16. INTRODUCTION TO SOCIAL SOLUTIONS
© Roland O. Watson 2001-3
(Note: This is a chapter
from the book, Freedom From Form.)
In the third part of the book we will consider each of our modern social institutions in turn, including their current roles and prominence, the form that they impose on us, and the specific tactics that they use in this regard. Furthermore, as we have just seen, many people are frustrated by these institutions, and the conditions that they create. These people want change, and the question is: how can we bring it about? I therefore want to make some preliminary remarks, before reviewing the institutions, regarding the possibilities of, and the necessary preconditions for, accomplishing such change.
The only way to solve social problems is to recognize that they derive from human behavior, in other words, from human nature: behavior equals nature. Put another way, our society can only be as good as ourselves. The first precondition, therefore, is that whatever solutions we propose, they must be consistent with this nature. They must be consistent with human nature as it really is, and not based on a false, an unrealistically positive, appraisal of it.
In addition, we must remember that human nature is highly complex; indeed, it is much more complex than is immediately apparent. (As in a game of chess, there are greater and greater levels of complexity.) To develop workable solutions it will be necessary to look deep inside this complexity; specifically, to distinguish between symptoms and their underlying causes. This is because it is not possible to solve a symptom. Only by confronting the underlying problems can we make the symptoms go away.
For example, one serious problem in modern society, as has just been described, is the high rate of crime. Many politicians, journalists and other social commentators say that this is due to the large population of criminals on the street, hence we need to hire more police and build more prisons and put them all behind bars. But, the large number of criminals on the street is actually a symptom of a deeper problem. Other, more enlightened commentators say that the real problem is social discrimination, as evidenced by limited education and employment opportunities for particular classes of people, which provides the motivation, in the form of poverty, frustration and rage, for some individuals from these classes to choose lives of crime. But, while this may be true, it is still not the deepest level, the real underlying problem. The real problem relates to the issue of why we perpetually have an underclass. And, as we are starting to understand, this is because it in some way helps meet the needs of the overclass. It helps keep these people - the elite - and the institutions that they control, in power.
Of course, as we also have seen it goes even deeper than this: some factors created the elite, and caused the institutions to evolve into their current state. And these factors include the basic conditions of life: chaos and chance; the unfathomability of the universe and the certainty of death; our planetary environment; actions have consequences; free will versus determinism; human selfishness and chauvinism; and the systemic limitations on knowledge that make it impossible for us to understand completely both ourselves and other people.
Another way to look at this complexity is to consider that on the face of it, the solutions are in fact readily apparent. We can solve many of our, and the planet's, worst problems simply by:
1. Reducing our breeding
2. Reducing our consumption
3. Limiting our use of technology
The first two steps would take the stress off planetary and social resources. The third would minimize our dependence on technology, and the problems this creates, as well as enable us to avoid, or at least give us more time to anticipate and prepare for, its worst consequences. But, as we have seen, achieving these solutions depends on our ability to understand and resolve deeper problems. For instance, to reduce our breeding we must confront the problems that create it, including worldwide gender inequality and the just mentioned trait of selfishness.
Also, another aspect of the issue of complexity is the prevalence of paradoxes. Life is full of paradoxes. To understand life well, we must find a level of complexity, find a way of looking at it, such that the paradoxes, the inconsistencies and the contradictions that they represent, disappear.
The second precondition to our solutions is that whatever we decide to do, it must be voluntary. Many problems in society are caused by form, by people telling us what to do. Our solutions themselves cannot be the same. They cannot consist of more form, of more and new ways of telling people what to do. One aspect of human nature is that we are independent. (This is a paradox with our attribute of being a social animal.) We do not like to be told what to do, and we will resist it, even rebel against it. (It is also a paradox that given our innate inclination to rebel, that we are so easily shaped.) Humans must choose their solutions voluntarily. We can present people with, educate them about, the options, the different solutions that exist or approaches which might be used, but they - and we - must be the ones who choose how to act.
