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Month: March 2014

Introspection # 33: “A Society Without Government?”

Recently I was engaged in a discussion about utopian societies, and the concept of government. In purely utopian forms of some societies, such as a communistic society or a purely libertarian society, the “state” and government serves no function; they are to be done away with. Intrigued by the idea, I began to wonder whether government and governance is an integral part of the organization of humanity we call society, and whether they can be separated from that organization. I disagreed with the idea that government is not a fundamental part of society, instead arguing that it is society itself; it is the product of society trying to coordinate itself. There can be no large-scale society without government. To further expand upon those thoughts, I have presented my perspective here.

To address the issue, the concept of government must first be defined and analyzed. What is a “government” and what does it entail? At the present stage of human societal development, a government can be seen as an organization which oversees and coordinates the various aspects of society. A government’s purview generally encompasses the maintenance and oversight of the economy, legal codification and enforcement, the development of domestic and foreign policies, and the coordination of various sub-units of governance. Yet governance is not limited simply to these parts of modern society; governments frequently develop and promulgate social norms and standards, mobilize their populations towards some end-goal, and devise long and short-term strategies and objectives for the state. Of course, governments come in varying types and sizes: a “government” can, when seen as an organization coordinating the various social, economic, and political aspects of a group of people, range in size from the national, such as the United State’s federal government, to the immediately local, such as a school’s administration. The forms of government can range from the democratically elected, receptive to the public will, to the dictatorial, completely disregarding the populace. Regardless of their size and form, however, governments fundamentally serve the same functional purpose.

The crux of the issue that was debated, then, is whether these functions can be separated from “government” and instead be performed by an autonomous population? That is, does a society need a government; can the state “wither away”? There are two immediate concerns with this question. The first is whether a large grouping of people can effectively organize and coordinate to accomplish some goal without a governing body. While there can be effective coordination and cooperation between people at an immediate level, such as a group of friends pooling their resources to purchase movie tickets, organizing the purchase of those tickets, and then coordinating the get-together, the ease at which this can be accomplished becomes enormously more difficult as the amount of people participating increases. As more resources are required to accomplish a goal, as the flow of those resources becomes more widespread and efficiency in that flow becomes more pressing, and as more people need to be organized into units of labor and specialty, the complexity of the task of coordination and organization increases drastically. These are the functions which governments currently fulfill, and they are necessary for accomplishing any major endeavor. Can groupings of people operating autonomously and locally effectively fulfill those functions on a major scale?

It seems that the only way any local organization of people trying to collectively accomplish some major endeavor would succeed is by developing a way to coordinate, organize, and cooperate with all the participating organizations. Norms would need to be developed which dictate how a decision on how resources would be allocated and where energy would be directed; a way to enforce those norms would be necessary if efficiency was to be maintained in the effort. A necessary result of this is that hierarchies of power would develop; someone would necessarily need to decide that someone would be getting resources, for example, while someone else would not be. Someone would need to be the ultimate arbiter on how an effort would be accomplished. Otherwise, with all groupings of people operating with such an authority, disagreements on how to proceed or different approaches to an effort would doom any major endeavor.

If hierarchies of power develop out of the necessity for an authority to oversee an effort, and if a mechanism was needed to coordinate and organize all of the groups participating in that effort, some degree of institutionalization would need to occur. In order to ensure the effective continuation of an effort and the development of stable norms, some measure of rules and procedures would need to come into being for how the decision-making process occurs.

What we have, then, is a government. An institutionalized, or even only semi-institutionalized, unit which arbitrates on resource allocation and energy direction, which coordinates and organizes groupings of people towards the accomplishment of a goal, and which maintains the norms and standards necessary to effectively and efficiently accomplish that goal. Governance is manifest from the need to fulfill the functions which governments currently fulfill. Groupings of people operating autonomously would be incapable of successfully accomplishing the major projects of society; nation-wide efforts such as a military force, a space program, or national infrastructure would be impossible.

It is from this conclusion that the second issue with the question arises. Is government actually separable from society; is government not an integral and fundamental part of society? To address this, we need to first look at society. Society can be understood as a group of people sharing the same geographical and social territory which has, because of developments in political and/or social relationships through time, come to be characterized by distinct cultural norms and institutions. With this definition, we can consider any grouping of people who have their own morays, expectations, and taboos as a society. Yet while our “immediate” social groups have a daily impact on the goings on of our lives, it is the larger social group we belong to that has a profound impact on the development of our character. It is from these large social groups that our culture, and the associated norms, standards, taboos, and expectations, develop; this larger culture then serves as a framework for the development of “sub-cultures” within our smaller group.

