What is society? What does that word describe?
The first dictionary definition I ran across describes society as, “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.”
Without over thinking it, that sounds about right. A society is a group of people. They may be in the same physical place, and they may have some means of communicating with each other. They may share certain values or have other characteristics in common.
Those are details over which reasonable people are right to quibble, but the fundamental concept is the same: a society is a group of people.
But what if that fundamental concept is a myth? An oversimplification, or, perhaps a convenient lie? What if society is not a group of people?
Well, then, what should we conceive it to be?
In his 1925 book the Phantom Public, Walter Lippmann argued that we ought to “think of society not as the name of a thing but as the name of all the adjustments between individuals and their things.”
That is to say, society is not a group of people – it is a group of relationships. Relationships between people, between objects, between issues. A complex web describing how each person interacts with the word, and by extension, how we interact with each other.
As Lippmann bemoans:
We have been taught to think of society as a body, with a mind, a soul, and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related. Instead of being allowed to think realistically of a complex of social relations, we have had foisted upon us by various great propagative movements the notion of a mythical entity, called Society, the Nation, the Community.
In Lippmann’s account, the error of taking society to be Society is more than an issue of semantics, and it is more than an innocent oversimplification. A theory of democracy which personifies society as a coherent whole, rather than a network of individuals and relationships, is not only mistaken – it is dangerous.
In post-World War I America, Lippmann looked out and saw the challenges of an increasingly globalized, centralized and professionalized world:
To defend themselves against the economic powers of darkness, against the great monopolies or a devastating competition, the farmers set up great centralized selling agencies. Businessmen form great trade associations. Everybody organizes, until the number of committees and their paid secretaries cannot be computed. The tendency is pervasive.
The concern, of course, is not necessarily with the centralization per se. Rather:
The men who make decisions at these central points are remote from the men they govern and the facts with which they deal. Even if they conscientiously regard themselves as agents or trustees, it is a pure fiction to say that they are carrying out the will of the people. They may govern the people wisely. They are not governing with the active consultation of the people.
Whether these people are elected, appointed, or otherwise endowed with power makes little difference in the end. Those with power are the ones who have power – everyone else is left out.
Yet the myth of Society, allows this to be so. A democratic people would never accept a king imbued by God – but they will accept government anointed by Society.
The people have spoken, they say. They cheer in victory or moan in disagreement, but the sentiment is the same. It is the Will of The People.
But “The People” is not a collective whole. Society has no unified will – and the myth that it does only allows those in power to falsely view themselves as benevolent actors of the people.
It would be impractical to do away with representative government, but what would it look like, I wonder, if we could divorce ourselves from this collective notion? If we could see society not as a unitary object, but as a messy web of relationships? If we truly saw our elected officials not divinely as the Voice of People, but as individuals themselves – given power not by social fiat, but simply for necessity’s sake.