Monday, November 16, 2009

There Is No Such Thing As Society, Only Individuals

So many problems facing human communities can be attributed to a lack of collective political will. Optimists will sit back and praise the ability of technology to bring salvation, but we are not short of technology. The largest portion of money that goes to technology is associated with warfare. Number two on the list is diversions. Both of these expenditures of human, economic, and resource capital greatly contribute to the growth of isolationism, individualism and selfish obsession. Put another way, technology exacerbates the problems of collective action. So if technology isn’t riding in to save the day, then what?

Sometimes collective action problems are due to self-interest, competition, an inability to empathize at a distance or about things that have been abstracted. Sometimes, though, collective action problems are the result of a deliberate fracturing of communities.

John Ralston Saul described problems associated with a depoliticized population in his book, “The Unconscious Civilization”. It collects a series of Massey lectures. Much of the book can be summed up in the following quote:

You know a society is in trouble when the virtual totality of the elite, now a good third of the population, adopts public silence and private passivity on the professional level, then walks away from society to blow off accumulated steam on private pleasures.
Our civilization is locked in the grip of an ideology - corporatism. An ideology that denies and undermines the legitimacy of individuals as the citizen in a democracy. The particular imbalance of this ideology leads to a worship of self-interest and a denial of the public good. The practical effects on the individual are passivity and conformism in the areas that matter, and non-conformism in the areas that don't.

There are norms and ideologies that reinforce the kind of isolation and passivity that lead to collective action problems. Think of the saying, about how religion and politics are to be avoided in polite conversation. The number of places where it is appropriate to discuss matters of importance, let alone organise some kind of response seem to dwindle daily. Saul maintains that corporate interests encourage the belief that political discourse and political institutions are not to be trusted, ineffective, and out of reach to the individual because it is very beneficial to clearing the way for those corporate interests.

My concern of the moment is the limited number of social spheres where people even have the possibility of communicating with one another(yes, in the communication age). It is the workplace I am thinking about. Bringing your concerns about the public good into the workplace(even if your workplace is supposedly dedicated to the public good, or maybe especially if it is) can cause friction, can black mark you and can get you fired. Now, in the modern world, the largest block of waking time is generally spent in the workplace and the workplace is often one of the only group social venues a person has. The place where people might have the greatest ability to gravitate together on some issue of importance is the very last place where it would ever happen.

Borrowing again from Saul’s Massey lectures, here is a quote from Socrates:

If I say I cannot "mind my own business" you will not believe that I am serious. If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and that examining both myself or others is really the very best thing a man can do and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me. Nevertheless, gentlemen, that is how it is.

There are two important things here.

The first, is that Socrates’ famous quote, “the unexamined life is not worth living” did not concern the psychiatrist’s couch, navel gazing or personal fulfillment. It was about the public good. The quote takes on its self-absorbed reading when filtered through a society that has bought into the Thatcher quote that forms the title of this essay; a society that has become a cult of diversion and ego.

The second important thing is the notion that to pursue the public good, ideas about the good need to be out in the public. If people can’t talk together about the things that are important, or work on consensus and strategy, they become removed from the very basic idea that they are citizens, that they have a role to play, that they have responsibilities and that they have power. Any particular ill, whether political, economic or environmental, is not the governments problem, it’s your problem, my problem. The government is a distillation of you, me and everyone else. Of our aims. Of our priorities. If it isn’t, it loses its legitimacy, and that is still our problem.

Government isn’t “they”, it is “us”. It is how and who we choose to coordinate our efforts. Society isn’t something out there, something abstract, it is us, and the sum total of the things we think, say and do. The Thatcher quote can be turned around. If there is no society “up” there, or “out” there, if there is just you, your spouse, your children, your neighbours, your classmates, your coworkers, if there is just people everywhere, all over the globe, can anyone afford silence and passivity? Can we afford to simply ignore collective action?

I don’t have an answer as to how exactly to bring back public discourse into the public. I don’t know how to make it safe, desirable or protected. I simply bring up the fact reducing citizens to units of production, and threatening ostracization and/or expulsion when they attempt to present a whole integrated civically aware self in the workplace constitutes a grave and insidious dilemma. It’s an incapacitating viral dilemma. In or out of the workplace, bring up some pressing concern of the public good and watch how fast the room turns icy, or worse watch the almost fearful discomfort rise up. The code of silence and passivity originates from a variety of spheres, but it is self-reinforcing. And that is a collective action.

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