Friday, 22 December 2017

A Wassail Song

At a writers' club I frequent, a writer from the Stroud area in Gloucestershire published the words of a wassail song, recently written for the local "Five Valleys Wassail." Not having the tune to hand, and having a few hours spare, I decided to write my own tune to the words. Here it is (unfortunately, I couldn't post the MIDI file)...

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

On Political Societies and Political Governments

In a recent essay, I discussed how individuals and societies might fit together into a civilization based on a minimal set of rules of convivial conduct, such as peacefulness, honesty and respect for rights. Today, I’ll follow that up, and look in more detail at political societies and political governments.

Even working out what the phrase “political society” actually means isn’t easy. At one level, it’s a society that takes part in politics. That is, a society that seeks to gain political power, or to influence the policies of those in power. But the same phrase is more commonly used in a wider sense, to mean a group of people living within particular borders, and ruled over by a political government. This group of people goes by many names; the nation, the country, the people, to name but three. And it seems to me that often, neither the precise membership of this group nor its binding forces are very well defined.

The state

To begin, I’ll briefly review the essence of the political state. By this, I mean the so called “Westphalian” nation state. This system, introduced in the 17th century, is still the basis of political organization in most countries in the world today.

A state differs from all other organizations, in that it claims “sovereignty” over a geographical territory, and over the people in it. Per Webster’s, sovereignty is “supreme power, especially over a body politic.” In some countries, like the USA and Canada, sovereignty may be exercised at two, sometimes conflicting, levels; the federal or national, and the state or province.

This idea of sovereignty goes all the way back to a 16th century monarchist Frenchman named Jean Bodin. In Bodin’s scheme, the sovereign – the king or ruling élite – is fundamentally different from, and superior to, the rest of the population in its territory, the “subjects.” In particular, the sovereign has moral privileges; that is, rights to do certain things, which others don’t share. Bodin lists these privileges as: (1) To make laws to bind the subjects. (2) To make war and peace. (3) To appoint the top officials of the state. (4) To be the final court of appeal. (5) To pardon guilty individuals if it so wishes. (6) To issue a currency. (7) To levy taxes and impositions, and to exempt, if it wishes, certain individuals or groups from payment. Furthermore, the sovereign isn’t bound by the laws it makes. And it isn’t responsible for the consequences of what it does (also known as “the king can do no wrong.”)

And we’re still using Bodin’s system today. Isn’t that crazy? We don’t use 17th century medicine any more, or 17th century technology, or 17th century transport. And we’ve been through the Enlightenment since then, for goodness’ sake! So why are we still using a political system from the days of the “divine right of kings?” Why are we still suffering a system that lets an élite do to us exactly what it wants, with no accountability or come-back?

Surely, we’ve put bags on the side of this system over time. We’ve tried parliaments that are meant to “represent” us. We’ve tried constitutions meant to limit the sovereign’s power. We’ve tried to separate powers between legislative, executive and judiciary. We’ve tried charters and bills of rights. We’ve tried the sham called “democracy.” But none of them have worked.


In my earlier essay, I identified some important characteristics of societies in general. First, virtually all societies have some form of constitution, to say how the society is supposed to operate. This is usually, though not always, written down.

Most countries today do have written political constitutions. (The UK is an exception). How well those in power keep within the constitutional limits, though, is often a moot point.

Social contract

When an individual joins a society, there comes into being a contract between the individual and the society. This contract may be in writing, or by oral agreement.

Most people, though, never explicitly join a political society. Immigrants who apply for a new citizenship are the major exception to this. Others are simply deemed to be subjects of such a society, perhaps according to their place of birth or the nationalities of their parents.

The fiction that sustains the idea of political society, and so political government, is the so called “social contract.” Here’s the idea behind this fiction. We, the individuals who form the political society, consent to submit to the authority of a government. We give away some of our freedoms, and we take on obligations to other members of the society. In exchange, we – in theory – receive protection of our remaining rights.

In the days of city states, many people would have willingly entered into such a contract, if only for the benefit of being defended by the walls. Even in the 17th century, the idea still made some sense. But in today’s world of rapid travel, global economy, Internet and mass migration, selling our souls to the political government of some arbitrary territory makes no sense at all.

