No such a thing as society?

When Margaret Thatcher said that there was no such thing as society, her enemies were delighted. Here, in a single phrase, was her heartless philosophy of individualism — a philosophy which abandoned vulnerable people to the competitive violence of the marketplace and celebrated an ethos of selfishness. Of course that wasn’t what she meant, but that hardly matters now.

The idea is often traced back to Friedrich Hayek. He argued that society could not be held morally responsible for the distribution of wealth and income. It was not possible to reorganise society to make the distribution of income more socially just. As he put it, "We are not, in this sense, members of an organization called society, because the society which produces the means for the satisfaction of most our needs is not an organisation directed by a conscious will, and could not produce what it does if it were."

Surprisingly, one of the earliest uses of the phrase: "There is no such thing as society" was by by a thinker who believed something quite different. In a 1942 paper titled ‘The Individual and Society: An Emerging Philosophy‘ Harold Saxe Tuttle argued that the apparent conflict between the collective and the individual was an illusion:

There is no such thing as society; there are only persons. There is no such thing as the state; there is only a set of machinery through which persons exercise control of other persons.

What appeared to be a conflict the state and the individual, he wrote, inevitably turned out to be a conflict between individuals with conflicting desires. And these desires, he argued, were the key to the problem — "If we could but find some fairy’s wand by which to change interests and desires so that all would be compatible the causes of conflict would virtually vanish."

Tuttle didn’t believe in fairies, but he did believe in the power of technology to transform society:

We are in fairyland, in truth, the fairyland of science. The voice of science is speaking: "The laws by which tastes and interests are changed are now coming to light. They are already sufficiently established to be available for use.

The voice of science told Tuttle that people could be taught to be altruistic and cooperative rather than selfish and competitive. It told him that "concern for the welfare of others can be made central in personality." The technology that would transform society was Edward Thorndike‘s psychology of conditioning. According to the ‘law of effect’ behaviours which are followed by a reward become ‘stamped in’ while those which are followed by frustration or annoyance are ‘stamped out.’ Tuttle quotes Thorndike as saying: "Deliberate training can produce changes in likes and dislikes. A person can be taught new attitudes and tastes as surely as he can be taught facts or skills."

Rather than persuading children to be good by filling their minds with moral ideas, teachers should condition them. It is an approach that "involves no memory, no knowing, no planning. It involves no intellectual process, no repatterning of ideas or images." The conditioning process simply rewires their brains and makes them want the right things. After several generations of conditioning, we will have "a world in which life is rich and meaningful — in which good will prevails among men."

Tuttle wasn’t the only academic to dream of a society perfected by the technology of behaviourism. In 1945 psychologist B.F. Skinner began writing a utopian novel titled Walden Two. In a later interview he said:

I designed a world, a utopia if you like, but it was a practical world I thought, in which a social environment could be built in such a way that people would be minimally consuming; that is, they would produce the goods they need, but they would not need to produce very much because they would cut back on the things they consume. We don’t need to live this affluent life to the extent that we do. It’s the product of this genetic endowment, which at one time was necessary for the species, and now may mean the end of it.

So I designed a world in which a thousand people were living together happily – many people thought too happily, they complained about that – worked a few hours a day and produced the goods they needed which there was a maximal opportunity for good social relations in which education was designed to prepare children for just that particular way of life and so on.

This kind of thing terrified Friedrich Hayek. In his 1960 book, The Constitution of Liberty, he warned that "we are probably only at the threshold of an age in which the technological possibilities of mind control are likely to grow rapidly and what may appear at first as innocuous of beneficial powers over the personality of the individual will be at the disposal of government." In an endnote, he cited B.F. Skinner’s novel.

31 thoughts on “No such a thing as society?

  1. Yeah um you seem to have missed the whole stream of philosophy on which such ontological individualism is based, which is english empiricism, also manifested in sociology and economics. Jevons, who kicked off the whole neoclassical tradition was an o.individualist, as to some degree was Spencer – and classical sociology is founded on Durkheim’s refutation of Spencer – and so on really back to Locke, surely and Descartes.

    Durkheim’s answer – that there is a social fact which shapes our ways and selves prior (ontologically) to any individual being – is the obvious grande contre idee. but from within the British tradition there is Wittgenstein’s point that language implies intersubjectivity – we can’t invent our own language and thus that is the point st which our individuality stops. And of course in 49, gilbert ryle published The Concept Of Mind which pointed out that certain things only make sense if they are not decomposed into their visible elements. The ‘university’ can not be pointed to on the campus, or even represented by its totality. It makes sense only as a more abstract whole. The idea that society is simply the sum or effect of individual acts is thus a similar category error

  2. I wonder how Hayek would have interpreted findings about the behaviour of complex adaptive systems (such as ecosystems and organisations) which strongly suggest that such systems have a collective will that cannot yet be understood properly. In the case of human societies, outcomes cannot be explained adequately by reference to ‘persons exercis[ing] control of other persons’.

