IdleTheory The Individual and Society

Society as Super-organism

In its biological speculations, it is the general argument of Idle Theory that unicellular organisms combine to form multicellular organisms because the economies of scale and other benefits enjoyed by multicellular organisms result in a more idle life for their component cells. If this were not the case, and multicellular organisms were generally less idle than independent individual cells, the multicellulars would break up into a dispersed cloud of unicellular organisms.

Exactly the same argument is used to explain the formation of human societies. Economies of scale, divisions of labour, shared knowledge, and other benefits of cooperation all serve to make life within the body of human society easier than life as an independent, autonomous individual. If this were not the case, human societies would dissolve into a cloud of independent, autonomous individuals.

Organised human society is thus a kind of super-organism, composed of human 'cells'. As in multicellular organisms, these individuals perform specialised activities which in many ways reproduce the specialised cells and organs of the human body. Some perform the tasks of supplying food, water, clothing, shelter. Others store, transport, and distribute these various tools using a network of roads which resemble the blood vessels of the body. Others are concerned with the maintenance of health, the disposal of waste, the maintenance of order. And others still, as government officials, are concerned with the overall command and control of societies. Still others, perhaps religious authorities, are concerned with the the long term goals of human society.

Within this society, individuals almost always work on behalf of other people. Knifemakers do not make knives just for themselves, but mostly for other people. Bakers do not bake bread just for themselves, but largely for other people. Truckers do not carry around their own personal possessions, but those of other people. Lawyers do not argue about their own disputes, but those of other people. Government officials are not concerned with regulating and commanding their own lives, but those of other people. Working within society, individuals are almost never doing what they personally want to do, but almost always what other people want done.

But no person is continually working in society on behalf of others. When the bakers shut down their ovens, and the truckers park their trucks, and the lawyers take off their gowns, and government ministers climb into their limousines, they all go home and become autonomous individuals doing what each wants to do, rather than what others want them to do. They talk, play games, watch television, or whatever else amuses them.

Thus in their busy time, people are members of society, working on behalf of others. And in their idle time, they are autonomous individuals, doing whatever they feel like doing. And thus the individual and society alternate in time. Each person alternates between busily working within society in some specialised task, and idly doing whatever each personally wants to do.

the alternation in time of the individual and society

The extent to which a person is an active member of society or an idle individual depends upon the overall idleness of society. In the least idle societies, people spend the bulk of their time working within society, with little free time in which to act as autonomous individuals. In the most idle societies, very little time is spent working within society, and most people are idle autonomous individuals, doing their own thing.

Yet the distinction between the individual and society is not always entirely that of the idle and the busy. Outside of their social role, people may be busy performing work on their own behalf - for example cooking, eating, washing.

Working in society, people live public lives that are open to social scrutiny, criticism, reward and punishment. As autonomous individuals they lead private lives which are almost entirely beyond scrutiny or criticism, except where their activities have adverse social consequences.

From Totalitarianism to Anarchy

In the busiest or least idle societies, most people spend most of their time working in society on behalf of others. In such societies individual self-expression is largely suppressed, and people live regimented lives within a social command structure. They are totalitarian societies in which almost everything anyone does is by commanded by others, and in which indolence, nonconformity, and disobedience are intolerable.

As social idleness grows, with new technologies and techniques, more and more idle autonomous individuals emerge as the demands of society diminish.

In the most idle societies, socially necessary work dwindles to such an extent that most people spend most of their time as autonomous individuals. Work, conformity, and obedience become intolerable.

The nightmare of a totalitarian society in which all individual self-expression is suppressed is really nothing but the dread of regimented and indoctrinated low idleness society.

The nightmare of complete anarchy in a high idleness society is the dread that nobody will do what little work needs done, and of the consequent collapse of society.

