How is Social Order Possible?

Cooperative behaviour is a fundamental, ubiquitous feature of human life. Let me say that again with emphasis in case you missed it: cooperative behaviour is a fundamental, ubiquitous feature of human life! Our day-to-day relationships are subject to a pervasive structuring of which we are largely unconscious. The excessive contemporary focus on the role of competition in market economies has concealed the fundamental significance of this cooperative behaviour. Without it, no human behaviour—social or economic—of any significance is possible. Let me emphasise the point again with an added twist: competition is not the fundamental force in human affairs—social or economic. For the moment, we will concentrate on how this cooperative behaviour, this structuring, this social order, is to be explained, with that word ‘force’ to be the focus of some attention in Chapters 5 and 8. The quest for such an explanation has long been at the centre of religious, philosophical, sociological and anthropological speculation. It is also related closely to the central questions of political life, namely: how should society be organised? How should the resources of society be distributed? What is the extent of our responsibility for others? Should individual freedom be restricted, to what extent, and in what ways? In so far as these questions ask what ought to be, they are moral ones: they ask about what is good, what is bad, and involve the fundamental questions about who we think we are.

Much academic discourse directed at these questions since the Enlightenment has emphasised the primacy of the individual, contrasting a methodological individualism with more corporatist notions. It has been something of an academic fashion in Western circles in recent centuries. Contemporary research has, however, shown that individuals are complex entities with internal states,[4] and if a reductionist strategy is thought essential to scientific investigation then, for consistency, one should not stop at the individual. This is not a position I take. Rather, I start from a position that sees the individual as embedded in society—an embedding that takes place through a continuing enculturation.

Consequently, I see the extensive theoretical discourse focused on whether the ‘individual’ is ‘prior’ to society or vice versa as a sterile waste of time—the product of obsessive Western dichotomous thinking. It seems clear to me that individuals constitute—and are constituted by—society. Putting it another way, the human ‘I’ discovers himself or herself only in encountering another ‘I’ and achieves identity and maturity only as a person in community.[5] In short, there is and can be no ‘I’, except in relationship and in contrast with others. The very idea of individuality is nonsense in the absence of comparison.[6] Furthermore, it is now clear that the evolutionary emergence of Homo sapiens is inseparable from the emergence of society. As sociologist Werner Stark (1909–85) argues, ‘Here we are challenged to realise that the self and society are also coequal and coeval; that they are…twin-born.’[7] And again, ‘Think society away, and Homo sapiens disappear; what is left is a speechless, mindless beast.’[8]

What this means is that there is no pre-social, fixed human nature on which to base discourse about human behaviour. Social life is not an optional extra;[9] it lies at the core of what it is to be human. Consequently, it is not possible to strip culture away in order to get to a more essential human nature in the way that many reductionist theories since the Enlightenment have tried to do.[10] This is an insight that renders the idea of the autonomous individual—so beloved of economics and much recent political philosophy—a dangerous falsehood.

Even the contemporary Western concept of the self, which seems so natural and self-evident to contemporary Western thinkers, is an artefact of a long social discourse.[11] This Western liberal notion of the human person as a free, independent, inquiring, rational and maximising individual is a masculine, Enlightenment view,[12] derived from a long Western Christian tradition, as mediated by John Calvin (1509–64) and René Descartes (1596–1650). To Buddhists, this view is a delusion and the source of human unhappiness. Indeed, other societies have held very different ideas of who we are, connected closely also to their particular forms of social organisation. For example, Homeric culture barely conceived of a self outside of social roles. Similarly, Geertz (1926–2006) writes of Balinese culture:

[There is] a persistent and systematic attempt to stylise all aspects of personal expression to the point where anything idiosyncratic, anything characteristic of the individual…is muted in favour of his assigned place in the continuing, and so it is thought, never-changing pageant of Balinese life. It is dramatis personae, not actors, that endure; indeed it is dramatis personae, not actors, that in the proper sense really exist. Physically men come and go—mere incidents in a happenstance history of no genuine importance, even to themselves. But the masks they wear, the stage they occupy, the parts they play, and most important, the spectacle they mount, remain and constitute not the façade but the substance of things, not least the self.[13]

Geertz therefore concludes:

[T]he Western conception of a person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic centre of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organised into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.[14]

Importantly, these different views of the self are not just different they are incommensurable. This means that it is not possible to synthesise these understandings to obtain a genetic concept of the self.[15] This insight poses a fundamental challenge to the positivist view of the social sciences, on which economic fundamentalism is based. That discredited positivist view presupposes that there are ‘sheer facts’ to be discovered about human interactions and about the world more generally. Consequently, it ignores the social process through which these ‘sheer facts’—and the conceptual frameworks on which they are based—are established. Now these are not new ideas, however much they have been ignored in positivist discourse. Even Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), one of the fathers of empiricism and the scientific method, described four kinds of barriers—‘Idols of the Tribe, Cave, Market Place, and Theatre’—that act against the achievement of objective knowledge and shape perception and thought. These were the limitations of human nature in general, the preconceptions of individuals, the fashions of day-to-day discourse and the dogmas of philosophies and science. Of course, Bacon hoped that the empirical method would provide a way out of these problems. Now, however, we can be far less sure that this is possible.

