“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” is how Thomas Hobbes described life in the absence of society. His conclusion, 350 years ago, that society is necessary to maintain civilized relations between people reverberated in March, when Tea Partiers attacked a disabled man during a health care reform protest. With anti-social forces tearing at our connective fabric, it is essential to understand the value of society and to defend it.
Society is a network of institutions and relationships, from churches to public schools. It encompasses physical infrastructure, financial mechanisms, and social norms and behavior, as well as the legal system that supplies essential security and stability. Members of a well-functioning society are bound together by respect, trust, and need.
Society enables us to pool resources, share risks, and create opportunity. It provides safety to its members, an environment for social relations, and the non-violent resolution of differences. In doing so, society allows us to accomplish things we couldn’t as individuals, families, or communities.
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American culture celebrates the ideal of cowboys and others who supposedly “go it alone.” The reality is no one goes it alone. Successful ideas, businesses and people are the products of society, nurtured, protected, and sustained by its rules and resources. As the investor Warren Buffett has acknowledged, “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”
Today, American society is battered by an array of forces. Connections between people have diminished as more time commuting in cars, watching television, and other secluded activities have reduced involvement in civic groups and sports leagues. The growing gap between rich and poor is socially corrosive, with income inequality at an all-time high.
Right-wing politicians have weakened our social institutions, trading public good for private gain. Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, declared, “There is no such thing as society,” as she broke her nation’s unions and sold off its railway system. Likewise, in the United States, union decline – fostered by conservative policies – contributes to the waning of the middle class and the increasing wealth gap.
And then there is the poisonous politics of the Tea Partiers. Most alarming is the demonization of their opponents. Whether the target is Obama or immigrants, the “other” is an enemy, the disagreement is a battle between good and evil, and there is no compromise.
The potential consequences of this “with us or against us” mentality are disastrous: the erosion of respect’s most fundamental component – recognizing the humanity of others. The extremes of this are genocide, such as the Holocaust and the murder of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, fueled by one tribe labeling members of another “cockroaches.” Even in less violent forms, it damages the ability to find common ground, identify shared interests, and resolve conflicts.
The rising number of “independent” voters is another symptom of weakening social solidarity. Lacking a coherent political identity or perspective, these voters can be appealed to by personality, won over by attitude, attracted by anger and finger-pointing. The inability to recognize and act upon collective interests can evolve into fear and misguided blame of our own neighbors. Authoritarian government thrives on social atomization, social scientist Francis Fukuyama has observed.
How do we combat this fracturing of society? As historian Tony Judt argues, the most important task may be reminding people of the essential role that government has played in keeping our society from collapsing. At the beginning of the Great Depression, Germany’s government, undermined by anti-social and authoritarian movements, was unable to accomplish things and lost credibility, leading to the Nazi’s rise to power.
In the United States, in stark contrast, the government successfully put people to work, met social needs, built public infrastructure, and sustained faith in our shared purpose and identity. The New Deal strengthened our social solidarity and our democracy.
Our government has just prevented another depression. But we, as a society, still have to prevent climate change, reform immigration policy, and achieve much more. The sooner we recognize our common interests, needs, and humanity, the better off we will be.