[In the HelpAlbert group, members are interacting with Michael Albert about draft content for a new book, seeking to help make the book better than it would otherwise be. This is the first draft of chapter one.]
Many Sided Lives
Typically, and unarguably, we are born, nurtured, socialized, schooled, grow up, work for income, celebrate our particular heritage and beliefs, operate as citizens along with other citizens, romance partners, create families – and then it all happens again, assuming environmental disaster and war don’t get in the way.
Societies, unsurprisingly and unarguably, have important aspects that facilitate – or obstruct – each central part of life listed above including, more systematically, being born, nurtured, and socialized; contributing to society’s product and consuming from it; embodying a language, heritage, and broader 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.
Therefore, obviously, to understand our situations and the societies we live in, even if only at at the most general level, we should at least understand these diverse aspects. We must do this first, because these aspects are always present as an inevitable part of socially organized life. And we must do it second, because these aspects are also always incredibly important and thus worthy of serious attention.
How society facilitates or obstructs critical parts of life affects our pleasure and pain. It helps determine who we are and what we can do. For that matter, it also helps determine what will be done to us.
We can think of these centrally important aspects of society as four flexible functions and two comprehensive contexts.
The four flexible functions are:
- Procreation, nurturance, socialization, and sexual interaction of genders, family members, and the young and old – and we call this the kinship sphere of life.
- Acculturation, language acquisition and use, and identity formation and celebration of races, ethnic groups, religions, and other cultural communities – and we call this the cultural or community sphere of life.
- Production, consumption, and allocation of society’s social product by producers and consumers – and we call this the economic sphere of life.
- Legislation, adjudication, and shared collective program of citizens – and we call this the political sphere of life.
- The two comprehensive contexts surrounding all societies are:
- The natural environment and our relations to it – and we call this the ecology.
- The other societies in the world and our relations to them – and we call that international relations.
The point is, simply by virtue of the fact that societies include large numbers of people interacting together, there can’t be a viable society without accomplishing certain centrally important kinship, cultural, economic, and political functions.
There can be no lasting society with no new generation born, socialized, etc. There can be no lasting society that doesn’t have people having cultures, sharing them, celebrating, conversing, etc. No lasting society can exist without production occuring, allocation of the outputs, and their consumption. And there can be no lasting society without means of accommodating the choices of different individuals, including outlawing various actions and facilitating others, dealing with disputes, etc.
All history shows these four flexible functions are always addressed. And we of course also know by logic and experience that the natural environment and the international setting of other countries with their own social norms and relations inevitably exist and provide a space in which any society sits.
Again, the four societal spheres or realms encompassing the four flexible functions listed earlier are always present in society because the tasks they address are absolutely essential to human life and ties. The two encompassing contexts are always present, like the sun and moon, because without them there is nothing.
Okay, since it is undeniable that all societies have these aspects, it is also undeniable that we will be able to say more about societies if we can answer how, in particular, each society accomplishes the four flexible social functions. But why bother trying to understand society in the first place? And what makes these particular six aspects so special, as compared to any others we might list, that we should pay especially close attention to these, and not so close attention to many others one could list?
First, we need to understand society at all because we want to change it, and you can’t change something complex without understanding at least key aspects of it. But one might then ask, why do we need to change society, without which we wouldn’t need to understand it?
An analogy can orient our answer. A car is for transport. When do we need a new one? Clearly when our old one stops fulfilling its function and something better is available at a cost that doesn’t offset the benefits. The same holds for a light bulb, a pair of sneakers, or a paint brush. And the dynamic is only more complicated, but not different in kind, for an economy, culture, political system, kinship system, or all of those social spheres together – which is to say, for a whole society.
A society is a set of relations that enables is citizens to together accomplish key kin, cultural, economic, and political functions. If a society has means for this which fail to work well, and if social relations exist that would work significantly better, and if the costs of attaining the latter don’t outweigh the benefits or subvert them, then we need the new relations instead of the old relations. If the faults are deep and broad, and the alternatives are sufficiently different and better, then we need a whole new set of means of accomplishing the flexible functions, which is to say, we need a whole new society.
The logic of the societal case, again, is quite like needing a new car or lightbulb. If we are serious about our desires, and if our society does not mean them, and if a better way of arranging social life exists, and if attaining it won’t be unbearably costly, then surely we should want to attain that better way, thereby escaping the flawed way.
All that’s left, then, to make the case that we need to change society and therefore need to understand it, is to ask if our societies are failing to accomplish their necessary functions in a desirable manner.