It is now clear that our taken-for-granted ‘reality’, our everyday understanding of the world, of our scientific knowledge and of ourselves is socially constructed. Importantly, language is now seen as the social medium into which we are born and within which we live, rather than simply being a tool we use to describe a pre-existing reality.[16] Consequently, the extent of our ability to get beyond language is problematic. The only reality we can know anything about is the reality we encounter through our language[17] and our stories. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann tell us:

I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that seem independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter…The language used in everyday life continuously provides me with the necessary objectifications and posits the order within which these make sense and within which everyday life has meaning for me…In this manner language marks the coordinates of my life in society and fills that life with meaningful objects.

And again: ‘Everyday life is, above all, life with and by means of the language I share with my fellow men. An understanding of language is thus essential for any understanding of the reality of everyday life.’[18]

Consequently, for bacteriologist and philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck (1896–1961), ‘Cognition is the most socially conditioned activity of man, and knowledge is the paramount social creation. The very structure of language presents a compelling philosophy characteristic of that community, and even a single word can represent a complex theory.’[19]

The idea that language, as a sign of something else, was always removed from reality was a cornerstone of the ancient rhetorical tradition that held sway over Western societies for many centuries.[20] This does not mean, however, that the natural and social worlds do not play a role in constraining our conceptual system, or that there is no order in those worlds. Rather, it can play this role only through our experience of it, and that experience is constructed socially through language and stories. Consequently, American philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906–98) goes so far as to argue that it is not meaningful to talk about the way the world is.[21] In this vein, Wittgenstein has pointed out that concepts must necessarily presuppose the existence of—and operate according to—the public rules of a social milieu, and presuppose a shared public domain of discourse.[22] The very language of that discourse is itself a product of a language community, a culture.

American linguist Benjamin Whorf (1897–1941) put it this way:

Thinking also follows a network of tracks laid down in a given language, an organisation which may concentrate systematically upon certain phrases of reality, certain aspects of intelligence, and may systematically discard others featured in other languages. The individual is utterly unaware of this organisation and is constrained completely within its unbreakable bonds.[23]

Furthermore, Whorf tells us, on the basis of his studies of other cultures and languages, the ‘various grand generalisations of the Western world, such as time, velocity, and matter, are not essential to the construction of a consistent picture of the universe’.[24]

Wittgenstein goes further:

Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes. The tacit conventions on which the understanding of everyday language depends are enormously complicated.[25]

In this same spirit, contemporary linguists Lakoff and Johnson have drawn attention to the pervasiveness of metaphor in everyday life, and, in the process, spelt out in part the mechanism by which language structures reality. The terms in which we think and act—our conceptual system—are fundamentally metaphorical in nature, reflecting the dominant historical and social order.[26] Similarly, many other theorists have argued that the way in which social phenomena are labelled serves as a device for social control. Accordingly, the leading sociologist of science, Karl Mannheim (1893–1947), claimed that almost no human thought was immune to the ideologising influences of its social context; that knowledge must always be knowledge from a certain position.[27] This view applies with particular force to knowledge of society itself. Consequently, the extent to which our accounts of social phenomena are a product of those phenomena—or of the process by which they are derived—is always problematic. John Shotter bluntly sums all of this up:

[O]ur understanding and our experience of reality is constituted for us, very largely, by the ways in which we must talk in our attempt…to account for it…In accounting for ourselves we must always meet the demands placed upon us by our status as responsible members of our society, that is, we must talk in ways that are both intelligible and legitimate to others, in ways that make sense to them and relate to interests in which they can share.[28]

As we saw earlier, there is an important circularity here. We tend to become what we say we are.

Culture is something we learn as children growing up in a society and discovering how our parents and those around us interpret the world.[29] This process of enculturation is a process of sharing knowledge[30] —the knowledge by which people design their own actions and interpret the behaviour of others. This knowledge provides us with the standards we use for deciding what is, for deciding what can be, for deciding how one feels about it, for deciding what to do about it and for deciding how to go about doing it.[31] The creation and sustainment of such shared meanings is itself a social process in which moral knowledge is incorporated into a society’s moral vocabulary and its social discourse.

