Violence and social order

NOVEMBER 30 — Alwyn Lau’s article had raised important points on the efficacy of "rational dialogue."

Rational dialogue is not genuine dialogue. Genuine dialogue occurs when participants agree to a set of conditions i.e. the participants respect and adhere to the seven meta-principles. It is entirely possible that when the seven conditions of genuine dialogue are met, a rational dialogue can also take place. 

But "genuine dialogue" is more than "rational dialogue." While genuine dialogue appeals to "logic", it recognises that "logic", "rational" and "reason" could mean entirely different things to different individuals or groups. 

What is irrational to one individual/group could be entirely rational to the other. Hence, ensuring the seven meta-principles is the pre-condition to genuine dialogue. 

Most importantly, genuine dialogue is not based on the presumption of utopian ideals. It recognises every individual (and/or group/organisations) is/are a "social construct." To quote Preston (2014): 

Genuine dialogue does not treat individuals [… groups or organisations…] as ‘facts’ but rather as ‘social constructions’ that are negotiated that may also involve power and political processes. Essentially truth emerges out of the conditions of dialogue and does not exist as some objective material fact. What is valued in genuine dialogue is inquiry and sense making and instead of ‘finding the causes of things’, ‘examines the conditions that gives rise to the probability of things emerging’.

The phrase, "examines the conditions that give rise to the probability of things emerging" is to be viewed in a larger context. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (North, Wallis & Weingast, 2009) provides a parsimonious way to understand this phrase.  

Societies have been ordered in three ways: the primitive social order; the limited access order or the natural state; and open access order or open access society (North, Wallis & Weingast, 2009).

The key points from the North, Wallis & Weingast (2009) thesis can be summarised through the following points (North, 2008): 

  1. In the primitive social order that preceded the natural state, human interaction occurs mainly through repeated face-to-face interaction, and all relationships are personal. The typical size unit of human interaction is the band of about 25 people. The level of violence within and between groups is very high.
  2. Humans then underwent two important social revolutions. The first (about 10,000 years ago) was the discovery of agriculture which led to the growth of larger societies, the first cities and the emergence of social organisations. This point also saw the emergence of natural states.
  3. Natural states provided a solution to violence (in primitive societies) by embedding powerful members of society in a coalition of military, political, religious and economic elites. Elites from these groups all possessed special privileges, access to valuable resources or valuable activities and the ability to form organisations. Limited access to activities, organisations and privileges produce rents for the elites. Because these rents were naturally reduced if violence breaks out, rent creation enabled elites to credibly commit to each other to limit violence.
  4. Hierarchies of elites built personal relationships that extended the control of the dominant coalition. Personal relationships in natural states resulted from traditional face-to-face interaction. In well-developed natural states, elite privileges included control over powerful social organisations such as the church, government, courts and military units. In the natural state personal relationships and who you are and who you know count.
  5. To surmise, natural states use the political system to regulate economic competition and create economic rents. It then uses these rents to order social relationships, control violence and establish social cooperation. Most of the world today (more than 80%) still lives in natural states.
  6. The second social revolution began about 250 years ago with the development of new industrial technologies, the rise of nation states and the emergence of new and sophisticated political and economic organisation.
  7. Open access societies regulate economic competition in a way that dissipates rent and uses competition to order social relationships. It extends citizenship to an ever-growing proportion of the political. All citizens are able to form economic, political, religious or social organisations to produce any number of functions. The only proscribed function is the use of violence. Only about 25 per cent of society today is open access society.
  8. Unlike the natural state, which actively manipulates the interests of elites and non-elites to ensure social order, open access society allows individual to pursue their own interests through active competition. More specifically, in an open access society, social order is maintained through the interaction of competition, institutions and beliefs. In open access systems because of property rights and impersonal exchange, who you are is less important than what you do and what you can do. 
  9. Although control of the military is concentrated in government but control over the government is subject both to political competition and institutional constraints. Attempts to use government to coerce citizens either directly through the use of violence or indirectly through the manipulation of economic interests result in the activation of existing organisations or creation of new organisations that mobilise economic and social resources to establish control over the political system. 
  10. Conclusion: there are two fundamental ways that human beings in the last 10,000 years have organised society. In one, a small percentage of the population are elites. They control the system, whether in political, religious, or economic organisations. They capture most of the gains of the society and so the rest of society is generally second-class citizens (slaves, serfs, or just persons with no particular property rights). This system is an old system and is in the majority. Open access society rests upon competition in political and economic markets, and it particularly rests on bringing greater and greater proportions of the population to becoming participating citizens with equal rights. This system is a relatively new development and is in the minority. 

Readers will notice that violence plays an important role in North et al. discussion of social order; of social organising and cooperation. In developing the conditions for genuine dialogue (in moving from natural state to open access society), there is a need to redress the existing power imbalances.  

Alwyn’s article highlights the fact that rational dialogue (or genuine dialogue) is not possible. This is because Malaysia is still a natural state and power is unequally distributed. 

Genuine dialogue is possible when the seven meta-conditions are met. Movements towards the seven meta-conditions will occur when the first factor (power neutrality) is met. 

Two questions that Malaysians should seriously ponder now (to enable movements towards genuine dialogue) are:  

  1. Do Malaysians want to move from the natural state to an open access society
  2. If YES to question 1, are Malaysians prepared to do something about the power imbalances in Malaysian society? 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles