The idea that society is ordered from the top-down originated from Thomas Hobbes’ seminal 1651 book, Leviathan. And this idea still resonates strongly today: we agree to a social contract in which we give up some of our freedoms to the state, in the hope that it will ensure order and our protection. Yet here, Gary A. Fine discusses why Hobbes was mistaken to think that order must be built vertically, and instead asserts that we should look to our local groups and communities to order society, and drive us towards a more just world.
Edmund Burke, the profound English political theorist, noted in his Reflections on the French Revolution:
"To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind."
Revolutions, democratic transitions, or conspiracies by shadowy elites all have their basis in little platoons. If we examine the genesis of the First World War, the French Revolution, the Civil Rights movement, or the stable governance of a small farming town, we find a set of tiny publics, perhaps working together or engaged in conflict, that create the basis for political action. Change is possible because of joint political projects.
A shared politics, so crucial in democratic theory, exists because friends can choose to merge their interests and their costs. Governments, communities, and institutions build on the activity of their tiny publics. People see the world in much the same way as their close associates, whether or not they hope for the same future. We do not live with millions, but with a few, and they influence how we see the world.
How social relations shape our views and attitudes
The American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey famously claimed in The Public and Its Problems that “the intimate and familiar propinquity group is not a social unity within an inclusive whole. It is, for almost all purposes, society itself.” Dewey argued that local relations constitute society. For Dewey, in democracy the ear is more powerful than the eye. Personal connections trumps what any individual can perceive. As Dewey tells us, “Vision is a spectator; hearing is a participator.” Few individuals comply with moral demands out of pure conscience, absent of the support of colleagues.
The presence of what is variously known as group cultures, micro-cultures, or idiocultures reveals how interactions and institutions operate through the common recognition and intersubjective experience of participants, but this depends on shared action. It is by recognizing the importance of performance in everyday life that Erving Goffman speaks of the “interaction order.” Goffman writes that
At the very center of interaction life is the cognitive relation we have with those present before us, without which relationship our activity, behavioral and verbal, could not be meaningfully organized.
We act together because we think together, and we think together because we act together. By participating in this interaction order, group members treat their association as stable, ongoing, and influential. Further, this stability depends on memory as based in ongoing connections. Culture is not merely cognitive but is revealed in action.
Goffman argued that we build society through a tacit agreement to create order because we use past interaction as a model for the present. As a result, the establishment of comforting interactional routines generates trust, and this trust can apply personally or through institutions. The interaction order allows us to embrace social organizations from the dyad to the globe and from the bedroom to the state.
Affiliation need not stop at the boundary of interaction but can extend to other groups with similar character. We often consider ourselves members of a set of groups, creating a social category from an array of micro-cultures. When this broader affiliation is established, actions, such as voting, contributing, or demonstrating, generate deeper and more consequential commitments. While such connections initially benefit a tiny public, they are subsequently tied to a desire to shape a “good society.” However, good societies depend upon good groups – groups that are virtuous and groups that are effective. This social imaginary is based in a belief that the strong ties of family and friendship can be extended, creating voluntary communities. This is true even if the community has internal splits or disputed boundaries. Dispute may be an expected part of a group culture, rather than a basis for exit, as long as participants feel that there are issues that are worth disputing over.
How social relations shape the grand political narrative
Sociologists often trace their discipline to the 16th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who, perhaps to his surprise, is said to have provided the discipline’s core challenge. Hobbes proposed that without limits on rival personal interests, the security necessary for routine tasks would be absent. Hobbes famously writes that
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man... wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is... no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
In such dire circumstances, how can orchards be fruitful, libraries filled, villages peaceable, and people die in their beds? Hobbes’ solution to a world of uncoordinated interests is a world of control, with authority given to the Leviathan, an “artificial” or corporate person. Society is organized either from above, or from within. He dismisses the latter, posing a world of solitary self-interest against a world of central power and surveillance. Hobbes presents a choice without a middle. Both individuals and institutions lack self-governing social stability. However, he is mistaken; democracy exists and self-determination is possible precisely because of this middle – a world of tiny publics.
Order can be built horizontally, not only vertically, and even vertical control depends upon the existence of groups at each level of authority. Oppression relies upon interactional routines as much as democracy. In contrast to Hobbesian red-in-tooth-and-claw individualism, a local approach builds security and routine. The first place to search for a haven from turmoil is within the small communities in which one participates.
We lose the recognition of how political systems operate in practice when we erase social relations. Society requires a mesh of groups, a world of crosscutting dialogues. Social media, with their strands of “friends,” reveal the importance of affiliative ties even if these ties never involve face-to-face interaction, once considered to be the bedrock of the social sciences.
In praising the illuminating insight of thinking of tiny publics, treating it as a hinge that connects persons and institutions, I hope my argument provides an opening to the importance of local spaces of action. However, we must be cautious. While recognizing the power of equality, we must not be blind to the presence of inequality. Leaders may treat their members as equals, such as when all are treated as citizens with equivalent civic rights in a state or society. It is also the sour case that rarely do individuals or groups have equal access to resources, advantaging some groups in attaining their goals. This advantages some groups while disadvantaging others. Conflict and control are eternally contending. We must ask how tiny publics can gain authority to make a case for the rights of all of their members. At issue is not how civil societies should operate, but rather how they do operate as interactional orders that depend on social ties. We have the responsibility to critique our politics and the ways in which some groups remain disadvantaged.
Still, democratic society operates by groups mobilizing themselves as the sources of commitment, and through groups, whose targeted commitment to particular civic projects demonstrates a generalized commitment to the existence of the political process. To be sure, the characteristics, motivations, and goals of these tiny publics are highly variable, and each must be considered in light of those institutions and publics that surround them. Some bridging publics strive to incorporate pluralistic perspectives, while in other cases, the boundaries are more tightly patrolled and the character of the group is more homogeneous.
The public sphere is a realm of local action, and without this recognition, the linkage between individual and state is uncertain. While theorists have the right to ignore the granular conditions of civic participation, for citizens themselves that linkage operates up close. Civic affiliation becomes real through families, classrooms, clubs, social movements, union locals, and political campaigns. The presence of like-minded others creates the collective representations on which institutions depend. Belonging to a political system is not merely an idea but depends on action. Citizenship develops from the reality of the interaction order.
The idea of the citizen in a legitimate political system, whether supportive of the status quo or in revolt, depends upon the idea that one is not alone. Patriotism is not an individual feeling but assumes the presence of others who are similarly inclined and share that feeling in sites of collective activity. It is a group emotion that is often linked to times and places of collective commemoration. These can be private locations, such as holiday celebrations, or occasions in which groups of families and friends share a space and a beer, such as at patriotic fireworks. Because one experiences common emotions and a belief in a linked fate, one is not alone, but belongs to a group with similar memories and futures.
However, simply believing that one citizen is like others is insufficient. The creation of sets of relations, constituting social capital, reflects the existence of a community of others with whom one is in common cause and with whom one can work, building what one cannot create alone.
While I have defended the virtues of tiny publics, let us not assume that all groups provide equally effective conditions for generating public engagement. Some societies operate with robust and lasting groups, whereas elsewhere, perhaps because of distinct styles of interaction, levels of surveillance, or forms of social control, local participation may be truncated. If we treat the properties of tiny publics as variables, we can compare networks of tiny publics of nations and regions, creating a comparative meso-politics.
Ultimately, individuals become part of political systems not through the system as such, but because others who are perceived as similar surround them. Places for interaction reduce the need for a single over-arching Leviathan and support a belief that we can solve our own problems democratically. A commitment to local action becomes a commitment to a just world.