Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Is There Such a Thing as Society?

Margaret Thatcher often is quoted as saying that "there is no such thing as society." But when Mrs. Thatcher said that, she was arguing against the entitlement mindset, as in " 'society' owes me a roof over my head and three meals a day." As she put it, "people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor."

What Mrs. Thatcher meant to say is that people shouldn't look to the state (and, thus, to taxpayers) for charity. "Look[ing] after our neighbor" is a clear acknowledgment of the primacy of society (as against the state) as the source of legitimate charity, that is, voluntary charity.

The question now becomes: What is society?

"Society" is not easily defined; it is a word with many meanings, most of them vague. In that respect, it resembles "culture." And the two words sometimes are used to mean the same thing. Where to begin?

What Society Is Not, and Is

I begin by defining what society is not. It is not merely an economic arrangement: an arms' length exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit. Nor is it merely a political arrangement, such as the vesting of power in a government for the purpose of making and enforcing laws within a specified geographical area.

There is more to society than economic and political arrangements. The "more" is mutual respect. Mutual respect implies trust, and with trust goes forbearance -- a willingness to forgo retribution and violence for slights and trespasses, until one is mightily provoked. (That is why, for example, "redneck culture" is a culture -- a way of life -- but not the basis of a society.)

There are three outward signs of mutual respect: politeness, thoughtfulness, and neighborliness -- practiced in combination, not singly or in twos. Politeness is simple civility: "please," "thank you," and the like. (Easier said than done, these days.) Thoughtfulness goes a step beyond politeness; it is seen in such simple acts as returning a stray animal to its owner or picking up litter along a public thoroughfare. Neighborliness (true voluntarism) goes well beyond thoughtfulness; it boils down to burden-sharing, that is, helping others in need through direct action (e.g., cutting a sick neighbor's grass or bringing her a meal).

As the saying goes, "what goes around comes around." Mutual respect is impossible where politeness, thoughtfulness, and neighborliness are met consistently with their opposites, which can be characterized as disdain, hostility, or enmity, depending on the virulence of the contrary behavior. To put it positively, by acting (or not acting) in certain ways we foster mutual respect, which repays us with the trust and forbearance of others. This is, of course, the "Golden Rule," stated in other words.

Mutual respect, by my rigorous definition, is meaningless in the abstract; it must be tested and proved through continuous social contact. Mutual respect is therefore meaningful only to the extent that it is found among persons who are well known to each other and who have frequent social contact with each other. Family and work contacts, like cocktail-party contacts, may involve mere role-playing and politeness. You can pick your friends but not your family or, in most cases, your co-workers. This is not to rule out families and workplaces as venues for mutual respect, but simply to note that they do not rely on mutual respect for their sustenance.

Social Units, the Extent of a Society, and Alliances of Convenience

How many persons can be comprised in a cohesive social unit that adheres around mutual respect? An individual probably can have a relationship of mutual respect (as I define it) with no more than 150 persons (and probably far fewer). A cohesive social unit is most likely to be a nuclear family, an extended family, a rural community, a very small village (or part of a larger one), or a neighborhood in a town, suburb, or city.

A social unit can be likened to a physical atom: an entity with a nucleus (an individual or small number of tightly bonded individuals), surrounded by some number of other persons who are connected to the nucleus by mutual respect. Just as a chemically bonded group of atoms forms a compound, an interlocking network of social units forms a society. By interlocking network, I mean that some (perhaps most) members of each social unit (outside its nucleus) also are nuclei or members of other social units.

How far can a society extend; that is, how many interlocking social units can it comprise? That depends on the extent to which the various social units possess common socio-economic (i.e., cultural) characteristics. (See below.) For, though it is true that a culture does not make a society, a society is bound to have a dominant set of cultural characteristics. It is not in the nature of human beings to bond in mutual respect without the "glue" of core cultural values, or social norms. The more disparate the range of cultural characteristics in a given geographic area (such as the United States), the greater the number of distinct (and possibly antipathetic) societies will be found in that geographic area. This nation is not a society, even though the word "society" often is used (incorrectly) instead of "nation."

What about those persons who are not members of a social unit? It takes no more than casual experience of life in cities and suburbs to confirm that most of the denizens thereof are not members. (Nodding acquaintances with neighbors, memberships in churches and clubs, and a few friendships with work associates do not a society make.) I am not denigrating those who live in social isolation -- whether it is urban, suburban, or even rural -- but merely saying that they are not members of a social unit, and that their numbers have been growing faster than the nation's population. (For more on this point, see this article by Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital. See also this table, prepared by the Census Bureau, which documents the growing urbanization of America.)

There is no such thing as American society because not only are Americans too often socially isolated, but also they are too disparate in their cultural characteristics. What we have (for the most part) is not mutual respect but indifference and state-imposed order. More than that, we have state-imposed behavioral norms, which -- in and of themselves -- have contributed to the breakdown of societal bonds. We are left with some number of distinct (and probably dwindling) societies, around which are spread a vast number of unaffiliated, loosely affiliated, or simpatico individuals.

Distinct societies and unaffiliated persons may, despite their social separation, join in common cause. In the United States, for example, there was until recent decades broad agreement about the ends and means of ensuring "domestic tranquility" and providing for "the common defence." But cultural diversity begets political strife, which intensifies as the state (goaded and led by élites) undermines traditional societies and their cultural values. The state becomes the arbiter of moral values and the dispenser of charity. The voluntary bonds that enable societies to persist over time -- and to co-exist within a nation -- are therefore frayed and, eventually, snapped. The nation becomes less like a collection of distinct societies joined by common purposes and more like scorpions fighting in a bottle. (For more on this point, see "The downside of diversity" at the online edition of The Boston Globe.)

