Occupy Theory: Chapter One
The following is an excerpt from Volume One of Fanfare for the Future, titled Occupy Theory and authored by Michael Albert of the U.S. and Mandisi Majavu or South Africa. Occupy Theory is available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple IPAD (soon), as well as in print from the ZStore.
Many Sided Lives
“The question which one asks oneself begins, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one’s keys to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.”
- James Baldwin
Many Sided Lives
“I learned very early the difference between knowing
the name of something and knowing something.”
- Richard Feynman
Typically, we are born, nurtured as children, schooled, socialized, and grow up.
We work for our incomes. We celebrate our particular heritages and beliefs. We operate as citizens along with other citizens. We romance partners and create families. And in the end, it all happens again, assuming war, poverty, and other disasters don’t interfere.
Typically, societies have important aspects that help or obstruct key social functions like being born, nurtured, and socialized; contributing to society’s product and consuming from it; learning and enjoying a language, heritage, and culture; operating in accord with others via legislation, adjudication, and shared projects; enjoying or suffering environmental effects; and enjoying or suffering relations with other societies.
Indeed, it is reasonable to believe that helping people accomplish these many varied functions is society's reason for being and that to understand the societies we live in, even if only at the most general level, we should understand these diverse functions and how accomplishing them affects our options in life.
There is no denying that how society helps or obstructs the ways our days and nights affect our pleasures and pains helps determine who we are and what we can do, as well as what will be done to us.
At the risk of being a little mechanical, we can summarize society’s centrally important aspects as including four functions and two contexts.
The four flexible functions are:
- Giving birth, nurturing, socializing, and sexually interacting among genders, family members, and the young and old. Societies include new generations that are born, nurtured, and socialized. We could not live without kinship.
- Acculturating, learning and using language, and forming and celebrating racial, ethnic, religious, and other cultural communities. Societies include people having shared cultures. We would be less than human without community.
- Producing, allocating, and consuming society’s social product by society’s workers and consumers. Societies include goods and services being produced, moved, and consumed. We would starve without economics.
- Legislating, adjudicating, and enacting shared programs by officials and citizens. Societies include means of accommodating the choices of different individuals, including outlawing various actions and facilitating others, resolving disputes, and enabling societal projects. We would not have efficient and effective social engagement without politics.
And the two contexts are:
- The natural environment and our relations to it. No society escapes ecology.
- The other societies in the world and our relations to them. No society escapes international relations.
The point of these lists is that to be stable and effective societies must accomplish these four flexible functions - kin, cultural, economic, and political. Additionally, the natural environment and international setting provide a surrounding context affecting options and outcomes. So one way to look at societies is to assess how each society accomplishes the four social functions and how it engages with the environment and other societies.
But Why Bother?
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the
oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
- Steve Biko
At the risk of taking a bit of a detour, some readers will wonder, why study society at all? The questioner might, for example, prefer spending the time fighting for change. And even if we must study society, why pay close attention to these six aspects and not equally close attention to many other aspects one could choose?
Regarding the first query, we need to understand society because we want to change it and we can’t change something complex without understanding at least its central aspects.
But someone might follow up by arguing, if we don’t need to change society, then we don’t need to understand it. So what’s our motivation to change it? Why should I keep reading?
A train is for transport. Clearly when an old train stops fulfilling its function we either fix it, or, if something better is available at a cost that doesn’t offset the benefits, we get that.
The same holds for a light bulb, a pair of sneakers, or a paintbrush. If they don’t do what we want from them any more, and we can afford to, we fix them, or we get something new.
Surprisingly, the dynamic is only a bit more complicated for an economy, culture, political system, or kinship system, and even for all of those social spheres considered together as a whole society.
A society is a set of relations that enables its citizens to get together to accomplish key kin, community, economic, and political functions.
If a particular society has means to accomplish these functions that fail to work well, then like a light bulb that no longer provides effective light or a pair of sneakers that no longer provides athletic support, they will need to be changed.
If new social relations exist that would work significantly better for the necessary functions than the old social relations a society has, and if the costs of attaining the new relations wouldn’t outweigh or subvert the benefits, then just like getting new affordable sneakers to replace sneakers that have holes in them, we might want to seek new social relations instead of continuing to endure old ones.
