The Breakdown of the Social Bond: The Important Difference between Small, Stable Communities and Large, Anonymous Cities

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was a great admirer of Friedrich Hayek, who, together with Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand, were the four neoliberal nitwits who were chiefly responsible for the spread of the false doctrine known as free-market capitalism. In 1987 she declared,

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.[1]

Thatcher’s declaration that “there is no such thing as society” is nothing more than free-market nonsense, which, as is true more generally of all economic doctrines, is based on the false belief that human beings are rational and independent decision-makers and actors who are not influenced by the things they see and hear of other people doing. This view clearly puts it completely at odds with the Theory of Imitation, and therefore it is wrong. Contrary to Thatcher’s mistaken opinion, in addition to its members, a society consists of all the bonds that connect, along with the models of behaviour that are practised by, the members of a group of people who know each other well from having lived together for a long period of time, thus ensuring the survival of their customs and their particular way of life. So, for example, the monks who live in a monastery form a cohesive society that has its rules and customs, which rules and customs may endure for many centuries in an unbroken succession, being preserved and transmitted from older monks to younger monks, both by example and precept.

During the course of the twentieth century, what happened worldwide was a mass migration from rural areas,[2] where most people lived in small, stable communities where the inhabitants knew each other intimately, to densely populated – and largely anonymous – urban areas, where it is impossible for a person to know all the other people who live there. Today, this process of urbanization is ongoing, and is especially visible in poorer countries where industrialization arrived later than in wealthier countries.

It was the advent of industrialization, which made many traditional occupations inefficient and therefore obsolete, thus making it impossible for those who owned no land – and even for some that did – and hence depended on their labour for their sustenance, to survive in rural areas, that forced many people to leave their traditional homelands, where their families had often lived for generation after generation, and migrate to cities in search of work to feed themselves and their families. And thus were destroyed both the cohesive social bonds and the models of behaviour that kept these small societies or communities together prior to the Industrial Revolution. In the anonymous cities, the rural migrants encountered a gaggle of unfamiliar people who did not behave in the familiar ways which those they had left behind behaved. This was both bewildering and frightening, since the absence of these bonds permitted some of the city dwellers to do things, such as depriving another person of one’s belongings or even one’s life, that are much less likely to occur among a group of people who have grown up together and know each other well.[3]

In a small, stable community, if one does a favour for someone else, there is a good chance that that person will later reciprocate. So, for instance, if person A helps person B harvest one’s wheat, then person B will probably return the favour in some way later on. Or if one family gives food or clothes to another family following a poor harvest or during a sickness to one of the adults in the family, then, if the second family is able to do so, they will likely repay the favour in the future. But in a populous city, such reciprocations are less likely to occur because the bonds that connect people together are weaker or don’t exist. So if person A performs a favour or generous act for person B, one may never see that person again, or even if one does, person B may not feel the obligation to reciprocate. These bonds are weaker in a city due to the simple fact that people do not see each other with the same regularity that people see and meet each other in a small, stable community, such as those in which the great majority of people lived just a few centuries ago.

In the absence of the cohesive, reciprocal, social bonds that exist in small, stable communities, a different kind of social exchange became the dominant model. This exchange was based on money, which is anonymous in the sense that each piece of money is perfectly interchangeable with another piece of money of the same value. In addition, money serves as a store of the labour that one must provide in order to gain the ability to acquire the products and services one wants and needs. In a sense, this displacement of the warm, reciprocal bonds that exist in stable communities, where everyone knows everyone else, with the cold, anonymous bond of money makes sense since money, like most of the relationships on which city dwellers depend for their survival, is a purely anonymous form of exchange.

In a small community, all exchanges are personal and specific in the sense that if person A does a favour for person B, person B can only repay the favour by doing a favour for person A, and not for anyone else. But in a monetary society, which all large societies are, at least in modern times, person A may receive money from person B for one’s labour, and then give this money to persons C, D, E, F, and G for a variety of products and services that one wants and needs, such as food, rent, clothes, books, cars, transportation, entertainment, and so forth. Moreover, the relationship between these people usually terminates with the completion of the exchange, except in cases where the purchased item is defective. One may shop at the same large grocery store for many years, but one would not expect that, having fallen on hard times, the store owner would temporarily give one food to eat in return for one’s many years of loyal patronage. But in a small community, each exchange, favour, or act of generosity strengthens the social bond that connects two people together, so that, if one person falls on hard times, one could ask the other person for help to tide one through and, moreover, could expect that that person would indeed help one.[4] In many cases, one would not even have to ask, because the other person, seeing or having heard that one is in want, would proffer the aid without the needy person having to make the request.

In her statement, Margaret Thatcher both failed to differentiate between, and at the same time confounded together, these two very different social entities – small, stable communities where everyone knows each other, and large, anonymous cities where this is not possible. In the space of a few short sentences, Thatcher managed to contradict herself because of her strong admiration for the false theory of human behaviour presented by Friedrich Hayek and other free-market economists, namely that human societies consist of independent rational individuals who only or primarily interact with each other through the marketplace. If, as she peremptorily declared, there is no such thing as society, that is, if there are no cohesive bonds of concern, shared values, and resemblances, whether physical or behavioural, that connect different individuals with each other, then why on earth should we “look after our neighbour”, as she urged her fellow Britons to do? And why is it true that most people care more about the many strangers who live in the same society as they do than about other strangers who live in distant lands? Thatcher failed to realize that the logical conclusion from her denial of the existence of society, which means, according to her, that there exist only “individual men and women” and “families”, is that these individuals have absolutely no reason to care for anyone else other than themselves and their families. In other words, if “there is no such thing as society”, it follows that governments are even more necessary to help those in need because there is no one else who will do so, since there exist only individuals who only care about themselves, and perhaps their close kin.