Societies in the United States

What characteristics delineate the societies that are found in the United States? The most important characteristics are moral values: definitions of right and wrong actions. In this context, moral values are deeper than generalities (e.g., murder is wrong, terrorism is wrong, theft is wrong); they extend to specific practices (e.g., abortion is murder, terrorists have legitimate grievances, government-enforced theft is theft). Other salient characteristics are:
  • racial and/or ethnic identity (to the extent that these are central to a person's self-image and a group's cohesion)
  • religion or attitude toward religion (e.g., "high" or "low" church, Christian or other, believer or strident atheist)
  • education (level, where obtained, field of specialization)
  • type of work (menial/mental, private-sector/public-sector, small-business/corporate, "artistic"/otherwise, etc.)
  • economic class (from the lowest decile to the super-rich, from "old money" to "nouveau riche")
  • leisure pursuits (NASCAR, bowling, knitting, golf, reading, music, etc.)
  • preferred locale (rural, small-town, suburban, etc.; Northeast, upper Midwest, Southwest, etc.).
I do not mean to say that mutual respect is impossible among persons who possess different cultural characteristics. But persistent differences (especially on fundamentals such as morality) tend to strain mutual respect and, thus, mutual forbearance. When the strain is too great, mutual respect breaks down, and restraint must be state-imposed.

Each of the characteristics listed above, beginning with moral values and running down the list, is a potential source of unity and division. Certain characteristics often appear in clusters. Think, for example, of academics in the so-called liberal arts, who tend to be pro-abortion-anti-U.S.-socialistic moral relativists, strident atheists, Ph.D.s (in impractical specialties), "toilers" in the fields of mental esoterica, upper-half to upper-quintile earners, and effete in their tastes. Those who live near each other (in the vicinity of a particular campus, for example) may sometimes form a social unit -- in spite of their innate misanthropy. But those social units will exclude unlike-minded persons and members of groups toward which they (the liberal-arts academics) feign compassion (e.g., poor blacks and Latins), while living securely in their comfortable enclaves.

Which brings me to the types of society that do exist in the U.S.:
  • Blacks of the lower-middle and middle classes who live in urban enclaves, and whose social lives often revolve around church, club, and neighborhood. ("Underclass" neighborhoods riddled with drugs and crime do not qualify because mutual respect has been replaced there by fear and force.)
  • Black Muslims with the same demographic characteristics as their Christian counterparts.
  • Lower-middle and middle-class Latins, especially in the Southwest but also in other areas where they have concentrated. (Latins subdivide into several types of social unit, generally according to country and/or region of origin.)
  • Jews, to the extent that they are concentrated in urban areas and adhere to one or another orthodoxy.
  • Recent immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia -- not as a bloc, but in their various ethnic/national identities (i.e, Lebanese Arabs, Lebanese Christians, the various Muslim sects, Pakistanis, Indians, etc.).
  • Descendants of the immigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the extent that the old social units founded by those immigrants have not been dissolved by the forces of education, out-marriage, economic progress, and geographic mobility. I am referring, particularly, to the waves of Irish, German, Polish, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, and other (less numerous) groups that founded many rural communities and formed enclaves within cities.
  • Neighborhood-based social units, in which proximity replaces the "glue" of race, religion, and ethnicity. These are found mainly in places where hedonistic solipsism hasn't replaced the "Golden Rule," that is, in villages, small towns, and small cities.
Some types of society are extensive, regionally (e.g., Mexican immigrants in Texas, Muslim Arabs in southeastern Michigan). But there is no single, large society that extends throughout the United States. And there has not been one since the demise of the rather extensive societies of early America -- notably, those societies whose members represented various regions of the British Isles.

Whether today's rather fragmented and dispersed societies will persist is another question. The United States was long a "melting pot," wherein education, out-marriage, economic progress, and geographic mobility tended to make generic "Americans" of immigrants. But that was true mainly of white, European immigrants. "Persons of color," whose cultures and geographic origins differ vastly -- blacks, Latins, Middle Easterners, and Asians of various types -- will not "melt" for a very long time, if ever. Which means that they will retain their political influence, as protégés and supporters of the vast, Left-wing alliance.

The Vast, Left-Wing Alliance and Its Anti-Social Agenda

Another type of society to be found in the U.S. is composed of liberal-arts academics. Whether there is an extensive society of such academics is doubtful. The quality of mutual respect probably is rather strained within any given social unit, and unlikely to survive the trip from campus to campus, fraught as such distances are with academic rivalries.

But there certainly is a broad, Left-wing alliance that consists of liberal-arts academics and their sycophantic students; Hollywood and New York celebrities and their hangers-on; "artists" and "intellectual workers" of most stripes; well-educated, upper-income, professionals who live in and around major metropolitan areas; and hordes of politicians (local, State, and national), who foster and benefit from the prejudices of the alliance. This broad alliance patronizes -- and draws political strength disproportionately from -- blacks, Latins, and labor-union members.

The Leftist alliance scorns America and traditional American values. It exalts the politics of class, ethnic, racial, and gender conflict. It has demolished the long-standing, trans-societal agreement to ensure "domestic tranquility" and provide for "the common defence." (See, for example, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and many of the posts at this blog in the category "Leftism - Statism - Democracy.") If there were an American society, the Left would not be part of it.


There is such a thing as society, contra Margaret Thatcher. But that "thing" is not the state. It is not even a single "thing"; it is a multitude of them.

Members of a true society may, by virtue of their membership, depend on other members of the same society for succor in times of need. But citizenship in the United States is not membership in a society.

Moreover, citizenship in the United States is no longer what it once was: membership in a broad alliance dedicated to justice and defense. Thanks to the vast, Left-wing alliance, U.S. citizenship has become a passport to statism.