The Good Society

By Harlod DeRienzo

What is society? How do we judge how effective or just or good a society is?  When we think of society, we think of all the myriad ways in which we associate with one another.  Such associations are defined by fleeting associations and informal conventions (such as riding on public transport and offering a seat to the elderly or handicapped) or longer-term and formal associations (such as membership on a sports team that competes against other teams) or permanent associations, such as family.  Complex societies are formed through familial groupings, political connections, religious affiliations, economic activity, cultural expressions, trade, mere geographic happenstance, and more.  And how all of these formal and informal associations serve the public — as expressed and felt by the individual, the family, and all kinds of groups playing out on social, economic and political levels — defines what kind of society we live in at any point in time.

Societies are not static, but are as vigorous as the people who live within them, as dynamic as circumstances allow for productive interaction, and as vibrant as the human spirit and mutual interest permits.

But because societies do go through different phases, when formerly dominant societal trends (or perceived trends) break down, there is often confusion, anger, resentment, division, extremism, and even political buffoonery.  I would maintain that this country is going through just such a transitional phase.  A majority white society, or the perception of one, is quickly becoming a majority minority society, creating anxiety for those who perceive membership in a WASP-dominated America as some kind of divine right.  In some ways, the election of a black President has focused some of this anxiety, an anger manifested in charges that Obama is everything from a socialist to a self-proclaimed King, to public pleas such as “We want our country back,” to calls for State secession, to Western farmers such as Cliven Bundy believing that freedom means taking what does not belong to him while right wing talk shows and news programs hail him, and his armed compatriots, as heroes.

Change is in the air, and this country will have to adapt.  But in the meantime, we will have to live through a period of some discomfort, anxiety, and extremism.  This will eventually work its way towards a new societal balance.  A big component of this societal shift plays out in the political arena, with roots in competing political trends, played out currently through competing “liberal” and “conservative” trends.  A review of these trends may be instructive.

One such political trend is represented by our historical responses to the Great Depression and two world wars, responses embodied in the public programs initiated with the New Deal, expanded through the Johnson Administration’s Great Society programs, and extending to this very day.

In an attempt to capture the essence of this liberal vision, below is an excerpt from President Johnson’s “Great Society” commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 1964:

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.

On reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, what did the Great Society programs accomplish? There is no more Jim Crow and anyone with money can sit anywhere in a restaurant or on a bus.  Bathrooms and water fountains are open to all.  Restrictive Covenants and other forms of discrimination in housing have been outlawed so that the best and brightest among us, including minorities, can live anywhere.  But the low income among us are relegated either to reside in still-impoverished areas or to languish in homeless shelters, to double up with relatives, or to survive in the streets.  Our public schools are as segregated as ever.  High paying jobs are open to the most talented among us, regardless of background, but income inequality across ethnic and racial lines has reached all-time highs.  Interracial marriages are more commonplace and no longer meriting exceptional recognition, while broken families are more prevalent than ever.  Welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance and other so-called entitlements are designed to provide a safety net preventing extreme poverty, and yet the numbers of homeless (hardly a concern beyond those defined as “skid row” dropouts or “Bowery Bums” 50 years ago) are rivaled only by the number of homeless during the Great Depression.  And travel to areas like the South Bronx on any day, and food lines circle entire blocks.

If we review the speech carefully, Johnson’s vision, much like MLK’s “dream” was based upon a concept of one American society, much like President Kennedy’s comment that a rising tide lifts all boats.  Implicit in these aspirations is a sense that there is one America and a belief that America will sink or swim based upon how effectively we are able to collectively unify our vision for a future, how diligently we pursue opportunity for all, and how vigilant we are in ensuring that the most vulnerable among us are cared for.

If we fast-forward about one generation to the embodiment of our other political trend, we have what appears to be a radically different vision of society proffered by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in an interview in Women’s Own magazine in October of 1987:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Margaret Thatcher has been much criticized for this comment.  It has been said that her sentiment betrays a belief in hyper-individualism, a callous disregard for the less fortunate among us, and the rejection of any form of collective responsibility.  In fairness to the Prime Minister, a close review of these comments suggests that Margaret Thatcher may have simply been telling us that “society” is not some abstract, faceless, entity with no relation to any of our lives.  If we view society in the same mistaken way that many of us view insurance companies, the fraudulent abuses of which are believed to have no meaningful impact on others (and certainly not ourselves), then we are only fooling ourselves because in the long run there will be a price to pay for all of us.  What she seems (hopefully) to be saying is that society is made up of real people and that only through real people, those helping themselves and those helping others, can society function.  She says that “no government can do anything except through people…”  So just like there cannot be disability insurance for every living being, neither can there be government that takes care of everyone’s problems. What is required is the balance that comes from generally pervasive self-reliance and personal responsibility, which will then permit of collective responsibility, either through voluntary efforts or government programs.  So what would constitute a “Good Society?”

First of all, I do not use the term in the same way Hannah Arendt used it in her essay on the Crisis of Culture, where she defined Good Society as being comprised of elites who experience culture, treasure its existence and ensure its endurance beyond the experience itself.  Contrasting the Good Society to the mass society, Arendt maintained that culture is not viewed by the latter as some enduring testament to human achievement, but rather a consumable form of entertainment and, as opposed to comprising components of lasting cultural legacies, “the attitude of consumption, spells ruin to everything it touches.”

In contrast, I am looking to define a good society based upon how just it is and how opportunity is provided for the greatest number.  But before we get to what a good society could be, it helps to define society itself through some well-known social commentators.

John Dewey (The Public and its Problems) defines society as “individuals in their connections with one another.”   He further elaborates (Freedom and Culture) on this concept and seems to come down on the side of society simply consisting of relationships of people consistent with how “electrons, atoms, and molecules are in association with one another.”  He goes on to contrast society with community, which in his mind is different due to the deliberative and emotional aspects of people living together in communities.

