The following is an excerpt from Volume One of Fanfare for the Future, titled Occupy Theory and authored by Michael Albert of the U.S. and Mandisi Majavu or South Africa. Occupy Theory is available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple IPAD (soon), as well as in print from the ZStore.
Many Sided Lives
“The question which one asks oneself begins, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one’s keys to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.”
– James Baldwin
Many Sided Lives
“I learned very early the difference between knowing
the name of something and knowing something.”
– Richard Feynman
Typically, we are born, nurtured as children, schooled, socialized, and grow up.
We work for our incomes. We celebrate our particular heritages and beliefs. We operate as citizens along with other citizens. We romance partners and create families. And in the end, it all happens again, assuming war, poverty, and other disasters don’t interfere.
Typically, societies have important aspects that help or obstruct key social functions like being born, nurtured, and socialized; contributing to society’s product and consuming from it; learning and enjoying a language, heritage, and culture; operating in accord with others via legislation, adjudication, and shared projects; enjoying or suffering environmental effects; and enjoying or suffering relations with other societies.
Indeed, it is reasonable to believe that helping people accomplish these many varied functions is society's reason for being and that to understand the societies we live in, even if only at the most general level, we should understand these diverse functions and how accomplishing them affects our options in life.
There is no denying that how society helps or obstructs the ways our days and nights affect our pleasures and pains helps determine who we are and what we can do, as well as what will be done to us.
At the risk of being a little mechanical, we can summarize society’s centrally important aspects as including four functions and two contexts.
The four flexible functions are:
- Giving birth, nurturing, socializing, and sexually interacting among genders, family members, and the young and old. Societies include new generations that are born, nurtured, and socialized. We could not live without kinship.
- Acculturating, learning and using language, and forming and celebrating racial, ethnic, religious, and other cultural communities. Societies include people having shared cultures. We would be less than human without community.
- Producing, allocating, and consuming society’s social product by society’s workers and consumers. Societies include goods and services being produced, moved, and consumed. We would starve without economics.
- Legislating, adjudicating, and enacting shared programs by officials and citizens. Societies include means of accommodating the choices of different individuals, including outlawing various actions and facilitating others, resolving disputes, and enabling societal projects. We would not have efficient and effective social engagement without politics.
And the two contexts are:
- The natural environment and our relations to it. No society escapes ecology.
- The other societies in the world and our relations to them. No society escapes international relations.
The point of these lists is that to be stable and effective societies must accomplish these four flexible functions – kin, cultural, economic, and political. Additionally, the natural environment and international setting provide a surrounding context affecting options and outcomes. So one way to look at societies is to assess how each society accomplishes the four social functions and how it engages with the environment and other societies.
But Why Bother?
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the
oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
– Steve Biko
At the risk of taking a bit of a detour, some readers will wonder, why study society at all? The questioner might, for example, prefer spending the time fighting for change. And even if we must study society, why pay close attention to these six aspects and not equally close attention to many other aspects one could choose?
Regarding the first query, we need to understand society because we want to change it and we can’t change something complex without understanding at least its central aspects.
But someone might follow up by arguing, if we don’t need to change society, then we don’t need to understand it. So what’s our motivation to change it? Why should I keep reading?
A train is for transport. Clearly when an old train stops fulfilling its function we either fix it, or, if something better is available at a cost that doesn’t offset the benefits, we get that.
The same holds for a light bulb, a pair of sneakers, or a paintbrush. If they don’t do what we want from them any more, and we can afford to, we fix them, or we get something new.
Surprisingly, the dynamic is only a bit more complicated for an economy, culture, political system, or kinship system, and even for all of those social spheres considered together as a whole society.
A society is a set of relations that enables its citizens to get together to accomplish key kin, community, economic, and political functions.
If a particular society has means to accomplish these functions that fail to work well, then like a light bulb that no longer provides effective light or a pair of sneakers that no longer provides athletic support, they will need to be changed.
If new social relations exist that would work significantly better for the necessary functions than the old social relations a society has, and if the costs of attaining the new relations wouldn’t outweigh or subvert the benefits, then just like getting new affordable sneakers to replace sneakers that have holes in them, we might want to seek new social relations instead of continuing to endure old ones.
- Are we serious about our desires?