It is precisely because the strong social bonds that exist in small, stable communities are lacking in large, anonymous cities that it is necessary at times to provide help for those who are in need, an important task that, in many countries, has been assigned to the government, whose programs are financed by the collective contributions of those who work, spend money, and pay taxes. This is all the more true because, following the free market dictum that it is better to specialize and depend on others for the many different things we need in order to survive, rather than produce ourselves all the things we consume, as was formerly done by the great majority of people a few hundred years ago, a person who cannot find work in one’s area of specialization, which today often requires many years of study and experience to master, is unable to earn a living, except by doing simple types of repetitive or physical labour, which, however, do not provide the same level of remuneration.

There is another important fact that emerges from this consideration of the important difference between small, stable communities and large, anonymous cities: the common belief that human beings are selfish and think only of themselves is only or primarily true of those who live in large, urban, and anonymous agglomerations where the dominant form of social interaction is based on monetary exchange. In other words, selfishness is not an innate part of our nature, as many people mistakenly believe. This is clear from the fact that, even in the anonymous cities where more and more of the world’s human population lives, within one’s circle of family and friends, that is, with those people one sees regularly, knows well, and feels affection for, most people try to maintain the bonds and models of behaviour that exist in small, stable communities where everyone knows everyone else, and in which our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands or millions of years before their modern descendants moved to cities. In these more intimate confines, it is usually considered an insult or a social blunder if one were to offer money to a friend or family member in return for a favour or act of generosity, such as helping a friend move or inviting them over for dinner, for such favours and acts of generosity can only be repaid in kind.[5] Among their family and friends, most people try to preserve the intimate social relationships that are not based on monetary exchange, in imitation of the dominant form of social exchange that exists in the small communities in which our ancestors lived and evolved.

The conflict or tension between these two fundamentally different models of social relationships – the one based on monetary exchange that ends with the exchange, and the other based on reciprocal favours and generous actions that in most cases do not end with the performance of the reciprocating act but instead are strengthened by it – explains in part why there occur disagreements between friends and family members about what they expect from the other person. This is because we are sometimes unsure about which of these two models of behaviour applies to a given situation, or we mistakenly apply one model in the context of the other. A person may feel betrayed by a friend or family member if the other person behaves in a manner that is more in accordance with relationships based on monetary exchange, rather than the other kind of relationship, which is not based on monetary exchange. Another common reason for these kinds of disagreements is when, after having performed a generous act for someone, one feels that the other person hasn’t reciprocated, or hasn’t reciprocated adequately.

Companies, producers, and store owners want to maintain the sort of loyalty on the part of their customers that characterizes the close non-monetary relationships that exist in small communities. Hence, besides sales and special offers, they may offer additional incentives to entice customers, or try to create a sense of warmth or friendship that masks the essentially commercial nature of the transactions. Besides deceptive advertising, cheap merchandise, and bad customer service, this is another reason why some customers are angered at what they regard as a betrayal of their loyalty when they believe they have been badly treated: because they were led by the company, producer, or store owner to believe that their relationship was more than just a cold, calculated, monetary exchange.

Although it would be an overgeneralization that is not true in all cases, the goal of the many attempts to fashion a different kind of society from capitalist society, which is based primarily on monetary exchange and is presently becoming dominant all over the world, is to recreate, sometimes on a large scale, such as in the case of communism and socialism, the sort of warm, intimate, reciprocal, and caring social bonds that exist in small, stable communities where everyone knows everyone else. Some examples are communes, fraternities, and other groups where the members have sought to dispense with money in their interactions with each other. The reason why these attempts often fail is because many of the members have grown up in populous societies or cities where the dominant model of economic exchange is based on money, and so they tend to revert to these behaviours over time.

The problem, however, is that it is simply not possible to recreate these kinds of communities on a large scale. Contrary to Jesus’s exhortation to love everyone, including your enemy, most human beings are not capable of feeling warmth and affection for those whom they don’t know well, which explains why Christianity has failed to bring about the radical improvement in human societies that its followers had earnestly expected from their blind faith in Jesus’s divinity and teachings. Today, large urban agglomerations of millions of people exist all over the world, in both rich and poor countries. In those agglomerations where the government does little or nothing to help those who are less fortunate, one sees many instances of poverty and want: those who have had the misfortune to become the anonymous faces in a place where they have no one to care for them, thus painfully illustrating the breakdown of the social bond.

[1] Women’s Own magazine, 31 October 1987.

[2] In Western countries like Great Britain and the United States, this rural exodus began earlier, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily as a result of the industrialization of production processes, especially in agriculture.

[3] Of course, the mere fact that two or more people know each other well is no guarantee that they will like each other and get along, since even family members who have lived together for many years can sometimes dislike or hate each other. In making these generalizations about the differences between small communities and large cities, I am not overlooking the fact that discord, enmity, and hatred can also exist in small communities.

[4] In small, stable communities, it is fairly common for shopkeepers to give or lend food and other necessities to their long-term customers on credit when the latter are in need and unable to pay.

[5] Parents who pay their children to perform household chores, or later charge them rent for room and board are not necessarily bad or selfish parents. In a sense, they are trying to teach their children the important lesson that, outside the intimate and nurturing confines of the family, where things are given freely without expectation of return, the dominant form of social exchange is based on money.