The individual and society do not exist in opposition to each other. Society exists in order to increase the idleness of its members and therefore to generate autonomous individuals. And from the point of view of society, idle autonomous individuals represent a pool of unused labour that can be called upon in an emergency. The opposition of the individual and society is more apparent than real, and grows from the opposition of idleness and busyness: of idly doing whatever one feels like doing, or industriously working within a command structure on behalf of other people.

Human society is not a super-organism with its own 'higher' agenda, separate from those of its constituent members. Rather it and all its organs exist for the sake of its constituent members, just as a multicellular organism and its various organs exist simply to feed and house its constituent cells.

The Individual and Society

The individual and society pull in opposite directions. As idle individuals they act according to their own will. As busy members of society they act in accordance with the demands of other people in the society to which they belong. A baker baking bread is not acting according to his own will, but in accordance with the need of others for the bread he bakes. After hours, when the bakery is closed, he does what he himself wishes to do. In this manner each man alternates between being an idle autonomous individual attending to his own wishes and impulses, and a busy and obedient servant of society, attentive to the needs of others.

And the extent to which he is either a busy member of society, or and idle individual, entirely depends upon the degree of idleness of the society to which he belongs. In the least idle societies, men spend the greater bulk of their time acting in the service of others, and under the command of others. In the most idle societies, they spend most of their time doing what they themselves wish to do. The tension between the individual and society is the tension between idleness and busyness, as the two states between which men alternate.

This tension might underpin the politics of Left and Right. The Left might be described as being aware of the necessity of work, and the social nature of that work, and the need for an equal distribution of the wealth - idleness - that this work generates. The Right, by contrast, might be described as being aware of the individual freedom that idleness or leisure brings. The Left sees the products of society's work as being the necessities of life, while the Right tends to see such products as being luxuries and amusements which don't need to be distributed equally. The Left tend to see human life as all work to produce the necessities of life which must be shared out equally, and the Right tend to see human life as all leisure, and the products of work as so many enjoyable pleasures of one sort or other, which there is no need to distribute equally. Both Left and Right recognize important truths. A balanced view would incorporate both.

If the extent to which men's wills are bent in service of society corresponds to the busyness of that society, then in the busiest of societies, whose idleness approaches zero, men act most perfectly in the service of society. However, zero idleness is also the threshold of death, both for individuals and societies, and so at the extreme where men act exclusively in the service of society, such societies are moribund.

If human history has largely been one of kings commanding the fealty of their subjects, and priests commanding their adherence to law, very often in the most intimate details of their lives, it was because such societies were very busy. Totalitarian societies are essentially busy societies. The emergence of democracies, and of individual emancipation from servitude, has been a consequence of rising social idleness.

Some political thinkers - such as Hegel - have suggested that individuals are the most free when they act in accordance with a general social will. If this is so, then this is readily achieved by decreasing social idleness, and leading humanity towards death and extinction at zero idleness.

The same thinkers have often said that it is within society that human beings find meaning. It is not hard to see why they should think this way. In a time of war - which is one of extreme busyness - otherwise idle societies will organise themselves into armies, with extensive chains of command, in which everyone has a role to play, and where all pull together in concert. Very often old soldiers look back at times of war as ones in which there was an intense sense of camaraderie and united social purpose - one which largely evaporates when wars end, and the armies disband, and the chains of command dissolve. They often have a hankering for the simpler and uncomplicated and comradely life of a soldier. Sometimes this expresses itself as a wish that peacetime civil society should be organised along military lines, and civilian armies be raised to build houses, lay roads and railways, and attend to the ordinary matters of everyday life with military discipline. But it is in the inherent nature of war that men only act with discipline so that they made be later freed from discipline. In fighting wars, men seek to maintain or improve their lot, and to enjoy the spoils of war. Once the war is over, and peace returns, the need for discipline vanishes, and a general indiscipline prevails. Only generals like Alexander wanted to continue fighting unending wars - war for war's sake -, but his army eventually mutinied: his soldiers had no wish to fight continuous wars.

