This slogan, coined by Shakespeare and popularized by Dumas in the Three Musketeers, illustrates how for thousands of years human beings (and some other species) discovered that through cooperation survival was much enhanced. Cooperation requires communication and many suggest that this was the stimulus for creating language. In any case cooperation still characterizes human existence. But cooperation requires a set of rules governing individual behavior, otherwise it could not effective. These rules and roles that accompany them are what anthropologists define as culture, and it has been chiefly the role of women to impart these rules and roles to the newborn infants so that the integrity of a given culture could be maintained. This also then gives a sense of security to the young members of a given society as they grow up in it, since they have learned how they are supposed to act in any given situation.
This process is vastly more complicated in modern large-scale society. There are no moral principles in capitalism, except for the search for money which allows one to enter the consumer paradise through the purchase of goods and services, or especially for men until recently, at least, to achieve status and power needed to establish their importance in society. As science and engineering became institutionalized in the past, moral values were considered to be largely emotional and believed to interfere with the objectivity necessary for a value-free search for truth. This, of course, is independent of what individual scientists and engineers believe now or in the past, as well as how they believe they should act morally as citizens. It is simply that science serves a different purpose in nature than it does in society. Mathematical relationships found in nature are believed to reflect some more or less deterministic natural law which must be respected. In society these mathematical relationships should lead to a judgement as to whether human beings find these relationships morally acceptable or not, and therefore to the possible need for a change in how society is organized in this respect. Some social scientists intent on establishing their reputation often ignore this important difference.
But as capitalism has no moral values on the basis of which to judge these findings, money and power provide the basis for this judgement. Those with more money simply impose their judgement on the rest of society, accomplished through various means either within or outside of the formal governmental institutions that are supposed to deal with such problems. In communist countries similar authority is given to party leaders, who theoretically, at least, base their judgements, as much as they can, on the interests of society as a whole. In any case all the world’s countries are now enclosed in a global system of relationships that neither capitalist nor communist societies, nor their leaders, can control in its entirety.
All of this points to an existential problem in the process of cooperation, which has to do with the relationship between the individual and the group. Individual initiative and creativity may be inhibited if the group is too repressive, which may have been one of the motives for people to leave their villages and move to cities up until now, whereas group survival may be endangered if individual behavior is not kept in accordance with the survival needs of the group. This tension is worked out in various ways, since both groups and individuals have survived for a long time, at least until now. Thus, freeloaders and thieves could be shunned by the group, or even expelled if their transgressions were too extreme, whereas excessive group repression would usually lead ultimately to revolution. At the same time, however, both groups and individuals change over time, often as a result of individual initiative.
As ‘groups’ have increased in size it has become more and more difficult for individuals to identify themselves as members of these larger groups and to realize that their survival depends as much upon the fate of these groups as it does on their own individual initiative. Thus, people have tended to remain in or create smaller groups, escaping from the predatory individualism that characterizes capitalism as a system, or the repressive collectivism that characterizes communism as a system. In these smaller groups trust plays a much more important role in their organization. This has been true of the Mormons, Mennonites and Amish in the USA for over two hundred years, as well as for the contemporary ‘Cultural Creatives’, discovered by Ray and Anderson (2000) in their research in the 1990s. It has also been true for the ‘amoral familists’ discovered in Sicily by Banfield (1958) in the 1950s, and/or for other ‘amoral tribalists’ still present in the modern world.
It is easier for individuals to understand the importance of cooperation in the entire group when they are in constant contact with all or most of the other individuals in the group. In larger groups, as when city-states or nations (and now the entire world) constitute the group, it is very difficult for individuals to understand this importance. This is especially true if their education does not provide the necessary knowledge for them to understand how the group organizes itself and therefore behaves as a unit beyond the individuals that compose it. Natural science has not helped very much in this regard because of the emphasis placed upon the atomic structure of nature, as Democritus, Newton and many other scientists have defined it. A more holistic framework, or paradigm as Kuhn (2012 )) defined it, and as structuralism understands it (Piaget 2016 ), could aid in leading to this broader understanding.
This understanding can also be aided by educational games which illustrate this phenomenon, such as the Community Land Use Game. This game illustrates how individual decisions over time produce an overall urban form which grants economic advantages to some of the players and disadvantages to others. Often all of this is a result of the pure chance, combined later with a certain amount of cleverness, surrounding certain otherwise uninformed decisions at the beginning of the game that can lead to these outcomes (not totally unlike the real world in this respect).