- Are we serious about our desires?
- Does our society fail to meet our desires?
- Does a better way of arranging social life that would better meet our desires exist?
- Will attaining the better way be affordable?
If our answer is yes to those four questions, then doesn’t our well being demand that we seek to escape the flaws of the present?
Suppose we need to paint a big wall. Suppose a paintbrush can’t do it well. Suppose a spray painter can. And suppose we can get a spray painter at a manageable cost. We do so.
The analogy is strong. What is hard is to keep it in our heads and not forget that the same simple reasoning applies to judgements about changing society as to judgements about other changes. All that’s left is to determine if our societies are failing to accomplish their necessary economic, political, kin, and community as well as ecological and international functions in a desirable manner. Then (later in Fanfare) we need to ask if there is a better, affordable, and attainable alternative.
Everything is Broken
“From the wars against disorder,
the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay.”
- Leonard Cohen
I suspect that as a reader of this book you very likely already know that your society is failing miserably. More, I suspect nearly all typical citizens in nearly all contemporary societies, if not right on the surface of their consciousness, then way down in their dreams and nightmares, know that their society is failing miserably.
Here are just a few reasons for this assertion.
We all know that billions of people around the world live in abject poverty. That is societies failing. That really ought to be more than enough. You don’t need a precise accounting. You don’t need a perfect picture of the pain. Billions are hungry. Case closed. But, there are other reasons, as well.
We all know that even greater numbers of people lack the free time and healthy space to experience life fully and fruitfully. This too says societies are failing.
We all know that even where more wealth exists and life lasts longer and is less hellish, dignity is almost impossible to come by. And we know that lying, cheating, aggrandizing, and even killing are the basic touchstones of much of daily life, both personally and, far more damning, collectively - particularly where societies are more developed. And this also shows societies are failing.
What we experience from birth to death is almost the exact opposite of a prescription for dignity, equity, and justice. Life as we know it could obviously be much better. Our ways of accomplishing economics, politics, community, and family, are not just a little damaged. They are thoroughly messed up down to their most basic attributes and in ways that impose horrendous costs on humanity. Why should survival require vicious venality? If this isn’t societies failing, what is?
Unemployment soars, the rich get richer, and financiers and owners celebrate. Unemployment soars, the poor get poorer, and weep or die. Wall Street counts profits, ignores suffering, and proclaims an upturn. That is no way to conduct economic life. Existing economies fail.
Bombs burst over daily lives. Politicians salute the rubble. Arms makers celebrate bloated dividends. Soldiers inhabit gray flannel caskets or face life anatomically or psychologically maimed, trying to navigate health care that treats them like dirt. International relations fail.
Our most cynical citizens, even in their most plaintive complaints, barely touch the surface of how incredibly out of alignment reality is.
Producers of medicines, houses, food, and virtually everything else from violins to shotguns, pursue profits for a few while curtailing generalized well being and development for all. People routinely die for want of medicine or from medical complications.
Banks and construction companies seek profit and most people never have - or temporarily have but then lose - houses.
Food chains and mega farms guard their blessings while significant portions of the population lack food or endure processed food’s dietary debits.
Entertainment industry profits soar yet people can’t afford concerts and cultural gatherings, much less violins, though they can afford and are structurally welcomed into appreciating and misusing guns.
Producers, because they must pursue profit, are generally overwhelmingly oblivious to public well being, even as they horrendously violate it. A popular descriptive aphorism is that nice guys finish last, and what could be more indicative of society failing? My version, to be a bit less cute about it, is that garbage rises. Witness the palaces of power, the windows of wealth.
Though many people might say in passing that they don’t believe that all this depravity exists, deep down, nearly all of us know it exists. This is easy to confirm. People routinely and appreciatively read thriller novels, watch TV shows, and go to movies which transparently - and as a central part of plot lines - take all this depraved degeneracy for granted. No one says, “hey, that’s not realistic.”
Temperatures and storms accelerate on a doomsday trajectory while the rich and powerful sip margaritas on the deck of Spaceship Earth while glorying in the pretty vistas they see through bloodshot eyes even as they fail to see, or deny, the thermometer and water levels climbing. The ecology is failing.
