Friday, December 5, 2014

Georg Simmel: Degrees of Domination

We moderns worship at the altar of freedom and equality, but Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff warns us that domination and subordination are an inescapable part of being social. In almost every relation, one person is a little less equal that the other.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

Simmel has previously gone into excruciating detail about "superordination and subordination" by type, that is, subordination to an individual, to a group, to a principle. Now he looks at the degree of subordination or domination.

But first he examines a peculiar case, that of superordinates without subordinates. He means a group of people that does not even think about subordinates. Examples are the Spartans, that just called themselves homoioi, or similar ones. Their subordinates were subject peoples, and they never talked about them. Plato speaks about the"born king" who is kingly whether or not he has a kingdom to rule. In the Salvation Army, everyone is an officer, and the Freemasons are all "sovereigns and born princes of the whole order." Whether such people live in the real world or an imagined world is a separate question.

Another question is the relation of superordination and freedom. People in a subordinate position naturally long for a liberation from that domination, and they often express their longing as a desire for freedom. We may describe this a desire for "equality with the superior". The proletarian naturally wants to climb up a rung to equality with the bourgeois. But then what? What happens next is a struggle for supremacy, a desire to be superior, for, as Simmel says, we want not only freedom, but "to use it for some purpose." In other words, domination. A peculiar instance of this drive for superiority is for an elite group to have its own laws. It may seem like domination for a group to subject its members to special laws, but that specialness or separation is a measure of the group's freedom and contributes to the sense among its members of their superiority.

However, a successful drive for freedom among a coalition of groups will immediately expose disagreement: As soon as feudalism was abolished in Bohemia in 1848 the differences between the poor peasants and well-to-do peasants came to the fore. The stronger group in a coalition may appropriate most or all of the gains from a political struggle for freedom.

In other words, "the quest for freedom... has, as its correlate or consequence, the quest for domination". But both "socialism and anarchism deny the necessary character of this connection." They argue that super-subordination will disappear once society is organized as the "coordination of all elements." Of course, it is almost impossible to implement such a plan because nothing "can eliminate natural difference among men" nor eliminate the need for "leaders and executors." But it might be possible to eliminate the feeling of "degradation and oppression" in the subordinates. Simmel suggests that this is possible by a "differentiation of objective and subjective life-elements, whereby subordination is preserved as a technical organizational value" that is not felt subjectively as degradation. Thus people may perform as subordinates at work but greet their boss as an equal in social situations. The elimination of degradation is also achieved by rotation of offices in small organizations and by short terms and term limits for elected offices.

Another way in which super-subordination is diminished is by the normal operation of democracy in which ordinary people, who have no expertise in governing, are supposedly the source of power, while the magistrates and representatives are the servants of the people. A similar threading of power was achieved in Britain after the Glorious Revolution. The clergy, opposed to parliamentary power, was given power over marriages and testaments and sanctions over Catholics; in return it recognized "that the divine world order had room for a parliamentary world order." Similarly in a bureaucracy the superior is often dependent upon the technical knowledge of the subordinate.

In general, we can view social domination in part as a form of the "objective organization of society." But domination also expresses "differences in personal qualities among men." We can imagine that social domination begins with purely personal qualities, such as force, piety, skills, that define superiority. As objective government structures developed the king had to be perfect: King David was said to be "singer and warrior, a layman and a prophet" and had the skills to meld secular power with "spiritual theocracy." But the development of the state and the division of labor makes the personal omnipotence of the ruler unnecessary, and develops into an objective form where the position not the person defines super-subordination. Outside of politics it is clear that the mere possession of money implies a certain social position. The modern economy creates an abundance of positions for which many people are qualified, while creating remarkable opportunities for the exceptionally gifted.

Against this tendency, socialism proposes a completely centralized and articulated hierarchy and presupposes, by its doctrines of equality, that all are equally qualifies for positions. It ought to implement a system of appointment to positions by lottery. And yet the existence of a cenralized government hierarchy destroys the principle that all are equal.

A related problem applies to any aristocracy, or rule by the "best." Artists commonly prefer aristocracy, where internal excellence is revealed in outer appearance.  Yet who is to determine the "best?" Neither the breeding of the best nor a free struggle for position has yielded the best, so perhaps the lesser evil of a general equality is best. Or maybe, failing any method of selecting the "best" and granting the necessity of government, perhaps the "best" superordinate is the "subjectively adequate individual." This is not as scandalous as it seems. Elections of the "medieval English parliament seem to have been conducted with astonishing negligence and indifference." All that mattered was that someone was elected from each district.

Earlier, Simmel has written that absolute coercion is rare; there is always some degree of freedom even for the most abject slave. Now he notes the ubiquity of some level of coercion in social relations, for instance in marriage laws. The coercion may make life unbearable, but it may also encourage people to make their life in common "at least as bearable as possible." There is in human life a constant drama between freedom and subordination, and the routine coercions of social life bring them into focus.

In the final analysis there is a basic problem in super-subordination, that "there are always more people qualified for superordinate positions than there are such positions." Moreover many people appointed to superior positions are less capable than those left behind as subordinates. It is telling that modern government and its perfect hierarchy tends to presuppose an infallibility in its functionaries that contrasts with the inadequacy of its actual executives. In fact, the absence of constant disaster indicates that many people of average ability can do the jobs of a governing hierarchy. In Athens, as today, people are more interested in personal qualities such as friendliness and caring about people like me than objective qualifications when selecting their representatives. Yet once elected, we accord our representatives respect. Even in the 17th and 18th century it was assumed that the subject, permanently in need of royal guidance, immediately acquired the necessary insights and public spirit on being appointed to public office.

Next: Knowledge, Truth and Falsehood

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