On Society and the Rest
Words are delicate objects. They are prone to wear and tear and their fortunes wax and wane like those of heroes and villains. Society is one such word. Society refers to the population of a country, i.e. British Society. The term is equally applied to businesses (Provident Society, Building Society), fellowships (Royal Society) and political (Fabian Society) or religious institutions (Religious Society of Friends). Society is the union of several people or members. Sociology is the study of society and its institutions.
A derived word is socialism, a word that is linked to various socialist political movements dating back to the eighteenth century. Its birthplace was Europe. Under the twin impact of the natural sciences (maths, chemistry, physics) and of the industrial revolution a century or so earlier it was soon felt that there was no corresponding social revolution that could counteract the most obvious and most harmful effects of the industrial changes that were taking place. Many indeed lived in appalling conditions and the poor were getting extremely poor. It was worst for them, if that were at all possible, than ever before. Life was negated.
The new social sciences of economics, psychology, anthropology, history and sociology were first conceived in that period. Last but not least, political science too emerged from the undergrowth of those changing times. From industrial to political these are all facets of the same reality.
With socialism the meaning embodied in society has suffered a setback. Socialism is commonly understood to stand for forms of ownership and cooperation. The state or nation-state, and therefore the whole country and society, is regarded as the beneficiary and guarantor of shared ownership of the wealth created by its people – the latter sometimes called just that, the wealth creators. What is created and held in common lead to the notions of common weal and common wealth.
Once created wealth is there to be distributed equally as a matter of course. Not so, for wealth distribution and income distribution sit on two opposite camps. Far from flourishing one such society would flounder. Our understanding of these matters would be that wealth is created by a few, and it would follow that they should also be entitled to a major share of the benefits. No one could possibly disagree with that. For Thomas Piketty the state of play is that ‘[t]he distribution of wealth is one of today’s most widely discussed and controversial issues.’ (1) Would that be because wealth creation is also a controversial issue?
The peculiar aspect of wealth creation is that it excludes participation. That is, current production is skewed in favour of people, a handful, who would also as a right control all stages (the whats, hows and whys) of said production. The debate is controversial because it hinges on a rigid demarcation between them and us resulting in formation of two categories of citizens: the producers and the consumers. The outcome is that thanks to control the said producers have also merited, undeservedly, the exclusive epithet of wealth creators. They have appointed themselves. They are the exception for they would not mostly do anything themselves personally, of course not, with most wealth being actually created by their minions, subordinates, slaves and labourers. As in the old days. It is no use that they alone, the good guys, get the credit. Wealth distribution is seen in terms of fairness, or may be even as a corrective measure, but as such it is ill-conceived. Simply put, who decides what wealth is? They do. Who decides what to create? They do. Taxing them would be fair and proper but then we would need to ask, what level of taxation is adequate, is taxing them to the hilt an option, is there any merit in enforcement? Taxation is no compensation for marginalisation. It seems self-evident that we will always be and remain the egregious minions.
The position of socialism today is that it still advocates an (improbable) equal or fair wealth or income distribution whilst ignoring critically equal or fair wealth creation. To start thinking now of parity between creation and distribution would be a step forward. As far as we can tell, the debate has long stalled. An unequal creation of wealth (industry, media and resources) and the higher concentrations of wealth, power and exploitation in the hands, always, of a few are harmful. They are self-fulfilling and highly destructive as witnessed by overproduction and oversupply for they are a sign of imbalance in a skewed economy. A positive outlook would be to look at all aspects of wealth creation favourably as stemming from a joint effort. It is the cumulative effect of wellbeing that leads to wealth. The decision making process involved in that combined wealth and wellbeing creation, i.e. in what is needed and produced, would ultimately give us a sense of ownership of the process itself. Many other benefits would accrue. Right and proper distribution will follow. Inequality is truly our estrangement from this process, the effects of which can indeed be very negative.