- Does our society fail to meet our desires?
- Does a better way of arranging social life that would better meet our desires exist?
- Will attaining the better way be affordable?
If our answer is yes to those four questions, then doesn’t our well being demand that we seek to escape the flaws of the present?
Suppose we need to paint a big wall. Suppose a paintbrush can’t do it well. Suppose a spray painter can. And suppose we can get a spray painter at a manageable cost. We do so.
The analogy is strong. What is hard is to keep it in our heads and not forget that the same simple reasoning applies to judgements about changing society as to judgements about other changes. All that’s left is to determine if our societies are failing to accomplish their necessary economic, political, kin, and community as well as ecological and international functions in a desirable manner. Then (later in Fanfare) we need to ask if there is a better, affordable, and attainable alternative.
Everything is Broken
“From the wars against disorder,
the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay.”
– Leonard Cohen
I suspect that as a reader of this book you very likely already know that your society is failing miserably. More, I suspect nearly all typical citizens in nearly all contemporary societies, if not right on the surface of their consciousness, then way down in their dreams and nightmares, know that their society is failing miserably.
Here are just a few reasons for this assertion.
We all know that billions of people around the world live in abject poverty. That is societies failing. That really ought to be more than enough. You don’t need a precise accounting. You don’t need a perfect picture of the pain. Billions are hungry. Case closed. But, there are other reasons, as well.
We all know that even greater numbers of people lack the free time and healthy space to experience life fully and fruitfully. This too says societies are failing.
We all know that even where more wealth exists and life lasts longer and is less hellish, dignity is almost impossible to come by. And we know that lying, cheating, aggrandizing, and even killing are the basic touchstones of much of daily life, both personally and, far more damning, collectively – particularly where societies are more developed. And this also shows societies are failing.
What we experience from birth to death is almost the exact opposite of a prescription for dignity, equity, and justice. Life as we know it could obviously be much better. Our ways of accomplishing economics, politics, community, and family, are not just a little damaged. They are thoroughly messed up down to their most basic attributes and in ways that impose horrendous costs on humanity. Why should survival require vicious venality? If this isn’t societies failing, what is?
Unemployment soars, the rich get richer, and financiers and owners celebrate. Unemployment soars, the poor get poorer, and weep or die. Wall Street counts profits, ignores suffering, and proclaims an upturn. That is no way to conduct economic life. Existing economies fail.
Bombs burst over daily lives. Politicians salute the rubble. Arms makers celebrate bloated dividends. Soldiers inhabit gray flannel caskets or face life anatomically or psychologically maimed, trying to navigate health care that treats them like dirt. International relations fail.
Our most cynical citizens, even in their most plaintive complaints, barely touch the surface of how incredibly out of alignment reality is.
Producers of medicines, houses, food, and virtually everything else from violins to shotguns, pursue profits for a few while curtailing generalized well being and development for all. People routinely die for want of medicine or from medical complications.
Banks and construction companies seek profit and most people never have – or temporarily have but then lose – houses.
Food chains and mega farms guard their blessings while significant portions of the population lack food or endure processed food’s dietary debits.
Entertainment industry profits soar yet people can’t afford concerts and cultural gatherings, much less violins, though they can afford and are structurally welcomed into appreciating and misusing guns.
Producers, because they must pursue profit, are generally overwhelmingly oblivious to public well being, even as they horrendously violate it. A popular descriptive aphorism is that nice guys finish last, and what could be more indicative of society failing? My version, to be a bit less cute about it, is that garbage rises. Witness the palaces of power, the windows of wealth.
Though many people might say in passing that they don’t believe that all this depravity exists, deep down, nearly all of us know it exists. This is easy to confirm. People routinely and appreciatively read thriller novels, watch TV shows, and go to movies which transparently – and as a central part of plot lines – take all this depraved degeneracy for granted. No one says, “hey, that’s not realistic.”
Temperatures and storms accelerate on a doomsday trajectory while the rich and powerful sip margaritas on the deck of Spaceship Earth while glorying in the pretty vistas they see through bloodshot eyes even as they fail to see, or deny, the thermometer and water levels climbing. The ecology is failing.
Society’s monarchs take on the persona of ostriches, with their heads stuck in their appetizers, their minds ignoring or