is society an artifact or an ecosystem? (and what that means for citizens)

A fundamental question for anyone who wants to improve the world is which aspects of society are (1) natural and fixed, (2) artifacts that we make, or (3) elements of an ecosystem or social fabric that holds together. This question came into view ca. 1800 and is now inescapable.

Let’s call a society “traditional” to the degree that members view it as natural, permanent, and perhaps of divine origin. For a very long time, some people have been partially non-traditional. They have seen particular aspects of society as artifacts: as things we plan, create, and can change. For instance, the very first Greek historian, Herodotus, collected the varied burial customs of his time. The Egyptians’ “fashions of mourning and of burial are these,” he wrote: “Whenever any household has lost a man who is of any regard amongst them, the whole number of women of that house forthwith plaster over their heads or even their faces with mud. Then leaving the corpse within the house they go themselves to and fro about the city and beat themselves, with their garments bound up by a girdle and their breasts exposed …” Herodotus implied that the Egyptians had somehow made these customs and could switch them for different ones. Yet for him, most aspects of a society were natural and permanent, as were the differences between civilized people (who knew how a society should be run) and barbarians (who got it wrong).

Let’s say that “modernism” is the view that most aspects of society are artifacts. In modernity, people not only understand some aspects of society as artifacts, but they posit that society is generally something we invent and construct; everything human is  artifactual. They believe this not only of objects and actions (such as works of art or laws) but of their underlying principles. Perhaps we have made–not discovered–our concepts and criteria of things like beauty and justice.

Modernity, in this sense, may have arisen at several times in the past. Velcheru Narayana Rao claims that “a form of awareness that can be characterized as modern emerged naturally and organically in the Telugu- and Tamil-speaking parts of the [Indian] subcontinent toward the end of the fifteenth century.” That could well be the case. But the modernism that arose in Europe around 1800 has special significance today because it spread with European power around the world and has never receded.

Two interesting authors hold opposite perspectives on the question of modernism, and I think it’s valuable for citizens to consider both.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is an ultra-modernist, a “modernist visionary,” as he calls himself (False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, p. 9). He takes “to its ultimate conclusion” the thesis “that society is an artifact” (p. 2). All our institutions, mores, habits, and incentives are things that we imagine and make. We can change each of these things, “if not all at once, then piece by piece” (p. 4). Unger “carries to extremes the idea that everything in society is politics, mere politics”–in the sense of collective action and creation (p. 1)

Unger argues that that we have not yet taken the modernist project all the way. Even radical modernists have assumed that some things are natural although we can actually change them. Importantly, they have assumed that the relations between one domain and another are given. For instance, for Marxists, the economy is fundamental and it always determines politics. Unger thinks we can change any part of that picture. He wants to get rid of all “superstitious inhibitions.”

Unger fears that the status quo retains an arbitrary advantage. To disrupt it, he proposes a whole range of social reforms that would constantly stir things up: a steep inheritance tax that funds a social endowment, mandatory membership in independent unions that can compete for members, and a “reconstructive branch” of government that can take over institutions for short periods and reform them before leaving. These are ways of creating “a framework that is permanently more hospitable to the reconstructive freedom of the people who work within its limits” (p. 34). The task is to “combine realism, practicality, and detail with visionary fire” (p. 14)

James C. Scott is a critic of radical modernism, especially under conditions when the state is strong and civil society is weak–colonialism and war being particularly dangerous. In Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Scott describes high-modernist ideology as “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of … self-confidence about … the rational design of social order.”

The modernist’s orientation, as Scott notes, is purely toward the future: what will improve the world going forward? Since that is an intellectual question, the smartest people can basically decide. Existing structures are arbitrary and open to review. Any artifact that works in one place can and should be adopted elsewhere.

High modernism implies a truly radical break with history and tradition. …. All human practices … would have to be reexamined and redesigned. … The structures of the past were typically products of myth, superstition, and religious prejudice. … Society became an object that the state might manage and transform with an eye toward perfecting it (Scott, pp. 92-3).

High modernism forgets humility and the value of local knowledge, the wisdom embodied in traditional practices and any obligations we may owe to the past, the intrinsic limits of human reason and virtue, and the delicate ways that aspects of society interrelate. As Scott shows, high modernist schemes of social improvement can make things much worse. On the other hand, Unger rightly points to the arbitrary advantages of the status quo and our tendency to treat terrible injustice and waste as necessary even when we could change them.

Note that this debate does not map neatly onto the conventional ideological spectrum of left to right. Unger is a radical leftist because he is strongly egalitarian and enthusiastic about state power. He is also an ultra-modernist. But Margaret Thatcher was another kind of ultra-modernist, embracing the creative destruction of capitalism and denying that there was any such thing as “society.”

Meanwhile, the most avid defenders of holistic thinking, local norms, and the precautionary principle are environmentalists (generally placed on the left). European social democrats and US liberals are quick to defend traditional institutions like welfare agencies, schools, and universities against radical reforms. Unger writes (p. 275): “Anyone who accepts the established institutional framework as the horizon within which interests and ideals –including egalitarian ideals — must be pursued is not a progressive. The European social-democratic parties are not progressive.” This is a quarrel within the left. On the right, as well, there can be a debate about the degree to which aspects of a society are artifactual. You can place yourself anywhere on the spectrum from egalitarian to libertarian and separately choose any place on a spectrum from modernist to anti-modernist.

See also Roberto Unger against root causes, the visionary fire of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Edmund Burke would vote Democratic, and what defines conservatism?


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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.