On the atomisation of society

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Mediation xvii, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to have noticed that the official response to the Covid-19 pandemic tended to accentuate a trend that has been developing across industrial society for the past few decades: the tendency to separate people from one another. During the height of the pandemic, people were forcibly isolated in large numbers. Physical proximity, let alone actual contact, was explicitly forbidden. People died alone because their nearest and dearest were excluded. It was forbidden even to look upon the face of another.

The economic damage is well-known, but not enough attention, it seems to me, has been paid to the psychological damage. What long-term harm has been done to children who have been taught to regard other people as dangers to be avoided? Will they be able to form normal relationships with others as they grow up?

The so-called “Partygate” scandal in the UK, which contributed to the departure of Boris Johnson from office, showed that those supposedly in charge of managing the pandemic response didn’t really believe their own propaganda. Much was said of Johnson’s disregard for his own laws, which I agree was bad enough, but more significant is the (further) damage done to public trust in official pronouncements. This is not going to help, for instance, with the government’s response to climate change, assuming there ever is one of any substance.

“[W]ho is society?” Margaret Thatcher famously asked, “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families….” Forty years on from the Thatcherite revolution, she would seem to be right; and there are barely even families any more. Even the camaraderie of the workplace, such as it is, was denied to many people during the lockdowns. All you could do, really, was sit at home and consume.

This process had already been well-documented in the US in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, published back in 2000. Putnam was specifically concerned with the decline in democratic participation, but he located the causes for this firmly in the factors contributing to the atomisation of US society. The institutions that used to bring people together he found to be in widespread decay; I can’t help feeling the echo of this in the widespread collapse of the British pub, already underway before Covid and more recently the hikes in energy costs threatened the precious few that remain

It may be a coincidence, although I doubt it, but all this is eerily reminiscent of the grim dystopian vision of mainstream economics. I have discussed elsewhere the many shortcomings of the conventional economic world-view. This transformation from a world of collectives to a world of pure individualism almost looks as if economists, unable to build a model that adequately reflects social reality, are reshaping society so that it will be a better fit for their models.

It’s certainly a very convenient trend if your wish is to manipulate people into doing what you want. If everyone is more or less paranoid about those around them, they will find it impossible to unite against whichever thing you wish to impose upon them. During the Industrial Revolution, laws designed to prevent this sort of thing were quite explicitly titled: “An Act to prevent Unlawful Combinations of Workmen” (39 Geo. III, c. 81) passed in 1799, and others followed.

As someone who lived through the 1970s, it is interesting to see the renaissance of the British trades union movement. We’re now seeing union leaders who sound uncannily like the men we used to hear daily on the news back in the day, leading organisations with names like UNISON and Unite. To be sure, this is driven primarily by economics; in a harsher environment, people necessarily group together to defend their mutual interests. The members of the Bilderberg Group are doing much the same thing, after all, just in a better class of hotel.

But I think there’s more to this than economics. In the UK, and I would think across much of the industrialised world, the mass of people are getting very close to the edge. Those who are employed have little or no security of employment, and their employers increasingly treat them as if they were expendable, interchangeable resources. Despite having a job (or jobs) they are dependent on state benefits, which can be arbitrarily withheld at any time. Typically they are massively in debt, as this is their only access to any kind of material capital such as a home, a car, or even a washing-machine, and they are therefore extremely vulnerable to rising interest rates, which again are outside their control. Consequently they have little or no discretionary income and effectively no chance to save any significant amount to give themselves a hedge against the future.

This isn’t just the lower orders I’m talking about here. The middle class is feeling the squeeze as well. They may have larger and more impressive houses, but that’s not much consolation when they get repossessed. The professions are often not unionised, or are represented by historically non-militant bodies. But even the Royal College of Nurses has voted to take industrial action to improve pay and staffing levels, a step it had never even contemplated since its foundation in 1916.

As I have pointed out many times, we are social primates. Being social, living in groups, is hard-wired into who we are. Aristotle already knew this; his well-known saying that “man is by nature a political animal” (Politics, Book I, §1253a) clearly implies it. This is not to say that the natural state of affairs is for everyone to be one big happy family. On the contrary, as Aristotle’s observation also recognises, to be human is also to be part of a clique. But there exists a sociological equivalent of the strong nuclear force which makes us tend to clump together.

For this reason, I don’t believe that this project, if we can call it that, to uproot and disrupt and as it were colonialise society at all levels, can succeed in the long term or even be sustained for much longer. That is the upside. The downside, however… well, to continue my analogy with physics, consider the effects of nuclear fission. You don’t want to be standing too close if that kicks off.

Society cannot and will not be reduced to individuals, however convenient that might be for some parties. But as individuals, we can help de-atomise our world. Get to know your neighbours, if you don’t already. Join clubs – actual, physical clubs where you go to some location and mix with other human beings who share an interest, whatever it might be. If you can’t find one, start one.

It takes a village to raise a child, the saying goes. But actually it takes a village to do a great many things. Whatever the future brings, it will be easier to deal with if you aren’t facing it alone.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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