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.

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