Many would say that democracy and socialism are similar in many respects; the long march of socialism and the grand trajectory of democracy are broadly felt to be a fair and engrossing contest. Shared ownership, if words mean anything, is no longer ownership. What matters is that we produce; sharing the country’s big, crusty pie is something we would then do with relish. To share is to participate and this applies to many other things worthy of our enterprise including wealth creation. Not quite and something must have gone wrong with what we could call an incipient socialist economy. One reason is the exclusion from wealth creation as stated; the other is that maybe the socialist state itself, not the pie, got bigger and bigger, and then doubled up in size again. A greedy state of any denomination (size matters somewhat, you only have to look at China, Russia or the USA) can be an alarming prospect. In short and if true, this is why, with socialism, things did not go according to plan. It does not augur well.
One type of change gets the green light; another gets the no-go reprimand. A human shield is blocking the entrance to cooperation. As it stands cooperation suffers from the cumulative effects of ‘no’ statements leaching through our modes of living.
A former British Prime Minister (1979-1990) and Conservative MP, Margaret Thatcher, drew her conclusions, “And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” The line of reasoning is straightforward enough: the form of dreaded socialism or the half-baked idea of an equal or egalitarian society is for the birds. For all we know, it may never have existed anyway and will never exist so there is still a lot to do in terms of reframing the argument in favour of a socialism typified, say, by a just society and therefore by the interplay between wealth and distribution creation as described. It is dutiful to observe here that it should not be assumed that we already ‘know’ these things (it is after all a personal view), but the substance of the argument is that there is NO society. Compare this, for she was certainly not adverse to this type of pronouncements, with “There is no alternative.” and this with reference to her new economic doctrine and leadership style, too.
Not all sentences have that ‘no’ in them (I object or disagree often convey strongly held opinions) but many have. That ‘no’ was pivotal. She was championing a particular type of change – no to this and no to that but yes to some other novel ways of doing things. Very reasonable. Hers was a qualified no in all respects. The effect of this no society statement, however, made Mrs Thatcher, also known as the Iron Lady, somewhat more unpopular. Was this unpopularity justified? Did she do herself any favour wanting to introduce the poll tax?
A poll tax, to recall quickly, is a fixed tax levied on every individual (since there is no society of any complexion it is a free for all) irrespective of income or resources. It could always be argued that equality has many interpretations. What we can say is that on most matters views differed widely. There is very little to rephrase but, to her credit, what she actually said was something like this, “You can hardly feel for society. What is it; can you really warm up to it? It is all about individuals, you know, and families and their beloved ones for whom care and feelings are actually applied.” It was like looking at the individual members in a family (and at the family clan itself) or looking at the individual players in a team (and at the squad itself). A negative statement can be construed as paving the way to a positive one. It was still the ‘s’ word but with a twist, if you like, with the focus on people like you and me.
The issue is another. Let us say that it is always about the things we have always known – You and I. The weakness of the former Prime Minister’s argument should become apparent as soon as you develop and follow through this You and I theme. Yes, it is about individual men and women (but please note the plural form) who would then (presumably) go on forming families (plural again). Fine, but why stop there at some arbitrary cut-off point? Is this the furthermost extension of our vision? Do families live in splendid, cloud reaching pent-houses? And what are we to make of ‘individuals’? We are all individuals, we know that, and as such do we not interact all the time to form not only families but also extended families, groups, enlarged groups, interest groups, unions of members, communities, shopkeepers, guilds, trade associations, congregations and urban and rural areas? What do you call all this? Just people, society or country, perhaps, if we really want to call anything something? These are social people. They are sociable. Might this view of an outgoing society have pleased Mrs T and her attentive audience? The repeated use of the plural denotes an assembly of people.
People will often have different earning capacities but income is not the only criteria to define them. Your earning potential is not the same as your full potential. Society is a collective noun and can only acquire the meaning we attribute to it.
