Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: The Poverty of Liberal, Social Contract Theory of Violence

I wrote this article almost four years ago in reaction to the public’s claim to be inconvenienced by Oakland protesters stopping traffic on the freeway of Interstate 880 in Oakland in solidarity with the two black men shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. The point of that article was to show that bystanders’  ideas of where violence starts, when it starts and who the perpetrators of violence are betrays an adherence to a liberal social contract theory rooted in Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. Even those who claim to be “non-violent” are trapped in social contract theory. At the end of the article I argue for a political-economic understanding of where, when and who is responsible for the violence.
Given the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the subsequent torching of police stations and the shutting down of bus lines, we will surely hear even greater howls from bystanders that they are being inconvenienced, that their rights are being infringed on, they had nothing to do with the violence and that the police are a neutral force. All these claims are rooted in the same social contract theory that becomes increasingly moth-eaten as capitalism continues to disintegrate.

First published July 22, 2016

Are “bystanders” to violent events neutral or complicit?

In the past couple of weeks I’ve read a number of articles about police violence and citizens’ reactions to that violence. Most of these articles rightly point to the structural roots of police violence. However, I have found little written about how the people who are not directly involved in confrontations, “bystanders”, make sense of what is going on. How do people react to either police shooting citizens, citizens shooting the police or to the protests against police violence? Do people who seemed not directly involved in the violence constitute a neutral force or do they have some responsibility for what happens? I soon found how these bystanders thought about it, but not in the manner of my own choosing.

My controversial Facebook post

Almost two weeks ago one of my Facebook friends posted an aerial view of about 1,000 protesters in Oakland moving towards highway 880 to block traffic in reaction to the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In my post I congratulated the protesters for their collective-creative courage in stepping out onto speeding traffic and stopping it. I said we need more of this until the entire road system is clogged. I also pointed out of the relatively recent existence of police departments (second half of the 19th century) and that for most of human history societies managed without them.

Since the original post was linked to KRON news, many more people saw my post than my normal networks. In a single day, I received over 2,000 responses. The good news for me, and what I suspect are most of the readers of leftist new sources, is that close to 80% “liked” what I said. Now for those of you not initiated into the mysteries of Facebook, “likes” don’t tell you much about the thinking processes of people, but I see it as better than having no information at all.

However, I want to focus on the responses of the 500 or so people that had commented. Most of these comments were hostile. Those who were hostile, but intelligent (meaning they explained why they were upset) can be divided into those who were put off because they were inconvenienced and thought I was insensitive to that. Then there were those who couldn’t imagine doing without the police and that I was completely unrealistic in claiming that a society could exist without them. I want to focus on how their hostility is connected to a liberal, social contract theory of violence.

A liberal theory of violence

Most people in the United States think that social life operates as social contracts, just as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau described it. They also think normal social life is neutral and non-violent. Violence, they believe, begins at the point of a physical confrontation between people and usually includes lethal weapons. If there is no physical confrontation, there is no violence. So, for example, at a demonstration when the protesters are gathered and listening to speeches and the police are present, but simply talking to each other, these folks would say there is no violence. For a liberal theory of violence, the point where violence begins is when the police either use billy clubs, tear gas or tasers on the protesters, or when the protesters start throwing rocks at the police or through bank windows. If none of these things occurred, bystanders and the media deem the demonstration “peaceful”.

In the case of the protesters blocking the freeway, the police forcing them off the freeway and the protesters resisting the police, these would be claimed to be acts of violence. However the people patiently waiting for the cops to get the protesters off the freeway – bystanders – were not being violent. So in other words the world is composed of three groups: cops on the one hand; protesters, criminals or deviants on the other; and the neutral public as bystanders.

This liberal theory of violence is grounded in the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau (whom I’ll discuss later) were very different politically, but they all agreed that individuals were autonomous, self-subsisting beings who entered into social relations as a result of a “contract”. Interactions between individuals were voluntary, accidental and associative. Contracts were made only after the individual shrewdly weighed the costs and benefits of joining an association – as opposed to remaining alone.