Furthermore, one would expect that a contract with such wide ranging effects on people’s lives would be a formal one. It would be written down, carefully considered, negotiated, agreed and signed by all parties. And if a government mistreats anyone, or fails to deliver on its side of the bargain, the victims would be able to recover damages from those responsible. No?

Yet what actually happens is quite the opposite. All political governments today behave as if those in their territory have tacitly consented to their rule. They claim that, while in the area controlled by a government, an individual consents to submit himself to all laws made by that government. And if those laws are unjust? Tough, if you are “caught” breaking them.


As I made clear in my earlier essay, a society is a unity. It makes decisions based on the interests of the society as a whole. If individuals within the society disagree with what the society decides to do, they either have to accept the decision, or leave the society.

With a political society, however, no-one can leave without physically uprooting themselves. And since there is no liveable place on the planet not claimed by some political state, they will have to find another political society to live in. So, political societies are fundamentally different from others, in that you cannot leave without suffering a significant, maybe a crippling, penalty.

Thus those in a political society, who are unable or unwilling to pay the price and leave, are forced to accept whatever decisions and policies are made by those in power. This would be bad, even if the members of the society were few and culturally homogeneous. But in a “society” of many millions of people, that includes diverse races, religions, cultures, ideologies and interest groups, it’s a disaster.

When you think hard about it, the idea that a population of tens or hundreds of millions of people – or even, as in China or India, more than a billion – all have enough in common to constitute a society, comes to seem ridiculous. Indeed, it raises a deeper question: can a political “society” be rightly said to be a society at all?

Moreover, today’s political societies are far too large for any kind of consensus to be practical. So, inevitably, they will end up as oligarchies (or even, as in North Korea, autocracies). Leading, as I said in my earlier essay, to a three class society: rulers, cronies and nobodies.


Ah, you may say, but in the West at least, we have democracy! Isn’t that the best political system possible? Doesn’t it enable us to elect representatives to defend our interests? Doesn’t it give each of us our fair say in every decision? Doesn’t it give us, in John Adams’ words, “government of laws, not of men?”

In one word, I answer: No.

At first sight, a democracy looks much like a normal society. The members elect a committee, and the committee rules until the next general meeting (election). What’s not to like?

But here’s the reality of “democracy” today. Each of us gets a chance to vote every so often. But the only alternatives offered to us are political parties; lying, thieving criminal gangs, none of which show even the slightest concern for us human beings. And whichever of these criminal gangs wins the election will be granted all but absolute power over us for the next few years.

Has democracy brought us the freedom, justice and peace we deserve? No. Arguably, it has made things worse. For it brings opportunities for power to those that want power; that is, to exactly those least suited to be allowed power. It pollutes the mental atmosphere with lies, spin and empty promises. And the voting ritual gives the whole charade a veneer of false legitimacy. It enables those in power to claim that they have a “mandate” to implement their agendas. Thus they can “lawfully” harass, or impoverish, or violate the rights of, innocent people. And they can rob Peter to buy Paul’s vote, and favour their supporters at the expense of everyone else.

Worse yet; democracy divides people from each other. The victims of unjust policies feel harshly treated, and become disaffected. They come to view politics and politicians with contempt and loathing. And gradually, they lose all sense of belonging, and of fellow feeling for those around them. Thus, democracy breaks apart the very sense of “we” that gave it legitimacy in the first place. It destroys the social cohesion, the glue which ought to keep the political society together.

In recent times, proposals have been made for tiered or multi-level voting systems. These aim to bring politics closer to home, and to make those who acquire power a bit more “representative” of the people. While these are certainly worth looking at as a means of running large societies, and might have some positive effects, I don’t think they address the real problem. That problem is a 17th century political system, that allows the worst, the most callous, dishonest, devious and psychopathic, to rule over everyone else with near impunity. Simply put: the state is out of date.

EU and UN

And then we have the superstates; the European Union (which some of my right wing friends call the EUSSR) and the United Nations. Both are remote, bureaucratic organizations, even less accountable than the local élites. Both seek to impose on all of us policies – drab, corrupt socialism in one case, deep green environmentalism in the other – that are anathema to honest, independent human beings. Both are bad news for us all.

My solution

But there’s some good news too. I think I have a potential solution to the political problems we face today. It’s radical; but extreme conditions call for extreme responses!