But who is now the individual? Already in 1886, the United States Supreme Court had given an answer: It is the now the multibillion-dollar enterprise! So, look no further. These enterprises are the ‘individuals’ in today’s capitalist society. Anyone smaller than that will sooner or later be either absorbed by one of these giant enterprises, or suppressed, if they are threatening to these giant ‘individuals’. This is a product of the new so called ‘individualist’ world that we live in.
Thus, in the world that exists today, both groups and individuals have become progressively larger over time. Group decisions at first were made more or less collectively when the groups were small: family, clan or tribal groups, in a process that we still today call democracy. But as the group size increased over time, moving up to city-states and nation-states, the danger of omitting important sectors of the group increased, now especially with the environmental crisis reaching all of humanity as the ‘group’ (Bruiger 2006, Critchley 2011).
Ancient Greeks tried to combat this tendency by replacing royal families and their castle and palace, as in Mycenae, with the agora, as in Athens, and through the establishment of democracy as a formal decision-making process. This was true, at least, for the men who were believed to be the only important members of society at that time. This gendered belief was equally true in the creation of democracy in the United States in 1789, where only propertied men were given the vote, and a system of electors added to ensure that the interests of these men would not be violated. The Greek experiment, itself, did not last too long, and democracy has been compromised ever since, even though the term has remained in our vocabulary as a cover for the actual class-based systems which have evolved over time.
What has not changed over time is the excessive need for power by certain insecure and immature, (especially male) individuals (Lukes, 2021, Solomon, et al, 2015). These men are driven by an exaggerated need for recognition by the ever-larger groups in which they reside, and which now include whole societies. The need for recognition, or what Abraham Maslow (1943) in his hierarchy of needs calls ‘esteem’, is normal, especially for men, who are essentially those for whom Maslow was speaking as a male scientist in a male-dominated social world at that time.
Meanwhile, at about the same time Margaret Mead (1949) had also published a book called Male and Female, in which she suggested that biology has an important effect upon this aspect of human psychology. This was true in the sense that the role of women was, more or less, highly respected and filled with esteem, because they were in charge of the reproduction of the species, as described above. Men could not claim this importanceand therefore could only be judged based upon what they did with their lives. This could be interpreted as their ability to change the world through their work by creating new inventions, new knowledge, new forms of organization, new systems, etc., or by exercising their power as human beings over nature and/or over their fellow human beings, especially over women if nothing else (Bruiger 2006, Ch. 6).
In the extreme cases of this need we find some men with an excessive need to exercise their power everywhere. They, therefore, have sought to dominate whole societies (Augustus Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, etc.), or at least parts thereof, in their entrepreneurial or political roles, in the infantile belief that this would somehow grant them immortality (Solomon, et al 2015). Many common citizens were happy to allow this exercise of power, since it relieved them of having to become informed and involved in the complex workings of advanced urban society. The earlier forms of overall democracy, used to organize smaller groups and their individuals, and where such men could be controlled by the group, could hardly survive under these circumstances.
Meanwhile, whole systems of thought have also been organized to label and justify the cultures that have evolved during this process of continual change. In Europe and elsewhere the class system of feudalism was legitimized by religion: kings and nobles ruled as dictated by ‘divine right’. As capitalism gradually replaced feudalism in Europe, religion could no longer be used as a form of legitimation. Here misinterpreted natural science, especially (Social) Darwinism, replaced religion as a legitimizing ideology, in a struggle that is still going on today. Capitalism emphasized the individual, as merchants and industrial entrepreneurs, and then financiers, gradually replaced feudal royalty with a dynamic new system of production and trade that greatly enhanced the lives of those who were able to benefit from it. Disadvantaged people, especially those of color, could also possibly dream about a time when they too might participate in this paradise of consumer goods. All this occurred without any overall image or plan as to the type of society that was being created by these individual activities, except the subsequent belief that the “invisible hand” of the market would ensure an ideal overall social outcome.
In time inventive individuals evolved into and/or, as stated above, were absorbed by whole enterprises, though individualism remained the motto. At the same time democracy became oligarchy, ‘rule by the few’ (οι ολίγοι), as the wealthy owners and executives of these enterprises created a class of people who exercised the power, inside and outside of actual government, that accompanied their increasing wealth. Nevertheless, the word ‘democracy’ is still used to describe this system. But at the same time these wealthy individuals were also cleverly providing a host of new consumer goods and an advertising, market and credit system that persuaded the people that individual consumption was the sole source of happiness and status. In time these deceptions, themselves, became more widely felt, however, even if not totally understood, with a resulting increase in drug and alcohol addiction, suicides, divorces, mental illness, violence, etc.
