“Society”? Is there such a thing?

ThumbnailHere’s a link to the video series from the New York Times on the “safety net,” the first segment of which we viewed in class on Wednesday: “Even Critics of the Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It.”  The topic of entitlement and obligation serves a nice bridge between the theories of Marx and Durkheim.  Marx, of course, would be unsurprised by the emphasis on the values of individualism and self-reliance in the interviews here, viewing them as expressions of “bourgeois ideology” typical of capitalism.  Durkheim, on the other hand, believed that social solidarity, or the cohesion of social groups, Thumbnailwas possible in advanced capitalist countries — under certain conditions, i.e., when there’s a “normal,” healthy division of labor.

As discussed in class, there was a significant shift in the nature of US capitalism starting sometime during the 1970s.  The postwar trend of “liberal reform” designed to protect workers from the excesses of the free market was reversed, beginning a period of economic deregulation or laissez-faire capitalism (a “hands-off” approach to the economy).  This has come to be known as neoliberal capitalism, or neoliberalism.  In the US, it started with the “Reagan Revolution,” which got its name from the Republican president, Ronald Reagan, who was elected in 1980.  A similar shift occurred in the UK, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was its chief representative.  To justify this turn, Thatcher famously declared “there is no such thing as society.”

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

What do you think?  You may comment here or write a blog post on this that engages concepts from Durkheim.  One idea is to compare/contrast the perspectives on society from Marx, Durkheim, and Prime Minister Thatcher (basically, a philosophy of utilitarian individualism).  Like Thatcher, Marx denies Durkheim’s claim that there is some collective called “society” with shared interests and values.  Both Thatcher’s neoliberal individualism and Marxism tend to view social actors as rational and calculating, primarily driven by economic interests.  However, in Marx’s theory it’s social classes that are central, while proponents of neoliberalism prioritize individuals.

Do you think we can reduce explanations of social action to economic self-interest?  Do people these days act as groups or as self-interested individuals?  Or something else? (Networks maybe?)  Do they tend to be guided by strictly economic interests or do other (possibly shared) values guide behavior?  Does it depend on the circumstances?

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One response to ““Society”? Is there such a thing?

  1. I think in today’s society we tend to act as self interested individuals rather then in groups. I think we categorize ourselves into groups such as poor/ in poverty people, the middle class, and the top 1% the wealthy people. However we as people think of ourselves first over everyone else and then maybe if needed we branch out and help others. To me at first this seems very narcissistic, but I think there is a reason behind it. In today’s society no one can really afford to look out for other people, because they can barely look out for themselves and if they finally get their life to where they want it, or just barely getting by they need to do whatever they can to keep them at that place. I do believe though that the government is put into place to yes govern, but it should be there to help the people. Senators and House of Representatives are both selected from people of their state to “fight for them,” and what the people want and need. That is their job to work in the BEST interest of the people however I don’t see how they have been doing that lately, there does not seem to be any change.

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