The first step, I think, must be to understand what the valid functions of government actually are. I see three, and only three, such functions. The first is to maintain peace. The second is to deliver justice. Justice, as I put forward in an earlier essay, is the condition in which each individual, over the long term and in the round, is treated as he or she treats others. This function includes the just resolution of disputes. The third valid function of government is defence of the rights of those who respect others’ rights. Those rights, as I discussed in another earlier essay, include fundamental rights like life, property and privacy; and rights of non-impedance, such as freedom of speech, religion and association.

The second step in my suggestion is to move these three valid functions of government up a level. That is, from political societies to a peaceful, honest, rights respecting framework like Frank van Dun’s convivial order; on which I have elaborated in previous essays.

In two words: de-politicize government. Said more fully: Get rid of the out of date Westphalian state. Get rid of politics. Replace them by a framework which is peaceful, honest and respects the rights of all human beings.

And in the process, we will recycle the former nation states into societies which promote national cultures, and do no more. Thus, those who abhor politics will no longer be forced to have anything to do with it, or with anyone that has ever taken part in it. This will also have the side benefit of getting rid of the arbitrary political borders that plague our world today.

Please note, I’m not suggesting a world government of any kind. That, like the EU and the UN, would be going in precisely the wrong direction. My ideal government will be de-centralized. It will take account of local cultures and local systems of law. It will defend the rights of everyone who respects others' rights. It will not harass or impoverish innocent people, or favour a ruling class and their cronies. While at the same time, it will hold everyone objectively responsible for the effects of their actions on others.

But most important of all, government in the convivial order won’t have any “will” to do anything beyond its remit. It will have no policy agendas. It will treat all individuals as morally equal; and it will not take sides between one group and another. It will not commit aggressions against innocents. It will consume no more resources than it needs to in order to fulfil its remit. It will charge individuals no more than is commensurate to the benefit it delivers to each of them. And it will be as objective in all its decisions as humanly possible.

To sum up

In this essay, I’ve discussed some of the problems we face with politics and political societies today. And I’ve made a radical suggestion. That is, that we human beings may be able to solve many of our problems by de-politicizing government. And moving its valid functions, of delivering peace and justice and defending rights, up to the level of the convivial order, in which everyone lives according to basic rules of civilized behaviour.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

On Societies

Recently, I identified and discussed six levels of community, of which human beings can be part. Today, I’ll look in more detail at the fifth of these levels, the society. And at its relationship to the level above it, Civilization or the convivial order.

To re-cap: A society is a group of people who choose to work together for a common aim. Each society has its own goals and purposes, and may in some sense be said to have a “will.” People can form societies, or join existing societies. The members of a society are held together by binding forces, such as shared aims and objectives and a shared sense of identity.

There are many kinds and purposes of societies. People may meet to share a common activity, such as making music, playing a sport, or performing rites of worship for some deity. Or they may wish to live among others who share a political ideology or a lifestyle choice. Or they may wish to enjoy or to promote a particular culture. Or they may form a business as directors or partners, or join a business as employees.

There are also societies that are explicitly political, such as political parties. And there are nations and political states. These are big subjects; so, I’ll leave them for another day. Today, I’ll content myself with considering human societies in general.


Almost every society has some form of constitution. Webster’s calls this “a written instrument embodying the rules of a political or social organization.” Though historically, not all constitutions have been written down.

The idea of a constitution is to set out the way in which the society is supposed to work. It usually includes things like: what the founding principles of the society are, what officers it should have, how they are to be selected, and the procedures for making decisions within the society. And importantly, how the constitution itself may be changed.


When individuals or societies make commitments to each other, their respective commitments are embodied in a contract. Depending on the level of formality, the contract may be oral or written. At the level of two individuals, marriage is a contract. And when an individual joins a society, a contract is made, in effect, between the individual and the society.

A contract may be as simple as an oral promise met by a nod. Or it may extend to dozens or even hundreds of pages of legalese. The latter is particularly common in business, where employment contracts, and contracts for the supply of goods or services, can become fiendishly complicated. (Not helped, I will say, by ever increasing government regulations.) Often, a key condition is to agree on what is to happen when one or both parties wish to terminate the contract.


