“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher once famously said. “There are only men, women, and families”. And that might be taken as one extreme view of rugged individualism (isn’t a family a society, though?). The Libertarian concept of self-ownership is very near to this: I own me, and nobody else does.
But socialists take society to be the foundation of human existence. In their view, we are first and foremost members of society. Society defines who we are, what language we speak, what values we cherish, what laws we obey, and more or less everything we believe. The individual’s first duty is to society. Rugged individualism of a Thatcherite or Libertarian kind is in their view a nonsense, a bit like a fish wanting to live out of water. We are all members of society, and that is that. This is the opposite extreme view.
It’s a profound division. It more or less defines the difference between Right and Left. Yet what is actually meant by the individual and society? Is it possible to reconcile these two views? I’d like to explore these two notions of human existence using a simple model of human life, first to show a society of autonomous human individuals, and then a co-operative interdependent human society.
In the simple model, humans need every day to eat six different small food items which are found abundantly at each of six geographical points, arranged hexagonally. They’re things like apples. The six daily items make a balanced diet with enough energy and protein and vitamins and so on. It’s a 6-a-day diet. They get sick and die if they don’t get them. And once these foods have been gathered, they have to be eaten the same day, because otherwise they putrefy.
In an individualistic society humans spend their days walking around this hexagon, stopping at each point on it and collecting and eating the food there. If it takes them 3 hours to walk from one point on the hexagon, and half an hour to collect and eat the food there, it will take them a total of 21 hours to walk all the way round the perimeter of the hexagon gathering and eating food from each of the six points on it.
If we imagine that there are 6 humans walking around the hexagon, they may be companions, but they are quite independent of each other. Each gathers and eats his or her own food. They don’t need any help from anybody else. They are rugged individuals. Nobody tells them what to do. They live by no rules or regulations. If one of them feels like stopping at any point along the way for a few minutes, they do so. Each person is their own master. If they have anything at all to do with each other, it is because the choose to do so, and because they maybe enjoy each other’s company.
This is, in many ways, a simple model of nomadic life. Nomads walk across the land picking and eating foods that grow naturally upon it. Real nomads go north in summer, and return south in winter in an annual cycle, following more or less the same path each year. Just like walking around a hexagon.
There are some other things that can be said about this nomadic culture. Firstly, they don’t need children. Children are of no benefit to them. Infants can only be a burden to nomads So probably the birthrate among them will be low. The women will probably decide when to have them. And more or less as soon as they can walk the children will fend for themselves, gathering and eating food just like adults.
And we might also say of this nomadic culture that its adherents would travel light. They wouldn’t wear beads and bangles. They’d carry as little as they possibly could. They wouldn’t have lots of things.
And also we might say that this is not a compassionate society. If someone breaks their leg, and can’t walk, that will be the end of their life. Nobody will help them. The same will be true as they get older and walk more slowly. Eventually it’ll take them more than a day to collect the food they need to survive another day, and they’ll starve and die.
Now let’s look at a co-operative society of humans in exactly the same circumstance. Same hexagon, same foods.
In the co-operative culture, 6 humans live together at the centre of the hexagon. Every day each of them walks to a different point on the hexagon and picks enough food for 6 people, and carries it back to the camp. Every evening they all sit down together and share out the food they’ve gathered equally among them, and have a feast. The next day they do the same.
In this case, it takes each individual human 6 hours to walk to one point on the hexagon and back again, and 3 hours to collect enough food for 6 people en route. So each member of this society has to do 9 hours of work every day.
Now there are some important differences between these two cultures. In the nomadic culture, nobody depends on anybody else. But in this new co-operative culture, everybody depends on everybody else. And people have to obey orders. Each day, it must be decided who is going to collect what food from where, and those assigned to those tasks must carry out their assigned duties. They can’t just go wandering off. They can’t just pick food for themselves, and not for anyone else. Each member of this co-operative culture absolutely must do what they have agreed to do, and collect enough food for everybody, and return with that food. They must, because without that food everybody will sicken and die. In nomadic culture, people just look after themselves. In this new co-operative society, they have to keep everybody else in mind.
But there’s another difference. And this is that the co-operative society is much more idle than the nomadic culture. The nomads only get 3 hours of idle time each day. Members of the co-operative society get 15 hours a day. So even though members of the co-operative society have to be more disciplined, and do what they’ve agreed to do, they end up with a great deal more idle time than the nomads. And during this idle time, they dance and sing and make decorative beads and build themselves fine camp shelters. During their idle time they all do what they like. They can sit and smoke and drink and talk. They only need to be disciplined and conscientious when they’re working collecting food.
