SOCIETY AND THE INDIVIDUAL
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES ON SOCIETY
Societies are based on relationships between people. An important aspect is the ways in which individuals typically view themselves and the world around them. This can be portrayed as a series of concentric circles with the individual at the centre, and the percieved relationships with family, friends, community and wider society radiating out.
In societies with individualistic cultures, individuals are strongly focused on their own interests and those of a relatively narrow circle of family and friends. In some more communitarian societies, individuals are strongly aware of belonging to a wider society – and are willing to sacrifice some measure of personal advantage for the common good.
It is clear that circumstances may change the relationships between individuals and the wider society. In times of national crisis, individuals can sacrifice personal interest in order to serve a wider cause. Currently, driven by consumerism and free market preoccupations there is a strong tendency in some societies for individuals to put narrower personal and family interests first.
Adam Curtis created a fascinating series in which he explored the relationships between individuals and society – and in particular how politicians and consumer industries have exploited self-interest to control peoples’ behaviour.
Along these general themes, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy, commodification and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitudes to fashion and superficiality.
The business and political world uses psychological techniques to read, create and fulfill the desires of the public, to make their products or speeches as pleasing as possible to consumers and citizens. Curtis raises the question of the intentions and roots of this fact. Where once the political process was about engaging people's rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a society, the documentary shows how by employing the tactics of psychoanalysis, politicians appeal to irrational, primitive impulses that have little apparent bearing on issues outside of the narrow self-interest of a consumer population.
Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers, is cited as declaring: "We must shift America from a needs- to a desires- culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man's desires must overshadow his needs".
A Neo-Liberal, Free-Market view of Society
Liberty and freedom are the conditions of man within a contractual society. Social cooperation under a system of private ownership of the means of production means that within the range of the market the individual is not bound to obey and to serve an overlord. As far as he gives and serves other people, he does so of his own accord in order to be rewarded and served by the receivers. He exchanges goods and services, he does not do compulsory labor and does not pay tribute. He is certainly not independent. He depends on the other members of society. But this dependence is mutual. The buyer depends on the seller and the seller on the buyer.
The main concern of many writers of the 19th and 20th centuries was to misrepresent and to distort this obvious state of affairs. The workers, they said, are at the mercy of their employers. Now, it is true that the employer has the right to fire the employee. But if he makes use of this right in order to indulge in his whims, he hurts his own interests. It is to his own disadvantage if he discharges a better man in order to hire a less efficient one. The market does not directly prevent anybody from arbitrarily inflicting harm on his fellow citizens; it only puts a penalty upon such conduct. The shopkeeper is free to be rude to his customers provided he is ready to bear the consequences. The consumers are free to boycott a purveyor provided they are ready to pay the costs. What impels every man to the utmost exertion in the service of his fellow men and curbs innate tendencies toward arbitrariness and malice is, in the market, not compulsion and coercion on the part of gardeess, hangmen, and penal courts; it is self-interest. The member of a contractual society is free because he serves others only in serving himself. What restrains him is only the inevitable natural phenomenon of scarcity. For the rest he is free in the range of the market.
In the market economy the individual is free to act within the orbit of private property and the market. His choices are final. For his fellow men his actions are data which they must take into account in their own acting. The coordination of the autonomous actions of all individuals is accomplished by the operation of the market. Society does not tell a man what to do and what not to do. There is no need to enforce cooperation by special orders or prohibitions. Non-cooperation penalizes itself. Adjustment to the requirements of society's productive effort and the pursuit of the individual's own concerns are not in conflict. Consequently no agency is required to settle such conflicts. The system can work and accomplish its tasks without the interference of an authority issuing special orders and prohibitions and punishing those who do not comply.
A Sociologist’s view – Durkheim
Anomie is a "condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals. It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community.”
To Durkheim, men were creatures whose desires were unlimited. Unlike other animals, they are not satiated when their biological needs are fulfilled. "The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs." It follows from this natural insatiability of the human animal that his desires can only be held in check by external controls, that is, by societal control. Society imposes limits on human desires and constitutes "a regulative force [which] must play the same role for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs." In well-regulated societies, social controls set limits on individual propensities so that "each in his sphere vaguely realizes the extreme limits set to his ambitions and aspires to nothing beyond. . . . Thus, an end or a goal [is] set to the passions."
When social regulations break down, the controlling influence of society on individual propensities is no longer effective and individuals are left to their own devices. Such a state of affairs Durkheim calls anomie, a term that refers to a condition of relative normlessness in a whole society or in some of its component groups. Anomie does not refer to a state of mind, but to a property of the social structure. It characterizes a condition in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms and where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals.
Durkheim was indeed a thinker in the conservative tradition to the extent that he reacted against the atomistic drift of most Enlightenment philosophy and grounded his sociology in a concern for the maintenance of social order. As Robert Nisbet has shown convincingly, such key terms as cohesion, solidarity, integration, authority, ritual, and regulation indicate that his sociology is anchored upon an anti-atomistic set of premises. In this respect he was like his traditionalist forebears, yet it would be a mistake to classify Durkheim as a traditionalist social thinker. Politically he was a liberal--indeed, a defender of the rights of individuals against the state. He also was moved to warn against excesses of regulation over persons even though the major thrusts of his argument were against those who, by failing to recognize the requirements of the social order, were likely to foster anomic states of affairs. Anomie, he argued, was as detrimental to individuals as it was to the social order at large.