Although societies are not people, it has become common practice to treat them as if they were, and so to give them “personality.”

This legal fiction probably arose because a society, like a person, is a unity. It makes decisions based on its principles and interests, and acts on them. Even though some of its members may disagree on an issue, the society as a whole takes only one view, decided according to the rules in its constitution.

Methods of organization

I’ll review some of the many methods used to organize societies, both in the past and today.

A very old way to organize a society is Autocracy. Heap Big Chief makes the decisions, everyone else kow-tows. I have long found it amusing that many libertarian organizations, which promote the ideas of individual freedom, are autocracies underneath! Now, autocracy is a fine way to run a society, if you happen to be the autocrat, or if you get on well with him. But unless he has an impartial sense of justice and a strong will to keep to it, it doesn’t do much for anyone else.

Oligarchy is an evolution of autocracy, in which Heap Big Chief is replaced or supplemented by a committee. It often leads towards a three class society: the powerful, their cronies and the urks. Oligarchy, like autocracy, doesn’t do much for the urks. Unless the oligarchs are enlightened; which is rare.

Further, many businesses are oligarchies. The board of directors sets the rules. Key employees usually do quite well; but the rest do less well. In well run companies, particularly small ones, this can be mitigated by personal contact between the leaders and the led. But the bigger the company, the more likely it is to reflect the three-class model of top dogs, pals and mozos.

Partnership (in both the marriage and business senses) is, or should be, an oligarchy in which everyone is equal. In a partnership, decisions are to be made, as far as possible, by consensus. Some partnerships, both married couples and businesses, manage to do this. Others don’t.

Majority voting is another way to make a group of people into a unity. In this system, the decision goes to a vote among the members of the society. The view of the majority wins out over the view of the rest, with some provision for a casting vote in the event of a tie. This was the idea behind ancient Athenian democracy; though in Athens, of course, only male citizens could vote, not non-citizens, women or slaves. It’s rarely used today, except in some town meetings in the USA, in a couple of Swiss cantons, and very occasionally in the form of a referendum.

Shareholding is a variation on majority voting. In this system, the votes are not equal, but have weights in proportion to the contribution (in some measure) of each individual entitled to vote. It is used mainly by companies whose shares are publicly traded.

For most non-business societies today, the means of organization is elected oligarchy. The members elect a committee, and the committee makes the decisions on behalf of the whole society. This system is supplemented by regular (for example, annual) general meetings, at which the members can hold the committee to account, and replace them if needed.

The very largest societies tend to be top down and hierarchical, with several levels. The Catholic church, for example, has a pope, cardinals, bishops and priests. Multi-national companies usually have a main board and a single head office, with subsidiaries in each region or country.

Societies in the convivial order

In earlier essays, I’ve described Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun’s idea of the convivial order. This is a framework, in which people live together, and in which all are free to form or to join societies as they choose. And in which the community is bound together by a shared core of standards of convivial conduct.

How could the many and various kinds of societies fit into such an order? Plainly, some societies will demand from their members more than just the basic minimum standards of convivial conduct. For example, a commitment not to eat pork, or not to drink alcohol, is built into the rules of some religious societies. And yet, it isn’t reasonable to expect people, who don’t subscribe to the religion, to obey these rules. So, they can’t be included in the convivial core.

The solution to this problem, as I see it, is to allow any society to make, and to enforce on its members, its own additional rules, over and above the convivial minimums. Any such rules and enforcements are to be agreed within the society, using its own decision procedures.

But obviously, no society should be allowed to impose its proprietary rules on non-members. And if members feel that the rules of a society are too great an imposition on them, they must be free to leave the society. Further, a member wishing to leave a society, for any reason, must not be subjected to any unreasonable penalty.

The case, where a society wishes to waive or modify one or more of the standards of convivial conduct, is a little harder. There are valid reasons to want to do this. For example, aggressively punching people is disconvivial conduct. But a boxing club will want to allow its members to punch each other, under certain rules, in training or in an actual fight. Indeed, it may want to contract with another boxing club to allow a specific member or members of one club to box against a specific member or members of the other.

Thus as a general rule, societies – and, indeed, individuals where necessary – must be able to make contracts, which allow them mutually to waive individual elements of the core standards under specified conditions. But when dealing with individuals outside these societies, or with those who aren't a party to any such waiver, both societies and individuals must always behave fully up to convivial standards.

