French philosopher Jean Jacques 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. It’s a pertinent statement in a time of crisis. The world faces many uncertainties; financial and health strain moving into unprecedented territories, the COVID 19 virus strangling our way of living.
During this time, it’s important to understand the nature of government power and where it comes from.
Rousseau spoke of the inequalities that arose from the State’s formation and how humanity became alienated as a result. Renown sociologist Michael Mann elaborates on Rousseau’s ideas, of why this might be when discussing the nature of power and the hold it has over man’s free will.
The fact is, in times of trouble like today, citizens look to their governments for protection. It is a trade off we as a people have signed up for. When times are good, albeit mainly in a democratic nation, we pay taxes, we go to work, we cooperate as reasonable, logical citizens. The nature of government power is that when times are bad, they remember our good deeds and repay in kind by closing borders and keeping us safe.
Societies back in the day were transformed into walled cities that offered protection, which were organised by the few, and in return, a division of labour was created to develop and insulate the city—what is known in academic circles as a “social cage.”
The power trade-off doesn’t always work, however, and in many countries right now, it may seem that the balance is tipping away from our favour. Only time will tell but we need to be aware.
To leave a ‘social cage’ for the freedom Rousseau treasured, means to leave the settlement’s safety, to go it alone and risk the dangers of an unknown world outside the constructed boundaries. 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 can be translated into isolation within four familiar walls with Netflix and Spotify as we wait for a virus to die out.
The social cage as we are all now experiencing in tangible, physical terms is not restricted to earlier, darker histories anymore. This is a fundamental structure of government shift and society impact, no matter the nation we discuss.
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 of the social cage. Just as the State did in French Revolution times when Rousseau was alive, the modern 21st century State holds a permanent coercive power over its citizens in the form of ideological, economic, military, and political authority. And its trajectory is set to strengthen.
What this means today is that like it or not, we are bound to do as we’re told. If we don’t, we face imprisonment, fines, or worse in some nations. World governments will argue the safety of all is dependent on the actions of a few.
But we’re revisiting old histories; borders are shutting down, there is no globalisation for the individual. We’re relying on the old strategy of the nation state’s geographical boundaries to keep us safe.
This is as old as time itself.
For Mann, the successful exercise of power requires a social cage restricting the citizen’s option of leaving—a “closing of the escape route.”
Michael Mann’s argument that social caging is a precondition for the transformation of ‘temporary authority’ into ‘permanent coercive power’ is warranted. We’re seeing it at work now. Never in a time of millennial history have we seen a global lockdown.
It’s scary, yes. Power becomes centralised when conditions are right, set by four overlapping networks of power that Mann discusses: ideology, economics, the military, and politics. A structure we cannot escape.
We’re experiencing mass lockdowns and wondering when we’re next. As each network occurs, and within the geographical area of the nation-state, the social cage strengthens, making it difficult for the citizen to leave. But times are unprecedented, short of the Spanish Flu or Plague. And back then, governments weren’t in a position to react as they are today.
Life as we know it is different. The impacts will be felt for decades if not longer. We don’t get to come out of this unscathed.
For good or bad, the modern State is working hard to fortify its power over the citizen. Just as history notes in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, and as we experience in modern times, social caging perpetuates the States’ control over its populations.
The true risk now is when a State begins to fail, and the divisions this will create, uniting social groups against the political authority as a response.
I dare say we haven’t seen anything yet.