    This gives rise to an interesting question: what groupings of individuals constitute a complex adaptive system? In earlier times it might have been the tribe at one level and the whole species at another level but the tribal level has evaporated now for most of us. Maybe the unpredictability of much contemporary human activity can be explained by the fact that the complex adaptive systems have collapsed … just like many ecosystems.

  3. Simon and Ken – word.

    So intellectually lazy to say that because something can’t be reductively explained it doesn’t exist. Fucking positivists. Great ideal, but jeez Louise – keep it in the frickin’ lab eh?

  4. Interesting premise, I am at work and have only skim-read most of this post, but it looks very interesting. Just a note: that quote by Mr Tuttle in turn reminds me of Auden’s famous poem September 1939:

    All I have is a voice
    To undo the folded lie,
    The romantic lie in the brain
    Of the sensual man-in-the-street
    And the lie of Authority
    Whose buildings grope the sky:
    There is no such thing as the State
    And no one exists alone;

    Hunger allows no choice
    To the citizen or the police;
    We must love one another or die.

    Probably an idea whose time had come.

    Oh, also there’s this C S Lewis quote, probably from The Abolition of Man. Not sure when that was written, but probably shortly after WWII:

    What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

  5. Fine, name a feature of any society that exists in the physical world that cannot be described as actions of specified individuals. I don’t mean show me “it’s hard and complex” to describe it so, I mean show me that it is impossible.

    BBB

  6. And FDB, I think Hayek’s point is that everything can be reductively explained, and therefore explanations that rely (even partly) on collective abstractions are unsatisfactory. Maybe I’m missing your point though.

    BBB

  7. which strongly suggest that such systems have a collective will that cannot yet be understood properly.

    Shorter ken:

    Human, ants, plants same difference.

  8. BBB – I think to assert that everything can be reductively explained places some onus on someone to actually do so.

    I totally agree with your version – it’s just an INversion of what I said.

    Step 1 – assert that everything can be reductively explained

    Step 2 – find something that cannot

    Step 3 – deny the existence of that thing

    Get out of jail free!

  9. FDB
    No one is denying the existence of anything that can be usefully deployed to explain something but explaining something by reference to itself is pointless. ‘Society’ in this sense is about as useful as God or free will.

    Ken – I have read about the stuff on complex adaptive systems – not only was Hayek aware of these concepts he was one of the earliest to use them but tellingly his point was to use them as illustrations of unintended consequences which can ultimately be explained by how individual units within these systems interact with each other. Markets are of course one example of complex adaptive systems.

  10. If we are going to eliminate the concept of society then let’s also eliminate the concept of markets. Markets are just the economics actions of individuals …

  11. You’re kinda of missing the point here Ka Ching. Though ‘market’ is referred to as an entity as a form of shorthand, the study of markets is atomistic reductionism par excellence. The movements in markets ultimately can be and is dissected into the interaction of utility maximising agents. The one case where this doesn’t happen is traditional macro which lacks microfoundations. ‘Society’ is a useful form of shorthand but nothing more than that.

  12. Though market is referred to as an entity as a form of shorthand, the study of markets is atomistic reductionism par excellence.

    That must explain the wonderful predictive power of such atomistic reductionism par excellence.

  13. You often make sense, Jason, but this is not one of those occasions. The whole idea of a system is that it’s more than the sum of its parts. We identify a macroeconomy, and develop macroeconomics to study it, because there are macroeconomic phenomena that can’t be explained or predicted just by aggregating what we observe about individuals and households. The same goes for ecosystems and ecology, and society and sociology. A large part of what people do is influenced by shared meaning systems, values, norms, ideologies and so on, which are subject to their own laws of reinforcement and transformation. Cultural anthropologists study these in the context of self-contained traditional groupings; sociologists do the same thing for much larger and more fluid groupings. A society is an abstraction in the same sense as an economy, a market, or an ecosystem, but there is nothing in the least bit self-referential about the concept.

  14. Fine, name a feature of any society that exists in the physical world that cannot be described as actions of specified individuals. I dont mean show me its hard and complex to describe it so, I mean show me that it is impossible.

