Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Georg Simmel: Subordination under a Plurality

The most obvious way in which people are dominated is under a monarchy, the rule of one, as Georg Simmel writes in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff. But there are other forms of social domination, including the subordination under a "plurality", or a group rather than a single individual, and here the domination reflects the characteristics of the superordinate group.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

Generally, the larger the superordinate group, the better the subordinates get treated, but not always. The deciding factor is that the personal and subjective is likely to be more important in a domination by an individual, and the objective more important in a domination by a group. The individual superordinate may be cruel or merciful, but the group superordinate will go by the book.

The foregoing assumes that the superordinate group acts homogeneously; things change when this group loses its homogeneity, either by conflict or by hierarchy. Under two warring masters the subordinate tends to "suffer severely", as a small state suffers when two large neighbor states are in conflict, or when a child suffers under two conflicting parents. Typically, there is no way out of this kind of situation, as when Antigone wrestles with the burial of her father, required by her family and forbidden by the state. Curiously, we are so used to these sorts of situations and are so used to them that we seldom experience them as conflicts. We try to compartmentalize things, rendering unto Caesar and unto God, but what if the demands conflict? This is what modern women call a dilemma.

A different situation obtains when the superordinates are not in conflict. In this case the subordinate has more room for maneuver, and can take advantage of the situation. The relationship is similar to the tertius gaudens described above in the expansion of the dyad. Thus the medieval vassal, who owed feudal loyalty to several lords, had more freedom that a bondsman. The situation is similar for a polytheist believer, who can turn from one god to another. Likewise, modern man in the city gains a certain degree of independence in the city where he can change supplier (or employer) much more easily than in a village or a small town.

A different situation obtains where the superordinates are arranged in a hierarchy, which occurs under feudalism. Under William the Conqueror, the English were both "the king's men" and subordinate to their particular lord, and the subordinate could take advantage of conflicts between his direct lord and the king. The middle rank, therefore, finds itself in conflict both with its superordinate and its subordinates. But it is also true that pressures can be transmitted all the way up and down the hierarchy. A retailer unable to sell a product pushes back against his wholesaler and so on up the supply chain. A English lord owning an estate in Ireland might increase the rent to a "head farmer", and provoke an increase, with markups, through several middlemen to the poor peasant actually tilling the field. On the other hand, a nobility interposed between state power and the individual can shield the individual from the worst excesses of state power.

Another question is that of voting. Should a dissenting group be forced to accede to a majority vote? If a minority is forced to accede to a majority vote, then it is violated by the majority. But if a rule of unanimity is required then the majority is violated by a minority that prevents action by its negative vote. The question turns upon whether the community feels that the "homogeneous will of the group" requires the agreement of each individual, or whether it obtains from the decision of the majority. This problem is best understood in the working of parliamentary democracy. "The representative feels himself to be the delegate of the whole people" even though he was elected only by a majority of those voting. In Rousseau, the group member "can want nothing else than the will of the group". Therefore the dissenting individual is "mistaken" in opposing the volonté générale.

So it is that when a group decision has been made the individual "must positively participate in the action which was decided against his will and conviction."
In this way, outvoting, far from being only the simple practical violation of the one by the many, becomes the most poignant expression of the dualism between the autonomous life of the individual and the life of society[.]
 Next: Subordination under a Principle.

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