Society’s monarchs take on the persona of ostriches, with their heads stuck in their appetizers, their minds ignoring or even aggressively denying the unfolding climatic truth.
No, that’s too kind a characterization. More accurately, our rich and powerful monarchs are worse than ostriches. They are anti social and greedy homo sapiens with their eyes on the ground and their noses sniffing in the troughs of other people’s pain that they must continually exacerbate due to the social requirements of their stature and comfort.
Our monarchs become habitually unwilling to lift their eyes lest they lose their social elevation. They won’t look up even to ward off disasters that will harm their lives too, much less to prevent other people from being devastated. The masters of our universe are driving it toward collapse.
Every person on this planet who dies of preventable disease or starvation - and that is tens of millions of people each year - was socially murdered. These murders didn’t have to happen. That is economics failing. Every child that never gets to experience their own full talents and capacities, and that never gets to enjoy a loving stable environment - and this is a significant majority and perhaps even an overwhelming majority of all children - is a soul crushing crime against young humanity. And these crimes didn’t have to happen. They are kinship failing.
Every person laboring their lives away in comprehensively boring and debilitating conditions, enjoying nearly no stature and only meager income for their sacrifices, is one more soul subordinated to material greed and power. It is the condition of roughly 80% of the planet’s population. This soul subordination didn’t have to happen. This is society failing.
The interpersonal rapes, thefts, and murders that clog streets with victims - and, even more, the large scale systematic bending of wills and motives and the subordination, impoverishment, psychological rape, material denigration, and social and even biological murder of countless souls encompasses a massively unjust misallocation of knowledge and circumstances that didn’t have to happen. It is society failing.
In contemporary society, if you do a little poking around behind the facades, the reality turns out to have a horrendously vile character that didn’t have to happen - if only society were organized differently.
In the U.S., there are roughly 50,000 auto accident deaths yearly. A sensible society might have a few hundred such deaths, and probably less.
In the U.S., not enough doctors and too high costs of medical care consign hundreds of thousands of citizens to permanent illness or death each year.
In the U.S., schools teach most students to endure boredom and take orders, which is virtually the opposite of what any sane person would see as a fine education.
And these last itemizations are just the ugly surface sores most visible on top of the accumulating and by now largely taken for granted mountains of hunger, disease, and other deprivations at the very core of our social arrangements. And that's only the most egregious ills in the empire’s homeland. Imagine the most egregious ills in the periphery.
There is only one coherent or even moderately sane argument against fundamentally reconstituting society on a transformed foundation to eradicate all this deprivation and pain. And even that one argument - which is the assertion that a revolutionary redefinition would only make things worse because there is no viable alternative - is itself, as we will see, no more than another transparent lie.
No sane person argues any longer that the social systems we currently have ought to remain in place because they are optimal. The logic of greed, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism, much less of pollution or war that literally threaten human survival - is not good. Greed and domination are not good. To call our social systems exemplary, or even just good, or even just okay, or even just bearable, isn’t even a sad joke. No one who isn’t delusional can honestly take that kind of system-rationalizing claim seriously. It is as absurd as it was in earlier times to say slavery was good, or cannibalism was good - both of which claims were made, of course, by those who benefitted from owning or eating people.
Greed is not good, nor is hunger, deprivation, or subordination. But the lie that however bad things are, any change would make things worse, though it is very widely believed by many very sane and caring people, is, as we will see, just the primary way rich and powerful people prop up and rationalize their own part in that injustice.
So what is the upshot of addressing our question, why should we try to understand society sufficiently to change it?
Suppose you read this book (and the subsequent volumes as well), and you think, “okay, I can see that a social system better than what we endure is possible. And I can also see how people can contribute to attaining that new social system, including having a good chance of ultimate success.”
Then wouldn’t you more or less have to partake in changing society in whatever ways you could fruitfully manage, however limited or comprehensive your involvement might end up?
Don’t all of us who see and feel the truth of society’s failing have to actively seek change as the only real hope of becoming civilized rather than barbaric?
Isn’t our collective effort to change society the only alternative to continuing injustice and eventually even more incredible calamity than we already endure?
