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Simone Weil on the social organism

Friday, 26 Sep 2014

Simone Weil on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn. First posted on Saturday, 5 October 2013 at 21:12

The social organism can only be founded on the principle of unity in multiplicity, with all contributors through labour considered as equally important to its progress. Everyone must be active, through a shorter working day if necessary. The degrading and brutalising slave or jobs market will have to go. Everyone, everything, must be considered to be in a relationship with someone or something else in conformity with their respective natures, and thus in conformity with the right to fulfil those natures.

Unlike liberalism, this right is not expressed as an absolute, but as a relation. Simone Weil insightfully understood this in her blueprint for a new social organism, published in English as The Need for Roots. She wrote that ‘a right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him’. Her point was that it is the relative nature of a right which makes it effective. ‘An obligation which goes unrecognised by anybody’, she wrote, ‘loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognised by anybody is not worth very much’. Under liberalism, it is the one-sided understanding of each right as an absolute and possessed equally by everyone, that has actually destroyed rights, i.e. the right of a nature to be what it is.

‘Rights’, Weil wrote, ‘are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world.

‘The men of 1789’ (in other words Weil meant the progenitors of modern liberalism), ‘did not recognise the existence of such a realm. All they recognised was the one on the human plane. That is why they started off with the idea of rights. But at the same time they wanted to postulate absolute principles. This contradiction caused them to tumble into a confusion of language and ideas which is largely responsible for present political and social confusion’.

It is a belief in this ‘realm situated ... above this world’ that will determine whether or not men will submit willingly to the obligations of the social organism. It will demand a reorientation of all values to the vertical, rather than a horizontal human plane, where submission to a higher principle is necessary if rights are to mean anything at all.

Not surprisingly, Weil expressed economic activity as being subordinate to ‘the needs of the soul’. In addition to the necessity of obligation, she also cited order, obedience and hierachism as essential to the soul’s well being. Equality was included too, but this was not the destructive 1=1 equality of liberal ideology. Weil was specific in recommending that a ‘way of rendering equality compatible with differentiation would be to take away...all quantitative character from differences’. All natures would have access to a qualitative equality, not horizontally amongst themselves, but vertically with regard to God.

John Dunn.

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