    How about racism? When a black man says “nigger”, it is considered normal, when a white man says the same word, it is considered racist. The individual actions are the same so why are they interpreted differently?

  15. Seems to me the disagreements here may be more definitional than real. On the one hand we have James saying: “The whole idea of a system is that its more than the sum of its parts.” On the other, Jason maintains “Society in this sense is [as an explanatory device] about as useful as God or free will.” (Why God and free will are yoked together in this context puzzles me a bit but I’ll leave that since it doesn’t appear to affect the essential argument.)

    Could we not say that a society arises when sufficient individuals come to share certain perceptions and attitudes such that they are in turn deeply influenced by them in their subsequent thoughts and actions? Indeed even in their very sense of who they are? From that point, simplistically speaking, the conceptual entity we call a society has become real and a complex adaptive dance unfolds between it and the individuals (and sub-groups) who make it up.

    If this shared ground strengthens, even as it continues evolving, so too will the coherence of the society. If it begins to seriously fragment (as alluded to by Ken), that society may well be on the road to dissolution. The end result could then be a number of smaller units (the breakup of Yugoslavia for example), or, on rare occasions, the birth of a new society with a different set of shared assumptions. In all these cases, though, a society is at one and the same time very real as a collective abstraction (whether at a tribal or nation-state level) and yet doesn’t in fact exist outside the individuals who with their shared visions and works make it up.

    A similar reasoning can surely be applied to markets. While it is in one sense true to say, as Jason does, that the study of markets is atomistic reductionism par excellence, I don’t think this does justice to the whole complex, adaptive truth. Humans, for all their individualism, are also herd animals and, with relatively rare exceptions, feel most comfortable running with the pack. Shared perceptions can therefore take on an apparent life of their own, whereby individuals become caught up in a collective vision of what the future holds. At its most extreme, of course, this produces manias, as we’ve recently seen.

  16. Tel

    When a black man says nigger, it is considered normal, when a white man says the same word, it is considered racist. The individual actions are the same so why are they interpreted differently?

    Because primarily because of the absurdity of a black man making a racist comment towards another black man. Historically white racism centered on blacks being inferior to whites, so how can a black person be racially inferior to another?

    ———————-

    I think society is three things when we speak of it. In our case the nation, the state we live in and the neighborhood.

    Society is a contextual thing depending on the subject discussed. If the issue is a national issue, society takes on a national character…. and so on down the line.

    In reality society is a way of people appealing to a higher authority and it’s usually money is involved.

  17. A large part of what people do is influenced by shared meaning systems, values, norms, ideologies and so on, which are subject to their own laws of reinforcement and transformation. Cultural anthropologists study these in the context of self-contained traditional groupings; sociologists do the same thing for much larger and more fluid groupings

    Game theory has made attempts to explain the evolution of these norms, etc in models of ultimately individual agents e.g. the difference between one shot games and repeated interaction leading to the resolution of prisoners’ dilemma. While in some contexts these explanations are still underdeveloped in others they do work well (e.g. the evolution of norms in tacit collusion). So my point is it’s lazy thinking to rest on the laurels of just positing norms and saying they can’t be reduced further just because the current state of thinking along these lines hasn’t been fully developed, a bit like claiming there must be an intelligent designer because evolutionary models for everything haven’t been perfected yet. It is another thing of course to take these norms as given if they are not the immediate focus of explanation/prediction e.g. how some norms evolve from other norms but keeping in mind that these norms can ultimately be reduced to some agent interaction. Some of what sociology does is essentially this and I have no problem with it.

  18. Why God and free will are yoked together in this context puzzles me a bit but Ill leave that since it doesnt appear to affect the essential argument

    Both concepts are ‘throw your hands up in the air and shrug’ resorts based on the strawman that the theories about the mechanisms underlying the basic phenomena cloaked behind these things haven’t yet been fully elaborated and therefore cannot be.

  19. I don’t really feel any more enlightened after that explanation, Jason, but it doesn’t greatly matter. My passing comment, FWIW, was made because it seemed to me free will can be debated in a qualitatively different manner to the concept of God.

  20. Because primarily because of the absurdity of a black man making a racist comment towards another black man. Historically white racism centered on blacks being inferior to whites, so how can a black person be racially inferior to another?

    If we don’t believe in Society, then on what basis are the historical interactions between some individuals relevant to the modern interaction between unrelated individuals? Surely each person has the right to make up their own mind about what offends them and why. Using historical context and knowledge of a social norm as the basis for analysis, already implicitly presumes that Society does exist and that the situation cannot be described merely by individual actions.

