Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Georg Simmel: Subordination under a Principle

For most of human experience we have been ruled by people. But in the modern era we are ruled also by "principle," by laws and ideas. This has an important consequence, according to Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff.
The individual who is subordinate to an objective law feels himself determined by it; while he, in turn, in no way determines the law, and has no possibility of reacting to it in a manner that could influence it -- quite in contrast to the most miserable slave, who, in some fashion at least, can still in this sense react to his master.
Nevertheless, modern man regard subordination to a principle as "the more dignified situation." But Simmel cites 16th century princes who "often met with considerable resistance" from rule "by administrative bodies... that is more nearly by laws." Aristotle and Plato both recommend government by law, but Plato recognizes that a ruler stands above the law and that the welfare of the community may require that he "act even against the laws laid down by him."

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

There are principles other than law, for instance patrimony, as implemented in imperial Russia. This can result in "humiliatingly harsh... subordination", such as the peasant belonging to the land, and the child belonging to the father not because he fathered it but because the mother belongs to him.

Subordination under a principle raises an interesting question. A principle seems to have a dual influence, both as "an impersonal order to which we simply have to submit" and something that "our most private and internal impulses" impose on us.

But the principle is not just an objectivity "enthroned in an ideal realm above society and the individual." One can also think of society "as the third element, which solves conflicts between the individual and objectivity" whether objectivity is an abstract principle or a fact of nature. Thus the market economy mediates between the individual and nature; and breaks down the idea that a cultural value must either "spring from an individual" or come down from Heaven.

Simmel introduces two penetrating examples of society interposing between individual and objectivity. The first example is the attempts of the state to control the market as it emerges from local and informal production relationships. It "supplies the individual with a norm" before he comes to understand the norm as it presents itself in the interplay of market prices and relationships. This social function also works in the intellectual sphere. Individuals pick up "traditional, authoritative conceptions which are 'accepted by all'" without confronting reality in the raw or really understanding it. Indeed, individuals may prefer not to know the reality of nature and reality without the comfortable sheen that society gives it.

Finally, Simmel takes a look at the effect of subordination to a principle on actual people: superordinates and subordinates. It is important to remember that usually the personal superordination/subordination came first, gradually giving place to an objective ideal in which the superordinate "exerts his power" as the "representative of this ideal, objective force." Simmel relates the development of the power of the pater familias among the Aryans. Originally his power was unlimited, subject only to his whim and advantage. But then it developed into a "feeling of responsibility" to the family. The father became subject to the idea of the family, merely an "executor and obeyer." Thus the "commander subordinates himself to the law which he has made." We also see this in the modern economy where everyone, from the CEO to the line worker, seems to be "the servant of an objective, economic procedure." The interplay of the personal and the objective is illustrated in the notion of employment at will. This minimizes the personal subjection of worker to management, since the worker can leave at will, whereas a long-term contract implies a bond, or personal subjection. But the same senior manager at a large business that bullies his subordinates around will "exhibit serviceable and devout" behavior to the firm's clients.

The introduction of objective principle into social life creates wonders of social interactions and complexities that are absent from simple personal super- and subordination.

Next: Degrees of Domination.

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