Work in Progress: Failing Social Institutions

In my essay “Bound in Shallows” I described the social and historical processes by which the space programs of nation-states, and the industries that serve these space programs, become detached from any sense of investment (much less urgency) regarding the space program, and a shift in social attitudes occurs in which individuals retreat from the raison d’être of the program and the industries that serve it into private concerns such as career advancement, personal fulfillment, and feathering one’s nest.

In part this is an instance of what Carroll Quigley called the “institutionalization of the instrument.” National space programs became a self-serving institution, rather than seeing themselves as the tip of the spear thrusting into the future of our civilization. Another part of this is an instance of what Gilbert Murray called the “Failure of Nerve,” which social condition he found in late antiquity, when large numbers of persons abandoned the public sphere in favor of quietism and private salvation.

More recently, in newsletter 148, in a discussion of Edward C. Banfield’s amoral familism, I discussed how the various social classes detach themselves from the central project of their society, often by different mechanisms, but with the end result being the same: almost no one is invested in the institutions of social cohesion from which the society in question derived. Now, it is to be expected over civilizational scale periods of time that societies will change, including changes in the way that the different social classes are related to the central project. As the central project is reinterpreted, especially in the light of new practices (i.e., new aspects of the infrastructure) and new concepts (i.e., new parts of the conceptual framework), social relationships will shift and ultimately be reorganized.

This is a rather sterile way of describing the traumatic social experience of something like the industrial revolution, which resulted in a lot of suffering — not only physical suffering from long hours of factory labor and living in the unsanitary conditions of newly expanding industrialized cities, but also significant spiritual suffering — but which also resulted in the greatest increase in wealth and standards of living in human history, though it took more than a hundred years (thus several generations) to make the transition. Still, a civilization can remain intact through such historical traumas, or it can continuously evolve, so that the new civilization that results is continuously related to the older civilization that preceded it.

When this kind of change occurs with biological species, it is called a chronospecies, i.e., a species that continuously evolves so that at t0 it constitutes species S0, while at t1 it constitutes species S1, but without there being a bifurcation in the evolutionary history, as in allopatric speciation. With this biological analogy in mind, I introduced the concept of chronocivilization.

Interestingly, from the point of view of the biological species conception, we cannot prove that S0 and S1 are the same species (or distinct species) because we cannot test if these distinct species can be bred and produce fertile offspring. It is an interesting thought experiment (and perhaps someday an actual experiment) to find a method whereby this could be shown — for example, the de-extinction of a past species could provide a living organism with which to breed with a representative of that chronospecies’ later representative, in order to determine the viability of any offspring. Alternatively, contemporary species could be preserved in some manner in which they could be revived at a later date, and if any of these preserved specimens is later shown to be a chronospecies, then the preserved specimen could be revived and bred to the current representative of the chronospecies. This latter approach would require a scientific research program to remain intact over a period of millions of years — a task for Sagan’s million-year-old civilizations.

I have digressed from my theme of failing and failed social institutions, but the digression is not absolute: one of the most interesting ways in which biology differs from social institutions is that, once biological species diverge, they cannot be merged again, except in an ecological context in which the distinct species remain distinct species, but in which they mutually participate in one and the same ecosystem. Social institutions, in contrast, can be merged together into an organic whole (yes, I know, another biological metaphor). Perhaps I could go further and suggest that ecological models of melding societies (interpenetrating without merging) typically fail, while syncretistic models of merged societies at least have a possibility of success in the form of continued viability. But that is probably a bridge too far. The personal principle in law, common in pre-modern societies, constitutes an ecological interpenetration of societies, frequently successful. However, the personal principle in law plays little role in post-Enlightenment nation-states, and it is a question if it could be successfully practiced in a contemporary social context (this happens in anarcho-tyranny, with different laws for different classes of people, but this is merely a prelude to social collapse and cannot be considered a viable social model — hopefully).

