Monday, November 22, 2021

There IS such thing as society

There is a famous quote by Margaret Thatcher, where she said that “There is no such thing as society.” Although what she exactly said was more nuanced than the literal interpretation that is usually given, the sentence came to symbolize the idea of an atomistic and individualistic human world, where each one should basically care for him or herself. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown instead that there IS such thing as society. It is precisely because we live in society for many good reasons (and in contact with non-human animals), that we are vulnerable to diseases. And only through collective action we can defeat the pandemic, that is through a combination of the coercive action of government at all levels and the consent and civic participation of citizens.

John Gowdy has the opposite view of Thatcher, and he argues that we are an ultrasocial species. Like ants and other social insects, according to this scholar the human individual is now subordinated and guided by the blind will and reproductive instincts of the species, to the detriment of free will and happiness.

Whether we are a social or an ultrasocial species, we have at least cooperative instincts, and that is key to understand why we have adapted to most of the Planet, and also why we may be in the course of destroying our own life in it. The expanded role of government that even the liberal magazine The Economist (in its last issue) has come to accept as a necessary fact of life with the pandemic, will if anything consolidate with the need to stop climate change.

Our social instincts have their origins in the hunter-gatherer groups of our ancestors, and have been applied with success in families, nations and other groups. The challenges ahead force us to apply the same instincts to the whole planet. Following Amartya Sen in “Identity and Volence,” it would be the wrong kind of federalism to accept that we live in a federation of pre-defined communites, cultures or religions. We all have multiple identitities, and it is this pluralism (and not a naïve view that we are all the same) that can make us aware that we share some identity dimension with someone with whom perhaps we do not share other dimensions.

We need more socialdemocracy in a multi-ethnic society: we should have the solidarity of Scandinavian countries in communities that are as diverse as the USA. Eventually, and as soon as possible, we should have world solidarity –or face extinction.

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