Can there be any doubt about the answer? I hesitate to waste your time making this case because I think as a reader of this book you very likely already know that society is failing miserably. More, I think non readers of this book, everyone else, pretty much knows it too – that all typical citizens, deep down, know that 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. We know even greater numbers of people lack the free time and healthy space to experience life fully and fruitfully. Even where more wealth exists and life lasts longer and is less hellish, we know dignity is almost impossible to come by. We know that lying, cheating, aggrandizing, and even killing are the basic touchstones of daily life, both personally and, far more damning, collectively – particularly where societies are more developed.
Look around. Why should survival require vicious venality? What we experience from birth to death, is not exactly a prescription for dignity, equity, and justice. Life as we all know it could obviously be much better.
The truth is that we all know that nearly everything is morally and even pragmatically broken. Our ways of accomplishing economics and politics and even culture and family life are not just a little damaged but rather thoroughly messed up down to their most basic attributes and in ways that impose horrendous costs on humanity.
Unemployment soars and financiers celebrate. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer – and Wall Street proclaim it an upturn. That is no way to conduct economic life.
Bombs burst all over daily lives and ideologues salute while arms makers celebrate bloated dividends and soldiers return home in bloated caskets, or even more often, anatomically or psychologically maimed.
Cynics barely touch the surface of how insane reality really is.
Producers of medicines, houses, food, and virtually everything else from violins to shotguns, pursue individual accumulation of profits for a few and not generalized well being and development for all. In fact, they are generally, overwhelmingly, oblivious to the latter, even as the latter is horrendously violated.
The weather around us blows on a doomsday trajectory while the rich and powerful sip margaritas on the deck of the Titanic. They look like ostriches with their heads in the sand ignoring or even aggressively denying the unfolding truth, but, in fact, it is worse. They are instead pigs with their snouts pushed into the trough by social requirements of their stature and comfort, unwilling to lift their heads and risk that stature and comfort even as disaster looms.
Every person who dies of preventable disease or starvation – and that is not thousands of people but tens of millions of people each year – was socially murdered, and it didn’t have to happen.
Every child that never gets to experience their own talents and capacities, and that never gets to enjoy a loving stable environment, and we are talking about the overwhelmingly majority of children, is a crime against young humanity, and it didn’t have to happen.
Every person, laboring year after year in boring or even debilitating conditions, wasting away faster than the clock ticks, with nearly no stature and only meager income, is one more soul subordinated to material greed and power, roughly 80% of us, or arguably more, and it didn’t have to happen.
The interpersonal rapes, thefts, and murders – but much more to the point, because it involves so many more victims, the large scale systematic bending of wills and motives and ensuing subordination and impoverishment of the many including their psychological rape, material denigration, and social and even biological murder, in order to super excessively feed the few who are so screwed up they barely even enjoy it involves a massively unjust misallocation of knowledge and it didn’t have to happen. In a rat race even the winners are rats.
Almost anything you consider, honestly, if you do a little poking around, turns out to be horrendously vile. Fifty thousand auto accident deaths yearly. A sensible society might have a few hundred, I would guess, probably less. Profit prohibits sanity. Not enough doctors and too high costs of medical care consigns many to permanent illness or death – again, because profit prohibits sanity. Schools teach most students to endure boredom and take orders, virtually the opposite of what any sane person would see as the sinews of a fine education – because profit prohibits sanity. And these are just ugly cliffs, sad as it is to say, on the top of the accumulating mountains of hunger, disease, and other deprivations at the very core of our social arrangements.
There is only one coherent or even moderately sane argument against undertaking a fundamental reconstitution of society on a new foundation. And even that one argument – which is the claim that revolutionary redefinition would only make things worse – is itself no more than a transparent lie.
The more basic claim that what we have ought to remain in place because it is good, isn’t even a sad joke. No one who isn’t delusional can honestly take that system-defending claim seriously. But the lie that any change would make things worse, which is admittedly very widely believed by very sane and caring people, is, as we will see, just rich and powerful people’s way to prop up injustice and, even more so, to rationalize their own part in that injustice.
So here is the upshot of answering the question, why should w try to understand society sufficiently to change it?
If you read this book and you think, (1) okay, I can see that a social system better than what we endure is possible. And (2) I can see how I can contribute to attaining that new social system, with a reasonable chance of success. Then, as best I can see, there will remain no worthy excuse to not partake in whatever ways you can sensibly and fruitfully manage, however limited or comprehensive, in the society changing project that offers our only real hope of becoming civilized rather than remaining barbaric and suffering continuing injustice and, ultimately, incredible calamity.
