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Social Contract Theory and Fandom Libertarianism, by i-will-not-be-caged

Curator’s note: It’s us! We’re back! At least for this terrific essay by i-will-not-be-caged on fandom, libertarianism, and social contracts. It’s always been a strong feeling of mine that fandom reflects the broader social world we live in; in this sense alone, this is a particularly timely piece.


An essay in which I finally get to put my political science degree to work

So I was out walking my dog this morning and ruminating over why I have such a hard time with the conversations in fandom that seem to assume that the only two options when it comes to content are “all fan works must be pure vanilla innocence” and “all criticism is policing and evil.” To be clear, I think both extremes are, well, extreme and lacking nuance. But since I don’t actually see a whole lot of “no one can write characters doing anything wrong” in my corner of fandom (although I’m aware that plenty of it exists other places), I was much more interested in trying to figure out what bugs me so much about the “policing is the greatest evil in fandom” side of things.

Here’s the epiphany I had — people on that extreme end of things bother me because they sound so much like libertarians, much like a lot of us see echoes of fundamentalist purity culture on the other end. And then I got excited because once upon a time I was a political science major and now I get to take my epiphany and my degree and talk about social contract theory like the giant nerd I am 🙂

Strap in, folks; this got crazy long.

(This is, obviously, going to be pretty U.S.-centric. I’m assuming libertarianism exists in various forms in other countries, but I’m most familiar with the U.S. version, being an American and all, so that’s the lens I’m working with.)

The Libertarian Party in the US is all about “minimum government, maximum freedom.” Their website claims that they are the “the only political organization which respects you as a unique and responsible individual.” They “seek a world of liberty — a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values.”*

Sounds pretty good on the surface, but when you start to look at the practical implications, well, there are a lot of problems.

Libertarians believe that people should only pay taxes if they want to, which sounds nice if you don’t like paying taxes, but also means there would be no government-provided social programs to help people in need. No WIC, no EBT, no unemployment assistance, no libraries (at least none that weren’t privately owned).

They believe that an unbridled market, free of government interference, will lead to greater prosperity and equality for everyone. Except their version of government interference includes things like child labor laws and environmental protections and product safety regulations.

They support civil liberties for everyone, claiming that “other political parties prioritize the rights of some, but not others.”* Again, sounds good, but when combined with their emphasis the free market, in practice this means that most libertarians end up supporting business owners’ right to discriminate rather than protecting customers from being discriminated against.

And don’t even get me started on school choice.

From the many conversations I’ve had with libertarians over the years, I’ve learned that what it boils down to is basically libertarians wanting all the benefits of living in a society without any sort of responsibility for their fellow community members. They don’t understand just how much of their life is a benefit that comes from the work other community members have done. They believe that everyone should just take care of themselves and leave everyone else alone, which can sound appealing, but breaks down as soon as you add in the existence of history, inequality, and injustice.

“Responsible individuals” who are “sovereign over the own lives” thinking everything would be best if we all just did our own thing and ignored everyone else…starting to sound familiar?

Fandom libertarians, then, would be the people who insist that if everyone just did the fannish things they wanted to do and stayed out of everyone else’s business, we would all have a great time in fandom. And just like with political libertarianism, that sounds pretty good on the surface.

And here’s where we get to social contract theory. Because in addition to thinking libertarian politics would be ineffective, I also believe they violate the social contract underpinning American society.

Social contract theory has existed for basically as long as Western civilization has existed (and probably arguably even predates that, although that’s out of my realm of expertise). There is a lot of nuance and a lot of variation, but for the purposes of this essay, I’m mostly concerned with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s version.

Rousseau interpreted the social contract not just as an agreement between individuals and a ruler for the sake of protecting oneself from the State of Nature and death (the more Hobbesian view), but rather as a form of reciprocity between individuals and a ruler as well as between each individual.Rousseau believed that people could not both determine for themselves whether to fulfill their obligations to society based on their own interests and be allowed to reap the benefits of belonging to that society. This is basically the argument a lot of people use with libertarians — you don’t get to use roads, fire trucks, and other municipal services and refuse to pay your taxes.

