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II.: THE USES OF SOCIETY - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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THE USES OF SOCIETY
We are now able to understand how the British liberal traditions could, more or less in defiance of the facts, remain consistently individualistic for so many centuries. We can understand also how misguided were those nineteenth-century German writers who despised the English as being selfish and grasping—those who thought that Bentham was actually describing real people. The answer is perfectly simple. It is that liberal theory managed to combine an atomistic account of the State with a monistic account of society. The liberal individualist always had this extra card up his sleeve, one which could always deal with the many dangling bits of social and political life left over by utilitarianism. Now while we may deplore this split intellectually, we are unlikely to do so politically. Intellectually, there is no distinction between State and society; life cannot be carved up in this convenient way. And if the attempt to do so is made, then the result will be bad social and political theory, that is, theory which constantly has recourse to mystery, ambiguity, evasion, and downright falsity, in order to give a coherent account of its material. Politically, the story is rather different. On the basis of distinction between the State and society, an ideology has developed to support the British political tradition whereby an autonomous set of institutions live together within a single and limited order, within which politics functions to adjust conflicts of interest. As we have already argued, the adjustment of interests conception is a limited and local view of politics, a view which is not even fully adequate to the small area which it does appear to cover. It omits the crunch of truncheon on skull which always lies just in the background of political life; it has no place for the shadow institutions which arise out of those inadequately characterized “interests.”
So long as these autonomous institutions—churches, sects, business companies, social circles, universities, local communities—retain their vitality, then the notion of balance can remain the presiding theory of British (and indeed all) political life. But the vitality of these institutions has long been under attack from a variety of forces and circumstances. The main circumstances have been war and industrialism. The main force has been the socialist version of liberal ideology. But the curious and significant thing is that the attacks on these institutions have been made in the name of society.
Why has society been preferred to the State? One minor reason has been that States have earned a bad reputation. They have always had a pretty bad name, except in times of nationalist enthusiasm. Besides, conservative critics of socialist planning like to build up the State as a frightening bogey, pointing legitimately enough at totalitarian States. By now, society has a much nicer ring about it.
Society, in any case, is a usefully vague idea. It has become a great causal rag-bag and hold-all, accommodating without protest virtually anything arising out of the communal experience of mankind. It is therefore a suitable term in which to dress the vaguest sorts of fancy; those projects which it would be preposterous to advance in the name of the State may be plausibly attributed to “society.” Thus wherever we come across statements suggesting that “society must act thus or decide thus,” the only meaning that can be attached to them is a political meaning. They are exhortations that the State should act in a certain way. What limited plausibility the use of “society” has in these cases arises simply from the democratic assumption that the indispensable prelude to any governmental act must be the support of popular opinion. And this, of course, is by no means always true.
Most conservatives are ready to accept the State as au fond a coercive organization which holds social life together. It includes the severe impartiality of the law and the sometimes brutal machinery of police, army, prisons, punishment and execution. It presents individuals with the choice of obedience or punishment. We cannot realistically consider the State without including some of these unlovely facts about it; but liberals have tried very hard to do so. They describe the State in terms of competing claims, maximizing happiness, provision of welfare, eliminating suffering and injustice. The State—all States—do actually carry out programs of this kind, with considerable variations from State to State, and from time to time. In so far as States behave coercively, however, the conclusion of liberalism is usually that they have failed. By the assumption of ultimate unanimity, and by that of the externality of causes of evil, liberals are led to believe that the coercive role of the State is necessary only because the State is inadequately organized. Now given the inescapably coercive and brutal conduct of all States at various times, liberal doctrines begin to sound unrealistic if they claim to be concerned with the State. And therefore it is much more convenient to talk about society.
Not, indeed, that liberals cannot deliver a sharp rap over the knuckles when they talk about society. Here, for example, is a curiously petulant passage from L. T. Hobhouse: “On the other side, the individual owes more to the community than is always recognized. Under modern conditions he is too much inclined to take for granted what the State does for him and to use the personal security and liberty of speech which it affords him as a vantage ground from which he can in safety denounce its works and repudiate its authority. He assumes the right to be in or out of the social system as he chooses. He relies on the general law which protects him and emancipates himself from some particular law which he finds oppressive to his conscience. He forgets or does not take the trouble to reflect that, if everyone were to act as he does, the social machine would come to a stop. He certainly fails to make it clear how a society would subsist in which every man should claim the right of unrestricted disobedience to a law which he happens to think wrong. In fact, it is possible for an over-tender conscience to consort with an insufficient sense of social responsibility.”6
In this remarkable passage, we have the other side of that spirit of liberalism which expresses itself in the abstract delineation of the compassionate spirit. Here we have “community,” “society,” “State,” “social system,” even the “social machine,” all mixed up indiscriminately together. Here, in the figure of the rascally critic who steps in and out of “the social system,” we have the liberal confusions about causation which we discussed on the issue of social commitment, which is both a fact and yet also an aspiration. And here also we have that curious moral criticism which is sometimes elevated into a moral philosophy: a concern with the consequences not of the act in question, but of the universalized act—the eternal complaint of angry headmasters crying: “What if everybody did it?” Which is, of course, not the point. For in the relevant situation, everybody is not doing it. And lastly, we have the mention of that sinisterly vague idea, a sense of social responsibility, which conjures up a future of sternly benevolent heads of organizations explaining to the errant subordinate the beautiful general ends of the particular system, which his deviations are selfishly threatening.