To sum up

In this essay, I’ve given an outline of the characteristics of human societies in general. I’ve reviewed several different methods of social organization. And I’ve described how all these societies might be fitted into a framework such as Frank van Dun’s convivial order.

On Community

Today, I’m going to look at the idea of community. Like many words with political connotations, this is a slippery one.

My own definition is: “a group of people with something in common.” The dictionary, however, gives several different senses. These include a political state, a condition of owning goods jointly, and “society at large.” Even when the sense is similar to mine, it’s often qualified by extra conditions. Such as people living in a particular area, or a sub-group within a larger society.

For me, the word has two strands of etymology. First, from the same root as “common.” Thus, a community is a group of people bound together by common traits. And second, from the Latin com- (with) and munire, to fortify; so meaning sharing walls. Thus, I think of a community as defined by two aspects: binding forces, which hold the people of the community together, and walls, which separate them from those outside.

Levels of community

In a traditional view, community has three, or perhaps four, levels. First, marriage. Second, the family. Third – though not everyone counts this – the day-to-day world of work and friendships. And at the top, “society,” which many identify with the political nation or state. But I find this view over-simple. I see, not three or four levels, but six. From the bottom up:

  1. Individual.
  2. Partnership.
  3. Family.
  4. Marketplace.
  5. Societies.
  6. Civilization (convivial community).
Many people don’t think of the individual as a community. But it is; it’s an ensemble consisting of one person. And every human being has both walls and a binding force. Our walls are of two kinds. First, the physical body, and second, our human rights and personal life-space. And the binding force, which holds each of us together, is our individual personality.

The second level is partnership. The most obvious example is traditional marriage; but it’s not the only kind of partnership. And a partnership isn’t necessarily restricted to just two people. In a partnership, the primary binding force is usually love. But there are others; such as companionship, comfort when you’re down, and sexual pleasure. As to walls, a partnership is a contract between its members. So, the walls of partnership are walls of contract.

The third level of community is family or, much the same thing in the West today, household. The walls are the walls of a home, and the binding force is kinship.

The fourth level is the marketplace, the community of those with whom individuals interact in their daily lives. Your marketplace includes those with whom you deal regularly or occasionally. It contains your friends, workmates, business partners, clients and suppliers, those you serve and those who serve you. It often also includes extended family. Here, the binding force of your marketplace is you. And the marketplace as a whole is the aggregate of all individuals’ marketplaces.

The walls of your marketplace, however, are more subtle; they are walls of choice. Absent coercion, intimidation and fraud, you – like all others – have a free marketplace. You can choose whom you interact with. And where it’s practical, you can seek to avoid dealing with those you don’t like. However, a free marketplace needs at least a minimal framework of civilization – one that deters aggression, violence and fraud, at least – in order to keep it free.

The fifth level is societies (plural). A society is a group of people who choose to work together for a common aim; such as a musical ensemble, a football club, a business or a church. Each society has its own goals and purposes, and may in some sense be said to have a “will.” In almost every case, it will also have officers, some of whom are more powerful than others.

Here, the forces binding a society are shared desires, shared aims and objectives, and a shared sense of identity. In addition, the members of many societies are bound together by shared customs. The walls of a society, on the other hand, separate members from non-members.

One kind of society, which has physical walls as well as walls of membership, is the commune. The purpose of some communes is merely to make life easier for a group of people who live in close proximity to each other; for example, a gated community. Other communes allow people to live alongside others with similar attitudes. Thus those of a particular religious persuasion may choose to form a commune, such as a monastery. Socialists can live in socialist communes, if they wish. And libertarians can live in libertarian communes, and libertines in libertine ones.

In my earlier writings, I called the sixth and highest level Civilization. But I’m now coming to prefer convivial community or convivial order. The latter phrase was coined by Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun. He describes the convivial order as one in which “people live together regardless of their membership, status, position, role or function in any, let alone the same, society.” What binds convivial people together is a shared willingness to behave in a convivial manner. And our walls are the rules of convivial conduct. Which, as a friend opined in response to one of my earlier essays, can be summed up as “Don’t be an asshole.”