If that’s true, then we need some more understanding of society, our aims, and our methods, so we can proceed. That is the observation propelling Fanfare. We start with understanding society.
The Ties That Bind 1: Institutions
“We are what we constantly do...”
What is an institution?
We all use the word often, yet determining what we mean by “institution” requires special effort.
Consider the Pentagon in Washington DC. Is the Pentagon an institution? Yes, of course it is.
However, is the five-sided building that we call the Pentagon what makes it an institution? No, it isn’t.
The Pentagon could be in any building and it would still be what it is. And if we put a bicycle factory in the building that is now housing the Pentagon, poof, the building would no longer be the Pentagon even though it would still have five sides.
Well, then, are the specific people who walk the Pentagon’s corridors what make the Pentagon an institution? No, if we replace the Pentagon’s current people with new people, it would still be the same institution, albeit with different people. If we reassign the same people now walking the corridors of the Pentagon to the State Department, the State Department would not suddenly become the Pentagon.
So what is the basis of the Pentagon being an institution?
The answer is a set of social relations, or what we might call roles.
In the Pentagon, for example, there are various positions with associated responsibilities and permissions. These roles, or slots that people fill, include Chief of Staff, Five Star General, various kinds of lower officials, division heads, technicians, secretaries, custodians, and so on. These roles and the ties, responsibilities, options, and limits they convey are the heart of the institution called the Pentagon. The roles that define what people who are part of the Pentagon or who are affected by the Pentagon can and will do or cannot and won’t do, are the essence of “Pentagon-ness.” Think of a typical family, church, or school. Or a typical legislature, factory, or market system. Or a police department or the Center for Disease Control.
Like the Pentagon, each of these institutions exist to fulfill some functions. In that regard they are each a bit like society writ small.
Society exists to allow its citizens to interact and accomplish a broad range of four flexible functions that are key to life. Individual institutions are similar, but typically, at least primarily, address a smaller range of functions - perhaps war, household daily life, religious celebration, or education.
The Pentagon primarily prepares and enacts violence and war. A family, church, school, legislature, factory, or the whole market system, primarily cares for kids, celebrates a shared set of values and ceremonies, conveys information and skills, establishes rules, produces outputs, or allocates goods, services, and labor.
And here is the logical capstone. If we want to partake of social functions, the only way to do so is to become actors in some limited list of institutions where we must fulfill one or more of some limited list of possible roles that our society makes available for addressing those functions.
To relate to and benefit from - as well as suffer due to - particular institutions in our society, we will have to fill roles that those institutions offer. This is so whether we are considering a family, school, church, legislature, court, factory, or market.
Why do we care about this rather obvious observation? Why are institutions - not so much the buildings they are in, the particular people who are in those buildings, or the equipment which is in those buildings, but the social relations and roles composing the logic and offerings - important to think about in trying to understand society in order to change it?
Consider a corporation. A corporation is an institution. Some of its general roles are owner, manager, and worker which take on special attributes in specific cases such as in an auto plant, software publishing house, or hotel chain. If you want to be part of a corporation and its functions - including to earn a living and thereby survive - you must fulfill the dictates and responsibilities of one or another role in the corporation. You fill the role to get some benefits - including essential ones like an income - but you may also suffer some debits like being subject to a boss.
You might be an owner of the corporation, taking immense profit and having to do nothing much for your great gain. You might be a manager or a CEO, CFO, engineer, or corporate lawyer doing a range of conceptual, empowered tasks with various relations to more rote workers below as well as to the owners above. You will then typically have to produce results that enhance the owner’s profit while also taking a considerable income for yourself and keeping workers from taking too much income, in turn leaving you too little. Or you might be a rote worker, say on an assembly line or cooking hot dogs on a grill. In this case you will typically be doing largely or even entirely disempowering tasks controlled entirely from above. For this you will earn a modest, or in many cases horribly low but desperately needed, income.
From churches to police forces, from farms to investment houses, and from families to hospitals, institutions are society’s vehicles of social engagement. We must fill roles within institutions to get anything society has to offer, including an income, schooling, entertainment, health care, and so on. However, in turn, institutions require us to interact in particular ways which often also dramatically constrain who we can be and what we can enjoy or must suffer.