Durkheim's main shafts against individualistic social theories notwithstanding, he was by no means oblivious of the dangers of overregulation to which Spencer's social philosophy had been especially sensitive. Durkheim saw man as Homo duplex--as body, desire, and appetite and also as socialized personality. But man was specifically human only in the latter capacity, and he became fully human only in and through society. Hence, true moral action lies in the sacrifice of certain individual desires for the service of groups and society. But such sacrifices redound in the last analysis to the benefit of individuals, as well as society, since unbridled desires lead to frustration and unhappiness rather than to bliss and fulfillment. Modern society seems to contain, for Durkheim, the potentialities for individualism within social regulation. In contrast to earlier types of social organization based on mechanical solidarity that demanded a high degree of regimentation, modern types of organization rest on organic solidarity obtained through the functional interdependence of autonomous individuals. In modern societies, social solidarity is dependent upon, rather than repressive of, individual autonomy of conduct.
Nevertheless there may be occasions of conflict and opposition between the society and the individual. There is controversy among scholars as to who should be sacrificed in such cases. One group of thinkers known as the socialists, collectivists, idealists and the organismic theorists maintain that society as a collective whole is bigger and greater than each individual. The individual may be selfish or egoistic. He may ignore the social interest and pursue his self-interest. In such cases it is the duty of the individual to adjust him to society or else society would compel him to conform to the pattern of social life and code of conduct. The individual may be sacrificed for the common good of society.
On the other hand, a group of thinkers known as liberals and individualists put premium on the dignity and worth of each individual person and maintains that society exists for the individuals. It is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Society is an instrument to achieve and promote human happiness.
They demand ample freedom of thought and action for the individuals and attack any attempt by society and associations to limit or take away precious freedom.
Both views are one-sided and exaggerate both the importance and superiority of society or of the individual. They contain some element of truth, but not the whole of it. It may be said that the proper relation between society and the individual is reciprocal and complementary and not one of conflict and antagonism.
The ultimate goal of society is to promote good and happy life for its individuals. It creates conditions and opportunities for the all-round development of individual personality. Society ensures harmony and cooperation among individuals in spite of their occasional conflicts and tensions. If society helps the individuals in numerous ways, great men also contribute to society by their wisdom and experience.
Thus society and individuals are bound by an intimate and harmonious bond and the conflicts between the two are apparent and momentary. In a well ordered society, there would be lasting harmony between the two.
A Social Market Perspective
Here are extracts from an article by Swedish banker and businessman Daniel Sachs. His views tally with comprehensive research about the Nordic Model.
“Openness to change is a core aspect of the competitiveness of the Nordic economies. In fact, adaptability is even more important in small, open, export-oriented economies such as Sweden.
... What the Nordic experience shows is that individual incentives can be soundly balanced by solidarity on a societal level. Solidarity makes good economic sense. Solidarity - that is risk-sharing - is a key ingredient in being open to change.
I realise that this insight flies in the face of what many Americans believe. But they no longer “own” the openness to change idea. In fact, in one of the more puzzling developments of our current era, the ability of US society to absorb change has slowed tremendously. In the US debate, the key charge raised against the Nordic model is the level of taxation- here the state share of GDP is very high. But, befuddling Americans, economic growth in Scandinavia is robust, and unemployment is about the same as in America and lower than in most other European countries.
Why are we ready to put up with a higher level of taxes? Is it because I like living in a society that puts a strong emphasis on equality of opportunity? Is it because I like living in a society that has strong social cohesion and fairness, an open society where everybody has the right to free healthcare and schooling? Is it because I enjoy the fact that, despite a certain prosperity, I cannot buy better schooling for my kids or better healthcare than someone with less means? Or is it because it benefits my business?
The answer is “all of the above”
And this flows from how the relationship between openness and risk-sharing works. The “haves” share their personal gains with the “have-nots” through taxes that finance comprehensive benefits.
Our ambition is not only to provide a safety net if a citizen stumbles because of a job loss, but also to invest in human capital so that the citizen is less likely to fail -to invest in making individuals successful actors in a modern, globalised society.
Our “individual investment society”, as it is sometimes called, together with a clear sense that if people fail they will be taken care of, leads to a greater willingness to undertake risk and therefore greater openness to structural change on a society-wide basis.
Nordic countries have remained open to because free trade policies have gone hand in hand with collective mechanisms for risk-sharing.
I would argue that adaptation to globalisation has been made less painful than in many other Western countries, for the reason that the gains from globalisation have been reasonably widely distributed. Because of our tax policies, we don't end up with a small universe of winners and a large group of losers.
Sweden's wide distribution of economic benefits also helps create social cohesion. There is a clear sense that we are in this together, that we share the benefits, also the burdens. In turbulent times, this has very clear value.
These aspects of the Nordic Model - the relationship between state and individual, generous social protection, freedom of the individual and high levels of trust - all help to foster risk-taking and openness to change. But the other reason why, as a businessman, I like the Nordic model is that high levels of trust, fairness and transparency also mean that transaction costs are low. Corruption is low.
So, fairness, equality of opportunity and openness to change are fostered by collaborative societies in which all make a full contribution to economic health and the rich support improvement in the prospects of the poor.
Intelligent economies depend on economic and social policies that foster support, education and flexibility. And societies that demonstrate these characteristics support strong governments working in collaboration with other stakeholders to forge and enact economic and social policy. That way, the common interest is forged.
Market fundamentalists, stuck as they are on notions of “freedom” competition and winners/losers should get wise to better ways. But alas, bigots are immune to evidence.