Thus, the convivial community is a framework for living together. And it supports a community of those who choose to behave up to the standards of convivial conduct. However, this community is not, and never can be, a society. It has no president or chairman. It has no officials, no goals as a group, and no politics. And it is (will be), by its very nature, world-wide.

Characteristics of each level of community

Each level has its own features. In some, individuals have to accept what is already there. In others, we have free choice. Broadly, at the odd numbered levels we have to play the hand we’re dealt, at least up to a point. Whereas at the even numbered levels, we have freedom to choose for ourselves.

As individuals, we have to accept what we’re born as. We have to make the best we can of our particular strengths and weaknesses. In contrast, we have (absent coercion) the right freely to choose a partner. Or partners, if that’s the way we’re inclined. Or to go through life as independent individuals, if that’s what suits us.

We have to accept the family we’re born into, at least for the first 20 or so years of our lives. And if we decide to have children of our own, we have to take the responsibility of supporting and educating them until they are independent. In the marketplace, on the other hand, we have (again, absent coercion) free choice of whom we will deal with.

As to societies, we have to accept the rules of any society we choose to join, provided they’re reasonable. And we should accept the people in power in a society we join, as long as they work honestly for the good of the society and of its members. But we always have the right to leave any society, and to join another, or many others. Or to form our own societies.

Finally, the convivial community is again a level of individual choice. It’s our own choice to decide to behave towards our fellows in a convivial manner. And we choose who we count as our fellows by judging how far their conduct is convivial. Thus, conviviality does not arise from any social group. Rather, community arises out of shared conviviality.

In the convivial community, the individual – and his or her conduct – is everything. Neither race, skin colour, gender, age, physical size or attractiveness, geographical location, cultural origin, sexual tastes, nor even disability, are bars to entry to that community. And as to religion, the only stipulation is that you don’t try to foist your religion others.

Political society and political community

Lastly for today, I’ll look at the ideas of political community and political society.

Many people, particularly those of a more conservative bent, seem to feel a strong attachment to something they call the community. When I probe as to what this may be, I find that what they have in mind is a political community. Further, it seems to be coterminous with, if not exactly the same as, a political state or nation. Others, when they talk about a political unit, prefer to call it society. The more collectivist among them go so far as to dignify it with a capital S, and to place it up on a pedestal, like some deity.

But both these groups share one view; their politics is top down. For them, the state, the nation, community or society is all important. It has the right to impose its agendas on people, and to tell them how to behave. And the individual human being, and his or her rights, are of little or no importance in comparison.

A political society, broadly defined, is a society that takes part in politics. And, per Webster’s, politics is “the art or science of government.” A political party, then, is an exemplar of a political society. Its purpose is to seek power, and when in power to impose its agendas. And it favours its own leaders and their cronies, and the party’s followers, at the expense of everyone else. Such parties lead towards political government, with its ruling class, taxes, moral privileges, bureaucracies, wars, bad laws and more or less corrupt “justice” system.

Myself, I want nothing to do with political parties, political governments or any other political society. I regard the parties, and those that take an active part in them, as disconvivial. That is, as far away from us convivials as criminals are from honest, peaceful people.

Moreover, I feel little if any sense of political community. Oh, the walls of a political “community” are clear enough; they’re its, more or less arbitrary, borders. But what binds such a community together? Who, precisely, belongs to it? Those who live in its territory? Those born inside its borders? Those of a particular nationality? Those who share particular customs, language or culture? Do they include, for example, short term visitors? Long term visitors? Resident aliens? Asylum seekers? Recent immigrants? “Illegal” immigrants?

Moreover, imposition of harmful policies at the behest of activist groups, which has become a major feature of politics in recent years, can only have the effect of dissolving what little fellow feeling is left between the victims and their supposed cohorts.

To sum up

I see six levels of community. In increasing size, these are: the individual, the partnership, the family, the marketplace, societies, and the convivial community.

At some of these levels – the individual, family, societies – we have to accept, to a greater or lesser extent, what is already there. In the others, we have free choice, within the limits of convivial conduct. And at the highest level, the convivial community forms a framework, in which people can live together peacefully and well. And in which there is no place for politics, or for arbitrary borders, ruling classes, bad laws, injustices, taxes, bureaucracies or wars.