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.



The Burghal Hidage Added Dec 17, 2017 - 5:31am
In the US Constitution we have what are referred to as the Bill of Rights. I like to think of these collectively as the liberties of individual conscience.  Inherent in these is that very right you describe in which one is free to disengage from that society which violates the conscience.
Neil I believe it is a part of human DNA which compels us to some social order. When it is broken down to the community level we seem to have a natural inclination toward the feudal order. This model replays itself throughout human interactions yet today.
The Burghal Hidage Added Dec 17, 2017 - 8:47am
Well I tried Neil, truly I did. four and a half hours and NO other comments? Really? Bunch of slackers we have here, Neil!
Anyway, another in a continuing series of brilliant pieces. Don't stop. 
Neil Lock Added Dec 17, 2017 - 11:41am
TBH: What I've found is that at WB most people take 24 hours or so to look at an article and comment. I have no problem with that. In fact, I consider it to be one of WB's strengths. On another US blog I visit daily (wattsupwiththat.com) I am often annoyed when, by the time I get to read a post, the comment thread has already gone stale.
All of us are more awake at some times of day than others; and you're in the privileged situation of being 6 (plus or minus 1) hours behind me! And the deeper the message, the longer many people will need to take it in and respond to it.
As to this particular article, what I planned to write became too long; so I had to split it into two. The first (this) half is just a scene-setter. The fireworks are in the second half! And Autumn has a 48-hour rule.
Be of good cheer, my friend. I have no plans to stop publishing articles here. I'll beat Gregory McNeill's 85 yet!
Neil Lock Added Dec 17, 2017 - 12:01pm
To add to that... People are often busy. It took me almost 3 days to respond to Opher's recent article about taxation. I was writing! (this article and its successor). At the time of typing, he hasn't replied to my 8+ hour old comment. I don't criticize him at all for that.
Dino Manalis Added Dec 17, 2017 - 1:13pm
Society is made up of groups; families; and individuals, hopefully, with good morals and values, that's the foundation!
opher goodwin Added Dec 17, 2017 - 2:44pm
Neil - a very interesting article. It always intrigues me to think that different individuals are content to take their positions within society without too much complaint. Most societies are oligarchical and most people end up as urks. Many of those urks have the skills and ability to rise above their position but do not. There is much vying to climb the ladder but many opt out. Some people seem to be natural leaders and most people natural followers. These characteristics seem to dictate the natural hierarchy of a society. I am fascinated by what motivates people.
Utpal Patel Added Dec 18, 2017 - 8:32am
“A society is a group of people who choose to work together for a common aim.”
Another definition of society is the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community. Nothing about common aims there.  Generally speaking society works just fine when each of us is primarily concerned with oneself.  Capitalists call it the invisible hand of the market. 
Neil Lock Added Dec 18, 2017 - 1:28pm
Utpal, thanks for the comment. But please read my earlier essay "On Community." It's probably easier for me if you comment here rather than there.
Dave Volek Added Dec 18, 2017 - 3:19pm
Another interesting piece.
I would be a little careful with the Heap Big Chief tag. It is my understanding that many aboriginal societies had a consensual nature of decision making, not autocratic.
Uptal makes an interesting point. I doubt I have any "societal" connections with my neighbors (as you have defined society). Yet we still share a common understanding of how we are to interact with each other. Maybe there is another layer you are going to add to your series.
Edward Miessner Added Dec 18, 2017 - 3:36pm
A very interesting article. But it seems to me that the United States is becoming no longer a society, or one that is based on an oligarchic plutocracy, if it hasn't already. Opher makes very good points about an oligarchic society and it appears to be true of the United States as well---except most are striving to get up the ladder and failing to do so, at least beyond a certain rung. And an increasing fraction of the populace are opting out of this, usually after failing: you can see the effects in the per-capita increase in the number of deaths by alcohol, drugs and suicides in the past few years in this country.
I wonder how things are like in Britain now, thirty-odd years after Maggie Thatcher proclaimed, "There IS no society, only men and women and families!"?
opher goodwin Added Dec 18, 2017 - 7:05pm
Edward - the Tories are doing their best to make the country into a selfish money-grabbing racket but there is still society. The people bond and pull together. They hope for some light at the end of the tunnel.
You can see society at work when we had the terrible Grenfell Tower fire. Theresa May stayed away but the people all pulled together. Summed it up for me.
I'm just hoping that Corbyn makes a difference when he gets in. He is our hope of creating a fairer society - one not based on how much cash you can screw out of everyone - but based on compassion and caring; that's the heart of a society for me.