And while it may be true that men find meaning and purpose in their lives while striving together in armies, it is a meaning and purpose that is supplied to them by other people. It may be harder for idle individuals to find purpose and meaning in their life, out of their own resources, but it is by no means impossible. Part of the difficulty may simply be that in busy societies, it is society which tends to be highly structured - and therefore to provide meaning - while individuals are generally disorganised. But there is nothing to prevent idle individuals from forming free associations with others - in things like fooball teams and chess clubs - which provide new meaning and significance in their lives, as they win matches, and prizes and accolades. If such amateur societies are not highly developed in modern society, it is largely because such societies are generally too busy to allow them to flourish. For such associations need fairly large amounts of idle time in which to form and grow and flourish. All of which is to say that there are many other ways in which individuals may find meaning and purpose in their lives other than in service of society as soldiers or bakers.

Progress in human civilization is from busyness to idleness. In economic terms, this means increasing prosperity. In moral terms, it means increasing freedom of choice. And in political terms it means the emergence of idle and free individuals from hitherto busy and constrained societies. In busy traditional society, everybody had their place in the scheme of things, and found their meaning in their work, and, lacking the time to think for themselves, had their moral and political thinking performed for them by authorities of one kind or other. But as social idleness grew, and the need to work dwindled, their place in a hitherto seemingly fixed scheme of things became uncertain, and their work became increasingly transient and meaningless, and, given time to think, people began to think for themselves, and to question authority.

Modern totalitarian impulses grow out of a nostalgia for uncomplicated traditional society, in which everybody knew their place, and in which dissent was almost entirely unknown. Modern totalitarianism attempts to reconstruct a lost traditional society, by restoring central authority, suppressing dissent, and keeping everyone fully employed. But if social idleness continues to rise, this attempt to recreate traditional society is doomed to failure. The resulting totalitarian replica is a kitsch parody of genuine traditional society, in which the appearnace of tradition is restored, but not the substance.

Such totalitarianism runs counter to the long term trend of human society to increase social idleness. It is not so much that totalitarianism is a future threat, but that it belongs to the past. Human history is almost entirely one of totalitarian societies of one sort or other, far more complete than any modern replica, in which relatively free societies - such as the Greece of Socrates and Plato - were temporary exceptions, islands that poked their tops above the sea. Human societies are only now gradually emerging from the totalitarianism of traditional society.

Although the long term trend in human society is one of increasing idleness, there have often been periodic falls in idleness. In such times, as idleness falls, societies will tend to become increasingly authoritarian, even totalitarian.

The Emergence of Idle Society

Long term rising idleness acts to fragment traditional working society, and undermine established authority. Attempts to restore traditional society fail. Policies of maintaining full employment are abandoned. Instead of trying to keep people busy working to generate material wealth, policy priorities shift to maximizing idleness.

The result is that hitherto highly busy and industrious societies slow down. Real social idleness rises as fewer goods are produced, and most people are largely unemployed. the material standard of living - as measured by number of material possessions - falls. People have much more leisure time, but relatively few goods. Whereas before people would work 5 or 6 days a week, they now work one or two days a week. Shops close, and traffic vanishes from the streets.

Extremes of material wealth would almost certainly largely vanish, and a rough equality of social idleness emerge.

With the primary economy occupying only 10% of society's time, most new economic activity appears in the secondary economy of luxuries and amusements. The very high availability of leisure results in very cheap labour. However, since there is no necessity for anyone to work more than 10% of their time, they are able to bid labour prices upwards.

In some ways this is the description of a classic economic slump, with large lay-offs. However, in a classic slump, many people have no work, and consequently no money to buy the necessities of life, and so the slump brings insecurity and suffering. But if work in the primary economy were rationed, all should be able to find employment sufficient to acquire the simple necessities of life. The result would be that most people would live largely idle, but secure lives.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 17 Sep 2003
Last edited: October 2007