And there’s a further difference, and that is that the more members there are of this co-operative society, the easier life gets. For if there are 12 members of the co-operative society, it’s likely as easy for someone to collect 12 items of food as it is to collect and carry 6 items. So with twelve members, six of them go out each day to collect enough of each food for twelve people. So they have alternate days on and off collecting. On the days that they collect food, it takes them 6 hours to make the round trip to a point on the perimeter of the hexagon, and another 6 hours to collect enough food for all 12 people. That’s a total of 12 hours, but averaged over 2 days, it’s 6 hours a day. So the 12-member community is idle 18 hours a day. Which is greater than the 15 hours a day
And what this means is that this sort of co-operative society becomes more idle the more members it has. It has an strong incentive to gain new members, perhaps by inducting a few nomads. And if new members are a benefit, then the women will be asked to have more children, because their children will be valuable new members of the society. And since boys are generally stronger than girls, and can carry heavier loads, boys will be preferred over girls. A society of strong boys is more idle than a society of weak girls.
And as these co-operative communities with everyone looking after each other get larger and more idle, it’s not much trouble to look after people who’ve broken their legs. And not too much trouble to look after frail and slow old people.
And because they lived a settled life, and weren’t on the move the whole time like nomads, they’d quite happily collect lots of things. Like pretty shells, and heavy earthenware jars, and chairs and tables and houses. Why not? They don’t have to carry them anywhere.
This sort of co-operative society is roughly the same as historical settled life in a towns or villages.
It may be that nomadic culture and co-operative culture co-exist side by side. That is, on any hexagon (for the entire world is made up of hexagons), there’ll be some nomads wandering round the perimeter, and there’ll be a central camp with a separate co-operative society. And nomads may join the co-operative society, or leave it to return to become nomads. Nomads might say that, while they can see the advantage of having lots of idle time, they hate having people tell them what to do every day. They hate the rules and regulations. And they hate the punishments that breaking the rules often bring. The nomadic life is harder, but it’s entirely independent and autonomous. They prefer being their own masters. They don’t like other people bossing them around.
Anyone reading this might say that my simple model is too simple. It has food, but not shelter and clothing. And it has no tools or technology. Nor farms nor roads. And all sorts of other things. And that’s true. But I’d suggest that this simple model of human life is sufficiently true to life to be able to learn a few lessons, and perceive a few fundamental truths, which would not be visible if the full complexity of the world were allowed to swamp the simplicity. We can only understand our world by simplifying it. Physicists do that when they treat planets as point masses exerting gravitational forces on each other. They aren’t really. But it explains lots of things – like the elliptical orbits of planets around the sun. If physicists hadn’t used such simplifications, we’d still know next to nothing about gravity and the solar system.
Now I think that these two model societies exemplify two human traits. The one is towards independence and individuality and self-reliance and autonomy. The other is one of co-operation which requires rules and regulations and rotas and time-tables, and consideration of others, and unselfishness, and keeping promises, and so on.
And probably we humans were originally nomads. We wandered through the land, picking and eating fruits and vegetables and nuts and roots. What societies we formed were probably just occasional couplings, or loose and temporary.associations.
Co-operative societies, with their rules and regulations, came later. Perhaps much, much later. And they probably emerged out of necessity. In the example I’ve been discussing, both nomadic culture and co-operative culture can co-exist in the same environment, even if there’s a substantial difference in idleness between the two cultures. 3/24 as against 15/24.
But if the environment was improved, so that it only took twenty minutes to walk from one point on the hexagon to the next, and it only took 10 minutes to collect enough food there for one person, then nomadic life would entail 3 hours of work each day, and co-operative life 1 hour and 40 minutes of work each day. In this improved circumstance, which corresponds to more food growing naturally in more places, there isn’t that much difference between the two cultures, and little is gained by adopting a co-operative social way of life. In such benign circumstances, co-operative societies would disintegrate, and people would become nomads again.
But on the other hand, it food becomes scarcer, and it takes 4 hours to walk from one point on the hexagon to another, and an hour to collect enough food there for one person, then instead of taking 9 hours of work each day, it takes 14 hours, and idleness falls to 10/24. But for the nomads it now takes 30 hours to get round the perimeter of the hexagon, gathering food on en route. It takes 30 hours a day. It’s not possible. Either the nomads starve and die, or they join some co-operative society whether they like it or not.
Historically, this is probably what happened. Settled co-operative societies began to grow up in a time when natural foods were becoming gradually more and more scarce. At first the co–operative societies co-existed with the nomadic cultures. But as natural foods became scarcer and scarcer, nomadic culture became unlivable. The only way to survive was within co-operative societies with all their rules and regulations and timetables and punishments.
But seen from this perspective, humans are not essentially social animals in the way that socialists imagine them to be. Society – co-operative society – was a means to an end: survival. If humans could survive without it, they would. And in doing so they would live free of all morality and law, like independent autonomous nomads once did. But, unfortunately, it continues to be impossible for people to live in this nomadic manner, and so humans cannot survive outside co-operative society.
So neither the libertarians nor the socialists are right. But neither are entirely wrong. The socialists are right to see that humans cannot live outside society under present conditions, but wrong to suppose that humans are essentially social animals who automatically form societies with lots of rules and regulations. The libertarians (who are nomads at heart) are right to recognise that humans desire personal autonomy, and don’t want to be ordered around all the time. But they’re wrong to imagine that they can leave behind human society with its encumbering rules and regulations, and just tear them all up