The third precondition, which this suggests, is that whatever options we choose, the specific steps that we take to resolve our extremely wide range of problems, they must be based on education. Education is in fact the core solution. It is the medicine for ignorance and the antidote to form. To change the world for the better we must defeat ignorance and form, and for this we need education. This book, for example, is intended to give a general education about form. But, we will need much more than it. Education must cover all of the basic areas of existence, and it must be extended to every individual in every culture. And, it must also confront, directly address, the issue of form, the behavioral form that exists in all societies and in every possible situation and human interaction.
Education must also cover ethics, which is the fourth precondition. Whatever solutions we choose, they must be ethical. Later in the book I will discuss ethical behavior in great detail, but I want to introduce one idea here, which is the issue of ends and means. Most people would agree that we want to achieve an ethical social end, such as a culture where everyone is equal. On this basis, then, we can eliminate the Nazi ideal, which was intended to guarantee one group a superior position. Now, given that we are able to agree, voluntarily and without being persuaded by form, on the end that we want to achieve, and also that it is ethical, we must then decide on the means by which we will try to bring it about. And these means must also be ethical, in and of themselves. Most people have heard the axiom that the end does not justify the means, but in modern society this is often not followed. Social institutions regularly pursue ends, which they persuade us are ethical, using unethical means.
If you set a goal, if it is not possible to achieve it using ethical means, you must change your goal. The goal, the end, is dependent on the means: its ethical justification actually derives from them.
In addition, and viewed another way, the issue of ends and means has much deeper implications. In consideration of an earlier framework, the means are our actions, and the ends their consequences. And, considering time, the means are the present and the ends the future. Also, the means are the risk and the ends the rewards. Given these perspectives, one can say that the means are actually more important than the ends. What is important in life is the living, moment by moment, not the death at its end.
Whenever you consider your own behavior, or the plans of social institutions, you must pay the closest attention to the means. Do not be deluded or swayed by some great expectation, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Be realistic: focus on what it is going to take to get you there, because if you do not do that, you never will get there. And, do not forget the implications of chance. You have to factor in the probability that the means you choose will actually achieve their desired end. What is the likelihood that some other end will be reached, and what is the ethical status of the worst possible consequence? Then, having done this analysis, and enhanced your plans where possible to avoid such negative consequences, you should make the leap. Confront the unknown, take the chance, and act.
These, then, are the most important preconditions for our solutions. Any steps that we take must be:
- consistent with human nature
- based on education
The other precondition, of course, is that we cannot eliminate the institutions. There are too many humans; modern life is too complex. We need some institutional assistance to help manage this complexity. What we are seeking is not their (complete) elimination, only their modification. We want to reduce the size of our institutions, particularly the government and the economic institutions, i.e., corporations, financial institutions, etc. However, this still requires change and, as we have seen, any change is difficult to accomplish. For instance, the ending, or destruction, of a prevailing social order has been achieved many times in the past through revolution, but when the dust settled in almost all cases nothing in fact had changed. The old system simply, and quickly, reasserted itself. The only real social change has come about over very long periods of time in the evolution from one age or epoch to another.
Another concern is that the seeds of many problems have only just been planted. They are germinating now, and may well lead to a much more difficult environment in the future, characterized by even greater ecological destruction and civil conflict. And, there is no way to anticipate just how bad it will get, or how much time we have left. This implies that we must get to work now, while we still are able, before an even greater deterioration, or even a collapse, occurs.
(Related to this is the idea that change will require an intervening period of chaos, that it cannot be accomplished without it, and I will consider this in the final part of the book. Also, there is the problem that while real change will take decades, even centuries, it is quite possible that we do not have this much time.)
There are many other problems, or challenges, as well, related to designing and implementing social solutions. One group of problems, which may be termed general, has to do with issues arising from the general human condition. The first of these challenges is: are solutions even possible? If humans are uncontrollable, what is the point in trying to do anything? Why not just let us get on with it, with our selfishness and chauvanism, and see what results?