One thing I (and many political theorists) would add to Rousseau is that in the 21st century, the social contract is not an opt-in contract. Unlike legal contracts, which you can choose to enter into or not, as soon as you are born into a society, you are part of that contract. As much as we might like to erase what we’ve got and start from scratch building society, we’ve got to start with where we are now (Even Rousseau talks about the impossibility of returning to the State of Nature in his work).

You can want it to be voluntary, you can argue that it should be voluntary, but ultimately, it’s not. Even if you have the ability to relocate and join a different society, you will then be a part of that society’s contract. We are all part of human society and that comes with certain responsibilities and requirements. There’s a lot of debate about what those responsibilities and requirements are, but only libertarians seem to think they shouldn’t actually exist.**

Fandom, on the other hand, is an opt-in community. You can choose whether or not you want to participate. Which is awesome! We all like having choices! And as many fandom libertarians will tell you, if you don’t like what’s happening in fandom, you can leave. Which is true.

However.

I would argue that if we choose to participate in fandom, we are also choosing to have some measure of responsibility for our fellow community members. If we don’t want that, we can opt out – we can make our blogs private, we can create a private subscription list for our fan works, etc. But by posting our fanworks in a public forum, by engaging in fandom activity openly online, we are agreeing to be a part of a community and all communities have guidelines and responsibilities.

Of course, we have a hard time determining what those responsibilities are even when we have laws and constitutions and things, so it’s not like something as fluid and unwieldy as fandom is going to have a codified list of rules and responsibilities outside of the terms and conditions of the platforms we use. But it boggles my mind that some people would then argue that they have no responsibility for the well-being of other community members at all.

And this is what bothers me about so much of the “Do whatever you want! People are responsible for their own experience!” side of fan culture. Yes, we can write/draw/do whatever we want. Yes, people should do what they can on their end to protect themselves. But we should also do what we can to help our community members protect themselves.

When someone claims they shouldn’t have to do that, all I can hear are the people who complain about paying taxes that they don’t benefit from or whine about having to include wheelchair ramps in their building plans or say that poor people should just work hard and get a good education. When fanwork creators call any and all criticism “policing,” all I can hear is people screaming “taxation is theft!”

And just like those people, when we refuse to make reasonable accommodations for our fellow fans — like tagging posts and fanworks accurately, avoiding racist/homophobic/transphobic tropes in our writing/art, listening when marginalized groups say something is harmful, etc. — we are actually harming our community. No one is advocating that we require people to have every single thing they create approved by a panel of judges, just like no one who wants single-payer healthcare is advocating for “death panels”. We just want to be a part of a fandom community that prioritizes minimizing harm to its members and freedom of expression.

I can already hear people screaming, “But who gets to decide???” And you know what? I don’t know the best answer to that. Here’s where that nuance that I talked about in the very first paragraph comes in. I believe that fandom communities have the capacity to navigate these gray areas respectfully and usefully without resorting to attacks or falling into the trap of fundamentalism. Maybe that’s overly idealistic of me, but well, my idealism is hard-won and refuse to give it up.

But I would also encourage us to remember that when it comes to issues of racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism — anything outside the realm of personal preference — fandom is not immune from the power differentials that exist in the broader world. Which means that the burden is on those with more power — white fans, straight fans, cis fans, abled fans, etc. — to work to make their own positions more nuanced before demanding it of fans with marginalized identities (and to remember that people exist at the intersections of all of those identities as well, so that I don’t use my queer, mentally ill identity to excuse myself from doing the work my whiteness requires).

Of course, this post assumes that most of the people in fandom agree with me that libertarianism generally turns people into arrogant assholes who don’t give a shit about others. I might be wrong about that; maybe fandom is full of libertarians and think it’s absolutely right and good to bring libertarianism into fandom as well. I just wish libertarians, both in fandom and outside of it, would stop insisting that people should have complete freedom without any acknowledgement that 1) that freedom has the ability to hurt someone else and 2) not everyone has the same access to that freedom.


*Quotes are pulled directly from the Libertarian Party’s website

**Note: there are a lot of criticisms of social contract theory, often through a feminist and/or race-conscious lens, that believe the idea of a social contract is inherently flawed; those criticisms, however, have more to do with acknowledging the ways in which people other than straight white men have been excluded from these contracts, and actually argue for greater responsibility for other individuals in society.


Social Contract Theory and Fandom Libertarianism” ©i-will-not-be-caged, originally published 30 July 2017

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