An Anorexic Society?

anorexic society

People sometimes speak of a 'thick' or a 'thin' society, meaning one with either strong or weak communal bonds. Have we gone beyond 'thin' to anorexic?

A 'Thick' or 'Thin' Community

In recent times the word 'thick' has come to be used to mean that some human reality has a full substance. In particular it has come to be used of communities, and whether they are characterised by close, strong bonds between the members, or whether this substance has 'thinned out'.

A 'thin' community is one where the connections between people have become attenuated, stretched, weakened.

This reference to stronger or weaker communal ties does not necessarily mean that thicker is better. Continuing the analogy, it is possible for someone to be either overweight or underweight. Either could be bad for your health. Similarly a society might be too 'thick' or too 'thin'.

What would 'too thick' look like? Community ties might be strong without being good. We see this in criminal gangs based on family. The bonds of family loyalty are used to co-opt family members into the 'family business' and make it hard for them to break away. We also see a similar dynamic in some tribal societies, where family based tribal loyalty can more or less force members into an attitude and practice of 'my tribe right or wrong'. This attitude can also prevail in modern mass societies, and 'my country right or wrong'. In this last case it might be that communal ties have weakened but a clever demagogue unites the people round a common enemy, which simulates stronger feelings of connection, but without rebuilding the substance of community.

In general terms,  strong communal bonds can at times be co-opted by leading members to elevate group interest above what is right.

The Dangers of a 'Thin' Society

The predominant danger in Western societies today is being too 'thin', not too 'thick'. If communal bonds thin out too much we find increased loneliness, self-centredness, family breakdown, substance abuse, alienation, mental health problems, economic inequality ... and the list goes on. People don't feel like they belong any more. Neighbours have less to do with each other. Social services that families and local communities used to provide for each other are left to the state, or to charitable organisations. Enforcement of standards is left to the official authorities as people stop holding each other accountable for their behaviour in informal ways.

The chief characteristic of a 'thin' society is individualism.

But this is not just an individual matter, it becomes a social attitude, a legal precept and an organisational principle. It becomes an attitude as people make decisions with less regard to how it will affect others. It becomes a legal precept when prerogatives inherent in family and civil society are overridden by law. It becomes an organisational principle when society comes to be organised on a bureaucratic rather than a communal principle.

A 'thick' society aims to embed as much as possible within family life, local communities and civil associations. Larger institutions are only used to handle things that these groups cannot manage on their own.

A 'thin' society takes much of this away and relocates it in larger institutions, and uses the law to intrude bureaucratisation into civil society. This is driven by the twin motives of ideology and decline-driven necessity.

As well as its own inherent problems, a society that is too 'thin' creates a vacuum in community feeling that can be exploited by political movements that purport to restore community bonds but do so through division and violence. Such a vacuum can also be exploited from the opposite end by those who advocate technical solutions whereby the state micro-manages society and stifles genuine diversity.

Decline-Driven Necessity

When a society has in fact become too 'thin', family and civil society no longer have the wherewithal to provide the social services, the resources, the discipline or the morale to hold things together. Governments then feel constrained to apply external remedies, which cannot avoid being in varying degrees rigid and blunt, while distorting social relations further and exacerbating the problems.

Decline demands solutions, but the solutions 'thin' society out even further.

But what is the alternative? Lawlessness, greater inequality, and further injustice against the poor and the weak? It becomes a vicious cycle. In order to provide the social services that people are no longer providing for each other taxation has to be increased. That further reduces the resources of those who are trying to implement 'bottom up' solutions.

Recognition that government agencies can't provide as good a service as groups motivated by altruism leads governments to use tax revenue to fund civil associations. But since they are now funding them they feel compelled to insist on accountability for monies spent. This intrudes a layer of bureaucracy into civil associations which are thereby co-opted into a 'thin' modus operandi even while trying to 'thicken' society.

An Opening for Ideological 'Thinness'

The fact of 'thinning' in society has led many to think that the solution is ever more 'thinness'. The potential dangers of a 'thick' society are greatly exaggerated in their minds so that they see intolerance and oppression everywhere, and so they work might and main against any strengthening of family and civil society. They develop a full blown vision of 'social anorexia'.

No matter how much communal ties are weakened, no matter how thinned out society becomes, they look in the mirror and can only see a society that is 'overweight'.

This ideology is the driver of a social version of self-harming. It elevates 'social self-harm' into its core principle. This blindness prevents the kind of measures needed to restore 'thickness' to society. It systematically undermines even the ideas that would support it. This ideology has two main forms.

#1. The state subsumes everything

In the first, the notion of civil society is essentially abolished, and subsumed into the state. State and society become one, and the power of the state no longer has any effective limits. It is no longer then about justice, or ensuring social services. It is about substituting the state for all other forms of authority, and sees rights as originating in the state, rather than in person, family and community.

#2. The economy subsumes everything

In the second, the notion of civil society is essentially abolished, and subsumed into the economy. Economy and society become one, and the market mechanism is seen as the privileged form of social relation. It is no longer then about freedom, or ensuring people's rights. It is about substituting the economy for all other forms of authority, and sees rights as essentially about rights to property, rather than being about person, family and community.

This is the logical destination of an ever-thinning society. It abandons the principle of balance because it no longer recognises any balancing reality. It no longer recognises society as the principle that balances the state or the economy. Instead of the state/economy as a servant of society it becomes the master. Society is subsumed into and under the state/economy. Balance is irrelevant.

Restoring Balance

Restoring balance is needed first at the intellectual level.

Many otherwise educated people in our society have never heard an alternative social philosophy.

They need to be equipped with the intellectual tools to diagnose what is going on, and to recognise the kinds of solution that are needed.