Political Friendship and the Stranger

One expression of the recent interest in friendship has been the revival of the Aristotelian notion of political friendship, a type of impersonal friendship between citizens that Aristotle took to be crucial to a just and flourishing political life in the polis. Scholars are currently debating whether such notions are relevant to modernity and capable of providing us with new insights (Allen 2004; Devere and Smith 2010; Schwarzenbach 2009). This recent research is useful here because it addresses the question of friend-like relations between the strangers that comprise a society in a distinct fashion from that of Schmitt or Mouffe, for whom the friend is best linked to the enemy or the adversary. The new literature on political friendship raises the question of the extent to which strangers who share public spaces can (or should) come to treat each other as friends. Although there is much disagreement about what political friendship involves, it can be broadly characterized as a non-intimate feeling of connection between those who share public or political spaces. It involves mutual respect and interest, an orientation toward equality or symmetry, and a willingness to act in concert (Schwarzenbach 2009, 5, 53). Its weak version entails a minimal degree of respect and action, such as not begrudging the use of one’s tax dollars to aid others (Schwarzenbach 2005, 235), while strong versions include egalitarianism and actions aimed at radically transforming unjust social structures, for example, in the forms of solidarity manifested during the 2011 Occupy movements.

The concept of political friendship clashes with predominantly private and personal interpretations of friendship in modernity. Hannah Arendt, for example, argues that the political significance of friendship has been lost to us in modernity, where we think of friendship as confined to the sphere of intimate relations (1968, 24). Sociologists of friendship such as Spencer and Pahl (2006) support this view with research that demonstrates that friendship is commonly interpreted as a warm, private, and personal bond. As Silver (1997, 69) notes, this highly idealized private notion of friendship contributes to an “invidious” and “unmerited” contrast between the purity and intimacy of private friendships and a wider public world of strangers supposedly premised on utility, calculation, and self-interest. In this interpretation, friendship is an interstitial phenomenon, existing at odds with dominant political and economic institutions.

Such an invidious distinction between friends and strangers is absent in Smith’s work, which is precisely why it is useful for re-working a contemporary notion of political friendship. Smith treats stranger relations in line with the sociological literature on strangers. To be a stranger, as Simmel (1971) argued, is to stand in a particular relation to others. For this reason, strangerhood should be interpreted as a specific form of relationship rather than the absence of one—hence the recent use of the term strangership by sociologists (Horgan 2012, this volume). Furthermore, numerous sociological studies have revealed that anonymity, impersonality, and indifference do not emerge spontaneously or naturally when other more personal bonds melt away. Instead, impersonality and anonymity must be collectively instituted and sustained by the practices of social actors, as is evident, for example, in Goffman’s classic account of civil inattention (1963, 83-88). Smith, too, seeks to explicate these practices of stranger relations and thus to reveal the seen but often unnoticed presence of bonds between strangers. He focuses his attention on the friendship-like bonds that can emerge directly between strangers, and the emotional and symbolic aspects of solidarity that these bonds presuppose. He thus provides critical sociology with a significant theory of affective bonds between strangers outside the friend-enemy dichotomy.

The fundamental problematic of research on political friendship is the question of how anonymous strangers who share public spaces can feel connected on the basis of principle rather than personal knowledge. Schwarzenbach (2009, 1), for example, claims that the central question of political friendship is the question of “what holds a good and just society together?” These are not new questions, but they are rarely approached through the idea of friendship (Smith 2011, 15). Indeed, modern thinkers generally reject the idea of friendship as a source of broad-based solidarity (Schwarzenbach 1996, 98). Instead, social solidarity, at least in contemporary political thought, is more likely to be understood as the result of a shared interest in security and property, or something achieved through mutually advantageous political or economic contracts. Friendship, however, was not such a marginal theme in the founding texts of classical (i.e., eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) Euro-American social theory, particularly those of Smith, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, and others. Indeed, the connection between friends and strangers is even clearer in the work of early social theorists than it is in that of classical philosophers such as Aristotle. Unlike the classical philosophical tradition where friendship is connected with selfperfection and virtue, especially for elite male citizens, the early social theorists interpret friendship in relation to the distinctly modern space of “society” or “the social”. The modern discovery of the social corresponds to the rise of new forms of social bonds and new ways of representing them (Singer 2013). Most crucially, societies—and especially democratic societies—are composed of anonymous strangers who are simultaneously connected and disconnected. They are connected by rituals, practices, and social institutions but also disconnected in the sense that one is only linked to most others in an impersonal and abstract way. Early Euro-American social theorists drew on notions of friendship, including ancient Aristotelian notions of friendship, to make sense of this changed understanding of social bonds and the curious mixture of connection and disconnection between strangers (Mallory and Carlson 2014).

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