So the point is, institutions create an arena in which we operate. We gain some benefits from the institutions we relate to, which is why, in fact, we relate to them. But we also suffer various limitations due to the institutions we relate to, a debit we seemingly cannot avoid. Ultimately, the question at the heart of social change is can we have new institutions that still provide needed benefits, and that provide new benefits as well, but that do it without imposing dreaded debits?
The Ties That Bind 2: Beliefs
“Suppose that humans happen to be so constructed that they desire the opportunity for freely undertaken productive work. Suppose that they want to be free from the meddling of technocrats and commissars, bankers and tycoons, mad bombers who engage in psychological tests of will with peasants defending their homes, behavioral scientists who can't tell a pigeon from a poet, or anyone else who tries to wish freedom and dignity out of existence or beat them into oblivion...”
- Noam Chomsky
If institutions matter because of how they impact people who fill the roles that those institutions offer, what characterizes “we the people” who fill those roles?
Of course, lots of things characterize us.
Our relative heights and weights, hair color, favorite clothes, TV preferences, reading habits, hobbies, and beyond those, dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of personal attributes help characterize us. However, since we seek to figure out what is important to understand about society and people in society in order to think broadly about how to effectively and dramatically change society, “we the people” are always people with certain preferences, knowledge, habits, expectations, and material and psychological interests and beliefs.
Consider a particular friend of yours. What matters most about him or her as your friend is likely whatever is special and even unique about him or her in your perceptions.
However, if you think about a whole society, what matters most about the population is likely to be features that recur in person after person throughout large subsets of the population because these common features affect many peoples’ behaviors and those many people together in turn have large effects.
If everyone in society is hell bent on some pursuit, or shares some influential habit or some belief with significant implications, then the widely shared pursuit, habit, or belief will typically significantly contour the society, telling us a lot about what is likely or possible within that society.
Even if a pursuit, habit, or belief is not shared by everyone, but by some large constituency which may put it to use in blocking or pursuing social change, again, that will be important for us to understand because the collective impact of that can be enormous. In contrast, some single individual’s hair color, or even the total number of people with red hair, just isn’t likely to matter all that much for changing a society. For example, suppose women in large numbers accept that they are in some way inferior to and deserve to be subordinate to men. That would certainly be a big issue for society, as it has been at various times and places in history. It would be equally or even more important, if, instead, women largely became feminist, where the initial impetus could be one person’s revelation, or any other proximate cause, but in time women collectively sought new relations, as has also occurred at certain times and places in history. One passive or rebellious person may have potential, but huge numbers sharing a similar passive or rebellious inclination inevitably helps define broad outcomes.
The same holds for working people, for members of cultural communities, or for citizens facing their governments from below. Each constituency might share pursuits, habits, or beliefs that cement them into subordination, and, if so, that will be how their society will maintain itself and the conditions of its population. Alternatively, each constituency might share pursuits, habits, or beliefs with whatever diverse origins those may have, that propel them into opposition to existing limits. And that too would certainly be critical to efforts at changing society. Likewise, for example, other people may be wedded to sexist, classist, or racist domination and its perpetuation, again, greatly affecting large scale outcomes.
The logic of all this is simple but important.
One mother, one Catholic, one owner, one worker, one elected official will have many preferences, habits, and beliefs that are unique to his or her particular combination of personal experiences. But each will also likely have many preferences, habits, and beliefs in common with other mothers, Catholics, owners, workers, or elected officials, due to sharing the roles those other people also occupy and due to the implications of the shared roles for themselves and for those other people.
Any individual’s preferences, habits, and beliefs - what we can call the individual’s consciousness - can arise by way of a vast range of local and personal factors. Unique events and may rise to paramount importance for a given individual’s relations to a friend or relative. But when we consider society, we need to know if a substantial group of people share overlapping preferences, habits, or beliefs. If they do, we can be pretty sure what is shared will have similar origins in common role positions in social institutions because even if the initial precipitating events generating the first instance of the shared views were highly personal or even unique, their later spread will owe a lot to shared circumstances and realities.
Widely shared consciousness typically arises largely due to people sharing similar roles in some institution or set of related institutions, so that even if the views emerge first in only a few individuals, or even in only one, many individuals in time develop the attributes that their similar roles impose or at least facilitate, or perhaps due to resistance to those same roles.