John Stuart Mill views society as functioning on the basis of a social contract, such that “everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit.”  Emile Durkheim takes the organic view of society where societies are formed over time by collective experiences that reward good and punish bad behavior.  Durkheim’s view seems the more prevalent view of society as an extension of the patriarchal family, as elaborated on by Rousseau (Discourse on Inequality) and many others.

Ortega y Gasset posits (Revolt of the Masses) that society “is always a dynamic unity of two component factors: minorities and masses.” What he meant by minorities were those who have initiative and drive, as opposed to the masses, the average man, who lives without distinction or drive.  To quote him directly: “those who make great demands on themselves” as opposed to “those who demand nothing special of themselves…” But even given this understanding, it is impossible to have a “unity” in the absence of either conscious agreement or sustained obliviousness.  One could only hope that the former, rather than the latter, rules.

Given this breadth of opinion, it would appear that a colony of ants could be a society.    And that is all right, especially since the topic for this essay is Good Society.

I would posit that a good society has the following attributes.

  1. Recognizes all of its members as part of one society, regardless of smaller affiliations and groupings.
  2. Promotes policies that are based upon meeting the most needs for the most people.
  3. Organizes itself around activities that enhance the dignity of people, and rejects or at least minimizes activities that degrade people.
  4. Recognizes the dignity and necessity of all work, and defines work and promotes the organization of economies in a humane manner, such that, to the extent possible, in the words of John Dewey, the organization of work does not separate “habit and thought, action and soul.”
  5. Accepts responsibility for actions that have pervasive, even global effects, whether those actions result in the pollution of the environment or the displacement of millions of people from their communities in the name of economic progress.
  6. Recognizes, accepts and promotes the benefits of community and acknowledges that its existence is dependent upon a functioning, dynamic, including local, economy.
  7. Eschews monopolies except where absolutely necessary, clearly producing a public benefit, closely regulated and publicly accountable.
  8. Promotes true democracy, which cannot be sustained without a decentralized economy, which is not to say that the United States needs to become isolationist.  It only means that there needs to be a local, regional, national and global economy that works in unison to serve first its own needs, while contributing to global requirements.

Returning to the starting point of this essay, namely the societal transition we are currently working within, how have the competing visions of the so-called Left and Right in this country served us?  The Democratic Party has evolved from a working class party to neo-liberal party that serves as little more than political sponsor for transnational corporate enterprise and finance. These policies have destroyed private unions, along with the manufacturing sectors union members worked within.  These policies have perverted Adam Smith’s “comparative advantage” policy by making price the sole determinant in determining that advantage, regardless of whether the result is a combination of effective wage slavery in third world countries, destruction of the middle class here at home, destructive foreign policies abroad, or creation of both the push and pull factor for displaced people the world over who seek to come the United States and other Western Countries in the hopes of making a living or escaping likely prospects of being killed or simply “disappeared.”

The formula that has eased this transition from a diverse, fairly independent economy with a strong middle class, decentralized economy, and reasonably functioning democracy has consisted of economic policies that have encouraged rampant consumerism (our opiate pushing the masses to distraction), high profits (our intoxicant serving to hyper-motivate profiteers), and low prices (fool’s gold in an economy heading towards dysfunction).  Add to this political agenda a mildly expressed concern for the disappearing middle class, and seldom recognized concern for the poor, and we have the 21st century Democratic Party of today.  President Kennedy’s analogy of the economy and the tide still works, if we recognize that a rising tide also sinks all damaged boats, often floods entire communities, can destroy local economies and drown residents without the means to survive periodic tsunamis, the effects of which harm some, but not others.

And while the Democratic Party has been opening up borders for global trade, the Republican Party has been doing everything in its power to create a class of oligarchs in this country, in spite of the fact that this country was founded on a revulsion against concentrated economic power, a distrust of artificial entities (corporations) and a belief in the principles of democracy.  All of this is done  in the name of protecting the class of “job creators,” while feeding insecurity with policies that purport to address the perceived causes of that insecurity, whether that leads to religious discrimination, increased gun violence, restriction of voting rights, or invasion of personal, mostly women’s, rights.  All this is done in the name of conservative social values, when in reality such officials are doing little more than protecting their own prospects for a comfortable, even luxurious, life, oblivious to the struggles of average Americans.

In the process leading to the current transitional phase we find ourselves in, we have been losing our democracy, which will lead to an eventual loss of all freedom.  This loss of democracy explains much of the political dysfunction and anger in our country today, dysfunction and anger that I would maintain is based on a perceived loss of control over our own lives and total disenchantment with the institutions that are supposed to serve us.  It may even explain some of the increase in violence we are experiencing, particularly gun violence. Freedom is more than just an absence of constraints.  True liberty is the ability for each of us to live in a society where we can express our personal attributes through productive labor in the promotion of general welfare.  Without liberty there is no hope and if there is no hope then we are truly headed towards what could be a bad society, a society in which actions are guided by disassociated, disconnected, solipsistic individuals.  To quote again from Rousseau (Social Contract), “to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts.”  Or put another way, morality is not natural, but a function of our association with others, and the perception of how that association serves our individual needs.

Somehow, if we are to escape this transition in a way that leads to a more humane and just society, a good society, then there is a need to merge the visions of society expressed by both President Johnson and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, societies that promote opportunities for all, where opportunities are apparent and accessible, where personal responsibility replaces our current “Lotto or Lawsuit” mentality for getting ahead, where justice is blind to wealth, where we all have the ability to live with dignity regardless of occupation, and every aspect of our existence provides self-evident reasons to be bound morally to those associated with us in society- a Good Society.


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