Whoever first started talking about “society” as a “system” has a lot to answer for. The notion that society functions automatically, that dysfunctions can be repaired, externalities absorbed and crime and corruption recycled seems perfectly suited to put people to sleep, precisely when system failure starts to set in. After all, nothing that seems to be happening (whether it’s a decline in productive investment, an uptick in crime, outrageously irresponsible political posturing, riots, protestors calling for dead cops, politicians warmly greeting those protestors, dead cops) can really be happening—it all really is being blown up by the media (itself a familiar part of the system), or activates some reparative mechanism in the system that will restore some pre-determined balance. This way of thinking encourages more irresponsibility—after all, if nothing can really go wrong, what difference does it make how I go about getting my piece of the action?
There is no social “system.” What “system” can, on occasion, serve as a useful shorthand for, and more often serve as a misleading obfuscation of, is the ever emergent articulation of millions of agreements, tacit and explicit, long-term and short-term, some firm and some flexible, between individuals and communities (usually represented by selected individuals). This also means that there is really no such thing as “individuals,” except insofar as individuals are created by those agreements, as a partner in them. Modern individuals are simply those who participate in so many different agreements that they can’t be reduced to or made utterly dependent on any one or few of them. Every gesture any one makes, any word any one speaks, affirms, revises, subverts, rebels against, opts-out of, disputes the terms of, one or more of those agreements.
All that is fairly obvious. Much less obvious is how high faithful participation in social agreements must be in order to ensure that the more fundamental, tacit and long-term of all those agreements remain in force. To take a simpler question, just to use as a model: in a single neighborhood, containing, let’s say, 50 families in 50 houses, how many of those houses must become sites of criminal activity before a critical threshold is reached at which families begin abandoning, irreversibly, the neighborhood, leaving it to be taken over completely by criminals and those with nowhere else to go? How many houses would have to be given over to immoral, if not criminal, activity (parties going all night long, female led households with revolving door boyfriends, a strip club opening up, etc.)? It is very hard to be precise here, but the answer is certainly: very few.
I’d say that 3 houses gone bad is enough to get the ball rolling. On the other hand, the second makes the third more likely. We’re dealing with a version of what philosophers call the “heap paradox” here—when does a few of some item become a stack, become a pile, become a heap? Which pebble started the avalanche? It’s easy enough to see that thinking in these terms would lead to a very “Puritan” approach to social relations. Now, think about how much of the popular culture of the West of the past 60-70 years has busied itself with protecting the inhabitants of those first few houses gone bad, presenting them as victims of a hypocritical puritanism. I too imagine that I prefer today’s hedonism, but that doesn’t change the fact that the wager upon which consumer society depends might very well be a losing one: We (i.e., those who make consequential decisions) can release more and more people from their tacit and explicit obligations, thereby benefiting from the subsequent wealth generation and upward flow of power, because enough consumer goods will be spread around to keep enough people working and enough people passive.
The wager seemed reasonable enough at first: people can now have things they never had before, like homes, and things that never even existed before, like cars and TV sets. All they need to do is show up to work 40 hours a week. Most people accepted the deal. But here we are confronted with the heap paradox: how many is enough? New possible arrangements appear as alternatives: work less, live with less; demand more, hold the system hostage; exploit grey areas in the new set of agreements; make work out of undermining other industries (class action lawsuits, environmentalism, etc.). It doesn’t take much for things to start to fray. It’s no coincidence that, even setting victimary discourses aside, the most consistently stereotyped figure in contemporary culture is the middle class white guy who goes to work, tries to satisfy his wife, get some respect from his kids, and enjoy some leisure. What a sucker! A buffoon—a loser. It’s starting to look like fewer men are signing up—how many would be enough to make a difference? The heap paradox again.
Here’s another paradox, one that I think could be considered a sociological law (I wish I could run it past Durkheim): by the time enough people agree that the more fundamental, tacit and long-term agreements can no longer endure to begin to restore those agreements it will be too late to do so. Maybe this is just a law of civilization, which requires that we not look too closely that those fundamental, tacit and long-term agreements. But that agreement will still be worth arriving at—something always has to come “after.” Those who have arrived at that agreement can, at least, accustom themselves to a bluntness that will seem a bit barbaric to those who think their local agreements guarantee civilization because they are the people who really count. In other words, if the game is over, there’s no point to playing it. Those no longer playing can recover old vocabularies and generate new ones. To refer to my previous, maybe somewhat barbaric, post, a little (mostly indirect) debate on National Review over how far responsibility spreads for the murder of two police officers in Brooklyn is interesting. The more libertarian and “moderate” want to insist that it would be very wrong to consider anyone other than the killer himself responsible. Even if everyone is shouting “kill him,” that is, at a cornered man, only the man who throws the first stone is guilty. (A terror of mimetic contagion motivates this attitude: the same fear upon which modern leftism is based, that the normal is really a barely repressible insatiable appetite for scapegoats.) But Andrew McCarthy made some fairly obvious counter-arguments, using terms that people don’t seem to be very comfortable with anymore, like “incitement.” If you lie (or acquiesce in lies) about specific events (say, what happened in Ferguson) in order to create a bigger lie (that whites in general, and white cops more specifically, are deliberately targeting young black men), and people draw the obvious conclusion that we need to “fight back” against the police, and then, at the end of the chain, a few people shoot at actual police officers, I will say you have blood on your hands. And I will say that anyone who associates with you has a little bit of that blood on their hands. And I will refuse to have dealings with anyone with that blood on their hands (thereby doing my little bit to restore some frayed social agreements). And if that proves impossible—i.e., if there aren’t enough people to vote for, work for and with, listen to, learn from, be friends with, etc., who haven’t signed onto the blood libel—well, what we have then is a heap.