Well, besides the fact that this is a defeatist point of view, it is also determinist since it implies that we have no say over our circumstances. But we do have a will: we can appeal to our reason, through education, and make the right choices, or at least better, more ethical, choices, voluntarily.
But this is the second hurdle. In a world controlled by form, is real education even possible? Can the formed educate their young to be free? (Can a tiger in a zoo teach its young how to live in the wild?) And, even if they can, will our social institutions allow it?
Form itself is an addiction. Being determined is easier than using your will to be free. People nowadays are told that they know everything about life, and they want to believe it, so they do. How do you persuade them that they do not, that they actually know very little, and that much of what they think they know is wrong?
The following quotes provide two perspectives on this question:
A lot of things had to be unlearned, before you could learn anything at all.
- Dispatches, Michael Herr, Avon, page 210
He said that the education of the young was more important than anything that could be done for those who were already grown up.
- Orwell, Animal Farm, page 41
As to the first, can we unlearn things? I believe so, but it takes discipline, time, and a relief from the brainwashing to allow objectivity to develop. But where do you get that relief? If you live in Israel/Palestine, or Northern Ireland, the hate is always there. And, if you live in the U.S., so is the TV, and the compulsion to watch it.
The second option, to educate the young, is perhaps more promising. You can use your reason to understand what has happened to you in your life. Then, you can educate your children about your experience (or encourage them to learn from someone else: give them to a tiger who is still wild!). Hopefully, they will learn from this. But, of course, they have wills of their own: they could easily discount, or ignore, your attempts at education. For example, in areas with a history of conflict they might choose to pick up the torch and continue the fight. In these types of places, how many generations will it take before real education occurs, before people voluntarily change their behavior and choose peace over war? After all, the conflict in the Middle East is already three thousand years old.
This also reflects an issue that exists with reason. The above argument on the development of social solutions assumes that humans can be educated, and that once educated we will choose rational actions, in other words, actions leading to justice and freedom. But is this really the case? As was noted, many people act like sheep. (They may even be genetically programmed to be this way.) They don't want to think, and they appear not to mind being a slave. They are not at all interested in learning about the costs, and the strengths and weaknesses, and probabilities of success, of various social alternatives, much less deciding among them. Their position is: let someone else do it; let someone else decide.
Although the circumstances are by no means the same, in recent years people in Algeria (1992) and Turkey (1996) chose, seemingly with their reason, in democratic elections, to give away their freedom of choice to religious autocracies. Their democracies were imperfect, but rather than work to improve them, to make the governments more answerable to the public, they chose instead to give up their say to their religious leaders, over whom they have no real control. This was a great demonstration of trust, and insofar as trust is driven by reason, their actions were evidence of it. But, it was by no means certain that this reasonable decision would improve their circumstances, that it would lead to more freedom and justice. (Islamic states are notoriously intolerant of personal liberty.) And, in any case, they never got the chance to see what such a government would yield. The governments in power rejected the transfers. (This was accepted by the public in Turkey, perhaps because it upheld the secular principle upon which the modern state was founded, but it led to civil war in Algeria.)
On the other hand, an alternative explanation is that the people of Algeria and Turkey did not use their reason. They were influenced, formed, by their religious leaders, so their votes were not the product of free will at all. This begs the question: if reason is so ephemeral, so susceptible to the influence of form, can it ever be utilized effectively, or even trusted?
(Another issue is that what is viewed as reasonable changes with the times. Slavery was once considered reasonable. Much of what we think is reasonable now may well be viewed differently in the future.)
Another general problem is whether voluntary action is itself doomed to failure. For instance, the revolution of Marx's proletariat, or working class, failed. Ultimately, the proles, as a group, were not willing (or able) to act voluntarily, or in unison, and were unable to create and sustain a just social order.