The Ties That Bind 1: Institutions
What is an institution? We all use the word fairly often, yet determining what we mean by “institution” turns out to require some special effort.
Let’s take the Pentagon in Washington DC.
Is it an institution? Yes, of course it is. Is the five sided big building what makes the Pentagon an institution? No, the Pentagon could be in any building and if we put other stuff in the building now housing the Pentagon, poof, it is no longer the Pentagon even though it still has five sides. Are the people who walk the Pentagon’s corridors what makes it an institution? No. If we replace its current people with new people it is still the same institution, albeit with different people. If we put the same people in the State Department, it is not suddenly the Pentagon.
So what is the heart of the Pentagon being an institution? I think the answer is a set of social relations, or roles.
In the Pentagon, for example, there are various positions with associated responsibilities and tasks and permissions. These are roles, or slots, that people fit into including, Chief of Staff, General, various kinds of lower official, division heads, technicians, secretary, and so on. And those roles, or slots, and the persisting ties among them and responsibilities and options, and limits, they convey, are the heart of the institution called the Pentagon.
Of course there is also the building and we can call it The Pentagon if we like, but it isn’t the institution. And there are the desks and computers, and so on. And they belong to the Pentagon, or are part of it, if you like, but not the essence. And there are the people. And it isn’t that the people don’t matter, of course they do, and for some purposes they are absolutely central. But nonetheless, they, like the building and tools can change, even totally, and the Pentagon will still be the same institution it was. The social relations, or roles, that define what people who are part of the Pentagon or affected by it can/will and cannot/won’t do, are the heart of the matter.
Think of a typical family, church, or school. Think of a typical legislature, factory, or market system. Think of a police department or the Center for Disease Control – and we could go on.
Each exists, typically, to accomplish some end or fulfill some set of functions, and in that regard they are a bit like society writ small. Society exists to allow its citizens to interact and accomplish a broad range of four flexible functions key to life. Institutions, such as those listed above, are similar, but usually address a smaller range of functions – household, religious, educational, etc.
Thus the Pentagon makes war and pursues, as well, some related matters. A family, church, school, legislature, factory, or the whole market system, exists, again, to accomplish some particular functions such as caring for kids, celebrating a shared set of values and ceremonies, conveying information and skills, establishing rules, producing outputs, and allocating goods, services, and workers.
If you want to partake of social functions, one way – and often the only way – in a particular society is to be part of the institutions that that society has for addressing those functions. And to do that you fill one or another role that those institutions offer, whether in a family, school, legislature, factory, or market – or affected by them.
Why do we care about this? Why are institutions – not so much the buildings they are in, the particular people in those buildings, or the equipment there, but mostly the social relations and roles defining the institutions – important things to think about in trying to understand society in order to change it?
Consider a corporation. It is an institution. Some of the roles are owner, manager, and worker. If you want to be part of the corporation and its functions, including, as one key reason, earning a living, you must fulfill the dictates and responsibilities or one or another role in the corporation. You might be its owner, taking immense profit and having to do nothing much for your great gain. You might be a manager – a ceo, cfo, engineer or whatever – doing a range of conceptual and empowered tasks with various relations to more rote workers below who you encounter, and to the owners above, who are your boss, as part of producing to enhance the owner’s profit while taking a considerable income for yourself. Or you might be a rote worker, say on an assembly line, doing largely or even entirely stultifying and disempowering tasks, and earning a modest or even a low income for your exertions.
Institutions are the vehicles of social engagement and life. Roles within institutions delimit and allow or even require us to engage in particular ways which in turn dramatically constrain who we can be and what we can enjoy or must suffer.
So the point is, we need to care about institutions because institutions create the arena in which we operate. We gain some benefits from them. We suffer some limitations due to them. The effects on us depend on our precise roles within or in relation to them.
The Ties That Bind 2: Beliefs
Who are we? That sounds like a football chant from some high school – “we are New Rochelle, mighty mighty New Rochelle…” Well, okay, but what I mean by “who are we?”, is, if institutions matter because of their impact on those who fill their roles, what characterizes us, as people who fill those roles?
Of course lots of things characterize us. Our relative heights and weights, hair color, favorite clothes color, TV taste, and so on, help characterize us. But a lot of this is like the peripheral attributes of institutions. Personal details are not the heart of the matter, and particularly they are not the heart of the matter when we are asking the question “who are we?” because we are trying to figure out what is important to understand about society in order to think broadly about how to effectively and dramatically change it.
