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.