This is done through the development of laws and enforceable standards of conduct, which necessitate an authority and an institutional means to enforce the laws. This is equally done through education and schooling, which, in order for society to remain cohesive on a large scale, would need some authority to maintain equal standards and curricula. Norms are only developed across a large and widely spread population when there is some distinct mechanism to connect those populations socially, and this mechanism can only effectively connect distant groups when there is standardization in its operation. That is, society only develops among a widespread population when there is something that can connect them all equally and in the same manner to produce the same standards and norms. In modern society, the institution of government serves that purpose, if not directly then at least indirectly by coordinating and standardizing the mediums which do, such as the media or civic organizations.

The breakdown or absence of government would entail the breakdown of large-scale society as we understand it. This is because government is a part of society; it is the seemingly spontaneous product of large groups of people interacting and trying to develop norms and standards. When viewed in this way, the entire question becomes moot. Government is not separable from society, as government is an integral part of society. If a society was to exist which did not form any sort of governance, with the institutionalization and the hierarchies of power which that would entail, it would need to be a society completely re-imagined and markedly different from that which we have today.

This is where utopian ideologies fall short. They envision a reimagining of the political and economic procedures of our civilization, while not delving deep enough into the reimagining of society. They fail to recognize that government exists as a result of society’s development, and that government is a necessary result of the need to coordinate large groups of people over large areas of space. There is the failure to equate autonomous groups of people coordinating spontaneously with each other to fulfill a goal with what that really is: a government.

Polybius on Roman Funerary Rites – Writing for a Foreign Audience

In Book 6 of his “Histories,” Polybius describes the funeral rites given to an “illustrious man” after he dies (Polybius 53). In doing so, he reveals the manner in which prominent individuals were honored in Roman society and how, through these honorific rituals and processions, the Romans maintained and perpetuated their esteem for the virtues of honor and glory. This particular discourse amply demonstrates Polybius’s character as a historian writing for a foreign audience trying to explain the unique aspects of the Roman state which contributed to its rise.

The structure of Polybius’s passage indicates that it was written for a foreign audience. He begins his discourse with an outline of Roman funerary rites procedures, detailing the speeches and funeral celebrations which would occur following a death of a prominent individual. Roman citizens, however, would have already be familiar with their funerary rites and would therefore have had no need for the description Polybius provides. As such, it is apparent from his elaborate descriptions that Polybius was writing for an audience unfamiliar with the particulars of such customs. He continued his passage with an analysis of the roles these funerary rites play in displaying and perpetuating the value of honor in Roman society. For example, he wrote that such rites inspired young men “to endure every suffering for public welfare in the hope of winning the glory that attends on brave men” (Polybius 54.3.)  Again, Roman citizens would have been familiar, either explicitly or implicitly, with the practical purposes that these customs served. Polybius’s analysis is thus more pertinent and explanatory when seen as being targeted at a foreign audience unaware of the purpose these rites served.

It is important to consider the historical circumstances contemporary to Polybius’s writings. Rome during that time was rising rapidly to a position of the primacy in the Mediterranean. In doing so, it was coming into contact with and dominating foreign peoples and civilizations, particularly the Hellenistic world. The people living under the recently-established Roman rule would undoubtedly have been curious about the character of the unfamiliar yet increasingly visible Roman state. Furthermore, they would have been interested in elements of the Roman character and other factors which explained Rome’s rapid and unprecedented rise, as well as their own conquest.

Through his explanatory analysis in Book 6, Polybius set out to accomplish just that. Indeed, he prefaced the book with such a justification for his work, saying “that readers of my work may gain a knowledge how it was and by virtue of what peculiar political institutions that in less than in fifty-three years nearly the whole world was overcome and fell under the single dominion of Rome” (Polybius 2.2.). An analysis of Rome’s institutions and rituals revealed the character of the Roman people, in turn explaining the success of their state. Polybius argued that Roman funerary rites reinforced and perpetuated the Roman esteem for honor and glory, qualities which powered the Roman drive for conquest, and it is thus no surprise that he chose to include an analysis of them in Book 6.

By justifying his work as being an explanation to readers for Rome’s unique political and social character and its rapid rise to eminence, Polybius was clearly targeting a non-Roman audience. Roman funerary rites are a significant enough part of that character to warrant Polybius’s inclusion of them in Book 6, and his descriptive analysis can be seen as most suited for an audience unfamiliar with them. A final aspect of Polybius’s work particularly reinforces this point: Polybius wrote in Greek instead of Latin. His work is thus clearly targeted at a Greek audience, an audience which, at the time of his writings, had recently come under the domination of Rome and would have been deeply interested in the contents of his analysis.

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