also grow from the bottom up, as in elective politics and business and "intellectual culture" where superior individuals move upwards in the pyramid of power. Many times downwards pushing and upwards pushing power coexist, as in feudalism, where individual small landowners might subject themselves to a local lord, and the lords use the power thus obtained to increase their power relative to the monarch.

Rule by one has an irresistible luster; the republic in the United States has its glorious president, and the republican France is ideally ruled by Rousseau's monarchical volonté générale. And even as the power of the Doge of Venice declined over the years, the Venetian elite kept the illusion of monarchy alive to prevent the emergence of a real ruler.

Yet the success of rule by one depends on the right distance of the ruler from the governed. In a small group it need not be great. But in a large group, such as a universal religion, the ruler cannot be high enough, in Heaven, so that the distance between ruler and ruled extinguishes the differences between the faithful.

Next: Subordination under a Plurality

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