What Makes a Society Run (Down)?


The social/political world is constituted by a myriad of distinct groups of people, roughly distinguishable by a handful of structural features. Sociologists provide us with a plethora of models that vary largely by enumerating the relative dominance of these features. I tend to follow the structuration model of Anthony Giddens that posits that societies differ according to their beliefs, norms, authority structures, and commonly used material resources. The success or effectiveness of different societies can be assessed by comparing the outcomes of societal action relative to some set of stated values.

In this blog post, I want to examine the relationship between the values and the kind of actions one would observe by standing outside and looking into the society. In a market economy, like the US, the dominant kind of actions to be seen is “transactions.” These are actions predicated on some sort of exchange system. “I will do this if you will do that for me.” “I will sell you this car if you will pay me $XXXX.” “I will operate this checkout station if you will pay me $YYY.” There are no contextual conditions needed between the two or more parties; that is, no existing relationships affect the transaction. This is the underlying basis for the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith.

If one looks only at the material economy of a society, this system of impersonal transactions seems to be working very well. In the aggregate, the quantity and value (in the marketplace) have grown in societies that build their institutional structures around transactions or exchanges. If, however, anyone, in this kind of society were to be asked, how they assess their life to be, they would measure up all the goods and services they have acquired through transactions and base their answers on the result. They would have difficulty providing answers related to the quality of their lives because qualities are usually emergent properties of systems; they are not produced in the material processes that conventionally comprise an economy. This is, indeed the case today in the industrialized world; the majority of respondents express dissatisfaction with their lives.

Human beings, alone among all living species, exist in a meaningful context. Meaning arises from our use of language to express us and to coordinate our actions with others. Meaning arises in the stories we tell about our experiences. The actor is always the central character of these stories. Meaning is self-referential. I cannot say what some event or action means to someone else. Meaning is historical and changes as experience accumulates in one’s memory. Meaning can arise from two sources: one is the stories that actors weave out of their own experiential perceptions; the other through the adoption of stories told by others, including the impersonal cultural voice, the “they” that expresses societal norms.

This latter source of “meaning” leads to inauthentic behavior. After 9/11, President Bush tried to restore normality to societal life by exhorting the public to “Go Shopping.” Conversely, actions that come out of one’s own story are authentic. Although this difference is critical, it is, in practice, frequently difficult to locate the source of the immediate context for action. Recognition of which type of behavior is being exhibited is best developed by observations over long time periods.

So far this discussion about meaning is prelude for the next part of my argument. I argue that transactional actions do not produce existential satisfaction, which I will now define. Existential satisfaction is an experience in which a human Being assesses that he or she is living up to his or her full biological and cultural potential. Like meaning, satisfaction is historically grounded and represents a reflection, not of some singular action, but of the continuity of experience. Existential satisfaction is grounded in actions that arise out of the historical context of meaning, associated with the particular action. I use “flourishing” to describe this satisfying mode of existence.

Flourishing is the result of a different kind of interaction in which the actors are tied into a context of relationship. I will call these actions, relational or reciprocal. The meaningful presence of the other, the target of the intended action, is a necessary precursor to the action. Such interactions come with an already present story that provides a context for the intended action. In most cases the necessary preconditions for action, such as trust, are already part of the story. This kind of action also can be labeled as caring. Caring actions are those directed to another (including the actor as a target) that are intended to supply something missing from the other. What is deemed to be missing arises out of an empathetic interaction with the other at the time or out a memory of a prior history.

Caring actions are authentic and existentially satisfying to both parties. They are dependent on the presence of an experiential context that establishes a meaningful relationship. That context is generally created through an extended set of interactions and the linguistic interchange (conversation) that accompanies them. Transactions usually lack such a context and the parties have little or no history of interactions. The context necessary to initiate action, in these cases, comes from a generalized sense of what the cultural voice would say. It should be obvious that such a context cannot provide the richness of meaning that comes from an established relationship. Actions taken on the basis of such abstract or generalized contexts often turn out to be unsatisfying, leading to a high level of societal dissatisfaction.

Such is the case in the US today. The majority of the people are unhappy with the ways life is going for them. Such unhappiness is easily converted to anger, as we are seeing in the current Republican nominating process. Michael Sandel has written an excellent critique of the limits of the market on his book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The hegemony of market transactions is a large part of that malaise, but is not the only cause. Sherry Turkle, an MIT scholar who studies technology, has recently published a book that sees a dark side to all the ubiquitous technology in our hands, but particular as young people are using it. The book was reviewed in the NY Times by Jonathan Franzen, who wrote about it:

Her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” extends her critique [from her previous book, Alone Together,] with less emphasis on robots and more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects. She takes their dissatisfaction as a hopeful sign, and her book is straightforwardly a call to arms: Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-¬≠reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place. As in “Alone Together,” Turkle’s argument derives its power from the breadth of her research and the acuity of her psychological insight. The people she interviews have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them. The likably idealized selves that they’ve created with social media leave their real selves all the more isolated. They communicate incessantly but are afraid of face-to-face conversations; they worry, often nostalgically, that they’re missing out on something fundamental.

Her central theme is the loss of conversational capabilities created by the context-free nature of communicating with these devices. Context and, subsequently, meaning require capturing the presence of the other and reflecting on the experience. The meaning comes from whatever story the actor adds to his or her memory, which memory can serve as the background for the next encounter with the other.

Our modern society is addicted to the use of technology and to markets. I have written quite extensively of the addiction to technology and its unintended consequences in creating unsustainability and, as Turkle writes, the diminishment of relations and the rise of dissatisfaction. Markets produce the same outcome of diminished relationships. Both are related to the modernist idea that the world is just a complicated machine with all the parts connected by functional, objective laws and rules. It should be quickly clear that such a world cannot produce meaning; everything in this model is simply there.

Flourishing arises only in a world where meaning motivates human action. Purely utilitarian transactions are important, as modern life demands that we possess and consume goods essentially available only in the marketplace, but are insufficient to provide existential satisfaction. The creation of meaning rests on reflective competence, that is, the ability to make and retain stories about what we experience. No matter how the brain actually maintains memory, our consciousness of it comes through language and images.

Turkle recognizes the importance of this and the threat that increasing reliance of “technology” poses. If we want to work toward a flourishing, rather than an affluent, efficient, society, it will be essential to actively address this problem. The solutions are not to throw out either the market or technology; that is virtually impossible. Countervailing means to reduce the dehumanizing aspects have to be introduced. Turkle’s book poses a number of initiatives, individual and collective. My work also is directed at adding practices that can counterbalance the inevitable consequences of modernity.

As I finish this post, I observe it is pretty dense, but the cause of the malaise in the modern world is very deeply embedded below the surface of culture. It takes a conversation with yourself in which all the cul-de-sacs in one’s thinking are exposed. If we do not take the effort to expose the believe structure that provides the ground for our culturally inauthentic behaviors, we are pretty much doomed to continue on the same trajectory that has reversed the earlier arrow of “progress.”

My wife is downstairs watching one of her favorite movies, Howards End, based on a novel by E. M. Forster. It is a wonderful story about the unfolding of an encounter of members of three English social classes at the beginning of the 20th century. The epigraph in the novel is the mysterious phrase. “Only connect …? It is repeated as “Only Connect!” in the story, itself. For me, it is one of the most powerful statements of the critical importance of relations in any culture where social artifacts have taken on hegemonic values.