Margaret Mead has commented that change occurs only through the efforts of small groups of individuals who are committed to a cause. Only these people will have the drive to maintain their commitment throughout the entire course of the struggle and in the face of probable, serious setbacks. Large groups may initially support the cause, but most people will soon tire of the effort, or get discouraged, or distracted.
The last general problem is: is it even possible to design a just society? We have seen that some people are by inclination lions, and others sheep. How can you design a society that will stop the lions from preying on the sheep? Also, although there are only small differences in our innate ability, there are, and always will be, great differences in the jobs that we hold. Without some equitable system of labor allocation, such as job rotation, this will always lead to resentment and unrest from the people who end up with the menial jobs.
In addition, in concept, a just state, considered in geometric terms, would be a long, low rectangle (or collection of low rectangles). Power would be widely distributed; no one individual or group would be able to accumulate too much. In practice, though, all of our institutions, beginning with our government, are set up as high pyramids. Power is greatly concentrated, and hence readily subject to abuse. Furthermore, and as we have seen with Ponzi, a pyramid, any social organization with a pyramidal structure, is inherently unfair. The people at the base of the pyramid work just as hard as those at the top, if not harder, but enjoy none of the advantages. The rewards that the pyramid generates, such as great income for a corporation, are reserved for and distributed only to a few individuals at the top.
However, and here is another paradox, in modern society, with the competition that exists between and among institutions, power needs to be concentrated. Time and again history has shown that groups led by committee, or consensus, where many people have to agree before the group can act, are no match for a group - an organization - that has a strong and decisive leader.
These are the general hurdles to finding social solutions that arise from our nature, but there are other issues as well, the first of which is simply the enormity of the task. I am not referring to the destruction of habitat and the extinction of species and cultures in this regard, but to a number of other trends and social characteristics that will have to be reversed, as follows:
- The human population is still increasing.
- We have vast military and police forces that are conditioned to killing. Moreover, through them, and also through our carnivorous consumption, almost everyone accepts the need for and the normality of causing death.
- Although women have won the vote, men still control the power.
- The competitive basis of society is increasing in its severity, taking us further away from the cooperation and sharing which would lead to real equality, and also underpinning the increasing negativity towards and intolerance of other people.
- Technology is still growing, with no effective controls.
- Almost all institutions are still increasing in size and power.
- Lastly, there is the sheer amount of inequality that is already programmed into the system. We have reviewed the inherent unfairness of our social structures, and the related problem of labor allocation, that automation notwithstanding, huge numbers of people will always have to fill distasteful jobs, while a select few get the best positions. We have not yet covered, but will now, the astronomical gaps that exist in wealth. The differences that exist today in personal wealth accumulation are simply unbelievable, without precedent in human history, and they are getting larger and larger every day.
The ancient Greeks believed that a just society would not have too many poor, nor too many rich. (This is also the idea of a long, low rectangle.) Of course, they also believed in slavery; equality was to be the condition of citizens only.
But, I am not advocating forced wealth redistribution. That is just more form and, in addition, almost all attempts to accomplish it in the past have suffered great abuse. (The main exceptions are the very high tax rates in Scandinavian countries, which largely have been successful.) What I want to make clear is that whatever solutions we try, they must be practical within today's constraints. Solutions are only as good as they can be implemented. They must be carefully planned, the results must be measurable, and the individuals responsible for their implementation must be held accountable.
Another issue of practicality concerns the institutional tactics discussed earlier. Institutions collude with each other, and the solutions must account for this; they must be designed to offset this collusion. In addition, since certain institutions, particularly corporations, effectively function outside national boundaries, some of the solutions will require international cooperation, either among nations, i.e., governments, or among their residents.
It is also important to recognize that whatever solutions are implemented, they will always be subject to some abuse. (An example of this are the people who abuse the support provided by the governments in Scandinavia, the welfare leeches who live off the state.) The goal is not to eliminate the abuse - that is impossible - but to minimize it. Zero tolerance policies are therefore inappropriate.