This is often described as a process of institutionalisation. The development of language is itself considered the paradigm case of that institutionalisation, the basis of intelligence and the mechanism by which knowledge can be transmitted through time and space. Therefore, William Noble and Iain Davidson argue that ‘mindedness’—that human conduct that exhibits signs of awareness, interpretation, understanding, planning, foresight or judgement—cannot occur independently of language. ‘Mindedness’ and language are learned through years of socialisation through interactions with others.[32] For Berger and Luckmann:

Language now constructs immense edifices of symbolic representations that appear to tower over the reality of everyday life like gigantic presences from another world…In this manner, symbolism and symbolic language become essential constituents of the reality of everyday life and of the common-sense apprehension of this reality…Language builds up semantic fields or zones of meaning that are linguistically circumscribed. Vocabulary, grammar and syntax are geared to the organisation of these semantic fields. Thus language builds up classification schemes to differentiate objects…forms to make statements of action as against statements of being; modes of indicating degrees of social intimacy, and so on.[33]

In particular, the acquisition of language is an integral part of personality development. In this regard, George Mead argues that the hearing of one’s own speech—and observing the response of others—is central to the recognition of the self as an object and agent.[34] Among that reality is our understanding of our own lives in the context of the passage of time. Consequently, Jerome Bruner argues that because we have no way of describing lived time other than in the form of narrative, we construct our understanding of ourselves as an autographical narrative: ‘[I]t is only through narrative that we know ourselves as active entities that operate through time.’[35] For his part, Jean-Paul Sartre tells us that ‘a man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it’.[36] We construct our understanding of the causal relationships involved in happenings in the natural world in the same way—as knowledge narratives.

Accordingly, it seems clear that the contemporary liberal concept of the human person is the product of a particular tradition, a particular social discourse and a cultural artefact. To be a person in contemporary Western society is not to be a certain kind of being—‘a self’—but to have internalised a particular socially transmitted and approved moral story, which is then used to structure that Western individual’s sense of identity. Consequently, it is a story that is used to organise one’s knowledge, experience and behaviour.[37] It follows immediately from the above insights that, at most, individuals—even Western individuals—can be only partially sovereign and autonomous, and it is a deceit to pretend otherwise. The formation of our values, and even of our consumer preferences, is a social process and cannot sensibly be separated from them.

My starting position is at odds with the starting point of the dominant school of economics—neoclassical economics. As the basis of its discourse, that school adopts the reductionist strategy characteristic of most science since the Enlightenment: an extreme methodological individualism, the assumption that human beings are essentially self-interested and an impoverished account of human reason. This ‘presumes a deeply utilitarian understanding of social life…severed from connections to any concrete sense of identity, purpose, or meaning. Morality, religion, and the whole normative dimension of social life get either pushed out of sight or explained away as resultants of more important, or more real factors.’[38]

It is a starting point that makes it difficult for economists and economic fundamentalists to understand how economic action is constrained and shaped by the structures of social relations in which we are embedded.[39] Furthermore, its methodological individualism is not a morally neutral stance, but an ideological conviction—one that is confined largely to the Western world. Not only does it contain within it a view as to how societies are formed and how they function, it contains a strong distinction between the ‘me’ and ‘you’, which brings with it a strong distinction between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’. While economists seek to tell us how our society should be organised, their methodological assumptions undermine their ability to engage adequately with the values that underpin our society.

Of course, some might argue that there is no necessary logical connection between the acceptance, or rejection, of individualism as a methodological principle and one’s attitude towards individualism and individual liberty as moral and political ideals. Nevertheless, there is a close connection between these ideas historically and they come together in the context of welfare economics, which attempts to account for welfare improvements in terms of the subjective preferences of individuals. Martin Hollis has, however, warned us that the atomised individuals of neoclassical economics are entirely reactive to the environment, with no freedom of movement.[40] The consequence is that neoclassical economics denies human agency. It is therefore inconsistent with Libertarian political philosophies that stress human autonomy. It follows that there is a fundamental inconsistency at the heart of economic fundamentalism. We will turn to a more detailed discussion of those relationships in Chapter 8. In any event, contemporary economic fundamentalists claim to hold to individualism as a fundamental value as well as a methodological principle. It is, however, an individualism shorn of any compassion for real people in their daily circumstances as opposed to a claimed—and highly qualified—concern for their right to make their own decisions. It does not, for example, extend to a genuine concern for the autonomy of those who have no money or no job.