In any case, there is yet another aspect of these developments of central project detachment among the social classes of a given society that needs to be noted, and that is when the political class in particular pulls away from the central project of the civilization that they putatively represent. Would it be helpful or merely confusing to distinguish the political class from élites? The latter is a broader category than the political class alone, because the élites include the wealthy, some of the captains of industry, celebrities, and so on. Perhaps the best way to approach this is to think of it in terms of the leading class of a society, which is the class most closely tied to the central project.

Marx imagined the revolutionary proletariat as the leading class of a communist-world-to-be, in which the proletariat would be the leading class of society forever more. In the feudal model, the leading classes were the military aristocracy and the priestly class, with power shifting around depending on circumstances. In feudal Japan, for instance, the real power lay in the hands (and the swords) of the military aristocracy, which was the leading class of this society, with the priestly class playing little or no role in power politics, while the military aristocracy became so powerful that they displaced imperial power under the Shogunate. (However, given the influence of Zen Buddhism upon the Samurai class, the military aristocracy also could be said to be a priestly class.) In Tibet prior to its annexation by China, the priestly class was the leading class of their society, with a military aristocracy playing little or no role. In Europe, this passing of power among leading classes was more fluid, as illustrated by the changing fortunes of the Guelfs (the Papal party) and the Ghibellines (the Imperial party). The Caeseropapism of Byzantium melded the two leading classes. In a technocracy, the leading classes would be scientists, technologists, and engineers.

The leading class of a society has a privileged relationship to the leading institutions of a society, though I should make a distinction between formal and informal institutions, as I did some years ago in Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power. Today, the central project of our civilization is an informal institution, but some past civilizations have had formal institutions as their central project. In the case of Egyptian civilization, for example, the Pharaoh was a living god who represented Egyptian religion, as did the formal institutions of the state and the physical infrastructure of the country. Roman civilization was more like our own. During the Imperial period, the Emperor was deified after death, and this could be likened to the status of the Pharaoh, but the Roman central project was not directly represented by either political or religious institutions, and so remained informal, though both formal political and religious institutions variously expressed aspects of the Roman central project.

In any case, again, when a businessman (when he is not a representative of the leading class in a society) becomes disaffected with the world and turns inward to his private satisfactions, his business must still remain functional or it goes bankrupt, and he ceases to be a captain of industry. Thus institutions like national space programs can continue even when Boeing and other contractors deliver their uninspired products over budget and behind schedule, it’s just that these national space programs cease to blaze a trail for others to follow, and instead settle in to a comfortable routine. Routine, after all, is safer than the exploration of the unknown, with its potential for catastrophic failure and negative press coverage.

In contrast, when political leaders (as the leading class of society) pull away from the central project of their society, underlying social institutions begin to fail, but there are no ready criteria for failing social institutions as there is for a failing business. We know that social institutions are failing when there is widespread social unrest — rioting, vandalism, looting, arson, etc. — but by then it is probably too late. Social failure can be obvious, but once the institutions themselves have failed, it is unlikely that they can be revived in any robust form ex post facto. Many such revivals have been attempted, but all involved an imitation of past forms but with the essential substance of new institutions — new wine in old bottles, which we sometimes call a saving of the appearances.

Societies such as we have today — post-Enlightenment nation-states in which political participation is seen as the way to salvation, rather than membership in a universal church, which we might call the soteriological conception of society — cannot survive when political leaders detach themselves from the central project. However, we only get to this historical crossroads after having passed through many forms of pre-modern society, and indeed many forms of modern society. Modern Enlightenment societies, that fancy themselves to have burned all bridges to the irrational and superstitious traditions of the past, are historically conditioned and path-dependent; history matters.

Because history matters, there are any number of symbols that the political class can take up or set aside as it suits them, and as they are convenient or inconvenient. Moreover, the institutions of social cohesion from which the society in question derived have mutated repeatedly, as have the symbols that represent these institutions. There is a lot of wiggle room here, and this ambiguity is exploited to the fullest by those with their hands upon the levers of power. In this way the appearance of viable political institutions can be maintained long after they have ceased to be truly functional.



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