We are, in answer to that question, people with certain preferences, knowledge, habits, and expectations, with certain desires and material and psychological interests, and with certain beliefs, as well. Considering a friend what matters most may well be what is most special, most unique, to that particular person. However, when thinking about a whole society, what matters most are features that recur in person after person, broadly throughout large groups, thus affecting many peoples’ behaviors and the impact they together have, and thus society more broadly, in large ways.
If everyone in society is hell bent on some pursuit, or shares some habit, or some belief, then that shared feature can significantly contour society, telling us a lot about it. Even if a pursuit, habit, or belief, is shared not by everyone, but by some large constituency, which may put it to use in blocking or pursuing social change, again, that is important to know about and to understand whereas some individual’s hair color, or even the number of people with red hair, just doesn’t matter much for society changing purposes.
As an example, if women accept that they are in some way inferior and deserve to be subordinate – that’s a big deal for society. Ditto if, instead, women become feminist, seeking new relations. The same holds, for example, for working people, or members of cultural communities. They might share pursuits, habits, or beliefs that cement them into subordination or that propel them into opposition. Other people may be wedded to domination and its perpetuation.
The idea is simple. An individual’s preferences, habits, and beliefs – their consciousness – can arise by way of a vast range of local and personal factors. Special nearly unique aspects may rise to paramount importance for that individual, or for a friend of hers. But when we are talking about society, we want to know if a whole substantial group shares preferences, habits, and or beliefs, and if so, we can be pretty sure it is similarly rooted for each person. Widely shared consciousness typically arises at least in large part from all the people involved filling at least significantly similar roles in some institution or set of related institutions, thus developing in common the attributes that their similar roles impose.
One mother, one Catholic, one owner, one worker, one elected official will have many preferences, habits, and beliefs that are unique to their own personal experiences – but – they are also likely to have many preferences, habits, and beliefs in common with other mothers, Catholics, owners, workers, or elected officials due to sharing the roles and their implications.
What emerges from the above simple observations is that institutions are important for two reasons. First, they facilitate some possibilities and curtail others, and they do this differently for people filling different roles. And, second, they tend to convey preferences, habits, and beliefs – consciousness – to people who are filling roles, with much in common for people who are all filling the same role.
What is the polity, economy, kinship sphere, and culture, in this emerging approach?
Each sphere is partly the name for a flexible function, and also partly the name for a conglomeration of institutions for accomplishing its defining flexible function, with some institutions more central and critical than others. The institutions in each sphere, and all taken together across the social spheres, create a kind of boundary of available roles with various accompanying implications. As people in society, we can fill these roles or not, sometimes by choice, sometimes without any alternatives but to do so or be excluded from doing so.
And who are we?
Individually, we are each unique, breathing, feeling, thinking, beings, with very complex and diverse preferences, habits, and beliefs. But, looked at from greater distance, we share various roles with others and often that commonality 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, other cultural community, class – owner, manager, or worker – and consuming in the market, and being citizens or government officials.
And what is a society?
In the view we are slowly elaborating, it is the combination of a “human base” which is us with our consciousnesses 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, where we also note a useful line of demarcation between kinship, culture, economy, and polity – and see that the whole thing also exists, of course, in the natural environment and either cooperating with, ripping off, being ripped off by – bombing, or being bombed by – other societies.
So far we have arrived at merely a rough and general set of initial observations about how to understand society to change it.
- Current society is basically horrendous in its human implications, so if we can conceive something that would be much better and that would also be workable, sustainable, and attainable, we should try to attain it.
- By virtue of human needs, potentials, and social realities, to accomplish certain unavoidable functions all societies have four social spheres – economy, polity, kinship, and culture – and also two encompassing contexts – ecology and international relations. To understand society likely means understanding these six aspects, at least.
- Accomplishing social functions typically entails collective action including people having clarity about their tasks and responsibilities to permit scheduling, etc., all of which is accomplished by institutions – meaning 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, summed together, create a kind of institutional boundary of society, which people relate to by filling various available roles, and by which, then, people gain certain benefits and endure certain hardships.
- The people of a society, summed together, create a kind of human center, including their preferences, habits, and beliefs, and there will be groupings due to shared conditions and roles in turn causing commonalities of preferences, habits, and beliefs.
- The people and institutions of society depend on, and affect, one another – as does each institution and each person affect others. And here, of course, is a key focus of change, as we will see.
In light of these simple insights, to be elaborated soon, a reasonable next step for becoming better able to understand societies is to first refine our means for understanding each of the four social spheres taken separately, and that will be our aim next chapter, preparatory to saying more about change, history, etc.