Minding my own business: a Lockean theory of violence

The first of two major complaints against my post was that people were minding their own business. “Why should we be inconvenienced with something that has nothing to do with us? Even if the police were wrong to kill these guys, what does that have to do with me? Why do I have to lose two hours out of my day over something that has nothing to do with me?” This is a great example of the social contract operating. People imagine themselves as isolated monads who have families and jobs where their real social life is. Their membership in a social class, race, region or religion is a secondary matter. Primarily, they are individuals (or in cross-cultural psychology terms, “individualists”. But these individuals still enter the public zone where they walk, take public transportation or drive to get to work or go home. These Lockean individuals treat the public world as an instrumental waystation between their real social world of home, family and work. How is the public world engaged? The state of public bathrooms, increasing road rage and people crossing the street checking their cell phones, oblivious to cars making turns into their crosswalks, are just the tip of an iceberg of the increasing contempt of public life in the United States. This is a world in which normal social responsibilities are generally disregarded or kept to a bare minimum. In the public world “minding my own business” is the code of public conduct.

The political and racial nature of being inconvenienced

Being inconvenienced is intolerable if you play by the rules of minding your own business. As I shall argue shortly, social contract theory has very little to do with the real requirements of social life and the deeply social nature of our identity among even those who complain about being inconvenienced. The same people who claim to be minding their own business and being inconvenienced generally are quite capable of dealing with the ups and downs of public life and making adjustments, depending on the occasion. As I said in one of my rebuttals to some Facebook posts, you are inconvenienced all the time. You wait on lines to buy groceries longer than you’d like because the stores are understaffed. You wait on lines for hours on Black Friday to get deals the day after Thanksgiving. You wait in traffic for hours before and after ball games. Maybe most importantly, you accept the inconvenience of stock market crashes which deplete your savings and threaten your pensions. For these things you have plenty of reasons as to why you shouldn’t make a big deal about it. After all, what can you do? But when events are political and racially charged, for this – you will not put up with being inconvenienced.

Why don’t people see this? Cross-cultural psychologists say that the United States is the most individualist society in the world. Part of being an individualist, as I’ve said earlier, is that demographic membership – region, class, race – is generally not considered an important part of one’s identity. Another characteristic of individualism is that history does not matter. As individualists, those minding their own business tend to downplay their class and racial identity and they can’t understand why people are making such a big deal of these police killings. Because of their lack of appreciation of history, individualists can’t imagine that things that have happened in the past matter today because they are still present within existing social structures. When I teach a class in social psychology or cross-cultural psychology I have my students answer questions about white privilege. Most of my white students are amazed at how much privilege they have without ever being aware of it. This privilege entitles people to “mind their own business.”

“Without the police there would be anarchy”: a Hobbesian theory of violence

As I said earlier part in my post, we could do very well without the police, not immediately, but in the long run. I pointed out that the police force was established in the 19th century, essentially to help capitalists combat an increasingly militant labor force. I pointed out that tribal societies and agricultural civilizations also had to keep most of their population safe and they did so without police forces. I also pointed out that in revolutionary situations, citizen militias were formed as people patrolled their own communities. For some people on the Facebook thread, this was incomprehensible. Specifically, they said that without the police there would be “anarchy”. Thomas Hobbes couldn’t have said it better. Their belief is that people are competitive, aggressive, greedy, full of insatiable appetites and that without state intervention (in this case the police) life would be nasty, brutish and short.

“Give Peace a Chance”: A Rousseauism theory of non-violence

By far the most radical of the three social contract theorists was Rousseau. Rousseau had a more optimistic view of human beings than either Hobbes or Locke. Rousseau thought that people were basically good and that the state, private property or the trappings of civilization oppressed them. Rousseau believed the public was capable of participatory direct democracy. In spite of Rousseau attributing a more social nature to humanity, he also held that individuals voluntarily entered into a social contract and they were free to withdraw.

Up to now I have only talked about social contract theory as it relates to violence. Now I want to suggest that even those who claim to be non-violent still operate using a social contract theory of society. Today, Rousseau’s way of making sense of the relationship between individuals and society roughly corresponds to those liberals or anarchists who advocate “non-violence” as a political strategy. Social contract theory is operating when those advocating non-violence imagine that they can choose to be non-violent. For these left-wing social contract theorists, violence begins at the point of forceful contact. If, during a demonstration, protesters stayed away from the police, or practiced civil disobedience, these liberals or anarchists would congratulate themselves on behaving in a non-violent way. At the point of contact, if the police act violently and the protesters don’t resist, the protesters believe they are behaving in a non-violent way. They imagine that public social life is neutral and can remain neutral if the force of the state can be resisted.