So how was cooperation accomplished in this new society based upon individualism? Of course, as societies grew in size and complexity whole structures or institutions were necessary to ensure that individuals conform to the demands of society and its need for cooperation. Specifically, an educational system was created, not so much to educate the young but to train them to fit into the social system. This social system was and is devoted primarily to growth or development, at whatever cost to nature and its human inhabitants. Students are trained, and adults persuaded by the system of mass media, to believe that a society that worships money as a source of happiness and of power for some individuals, at least, would, through the workings of the market and its ‘unseen hand’, produce the best overall ‘happy’ society. Philosophy was increasingly ignored in the educational system so that embarrassing moral questions would never be raised. In the university setting philosophy has become simply another specialization, a philosophy of this and a philosophy of that, no longer related to the overall search for wisdom as the Greek meaning would imply.
Meanwhile, large corporations impose cooperation as a requirement for employment and the income that accompanies it. Workers are disciplined to submit to the demands for profitability of the corporation and its place in the market. This place is now established through the stock market and the value of its shares. There is a whole system of speculation, supported by the state and the financial system to ensure that stock prices are always on the rise.
In the meantime, recently the production process has changed. It has become more and more automated through applications of technology. Production has also been transferred to third world countries where labor is much cheaper. As an abiding contradiction in the capitalist system this has reduced the purchasing power of the working class in the industrialized societies. Thus, the process of investment for profit has now increasingly turned away from production and consumption to speculation. Most financial companies that fail in this process, for example by holding too many unpaid loans, are ‘bailed out’ by the state. The people who owe these loans are, of course, never bailed out. This would destroy the discipline necessary to maintain ‘cooperation’. Only the banks to which the loans are owed are bailed out.
Many people are convinced that there is no alternative to this system and its imposed cooperation. But there are exceptions, especially among those who have been influenced by the analyses of Marx and Engels since the middle of the 19th century. These analyses have emphasized the importance of the group, now referring to and including society as a whole. These analyses have also emphasized the danger of the sometimes-unintended and often negative consequences of the emphasis on the ‘individual’ (enterprise) at the expense of the group in the evolution of capitalism as a system.
These people, influenced by Mark and Engels, are called communists, because of their concern about the community as a whole, or socialists because of their concern about society as a whole. From the beginning, they have sought a greater involvement of government in the organization of society, an involvement designed to address the injustices and inequalities that entrepreneurial individualism had created. They seek to increase the existing government involvement that has already created free education and health care in some countries, as well as other free or inexpensive social services found in the countries that have been influenced by these more holistic thoughts. They have also sought to correct the contradictions discovered in their experience with the realities created by an overemphasis on entrepreneurial ‘individualism’.
In fact, there has been a worldwide movement to create a wholly different form of society, based upon the ideals of socialism, led in large part by Russia, following its overthrow of the Tsarist government in 1917. Marx and Engels and their followers believed that socialism was an automatic likelihood because of the failings of capitalism. Like other deterministic social theories based upon natural science ontologies, their expectations have not been truly realized in the years that followed (Silber 1994).
The transformation of feudalism into capitalism was a slow painful process that took several hundred years, during which power and wealth were being transferred to a new ruling class. This transformation was not accompanied, especially at first, by any overall concept or plan as to what was to be accomplished by this movement. Later thinkers, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo and their more recent followers, have provided a theoretical and ideological framework for the new society. Any transformation from capitalism to socialism is and would be equally, if not more, painful, especially for the more privileged members of capitalist societies, and especially if the new ruling class were actually to become all the people themselves, as the word democracy has always implied.
The special case of Russia was complicated by the fact that it was essentially a feudal society trying to transform into socialism without passing through the intermediate stage of capitalism (Silber 1994). It was also confronted by a pending brutal German invasion that would ultimately claim at least 23,000,000, mostly civilian, lives, or nearly half the total number of causalities in the Second World War. This created the need for Stalin, at first and in a very short time, to build an industrial base far to the east near the Ural Mountains, in order to hopefully survive this invasion. This gave him little time to negotiate this transformation from feudalism to communism, along with central planning, with the former privileged class of feudal lords. It also promoted his authoritarian personality to impose the new system on all individuals who might object to this transformation, for whatever reason, often by sending them to concentration camps in Siberia where few survived.
After the war Stalin insisted on a buffer zone of countries in Eastern Europe to be under his jurisdiction in order to protect against the hostile attitude in the West. This attitude was first observed in the United Kingdom by Thomas Paine as early as 1790, in the prologue to the French edition of his book, “The Rights of Man” and confirmed again by the McCarthy witch hunt against ‘communists’ in the USA in the early 1950s immediately following WWII, as well as by the previous German invasion, of course. This buffer zone created a whole new class of enemies who objected to Russian control. These countries, as well as many Russians themselves, came to oppose the nondemocratic central control that Stalin felt necessary in order to create a system concerned with protecting the interests of society as a whole. This was especially true when common people observed that this nondemocratic system was not very efficient at providing the goods and services necessary to everyday life in any system. These people also noticed the creation of a new privileged class of government officials who exploited their positions to gain access to those goods and services not available to common people. In other words, individualism reared its ugly head, undermining the efforts to create a new form of socialist society.