Lastly, the solutions must take into account the absolute obsession that underlies our social problems. For example, property developers, once they secure title to land, will never give up in their attempts to develop it. And, they will always attempt to develop it in a way that maximizes their profit, which guarantees that there will be many negative outcomes: that in many ways it will be against our best interests, and those of the other life forms which occupy the land. Our only defense against the obsession of developers is to match it with a similar depth of commitment. We must fight as hard, or harder, to protect the environment, and our rights, and the rights of other species, as they fight to destroy it and to take them away.
Of course, it is not only the developers that are the target. Governments always support developers, because of the promise of tax revenues and other kickbacks. To stop development, you have to fight this government support as well.
Now, everything that has been discussed involves preconditions, and problems, and challenges. So as not to appear too pessimistic, we should recognize that these are the obstacles in our path to constructing an ideal world, which we already saw at the start of the book is impossible. We may not be able to create a utopia, but we can improve our world; through our efforts we can, and must, make things better. A good place to start is to consider our system of checks and balances, the system that we use to limit the accumulation, and abuse, of great power.
The traditional idea is that we create a strong government, which then protects us from abuse from other social institutions, such as religions and corporations (and also conquest from other nations). The separation of church and state, which the people of Algeria and Turkey wanted to eliminate, is a basic social check and balance. (This is because if the two were to collude, their power would be absolute.) As to corporations, the government, supposedly, protects us from their abuses, through regulation and the enforcement thereof.
We then have checks and balances within the government itself, to protect us from it. For instance, most democracies divide their governments into three parts: executive, legislative, and judicial. They separate government power, to limit the power of any one part and, counterintuitively, to provide each part with sufficient power to offset the other two should they attempt to collude. (It is a very fine balance.)
In the United States, there is a further check and balance built into the structure of having both federal and state governments. Neither has all the power, and they tend to offset each other.
Lastly, there is the check from the people themselves, through the power of the vote and, if all else fails, through the power of rebellion.
To return to the present day, and the issue of practicality, this imposing edifice notwithstanding, one of the biggest problems that we have is that the system of checks and balances has in many important ways failed. Corporations collude with governments, so in many cases we are not protected from them. And the media, which functions as an independent check on the government, and also to an extent on corporations, turns out to have no effective check on itself. Its security shield of freedom of the press, which does have tremendous value, since it guarantees the survival of its ability to criticize other institutions, also serves to protect it from all criticism of itself.
In addition, in many societies such checks and balances do not exist at all, or through corruption, or poor design, they are inoperative.
What is one to do when the system - of checks and balances - that protects us from the overall social system, fails? The answer is that the solution lies with you. We are now at the final level, the check that is provided by the individual, by us. It is the only one left. You must voluntarily choose to exercise your innate power to transform the system. You must act - I want to introduce the concept of activism here - to bring about positive social change.
You should not be intimidated by the word activism, though. Activism is as simple as casting a vote, such as against a politician who uses negative campaign advertising. Another example of activism is choosing not to buy a product that is advertised using fear, guilt, sex, or the idea that if you buy it you will be cool. The next level of activism is simply to follow up these acts with letters, to the politician and the company, explaining your decision: that it is an insult to you for them even to think that you can be influenced in these ways.
Of course, activism continues from here. It gets more and more active, and its importance is such, now that the system of checks and balances has failed, that I will consider it in its own chapter.
To close this chapter, I'll end with two simple points:
1. You have probably heard of the saying: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. In today's world, with so many problems being caused by form, including your form, this really is true. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
2. This is your world, and this is your life. The world needs your help. It needs to be changed for the better. And you are the only one who can do it. But this is not a negative responsibility, something that is unpleasant and which you might want to avoid. It should be fun. This is your life, and you want your life to be fun. You want to be happy. So have fun, change the world for the better, and be happy, really happy, at your tremendous accomplishment, as a result.