We use the term society lightly. We say we belong to a society, as if society is an organization that has a clear hierarchy. We say ‘we’ as a body of individuals constitutes ‘the’ society. As if ‘we’ as such can be circumscribed into one description.
Society is the abstract term for the collection of domains. We can delineate a domain but the Domain of domains is in reality non-existent. This capital word, Domain, is for lack of a better term, merely a hint. Our obsession for an orderly hierarchy that climaxes at a summit inclines us to think that multiplicities are reducible to a One.
A domain is a pool in which a specific group gathers. Since the membership of any group is in constant flux –the phenomenon of change and chance –a domain is itself constantly reconfigured. There’s then no society. There are only domains that are constantly changing. There are only individuals whose allegiances and individualities are impossible to be singularized.
In a given free state, in which individual rights are upheld, we would be led to think this is the ideal condition for a democratic life: a balanced state in which the constant mixing and re-mixing of a diversity of variables disallow the forming of an overwhelming majority. What we often forget, however, is that underneath the calm and balanced façade a constant battle for domination rages. As soon as a group manages to form into a recognizable body, power exerts its ugly face through the manifestations of the aims and means of the group. The relations of the forces are by no means benign. Power appears in their midst not so much as an intermediary, the bargaining chip for peace, but rather as its ultimate objective. Power feeds on itself as the ultimate objective. Its relentless drive toward domination is its natural expression.
Domination of a group in a given situation is therefore an inevitable natural phenomenon. To break down the domination is the work of every historian, anthropologist, philosopher and for that matter any civilian. The question still remains. Since the relations of forces are naturally hostile and power craves domination, how do we achieve a state of equilibrium? Throughout the history of mankind various propositions have been posited. Baron de Montesquieu, a political thinker (1689-1755) suggests that equilibrium can be achieved only through separation of powers. One of the examples he cites is the rule of the monarch. A monarch surrounds himself or herself with nobilities. These nobilities with their own interests in mind help negotiate the wishes of the monarch with the subjects. Since a monarch’s rule is meaningless without the subjects, the wishes of the peasants must in some way be conformed in order for a peaceful continuation of the rule. In this way, equilibrium is achieved.
Dictatorship is easily the worst form of governance because it tends to self-destruct for the obvious reason that there is a limit at which the subjects will allow themselves to be subjugated. The modern parliamentarian rule is by far the weakest method of governance. Because, as is proven here and elsewhere, the parliament is the fallow ground in which the elites, the representatives, thrive either through the indifference of the people (lulled in the luxuries of freedom and riches of an advanced state) or through the ignorance or helplessness of the people (in developing countries).
Plato suggests the seven-day rule. A leader is elected through the random draw of straws. This notion is interesting because it prevents the ambitious and the rich from manipulating the selection process and the constant change of leadership means that vested interest groups will be kept at bay. Thus the rule of majority for all, rather than a minority for all, is constituted.
In 1976, Foucault abandoned a project on the domination of power. One of the reasons he cites is that looking at the domination forces us to see a phenomenon as if it has two opposing forces. He chooses instead to look into the relations of forces and operators of these relations. For him, to understand how these strands of forces work will help reinstate us as subjects (operators) rather than objects of forces.
Jacques Ranciere considers every situation in which a person takes a part, he or she is both sharing ‘in’ and sharing ‘with’ the other. A give and take situation in which domination is neutralized. Both he and Badiou share the belief that the representation of the unrepresented, the poor, the repressed, the invisible immigrants, are to be the tasks of a true state of emancipation.
These modern thinkers equip us with the necessary apparatuses to map the topology of the world we live in. Through them, we learn to look at every situation as a separate world that has its own secret rules and characteristics, which demands equally a different set of approaches or techniques. There is no Society, but there are societies. Our associations define us. They describe who we truly are and how we want to be identified as. More importantly, they teach us to be a paradigm in a given society, a singularity that doesn’t recognize the dichotomous zones of opposition. We are both exemplar and exemplum.
A version of this essay appeared in Now Jakarta, September 2010