This qualified adulation of individual autonomy is itself deeply flawed. It seeks to gauge our individual worth in terms of our ability to ‘distance ourselves from commitment to society’[41] and elevates selfishness from the status of a ‘deadly sin’—the equivalent of idolatry—to the status of the essential human characteristic. In sharp contrast, most of our religious traditions teach us that to be authentically human, and even to find ourselves, we have to lose ourselves in the service of others and in the contemplation of the divine—a contemplation that is said to extinguish the sense of self and to promote a sense of the unity of all existence. Of course, this selfish view of humanity is also untrue as a scientific, psychological description of real human beings. The truly autonomous human being—Homo economicus, ‘economic man’—is autistic, incapable of entering into normal human life with its continuous emotional engagement with others—engagement that is essential to normal human development. Indeed, that emotional responsiveness to others is more basic than symbolic thought, providing the basis for the acquisition of language and the development of symbolic thought.[42]

One important consequence of this adherence to methodological individualism has been a stubborn refusal on the part of economists to examine the formation of preferences—the basis of our choices. They do so on the grounds of what is called the doctrine of consumer sovereignty—the idea that we are all free to form our own preferences without having to justify them. As such, it is simply a restatement of the economic profession’s commitment to individualism. It privileges so-called individual preferences—as opposed to social institutions and collective rules of behaviour—on the assumption that preferences have been chosen individually. This view ignores the extent to which our choices are conditioned by our positions in the social system—positions that involve normative obligations and power relationships enforced by society. It ignores the fact that we justify our choices to ourselves in the language of contemporary culture and the social construction of that language and culture. It also assumes that we know what alternatives are open to us and that we know what we want. So it simply refuses to examine the great extent to which preferences are learned and not chosen. It also ignores the particular influence that others have on those preferences, the extent to which they depend on previous choices and the extent to which they are either incomplete or inconsistent. What is more, it ignores the highly manipulative nature of much advertising. Furthermore, the economists’ assumption that preferences are consistent has been proven to be false[43] —a finding that undercuts rational choice theory, which, in turn, underpins the theory of demand.

In this regard, Ormorod argues that the assumption that tastes and preferences are fixed is one of the most restrictive assumptions of orthodoxy, severely limiting the capacity of economics to illuminate real-world problems. This is because the alteration of tastes and preferences—particularly under the influence of others, including advertising—is pervasive in the real world.[44] We might note in passing that this obsession with individual preferences and individual autonomy does not extend to our treatment of children—and no economist is arguing that it should. It follows that they are accepting tacitly that there is a legitimate social role in the shaping of individual preferences: consumer sovereignty does not extend to children, or to the mentally disturbed, or to some aboriginals—that is, that there are other values to be served that override their autonomy. What, then, about the merely confused, or the poorly informed, or the badly misled? To label concerns for such people as simply paternalistic is not to mount a cogent argument but to make a questionable moral judgement.

Importantly, such preferences are said to include our internalised values and roles, with action and role-playing seen as being always instrumental and gratifying.[45] That is, they believe that human motivations are universally reducible to the competitive maximising of personal gain. Of course, such an account renders the words ‘preferences’ and ‘choice’ empty of meaning. Nevertheless, as contemporary critic and economist Michael McPherson[46] tells us, mainstream economics has been defined by the principle that the nature and origins of tastes and preferences lie outside the proper domain of economic inquiry. It provides the entry point into neoclassical economics—‘the essence of all properly scientific economic thinking’[47] —and consequently excludes other forms of economic analysis. American pacifist and economist Kenneth Boulding (1910–93) jokingly referred to the immaculate conception of the indifference curve.[48] These boundaries are essential to the deterministic, reductionist and mechanical systems thinking that constitutes the neoclassical method. Of course, the constructionist perspective outlined above involves a quite fundamental challenge to this impoverished theorising, because it directs attention towards the social processes through which our choices are legitimised to us and to each other and away from what are wrongly assumed to be individual psychological processes.

Importantly, this refusal to examine seriously the formation of preferences is an ideological stance and an ad hoc strategy designed to protect the structure and methodology of economic thought from a fatally destructive criticism. If the consumer is not entirely sovereign, the ideological use of the concept of Pareto-optimality in welfare economics collapses. This untenable stance flows directly from economic theory’s commitment to Cartesianism—the philosophical movement at the heart of the Enlightenment—and to a Newtonian cosmology. We will explore the consequences of those commitments in some detail in subsequent chapters. For the moment, it is sufficient to note that economics does not want to explore the complex of motives or feelings that lies behind real human choices. Rather, it renames people as economic actors and sets out to explore the so-called ‘rational choices’ of these ‘idealised’ actors. In this unreal, idealised, rationalist, but impoverished world, instrumental calculation is enthroned as the distinctive quality of human reason while the emotions are repudiated.[49] This is a debased, impoverished rationalism that is remote from the original Greek conception of reason as humankind’s highest faculty—a sharing in the divine nature conceived of as pure mind[50] —and from the more modest concept that arose with humanism and is again being explored in contemporary thought.

A further fundamental objection can be raised to this focus on preferences and the optimisation of choices. It privileges the role of consumption in human affairs compared with the role of production. Homo economicus is a consumer, rather than a producer. It is quite clear, however, that for most people, their roles in the workforce are a crucial part of their sense of identity.