No Such Thing as Society

"There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher famously once said. "There are only men, women, and families." I think she meant that there is no such thing as "society" which exists over and above its individual members. We are primarily individual people, and secondarily members of society. She was placing emphasis on the individual rather than the society in which individuals lived. She might have said (but did not actually say) that the individual does not exist for the sake of society, in order to conform to its demands, but that society exists for the sake of the individual, so as to increase and extend individual freedom and prosperity.

Other people, who might be called ‘socialists’ place the emphasis upon society. We are, they would say, first and foremost members of society, and only secondly individuals. They might say that we are by nature social animals, and we are provided with languages and beliefs and technology – and indeed everything we know – by the societies in which we live. Other socialists might go even further, and deny that we are ever anything other than component cells in the body of society. Society, they might say, is a new sort of organism. Just as a single human body is made up of trillions of cells, so the human body politic – society – is made up of millions of humans, all performing some task or other within its economy.

This latter sort of society is one which has, like the human body, a command structure. When I instruct my right arm to pick up a pen or a mug of tea, it does so immediately and without hesitation. As I write these words, I am instructing my fingers to press on a sequence of keys. Instructions come down from the top (my brain), and they are obeyed by the lower ranks below (my fingers). This is a view of society as a disciplined army of obedient soldiers or workers. Society (my body) does not exist for the sake of the individual (my little toe), but the individual for the sake of society.

And something like this view of society seems to been adopted in Britain over the past few years. Nothing better exemplifies this idea of society than smoking bans. In Britain these were imposed as an edict from on high, like orders from the top brass commanding some army. There was henceforth to be No Smoking. This might not be what individuals wanted, but individuals no longer mattered. A smoking ban would be good for society as a whole, and it was what was good for society that mattered. That hardly anyone protested only went to show how far so many people had come to accept that individuals existed for the sake of society, rather than society for the sake of individuals. Which is quite the opposite of what Margaret Thatcher was driving at. It’s been a quite astonishing paradigm shift, from a liberal, individual-driven model of society, to a socialist, state-driven model of society. And it’s a change that has taken place without any debate or discussion, in what appears to be a palace coup.

In a liberal society in which individuals were paramount, nobody would have dreamed of imposing smoking bans on everybody. Because in a liberal society individuals are not regarded as so many soldiers or workers to be ordered around. This can only happen in socialist or collectivist societies, in which the demands of society are paramount, and individual preferences unimportant.

This dichotomy between the individual and society seems to lie at the root of all modern political debate. On the side of society there are Marxists and Socialists, and it seems the bulk of the contemporary political class, whether Conservative or Lib Dem or Labour. On the side of the individual, there is a liberal political tradition of J.S.Mill, and Margaret Thatcher, and Friedrich von Hayek, and a number of other liberal or conservative politicians and thinkers.

One might ask how it is that individuals come to form societies. In some accounts there was some sort of original Social Contract imagined, with everybody agreeing to form a society. In another view, ordered society was imposed upon men by kings and tyrants. I’d like to put forward another (and quite new) explanation of how individuals came to form societies, not by signing any social contract or submitting to the rule of a king, but naturally through individual choice.

I’d like to start by constructing an imaginary world, made up of a few autonomous individuals. I will think of them as a number of nomads, who wander through a natural environment – a forest perhaps -, picking and eating nuts and fruits and vegetables. Each individual nomad picks and eats what is needed for survival. The nomads do not collectively form any sort of society. They might not even speak to each other.

individual nomadic existence 

A day in the life of one of these nomadic humans might be one in which they make the rounds of various sources of foods, some amount of each of which needs to be collected and eaten each day. They might be apples and bananas and carrots and dates and eggs and figs, each abundantly available at different places. And we might imagine all these different places as points on a hexagon on a geographic plane on which these nomads live.

We might further suppose that it takes these nomads 2 hours to walk from one food source to the next around the perimeter of this hexagon, and half an hour to collect and eat a day’s ration of each food at those locations. So one nomad might start each day next to the river which provides water, and would drink all he needed, before setting off to collect and eat apples, and proceed to walk around the perimeter of the hexagon gathering and eating each different kind of food, until he returned to the place where he started. And another nomad might start off at a different place, and proceed around the perimeter of the hexagon in a different direction. There might be half a dozen nomadic humans wandering around this hexagon, occasionally passing each other.

We might then ask how long it takes for these nomads to complete one circuit of the hexagon. We know that it takes them 2 hours to walk from one vertex to the next, and 0.5 hours to collect and eat the food there. So with 6 vertices, the total time taken is 6 x (2 + 0.5) hours, or 15 hours. It takes them 15 hours each day to gather and eat enough food to keep themselves alive for another day. The rest of the day they can do as they please, if it is only to fall fast asleep for 9 hours until the next day dawns, when they renew their rounds. They are busy 15/24ths of the day, and idle 9/24ths of the day.