Society did not quite go out of fashion but as we continue our treatment of the rise and fall of the words we use, of these positive and negative charges, what do you do when you want to thrash a word? You have a choice of replacing old with new and thus rewrite history, or you still retain the old relic and come up with something cutely endearing and immensely outrageous like the ‘me-society’. This is a contradiction in terms but rather cool. Admittedly, the me-society was not quite what Mrs Thatcher had in mind but the new, media-generated term was designed to typify the changing times of unchecked individualism. Is this still an open sore? Who is right? Who is wrong? There is no gain in taking sides. Much better if we come forward with a different view and say: the You and I theme is a valid one, but narrow the theme down and you are confronted with a me-society. Expand it and you are dealing with a fully developed union of citizens and members.
When two people meet, society begins
Political figures are at their best when they chalk up the end of something thus impressing on their audiences. The preliminary stage is that we say society, or any other word, knowing deep down that we do not mean it, hence the personal view that we can blot it out. The ‘no’ culling now starts in earnest. Like no society, tolerance becomes no tolerance, history no history, alternative no alternative, democracy no democracy, food no food, justice no justice. The deserving are separated from the undeserving, and so forth. We would be justified in saying that all words undergo the same maltreatment because we can always find a negative form. Similarly, it is always a moot point whether God exists or not but here too, God no God, the positions develop along predictable yes/no lines.
On goes the familiar debate or controversy on any issue under the sun and the only outcome is one of a sterile and inconclusive argumentation. This is not a type of silly game for the debate has often resulted in heavy casualties. Still, can society bounce back; does a yes-society make sense; would it be a good idea to recharge its low batteries? Do we really want to see the pendulum swinging widely either side? Society does not have many supporters of good and reputable standing, and perhaps it should. How could this support work in practice? For instance, in what circumstances would you apply society, where would you be happy to see it at play, does society resemble dark matter?
There is possibly only one answer to all these questions: When two people meet society begins. Realising this would clearly be a step forward. The self and the other self come face to face. The reality is that we do most things in twos; or, we just cannot avoid bumping into each other because we inhabit the same spaceship, one spaceship. The given name for this spaceship arrangement is society. Society is not utopia. Society is not dystopia. Society equals people; and the idea behind people is that of individuals longing to be one. One something or one nation.
The then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a head of state, representing in her capacity the British people. But did she really represent the British people as a whole? Did she, or did she rather misrepresent them? To find out let us replace society with people (one full word swap) in that original quote and see what we get, “And, you know, there’s no such thing as people. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Read that again if you will, no such thing as people. Well, gibberish. That statement did not make any sense at all. Then and now. A Prime Minister should know better. Not to be unkind to her but she was the symbol of an impersonal state.
Familiarity with words is rewarding. Words exist in a collage of other words, and so invariably do individuals who automatically qualify as members of a clan or network. You and I were born into a group, from day one. We were fed by that group. We were given a name and language that belonged to the group. We were provided for and had inherited customs and beliefs. We conformed. This experience would mostly hold us together through life. The die is cast and, later in life, every other encounter and bumping obeys to the conventions prevalent at that time in that place. It shows in the language we use, modes of engagement, salutations, the rituals and taboos, the events as they take place, the occasion, the setting, the medium, the rank or role of the participants, a prevailing attitude, gender or age groups, and so forth.
Society and group are interchangeable. Society and family are interchangeable. Society and community are interchangeable. Society is the issue of its resource-based learning, education and economy. An interacting individual is emblematic of many other interacting individuals, and society is the tapestry upon which individuals act and therefore interact with one another within the four walls of their homes and beyond. At any given time we depend on that interaction, with someone or something, and actively seek it. Society says that we have duties and responsibilities. It presupposes reciprocity. It speaks of people. Society, and there is no obvious better or simpler way of putting it, requires our full participation and commitment.
(1) Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Belknap Harvard, Cambridge Massachusetts, London England, 2014, p. 1.