Consider this example of people discovering an important reality for themselves, which corrected their prior impressions. In the late 1960s in the U.S. and in many other countries as well, there was great turmoil and dissent. This context caused many people to begin communicating with others in more serious ways than usual. One thing that happened was that women - often housewives - would get together with their friends to talk personally, essentially going around the room and telling their stories (this was like a new role, in a new “institution,” describing life in the women’s movement). Something very moving happened.
One woman would report her experience of objectification, violence, rape, being ignored and trampled in discussions and having their capacities demeaned and denied, or of having to do incredible volumes of work, through a long - and in the mind of the testifier - quite personal story of how she got to her current diminished position. Most often, the testifier blamed herself or some particular deadbeat or violent husband, father, uncle, neighbor, or all of the above.
But then the next woman sitting in the circle in the living room or kitchen would describe her own overwhelmingly similar experiences. The names changed. Many details changed. But the essence was the same.
And then the next would report, and the next. And in this common experience was born - first for a few women, and then later for many more - a feminist outrage at outcomes that came to be clearly seen as not their own fault, and not a result of some single deficient man, but a result of a social system - their families, their upbringing, their schools, their churches, their economy - all arrayed to assume and to perpetuate female subordination and passivity, with men the beneficiaries. They began to see, through each other’s eyes, ubiquitous social roles, not unique personal experiences, creating their social hardships. It was not personal inadequacy that created personal failing, it was institutional pressure.
What emerged from these simple observations is that institutions are important for two primary social reasons:
- Institutions facilitate some possibilities, and curtail others, differently for people who occupy different roles. If you are a mother, father, son, daughter, priest, rabbi, parishioner, catholic, jew, or muslim, black, white, latino, worker, manager, engineer, owner, citizen, mayor, judge, or president - your pleasures and pains will vary dramatically due to the roles you occupy in society’s institutions.
- Institutions convey common preferences, habits, and beliefs to people who fill largely the same roles. Thus depending on whether you own, manage, or work routinely in a particular industry or firm, you have different workplace responsibilities, options, requirements, benefits and losses, with derivative effects on the rest of your life as well. And the same holds depending on your role in a family, political system, and cultural community.
What also emerged from the above simple observations is that people are important for two primary social reasons:
- People mediate why institutions exist, their aims, and their methods. People are the carriers of the implications of institutions, but also the creators of institutions.
- People are able to react and conceive and create, not only in accord with the roles they occupy, but also in opposition to those roles. While any one individual may be first to arrive at some new conception or stance, personal revelations can become shared collective perspectives that, in turn, inspire shared activity.
“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”
- Michel Foucault
We live in a society. What should we think of it?
This depends on what we value. Whatever our preferences are, the way to judge our society is to ask whether its institutions - and the attributes they impose on our habits, capacities, and preferences via their roles - advance, impede, or obliterate any hope that the values we favor will be met.
For example, suppose we value that society produces the absolute maximum possible output, or that the largest possible output goes to a small percentage of citizens, or that the same amount of output goes to everyone, or some other outcome regarding society’s product.
Or suppose we value men dominating women materially, socially, psychologically. Or that we abhor that result. Or we think some cultural group should benefit greatly at the expense of others. Or we abhor such a prospect. Or we feel the broad public, not just a small elite of officials, should have decision making influence or should not have decision making influence in legislative and judicial outcomes, and that the direction of outcomes should benefit all, or only a few. Or we like war and domination of other societies, or we prefer peace and mutual aid. Or we think the environment is an endless pool to piss in, or is a limited treasure we must protect and carefully use.
Of course we could go on listing possible divergent preferences about various aspects of social life. The point is, once we establish our own values a question emerges: do society’s institutions and people’s personalities and inclinations further, impede, or obliterate any possibility of the values we favor being met?
Social evaluation is really quite simple and no different in broad logic than evaluating anything else we might judge. Are society’s attributes in accord with what we favor? Or do its attributes violate what we favor? If they are in accord, excellent. If they violate, then we we must change them.
“If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.”
- Albert Einstein
What is the polity, economy, kinship, and culture in this emerging approach?