Now let us suppose a slight variation on this daily regime. Let us suppose that instead of stopping and eating at each location, some of the nomads gather the foods they find at each location, and carry them with them on their journey. Rather than eating food throughout the day as they find it, they eat at the end of the day. They might do this to ensure that, if they don’t find any food, they’ll have some on them that they can eat.

And now, when these nomads pass each other, they find that each is carrying a variety of foods, slung over their shoulder. And when two nomads encounter one another, and discovers that each is carrying what the other is on his way to collect, they might well occasionally exchange their loads, swapping apples and pears for carrots and dates. And having made this exchange, and discovering that they now lack what they once had, they both turn around, and retrace their steps, and collect some more of what they have just collected.

trading society
trading society 

Should this sort of process of exchange become customary, the nomads would cease to walk around the perimeter of the hexagon, and would stay in roughly one place, where they would collect each day not just enough to feed themselves, but enough with which to trade for other foods. Each man would collect enough of each food to feed 6 mouths, and would trade these with their neighbours. In this manner food would be passed from hand to hand around the perimeter of the hexagon, ensuring that each nomad (who was now no longer a nomad, but a sort of settled farmer) would receive enough to eat every day.

How long does it now take each man to do a day’s work with this new arrangement? Well, since it takes half an hour to collect food enough food for an individual man, and there are 6 men, that is a total of 3 hours each day spent collecting one kind of food – apples or bananas or something -. And then there is the time taken to walk to the next vertex, to meet and trade at an agreed time, and then return, which is another 4 hours. So the grand total is 7 hours of work each day. They have become 7/24ths busy, and 17/24ths idle. They live much idler lives than they lived as nomads.

Settled village trading society 

Now in this new arrangement the nomads have formed a primitive society, whose principal advantage is that it offers its members a much idler life than the alternative nomadic existence. But it also comes at a cost. Because now these men have become dependent upon one another. When they go out each day to collect food, they are counting on the others to do the same. And they are counting on them to meet at the appointed time to exchange food. Which might not happen, if one is injured or falls sick. And so a further simplification would have been to all live together in one camp or village, where they would rapidly learn if anyone was sick or absent, and re-arrange their work accordingly.

But in this new social mode of existence, they become concerned with each other’s daily conduct in ways that they were not concerned when they were wandering nomads looking after themselves alone. One might even imagine that, despite the benefits of this settled, social, trading existence, some might prefer to return to their former nomadic life, free of the tiresome expectations and onerous demands of social existence. Such primitive human societies might well have repeatedly formed, and repeatedly disintegrated.

But let us suppose that the underlying circumstances of their lives changes. Let’s suppose that after prolonged rains, the ground becomes boggy, and instead of it taking 2 hours to walk from one vertex to another, it takes 3 hours. Now the nomadic way of life requires 21 hours of work each day. And the settled, trading way of life requires 9 hours of work each day. If the ground becomes any boggier, the nomads will be working every hour of every day. And once they need to work for more hours than there are hours in the day, they will be unable to procure enough food to eat each day, and will slowly starve and die. But the settled, trading community will survive. In these circumstances, nomads will be forced to join settled, trading societies, even if they don’t like the expectations and demands and rules and regulations that come with such societies, nor their uniform diet – simply because there is no other way to survive.

Equally, one might imagine a circumstance where circumstances have greatly improved, and it only takes half an hour to go (on horseback) from one vertex to the next, and only a quarter of an hour to collect enough food for at each point, because it grows even more abundantly than before. In this circumstance, the nomadic existence would require 4.5 hours of work each day, and the settled, trading way of life would require 2.5 hours of work each day. If the demands of settled existence were onerous, in terms of rules and regulations, people might prefer the slightly harder nomadic existence to settled life. Settled, trading societies would break up, and people would return to a nomadic way of life.

The above is an explanation in outline of how human societies may have formed. They did so because they offered an easier life. And, sometimes, they offered the only way to survive. They were not the result of any sort of single agreement – a Social Contract – to form a society, but out of hundreds and thousands of private agreements between individuals (e.g. "I’ll meet you here at noon tomorrow with two dozen eggs") Indeed, the members of these societies may often have been entirely unaware that they had formed a ‘society’. Nor, for that matter, were any of the members of these societies ‘working on behalf of society’. All concerned were simply looking after their own best interests as they pursued the easiest possible way of life.

It was sunny today, and I sat by the river in the sun. The river is a society of water. But it came together without any hierarchy of water molecules instructing other water molecules as to their right behaviour. Nor was there any any plan laid out in driven stakes for its meandering path along this Devon valley. The river was organised by each and every one of its component molecules of water as they mingled with each other. The river is a self-organising society. It is no different for men than it is for water.

(adapted from the Formation of Human Society 3 )

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1 Response to No Such Thing as Society

  1. Pingback: The Benefits and Costs of Social Cooperation | Frank Davis

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