All of this has little to do with Marx and Engels, those implicated as responsible for these shortcomings. Small scale societies were more or less democratic in their decisions about how to best facilitate the cooperation necessary for survival. The enormous changes in scale, and the necessary specialization that has accompanied these changes, has complicated greatly the process of balancing the relationship between the individual and the group. Adam Smith and his followers (and mis-interpreters) have simply ignored this complication by assuming that as long as independent individuals are pursuing profit in their activities, somehow the unseen hand of the market would ensure that the best overall outcome for society (the group) would result, depending upon how one defines ‘best’, of course. The misguided certainty about this is also portrayed as the ‘end of history’ by some of the followers of Fukuyama (2021).
But the dilemma of the individual in relation to the group remains, and the future will disclose how it will be resolved. We do probably agree that monstrous multibillion dollar enterprises as individuals, and dictatorial central governments as the group, have both proven inadequate to this task. Indeed, power does corrupt! This is especially true in the context where the actual group, in the face of possible climate change and environmental destruction, now includes all living beings.
Perhaps we should return to the ancient Greeks who confronted this transformation to larger scale communities in the city state. They, with Solon’s and then Cleisthenes help, created a democratic system to cover the 40,000 citizen- member city state in Athens around 500 BC. But to accomplish this they had to discover a way for all citizens to be represented when they could neither fit in the Agora nor be willing or able to enter the discussions necessary to constitute a true democracy. What the Greeks then created was a system of participation in which a random statistical sample of the population would be chosen from time to time to participate in a democratic discussion in the Agora on how to solve the actual problems of society at that time. This sample would change over time so that more and more people would actually perform this democratic duty and become familiar with, and feel involved with, the complexity of society at that time.
They also created a sophisticated piece of technology, the Kleroterion, to select randomly the representatives for any given discussion. The word ‘kleros’ is derived from the Greek word ‘κλήρος’, or lottery, as the system of random selection was called at that time. This selection process guaranteed that the sample chosen would represent all strata of Greek society at that time, from wealthy to poor, excluding women and slaves, of course. However, slaves who were, in any case, mostly prisoners of war, but who had bought their freedom, as in the case of Plato, could be chosen.
There is now a worldwide effort to re-establish this form of what is now labeled ‘deliberative democracy’, with actual or virtual ‘town meetings’ of randomly selected participants to discuss important political issues outside the usual corrupted political process that characterizes existing ‘democratic’ political systems (Fiskin 1993, 2020). There is also a You Tube presentation (Ast 2019), which is very informative in this respect.
Obviously, there is much dissatisfaction with existing political systems throughout the world. Neither the ‘group’ nor the ‘individual’ is secure under these circumstances. Let us hope that human ingenuity will once again find solutions as they did in ancient Greece and as current innovators are now trying to accomplish with ‘deliberative democracy’.
Banfield, Edward (1958), The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. New York: Free Press
Bruiger, Dan (2006), Second Nature: The Man-Made World of Idealism, Technology, and Power.
Critchley, Peter (2011), The Coming Ecological Revolution: The Principles and Politics of a Social and Moral Ecology. ResearchGate
Fiskin, James S. (1993), Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
________________(2020), Democracy When the People Are Thinking; Revitalizing our Politics through Public Deliberations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press
Fukuyama, Francis (2021) The End of History and the Last Man. Ropely, UK: John Hunt Publishing
Kuhn, Thomas (2012 ), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Lukes, Stephen, 3rd Edition (2021), Power: A Radical View. London: Red Globe Press
Maslow, Abraham (2017 ), A Theory of Human Motivation, Hawthorne, CA: BN Publishing
Mead, Margaret (1949), Male and Female: A Study of Sexes in a Changing World. New York: William Morrow & Co.
Piaget, Jean (2016 ), Structuralism. London, UK: Psychology Press
Ray, Paul H. PhD and Sherry Ruth Anderson (2000), The Cultural Creatives: How Fifty Million People Are Changing the World. New York: Three Rivers Press
Silber, Irwin (1994), Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Sources of the Socialist Crisis. London, Boulder, Colorado: Pluto Press
Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski (2015), The Worm at the Core: The Role of Death in Life. London: Penguin Books