Thus our first conclusion about the uses of “society” must be that it is a way of avoiding talking about the State. Further, the reason why this transition takes place is the ordinary propaganda reason of confusing the implications of a political program. If political demands are advanced then they come from a determinate source and can be appropriately criticized. But the idea of a social problem appears to come from no particular location in society. It is a social incoherence arising out of an ideal; and this ideal can most persuasively be put in moral terms. For this reason, while it is absurd to talk of a “sick” or “healthy” or “decadent” State, we often find people applying holistic moral descriptions of this kind to society. Society as a propaganda term must therefore be conceived as an organism. The “real question,” in liberal terms, is “whether the social order actually serves our needs.”7 We have already considered the use of needs propaganda. Here we have illustrated the use of “needs” as something mysteriously outside the social order and acting as a moral criterion of the “social order.” But what is the “social order”? If “society” is simply the “complex of social relationships” then it is not a single manipulable order. In so far as there is a single order, then it is that imposed by the State and expressed in laws. Similarly, when we read that “the true nature of society” is that it is a “human organization for common needs,”8 we can only observe that a complex of relationships is not an “organization” at all—only the State and the institutions it sanctions are “organizations” in that sense. But it is precisely the aim of liberalism to make society into a single, complex organization.
We cannot understand the force of the liberal conception of society unless we understand the impulse behind it. As Lady Wootton formulates it: “The contrast between man’s amazing ability to manipulate his material environment and his pitiful incompetence in managing his own affairs is now as commonplace as it is tragic.”9 Well, contrasts depend upon our hopes and interests, but the point is clear enough. “Society” is man controlling his own affairs, consciously and deliberately. From the liberal uses of the concept a dream of controlled harmony begins to emerge. Such dreams have often been influential in human affairs.
In this dream, we find a single all-embracing organization in which each individual can find fulfilment and the completion of his own personality. We find a spontaneous moral harmony, without anything more in the way of dogmatic presupposition than is imposed by the guiding idea of harmony. This is particularly true in respect of sexual deviations; liberals are prepared to leave the question of homosexuality, for example, to one side, pending the advance of medical techniques. Science is expected to provide a progressive revelation by means of which we can construct such a harmony.
This ideal has no place for barriers between classes of people. It is hostile to social class, racial discrimination, and any kind of social differentiation, except in some cases a differentiation based on vocational ability. The pervasive emotion of the ideal is that of love, for love creates and is constructive, whilst hatred destroys and creates barriers. In some versions of the concept of society, loving seems to be an attribute of generic man. For hatred is taken to be an irrationality produced by mental illness and social circumstances; remove these and men will naturally love each other and behave considerately.
Some of the details of this picture emerge from descriptions of the concept of “mental health.”10 Many such definitions include the notion of inner harmony within the personality; most also use the idea of adjustment (especially “positive, emotional, social and intellectual adjustment”) to the individual’s environment. The fact that this harmony would be a system comes out in the frequent reference to function and role which is found in these definitions; it comes out even more strikingly in the references to efficiency: “. . . the end result will be an integrated, harmonious personality, capable of attaining maximum efficiency, satisfaction and self-realization with the least expenditure of energy and the least strain from interfering and conflicting desires and habits, and maximally free from serious inner strife, maladjustment, or other evidence of mental discord.” The conception of human beings functioning in a systematic organization is, of course, a mechanical one; and the careless inattentive reader of some definitions of mental health is likely to be brought up short by an eerie feeling that he is reading a disquisition on diesel engines. Particularly do we find this in the more extreme and optimistic views of mental health: “Industrial unrest to a large degree means bad mental hygiene, and is to be corrected by good mental hygiene. The various anti-social attitudes that lead to crime are problems for the mental hygienist. Dependency, in so far as it is social parasitism not due to mental or physical defect, belongs to mental hygiene. But mental hygiene has a message also for those who consider themselves quite normal, for, by its aims, the man who is fifty per cent efficient can make himself seventy per cent efficient.”
It is clear that this particular area of the social sciences exemplifies scientific moralism; that is, a moral and political movement advancing its banners under the camouflage of science. But, as we have argued, the claim to be scientific is a bogus one. The movement includes the metaphysical idea of generic man; and it depends for its incursions into ethics on the rationalist teleology of ends and means: “. . . actually many of the apparent needs of everyday life are, in fact, means dressed up as ends as a matter of practical convenience; they are logically derived from some much more general principle, which for practical purposes it is assumed that they will promote.”11 We have already dealt with many of the objections to this kind of argument; the main point being that where something is taken as both an end and a means, there exist (as a matter of social fact) two policies which determine its dual role. The scientific procedure here would be to discover and investigate these policies. The liberal movement, however, dogmatically classifies whatever it can as being “in reality” a means. In other words, it espouses one policy uncritically and rejects the other, whilst simultaneously confusing the issue by its claim to science. What we confront is a metaphysics of the familiar appearance and reality type, proceeding under a heavy smokescreen. Science is concerned with issues of truth and falsity, the liberal movement with an imperfectly defined conception of improvement or reform; and there is no necessary relationship between the desirable and the true.
The function of these ends-means arguments is to make the system flexible. What is “normal” or healthy must be able to fit into it without strain. But there are some classes of people whose behavior cannot be universalized to fit into the system called “society.” These people are called deviants or “social problems.” And since the system is itself a moral conception, though it tries to avoid seeming so, then deviants must also be morally significant. We have already argued that the conception of a social problem is strictly speaking meaningless. But it is made plausible by its moral content.
[6. ]Liberalism, 1934, pp. 149–50.
[7. ]Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, London, 1961, p. 104.
[8. ]Raymond Williams, op. cit., p. 112.
[9. ]Testament for Social Science, London, 1950, p. 1.
[10. ]A useful set of definitions of mental health has been collected by Barbara Wootton in Social Science and Social Pathology, London, 1959, pp. 219–224, where they are also discussed and criticized. The examples quoted here are taken from this source.
[11. ]Barbara Wootton, Testament for Social Science, p. 121. Cf. the note on Flugel above, p. 117.