Each of these is but one aspect of a complex society. However, each of these is also a kind of system unto itself, within society. In a sense each is like a biological organ in a human. No heart, lung, kidney, arm or eye usefully exists other than in complex entwinement with the rest of a person - yet each of these organs can also be usefully considered as a system unto itself.
The words polity, economy, kinship, and culture are each partly the name for some flexible functions we have identified. They are also, simultaneously, the name for “organs” of society, all entwined, but each also viewable as an identifiable conglomeration of institutions for accomplishing one of the four defining flexible functions. Viewed as components, some institutions in each of the four spheres of social life are of course more central and critical than others.
The institutions in each of the four spheres all taken together across the four social spheres create a kind of boundary of available roles with various accompanying implications that people in society have no choice but to relate to.
As people in society, therefore, we fill society’s roles or not, sometimes by choice, sometimes without any alternative other than to be entirely excluded from social relations if we decide to go our own way.
And who are we?
Individually, we are each unique breathing, feeling, thinking beings, with very complex and diverse preferences, habits, and beliefs, albeit all built on quite similar genetic natures.
However, looked at from a greater distance, we each share various roles with many other people. Often that commonality with others causes us to also share associated preferences, habits, and beliefs in broad patterns of group allegiance, all depending on such features as our gender, sexual preference, age, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, class - such as owner, manager, or worker - and our being citizens or government officials of various sorts in different polities.
And what is a society?
In the view we are slowly elaborating a society is the immensely rich and varied combination of a “human center,” which is us with our consciousnesses, capacities, and agendas, plus an “institutional boundary,” which is the roles that we must fulfill or avoid as a means to gaining various ends in society. Taken this way society is like an incredible mosaic with each multifaceted part affecting and even defining all the other multifaceted parts.
But we can also see society as its four spheres of social life, even as we also note that there is a porous and flexible line of demarcation between kinship, culture, economy, and polity and that each has institutions and people - and even as we also see that the whole society resides, of course, in the natural environment as well as either cooperating with, ripping off, or being ripped off by and perhaps even bombing or being bombed by other societies.
How do we judge a society?
We decide on the broad kinds of outcomes and relations that we desire and appreciate, and we then ask: Does society’s human base and institutional boundary, or the base and boundary in each of its social spheres, further those preferred values or violate them?
So far, therefore, we have arrived at a tentative and general set of observations about how to understand, judge, and as we go forward, change society.
- Current society is basically horrendous in its human implications, so if (in Fanfare’s part two) we can conceive social relations that would be much better and that would also be workable, sustainable, and attainable, we should try to attain them.
- By virtue of human needs and potentials, to accomplish certain unavoidable functions all societies necessarily have four social spheres - economy, polity, kinship, and culture - and also two encompassing contexts - ecology and international relations. To understand any particular society means at least understanding these six aspects separately as well as in their entwinement.
- Accomplishing defining social functions typically entails collective action including people having sufficient clarity about their tasks and responsibilities to permit scheduling, coordinating, and abetting each other’s efforts, all of which is accomplished by persistent institutions which are themselves arrays of roles. Understanding any one or all four spheres entails, among other tasks, understanding its core institutions.
- The social roles of society’s institutions, taken together, create a kind of institutional boundary of society, which people relate to by filling (or avoiding or being excluded from) various available roles, and by which people gain certain benefits and endure certain hardships.
- The people of a society, taken together, create a kind of human center, including their preferences, habits, and beliefs, so that in the whole populations of societies there will be groups of people who, due to shared conditions and roles, have commonalities of preferences, habits, and beliefs allowing for, or sometimes even compelling, collective actions defending or altering society’s features.
- The people and institutions of society, of course, depend on and affect one another. Institutions constrain and mold people’s preferences, capacities, and habits. People, in turn, compose institutions, including sometimes changing or even completely replacing them. Likewise, each institution and each person affects the rest and we can judge the whole assemblage, whether people or institutions, whether one at a time or all together, in light of those effects.
Given these simple insights, a reasonable next step for becoming better able to understand societies is to refine our means for understanding each of the four social spheres as a basis for moving on to say more about how the aspects interrelate, and about change and history.