Towards a political economy theory of violence                                                                                    

Marx and Durkheim are not alone in claiming that individuals are constitutionally social beings. In social psychology, Lev Vygotsky, George Herbert Mead and Ivana Markova all say in their own way that we are already always social. It is impossible not to be social. In fact they would say that without being socialized you are not even human. So where does social contract theory come from? According to C.B. Macpherson, social contract theory is a product of the development of early capitalist society as a way to explain new market relations. But how might these social constitutionalist theories help us to understand the relationship between the police, protesters, deviants and bystanders? Read on.

All class societies are, at their core, violent. In a society where oligarchs control the wealth and the lower classes are subjugated, violence is always the means of first or last resort. True, the ruling classes in history have used various types of propaganda to convince the lower classes why the upper classes deserve to be where they are and why the lower classes deserve to be where they are. But if all else fails, state repression is the result. In class societies state violence is always already the case. That means that even when the state (in our case the police) appears to do nothing, it already is violent because the police have massive violent and lethal means at hand. “Ok” you might say, “but where do the bystanders come into this?”

Bystanders on the freeway who think they are minding their own business and are inconvenienced pay taxes. Those taxes go into the production of violence from the factories where all the weapons are assembled and produced, to the places were the weapons are circulated as well as where they are distributed – including to the police. When weapons are produced, these weapons are already violent, ready-at-hand to use. Secondly, these same citizens pay taxes, which are converted into the salaries of the police. Furthermore, the workers all the way down the supply chain from production to circulation to distribution of weapons are also implicated in what the police do. For these workers it may just be a job, and they consciously live in their micro-world of family and friends, but behind their backs, they are part of a macro world. They are “socially unconscious” that they are also helping to produce violence. There is no such thing as people having a choice of whether or not to be violent. Everyone is more or less complicit.

For the Facebook critics that I’m calling Hobbesians who say that without the police there would be anarchy, what I think they mean is that without the police people would be even more violent than they are already are. They seem to think the citizens without the police are more violent in their social life than citizens with the police. For them the police restore “order”. These folks think that normal public life with the police guarding us is orderly and not violent. Rather than state violence being institutionalized to protect the upper classes, these Hobbesians think that the state is the great neutralizer, the great emulsifier that holds colliding monads from creating a war of all against all. Where might that way of thinking come from? Research shows that those who watch violent programs on television and in the movies repeatedly are more likely to imagine society as more violent than crime statistics show.

Lastly for those Rousseaians who want to give peace a chance, this is an impossible project while social classes continue to exist. The natural resources must be seized from the hands of the upper classes and redistributed to the middle class, working class and poor. This would certainly involve violent conflicts and it would take generations of resocialization to reduce the violence, even in a socialist society. Those who meditate, do yoga attend non-violent workshops and practice civil disobedience still have jobs and pay taxes that fund the state machine of violence.

Violence involves both force and coercion

In the field of social psychology there is a simple distinction made between force and coercion as power bases. Force is the direct application of lethal means of violence on human beings. This is what social contract and my Facebook critics mean by violence. What they are missing is that there is a second source of violence, coercion, and it is defined as the threat of the use of force with lethal means. This threat of force has to be produced by all the people who are working to produce the weapons and those who pay taxes to pay the workers to make the weapons. In other words, there is violence being produced in the process of making the weapons available even if they are never used.


First, I am not suggesting that because I am calling my hostile audience “liberal”, that means that I think everyone posting was politically liberal. Liberal social contract theory operates as a theory of how society and the individual should be understood, based on living in a capitalist society. It is a framework that both liberals and conservatives accept no matter who is in power. Conservatives were won over to this somewhere in the middle of the 19th century when they realized that feudalism and the king were not coming back. This occurred at roughly the same time that they abandoned their organic hierarchical theory of society and the individual and slowly embraced social contract theory.

Lastly, to those brave thousand people who stepped on the freeway in Oakland and risked their lives in 2016, I salute you and I hope more of these freeway closures happen as police violence continues. At the same time, to expect the people whose lives you stopped on the freeway to “get it”, that Black Lives Do Matter, the message needs to be more explicit. To assume people understand that they are complicit is naïve. We have to meet people partly where they are and build bridges between where they are and where we are. Moralizing and screaming at people as they helplessly wait in their cars will have a boomerang effect. Showing people it is in their self-interest to join the fight against state violence is a much more practical course. This will not be easy. But something more than simply stopping traffic is required.


About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

View all posts by Bruce Lerro →

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