    By the way, the Darfur conflict seems to mainly be about racism, presumably both sides feel that the other is inferior… and both sides look black to me. I would argue that almost all people are capable of racism under the right circumstance (where such circumstance is a social construct, not an individual one).

  21. Jason, I’m more than happy to give game theory a run for its money where it can shed light on the origins of norms and conventions. On the other hand, attempting to trace all interpersonal (note that you’ve succeeded in forcing me to eschew the word social) interactions to primary individual motivations, would be crippling reductionism.

  22. To be fair to Thatcher I think her comment about society is best viewed in context. Here is the full quote:-

    “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

  23. The bit where she says “Its our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour” doesn’t seem to get the same amount of air time.

  24. Thanks to Terje for bringing this thread back to the normative implications of Thatcher’s comments because this clears up a lot of mess. The fact is, both Thatcher and her critics were wrong in attributing to her claims about the non-existence of society independent of the sum of individual interactions a significance for welfare policy.

    It is puzzling why people like Ka Ching above are so besotted with this organic notion of society as an underpinning for their preferred policies while being dismissive of economics and its associated individualistic analysis with its ‘reductionism’ when economics provides a far stronger case for government provision of some welfare without all the fascistic-Hegelian baggage associated with a more organic notion of society.

    Even if for instance you think there are some perverse impacts on work participation associated with the dole, the intergenerational implications arising from the fact that children can’t choose their parents is a pretty compelling form of market failure. Economics and other individualistic analysis associated with economics (e.g. Rawls’ theory of justice) nails the case for some of the sorts of institutions favoured by lefties far better than any of these mystical question begging notions of society as independent of individuals and individual interaction.

  25. It’s an unfortunate reality however that because of the nature of modern cities – environments we have zero evolutionary adaptation too – that the sort of interpersonal relationships that served us well for hundreds of thousands of years don’t always function particularly well. Much of the time we can’t *see* others that need help, and I think our internal instincts to help others are really only triggered when the need is right in our face. Which is why pretty much the only realistic alternative is for government to support individuals who aren’t getting help they need from other individuals, for whatever reason. Having said that I do agree that the idea that “the government should do something” is a default position for too many people, without really think about what the alternatives might be, or indeed, what the consequences of excepting the government to solve everything are.

  26. Getting a bit off topic here, but thinking a bit more about what I just said – I’m curious as to whether anyone else has studied the degree of governmence vs degree of urbanisation. The prediction would then be that more urbanised nations would need more government to function well. Certainly there seems to be some correlation during the last 100 years with the growth of urbanisation and the growth of government. OTOH, Singapore and Hong Kong are extremely urbanisation environments with very small goverment – of course there are lots of reasons they are special cases (minimal military, for a start), but it does show that high levels urbanisation and high levels of government are not necessarily linked.

  27. Soon,

    My ideas are not for your information, you do not know why I believe but you claim to do so. So much for atomistic reductionism par excellence. You must be an economist because only an economist could think that way about economics. Most economists are more grounded and realistic about the limitations of their discipline. I have not been dismissive of economics, it is a vital discipline. You have a lot to learn about being reductionist.

    You embraced the no society issue, that you then try and assert this is because people misunderstood Thatcher the problem lies with them is absurd. You made the statement which means you made the same mistake. Or do you just bow before authority figures as if what they say is holy writ?

    Thanks for the description of economics, I used it as a joke and it breaks people up.

  28. Wasn’t The Lady’s point is that it does not make sense to blame misfortune on “society” and that it is equally nonsensical to think “society” can improve things for you?

  29. The prediction would then be that more urbanised nations would need more government to function well.

    You presume that government exists to fulfill a need, rather than existing to take advantage of an opportunity. It would be equally valid to claim that more urbanised nations provide a wider niche for government to occupy.

    Singapore and Hong Kong are extremely urbanisation environments with very small goverment…

    Do you measure the “size” of government by the number of people employed, or the total financial turnover, or the influence it has on everyday people’s lives? Singapore certainly has a lot of rules and regulations (a “fine” city as they say). If I have to pay tax in return for being left alone, to get on with my life then it’s a pretty good deal all told (when you consider the alternatives).

  30. Fair point Tel, but to keep things on topic, we’re primarily talking about the degree to which government acts a proxy for the “society” that looks out for those in need. In that sense, AIUI, compared to the situation in Australia and certainly most European nations, Singapore and Hong Kong offer relatively little on that front. Whether that would be possible in a truly functional democracy is debatable.

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