American Society Was Not Atomistic, It Had A Civil Society Once

by | Apr 25, 2018

People complain that American culture is atomistic.  That the nuclear family leaves us high and dry.  It’s true that American culture is messed up, and people are left high and dry.  I’d just as soon blame our corporate fascist rent-seeking phony capitalism for this.  Everything from housing to education is a machine designed to extract and give the minimum back.  It’s a rent-seeking problem.  It’s because we have housing codes, and central banking, and a military-industrial-academic complex.  I’ll have more to say about college another day.

I don’t think, however, that traditional American society was atomistic at all.  Yes, traditional American society afforded more independence to individuals, and placed more demands on them.  Yes, the nuclear family limits an individual’s obligations and connections to his own family.  However, these systems existed in the context of a robust civil society.

People left their biological family, but then they could join civic organizations, religious communities, charitable groups, and so forth.  Early – Tocquevillan – America was replete with societies and organizations and clubs.  You didn’t need your family to be there, they let go of you so you could go be with the people best suited for you.  Moreover, a common moral and religious foundation meant that all society had a common code of public conduct.  If you’re part of a family, your family community knows exactly who you are and have known you their whole life.  That’s why they can trust you and integrate you into their community.  In public society, trust issues can interfere with community development.  This is why common morality really helped people trust non-family member more, and people were more easily able to form, abolish, re-form, and so forth, dynamic communities that optimized the preferences of individuals.

It’s easy to critique American Christian moralism (no really, it’s easy), but keep in mind that extended-family societies like many in Latin America, while not denouncing dancing and sex as harshly (for example), also impose huge obligations to family that don’t exist in traditional American culture.  Keep in mind also that many of these societies have rather profound social and political dysfunctions which tie directly to social inflexibility.

America today has no common morality, no common identity, and therefore lacks the necessary “social lubricant” to enable the spontaneous formation of civic organizations which can serve as intentional communities for individuals pursuing their own interests.  We don’t need teetotalling moral paradigms, but we do need morality.  That is, in America we believe that self-gratification is our entitlement.  Community can only work when a group of people commonly possess a sense of self-denial as an almost duty.

If we want communities, we don’t have to abstain from dancing or sex, but we do have to be willing to spend time with other people even when it’s not always super fun for us.  We don’t have to ban dancing, but we shouldn’t feel entitled to it.  That’s what I mean when I invoke “morality”.

Something is definitely wrong with America, but I wouldn’t blame the nuclear family per se. If anything, America’s civil society model was highly advanced, and so the most fragile, and most vulnerable to colonization by industrial fascism.  Even the South had to be conquered, and many countries in the third world just won’t industrialize no matter how hard the World Bank tries.  But the North embraced the factory floor society.  Individualism persisted, amidst prosperity, so nobody noticed that civil society died.  Our passions were so thoroughly gratified by cocktails, jazz, fine dining, and automobiles; we moved past morality, because we didn’t need community.  This is the social catechism for America’s youth: college, and joint, almost competitive, hedonism mixed with equal measures of vanity.  This is our American civilization’s notion of socializing; this is our common notion of community life – happy hour, and/or puff puff pass.

In the American tradition there has been a successful model of community in the form of the civil society which I think is highly preferable to the extended family model of community.

Zack Sorenson

Zack Sorenson

Zachary Sorenson was a captain in the United States Air Force before quitting because of a principled opposition to war. He received a MBA from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan as class valedictorian. He also has a BA in Economics and a BS in Computer Science.

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