Yesterday I laid out an argument that there are two basic human organizational structures. The first is the horizontal, informal, egalitarian community. The second is the vertical, formal, elitist society. Those are, of course, oversimplifications; no group is completely one or the other. But they are still extremes on a continuum, and help us to understand the modern world.
For instance, societies aren’t all that great for humanity.
Communities tend to focus on people as important, unique individuals. Societies see people as generic members of some rank and class, exchangeable and expendable commodities.
Communities function largely through independent initiative, personal interaction and mutual trust. In contrast, societies are governed by centralized direction, bureaucratic intermediaries and equally bureaucratic rules, and a constant distrust requiring oversight, auditing, and even surveillance.
Tolerance and concern for the individual lead communities to be patient, even wise. Societies are insistent, even ‘imperious,’ related to the word ’emperor,’ both of which derive from the Latin imper, ‘to rule or control’.
The preceding considerations explain my proposal yesterday that communities are more organic, flexible, adaptive, and progressive, while societies tend to be artificial, sclerotic, traditional, and reactionary.
The verticality of the society means that those atop the hierarchy must constantly separate themselves from the hoi polloi. Society is arranged in a series of ranks, each with their own distinctions, and distinction itself is important. It is just as critical to avoid being assigned to a lower group, as it is to be recognized as a member of an upper group. So in society there will be any number of highly visible badges or other cues that signify one’s rank. In the military, this is accomplished with minimalist insignia; in the broader society it is a lavish waste of wealth on fashion and other excesses.
The community, on the other hand, is largely disinterested in appearances.
The next distinguishing characteristic between community and society, and one that is not so obvious nor so consistent, involves personal relationships. In a community, one’s value is one’s character, which includes honesty, affability, and consideration for others. As a result, members of a community tend to be extremely loyal and form life-long commitments, first to their families, but also to friends and business associates.
In contrast, standing in a society is based entirely on rank. Personal character is unimportant, although the public appearance of certain honorable behaviors is useful for maintaining status; this leads to an almost requisite duplicity and hypocrisy. It is, of course, also important to appear to be loyal to those of a higher social standing. But ‘appearance’ is once again the operative term, because members of a society are loyal only until the opportunity for advancement presents itself, and then they move quickly and ruthlessly. So in the society, treachery replaces loyalty, and relationships are temporary, ad hoc, and quickly discarded. As I heard one particularly ruthless and ambitious man declare, “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies.” This strategy reached a shocking height – or abysmal depth, depending on whether you prefer community or society – among the ancient Roman aristocracy, where it was not uncommon to put to death close friends (Et tu, Brute?) and even family members, including one’s parents, spouse, siblings, and children, either for personal ambition or simple expedience. Clearly the dishonesty and rudeness that are anathema in the community, are coin of the realm in the society.
An important aspect of status in the society is condescension and abuse. The classes below are to be excluded and derided, those above are to be followed and pandered to. And so societies are also highly divided, and divisive.
Communities tend to be cooperative, diverse aggregates which comprise almost everyone. Almost everyone except the mean and dishonest, which as we have just seen describes those trying to create/climb in the society. And so we see that the community excludes the society as much as the society excludes the community.
Finally, personal fulfillment in the community comes from close, trusting relationships with family, friends, and clients, so not surprisingly happiness and contentment are products of the mundane, of everyday work, of simple joys, and of modest entertainments. In the community one works assiduously at one’s craft, devotedly maintains one’s family, and raises children who are prepared to also become citizens in the community.
The society, however, finds boredom in everyday work and everyday life, and there is a constant drive for the sensational, the spectacular, and the great personal triumph. Triumph, of course, is what often underpins the spectacular: there is great excitement in defeating rivals and superiors and moving up, or humiliating those who are trying to.
Societies are not always wrong. The authoritarian structure of the society creates highly disciplined groups which are better for coordinated action, particularly in crisis and chaos. War is one of the most pressing crises humanity faces, and so the military is a prime example of a society.
But communities are typically superior in stable situations, and in peace time they often surpass the society in innovation, long-term efficiency, and shared prosperity.
As such, the community constantly seeks win-win scenarios through compromise & collaboration. Because vertical ascendancy and domination are essential to one’s rank and status, win-lose is the basic mindset in the society; if I do not win, then I lose. There is no middle ground.
And to one of the themes of this blog, win-lose have come to dominate business, government, religion and even science, where it obstructs consensus and progress.
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Picture, Ensemble pour la Paix et la Justice (Group for Peace and Justice), Parc de la Tête d’Or, Lyon, France, by Xavier de Fraissinette, courtesy of Pixabay.com.