Why is society power

Society: The fiction that makes us human

It is one of the most frequently quoted sentences by the conservative icon Margaret Thatcher: "Society - there is no such thing," said the British Prime Minister in an interview in 1987. "There are only single men and women and their families."

Decades later, the quote is more controversial and relevant than ever. In the corona pandemic, everything seems to revolve around society and its supreme steering instrument, the state. In the interest of the community, millions have to forego work, entertainment, regular education and even social contacts, while the state replaces lost income and provides a livelihood for more and more people.

At the same time, thousands take to the streets every week because they do not want to subordinate their personal freedoms to society. And in a silent rebellion, according to a survey by the University of Vienna, around 40 percent of the population cannot be tested at all, although free Covid tests are offered everywhere. It is less important to them that they endanger their surroundings.

How many do not adhere to the corona restrictions is unknown; the increasing numbers of infections indicate that a significant minority does not want to submit to these social constraints either. Thatcher's maxim applies to them: We are all individuals; Society - there is no such thing.

Strong solidarity from Millennials

Mind you, it's a minority. The sense of community is particularly strong among younger people, says the cultural scientist Judith Kohlenberger from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, in her volume of essays We also deals with such questions. "It is said that millennials are increasingly individualized and are primarily looking for self-optimization," she says. "But in responding to the pandemic or in the Fridays for Future movement, we see strong solidarity and the need for community."

This attitude of the younger generation gives cause for optimism. Because as important as personal freedoms are, without a solidarity society there would be no human civilization and probably no humanity at all.

The tension between the individual and the collective is as old as history. And the same problem has arisen since the beginning: as individuals we really exist, but society is a fiction.


The Israeli historian Yuval Harari has in his world bestseller A brief history of mankind described how Homo sapiens was only able to survive despite all the physiological disadvantages through cooperation in the group and then spread across the globe. The most important tool for this goal is language, and its main function for Harari is gossip, which welded people together emotionally and enabled the formation of groups that exceeded the usual herd size of around 50 animals.

But even more important is the ability of language to create fictional ideas and myths that people really believe in. Only "the ability to create a reality with mere words makes it possible for large groups of complete strangers to work together effectively," says Harari, describing the force that gave rise to tribes, cities and peoples and ultimately empires with an increasingly complex division of labor.

Same rules for everyone

Society is an illusion, but one that has conquered the world. Once it was mainly the common belief in a higher being or the godly rule of a family that led people to submit to the will of a community, today it is above all laws on which every political order is based.

The nation-state that emerged in the 19th century was particularly effective in this. The US political scientist Benedict Anderson coined the term "imagined communities" to explain the origins of nations. For him, anthems, flags and national museums were just as important as ministries or the military, so that millions of people put aside the pursuit of their own individual advantage in the interest of the community - keeping the streets clean, paying taxes, fulfilling contracts and, if necessary, going to war .

Because only on the basis of violence and fear of punishment, no community can function in the long term. What is also needed is the trust of the individual that the other knows, accepts and usually adheres to the same rules.

Confess or be silent

Game theory describes this challenge in the famous thought experiment of the prisoner's dilemma: two men are convicted of a minor offense and suspected of a larger crime. They are interrogated individually and given the choice of confessing to the crime or keeping silent. If only one of them confesses, it goes free.

If they both remain silent, they will only receive the mild penalty for the known offense. If you see yourself as a community with common interests, mutual silence is the best option. But if even one of them doesn't, he'll confess and gain a short-term advantage no matter what the other does. A purely individual perspective leads to both being sentenced to longer prison terms.

This applies to all forms of human coexistence and explains why some states work and others fail. In countries where there is a lack of trust in society, the state is usually too weak to enforce compliance with the rules. Taxes are hardly paid there, and corruption is flourishing there. There is then a lack of roads, schools, hospitals and security - everything that the political economy calls public goods.

Where social solidarity is lacking, the family usually takes on this function; there people stand up for one another. But the image of the family as the nucleus of society, which Thatcher once conjured up, is deceptive: If only one's own relatives are looked at, the common good becomes all the more the prey of rival particular interests. Family is valuable, but society is necessary.

The market needs rules

The primacy of society only apparently contradicts the individual pursuit of profit as the decisive driving force in the market economy. Because capitalism in particular needs a strict set of rules that everyone adheres to so that it can actually create prosperity. A market only works if there is legal certainty and therefore strangers can also be trusted.

Without the collective power of a society that provides public goods, individual pursuit leads to destructive anarchy. And it is precisely in business that collective fictions are crucial; Otherwise there would be no companies and corporations in which thousands, often tens of thousands, of employees work productively together.

Climate protection as a public good

The most important public good at the moment is climate protection: it depends on the behavior of each individual whether greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced quickly enough - but only if this happens collectively and worldwide. As soon as you notice that others are not participating, the incentive to trade responsibly disappears. This is just as true within a country as it is on a global level.

But if the others do their part, individual citizens or states have the opportunity to do a little less themselves without being harmed. You become a free rider. The greater the number, the more the chances of success in achieving the climate goals dwindle. The hope of creating a global sense of community for this global crisis in order to overcome individual interests has so far remained unfulfilled.

The fight against the corona pandemic also suffers from this free-rider problem: While social solidarity predominated a year ago, today many people have lost their interest in it. "Look at you" may still pull for most people, "Look at me" much less so. "Solidarity needs trust, and trust is mutual," says Kohlenberger. "If I see that my neighbor is not obeying the restrictions and is not wearing a mask, then I will wear a mask much less often."

Beyond the national feeling

The cement of society has always changed over the centuries. Because that, too, is one of the strengths of the fictional reality that the human brain produces: It adapts to changed conditions within a very short time.

Until the time of the Enlightenment, there would have been no social cohesion that would have worked beyond a village community without the firm belief in divine laws and the divine right of monarchs. With the French Revolution, nationalism took on this task more and more. It was often associated with racist attitudes and aggression against outsiders.

Since the Second World War, at least in Western Europe, the traditional national feeling has lost its importance. According to the trend radar of the Austrian Armed Forces from 2020, only 29 percent of the population are ready to defend their homeland against a military attack with the weapon; even among men it is only 42 percent.

Solidarity has taken other forms. It is not yet particularly pronounced within Europe, as shown by the many conflicts in the EU over financial aid, the admission of refugees or now about vaccines. In return, the definition of society - who belongs and who is outside - is much more open today than it was a generation or two ago, says Kohlenberger. "Over time you can see that the Austrian 'we' tends to open up. That Muslims belong to us today would have been seen differently 50 years ago."

Contact is crucial

The cultural scientist emphasizes that personal contacts with people who are different are decisive for creating a new sense of community, referring to the contact theory from the 1960s. That is why solidarity at the regional level - for example in the state or in the village - is often stronger than at the national level.

"But even in the smallest area, from village to village, there is a mechanism of demarcation from the other. Personal exchange is powerful," says Kohlenberger. The goal of a tolerant social policy must be that demarcation does not result in exclusion.

The other expectation of a modern society is that, in addition to solidarity, it also strengthens the freedom to shape life as you see fit. Unlike in the past, nobody in Western Europe prescribes how to dress, what to believe in or how to shape partnerships and family life. Where it does not affect the interests of others, individualism is given more and more space.

At the same time, however, the boundaries to the other are drawn closer and certain social rules tightened again - as the current debate on identity politics shows. But it is precisely this transnational movement that makes it clear that the definition of society is no longer tied to national borders.

We know less and less what society actually is. We only know that it is changing rapidly. (Eric Frey, March 27, 2021)