Neil Lock Added Dec 19, 2017 - 2:28am
Dave: You're right about aboriginal societies using consensus. Even some African bands and tribes still do so. The problem with consensus as a means of reaching agreement is that the cost of reaching consensus goes up well more than linearly with the size of the group. Therefore it can't work in large societies. In fact, I had something about this in the first draft, but cut it out. I'll put it back in when I next review the article.
On the common understanding of how we are to interact with each other, I already wrote about that (in broad outline) in my "On Rights" article. I have a more detailed treatment planned for the future, but it's way down the list...
Neil Lock Added Dec 19, 2017 - 2:36am
Edward: I'm going to be discussing political societies in my next article. (Imminent). And yes, you're right that the US, and other supposedly "democratic" countries, are oligarchies underneath. And people are coming to see them for what they are, which is why we see the issues you raise.
Neil Lock Added Dec 19, 2017 - 2:44am
Edward and Opher: The subject of plutocracy (or "selfish money-grabbing racket" as Opher puts it) is a complicated one. I suspect we will disagree about whether the politically rich have corrupted the financially rich, or the other way around. But either way, they're both corrupt, and that's a problem.
I have this subject on my list to address; at present, it's scheduled for three articles' time (beyond the one I'm about to publish this morning).
opher goodwin Added Dec 19, 2017 - 4:55am
Neil - I think they both corrupt each other but it seems to me that the rich think they can buy influence - and do. I cannot believe that lobbying is still allowed - or at least in the manner that it operates. Big business buys off politicians and directly influences policy. On top of that there is a revolving door for politicians to move into lucrative deals and positions.
The whole thing stinks.
Dave Volek Added Dec 19, 2017 - 11:19am
You are right in that consensus is more difficult in bigger groups. So we, on a society level, let some ambitious people take charge for a time and let them implement their agenda. If we like the results, we let them keep their job. I address in my book in that we need to move past this thinking.
Consensus--or consultation--must become part of our new value system. But for us to do this, we must, as individuals be trained to think differently. To briefly summarize, I just bring up two points. First we need to learn to speak freely of our own knowledge, experience, and wisdom to the group, for these need to become part of the final solution. Yet we also need to let go of the "It's my way or the highway" attitude that seems to dominate our political discourse, which also filters into our societal and community thinking. Second, we to let go (after we have spoken our mind) when the consensus is going in a different direction. Let the group go down that path unopposed. If it is wrong path, it will eventually become apparent and the group should take another path. More detail is in Chapter 4.
There is no doubt we have to be trained for a consultative culture. The TDG cannot work without it. 
Edward Miessner Added Dec 19, 2017 - 3:28pm
Glad to hear that the UK is a healthier society than the USA, although some few wags call your country "the USA of Europe." Which may indicate that Ireland and the Continent have healthier societies still.
Edward Miessner Added Dec 19, 2017 - 3:35pm
Thanks for the heads-up.
"I suspect we will disagree about whether the politically rich have corrupted the financially rich, or the other way around."
Well it's complicated. It seems to me that the US politically rich have been corrupting the US financially rich, and the other way around ever since this country got founded. A good point on this to look into is how the newly-formed federal government assumed the states' War of Independence debts. Gore Vidal makes quite a few succint observations on that in this book
opher goodwin Added Dec 19, 2017 - 6:38pm
Edward - we are buying in to American culture at an alarming rate. Soon we will be just another American State.
Neil Lock Added Dec 20, 2017 - 8:00am
Dave: I think I gave my answer to your points in my other (more recent) essay on political societies and governments. If you don't like what the group are doing, you should be able to leave them. Then the decision is yours.
Neil Lock Added Dec 20, 2017 - 8:01am
Opher: I think you mean Airstrip Fifty-One!
Dave Volek Added Dec 20, 2017 - 11:22am
I guess I'm not sure where on the hierarchy "the society" actually fits. It is true that I can withdraw my membership from the Canadian Bird Watcher's Society--and no longer be subject to whatever laws it imposes on me. But I can't easily withdraw from Canada.
At some point, there has to be laws and a process to make laws. And no one can be exempt from these laws. Maybe I interpreted your "society" a little too far up the chain.
Neil Lock Added Dec 20, 2017 - 4:02pm
Dave: I can't easily withdraw from Canada.
Yes, that's almost exactly what I say in my latest article here. Currently, the ability to make and to enforce laws resides at the level of political "society," otherwise known as a (nation) state. It ought to be at the next level up, which I call the "convivial order."
Edward Miessner Added Dec 20, 2017 - 6:02pm
For you guys that must be scary! Here, the American culture (of hustling and identity politics) has been with us since shortly after 1607/1620. That's when the first colonists got off the boat in Virginia and Massachusetts, respectively.