“There is no such thing as society”

“There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Margaret Thatcher

The odd thing about people who think “there is no such thing as society” is that in order to think that, they must ignore a reality as omnipresent in their lives as the sky above and the earth below:  Namely that our species lives in groups.

Or put more precisely, they must ignore the utterly obvious fact that we are a social animal.  Perhaps only someone who, like Thatcher, had a political and ideological motive great enough could deny a reality so obvious.

Don’t believe anyone who says, “There is no such thing as society” who is not a hermit.

27 thoughts on ““There is no such thing as society”

  1. Hmm. Individuals and families. So no such thing as political parties then? Governments? Immigrants you discriminate against? The old British upper classes of inherited wealth, mere literature, the queen and her lords and ladies? The poor of Charles Dickens’ tales, pure fiction I suppose? Other social groups? And, what exactly do the fields of sociology and anthropology study? The air? Oh, my, Margaret, you ARE the village idiot.

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  2. I have my tea every morning from a cup that says ‘I still hate Thatcher’. That old bag was responsible for too much misery. Remember the miners and the hunger strikers?
    I think her (and Reagan’s) love affair with ‘the individual’ and deregulation are the source of the economic woes of todays world.
    Old battle-axe.

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  3. I agree entirely with you on this one. And one must remember just what Mrs Thatcher did to her society by acting on those beliefs. I remember and I wouldn’t want it to happen to any society.

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  4. Good morning.

    It will likely be helpful, if not entirely useful, to offer the benefit of Thatcher’s full quote in this matter:

    “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

    That quote was part of an Interview dated September 23, 1987 and published in “Woman’s Own” that October, 1987. The original context was a remark on “people constantly requesting government intervention”, and is usually quoted out of context.

    The sentiment and wording resembles a quote from libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick (qv).

    To wit:

    “There is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more.”

    You can learn more here, possibly for a more accurate perspective:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Nozick

    Do it!

    Thatcher was a bitch. But, Great Britain needed just that view of the world to walk alongside the United States in the ’80’s. I suspect I’ll come under fire, here, in-and-amongst these comments, for this statement. But, I’m going to duck it, for now, and work-through potential issues around that quote.

    Cork

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  5. Thanks for the nod Mr. Costopoulos.

    And, I’ll have to agree. My advancing position in this matter is that Thatcher, indeed, paid an enormous toll in the call of duty to her country. She is, oddly, reviled by many that might not understood that she did what was necessary to reignite a decidedly blown English economy. Much of europe, in general, will acknowledge her early role in the establishment of the euro (common dollar). Most Brits don’t like it. But, it helped stabilize many emerging nations – especially old Eastern block. It gave them a fighting chance. It also gave confidence to countries on the fence over NATO. Ultimately a stronger, possibly unified Europe (economically speaking) eroded Moscow’s confidence, and ultimately East Germany. Thatcher could easily have asked Gorbachev to : “tear down those walls”, but she let Reagan do it.

    She was as much about duty and sacrifice as Churchill. In fact, she drew on memories of his days in office to fuel her own resolve never to allow Britain see such dark days again.

    Cork

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  6. Interesting how Wikipedia now suits you as a quality source Cork…

    Being as I’m a little young I don’t have much experience with Thatcher. But I would say I think Governments needs to play a stronger role in society than she does. I don’t think I would agree with all that she did but she did help England through the 80s.

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  7. I think what Thatcher, and others, are trying to say, here, is that there is no independent being that can be called “society.” Society, or government, does not have a mind of its own, does not initiate any actions on its own, in fact, does not even exist on its own. Both are a creation of the individuals that make up such a group and only those individuals within the group perform actions and are responsible for those actions. Czechoslovakia did not create a totalitarian society, individuals within Czechoslovakia created and tolerated the creation of a totalitarian society. Their president, Vaclav Havel, told them so in his New Year’s Address to the Nation at Prague, January 1, 1990 (“The Art of The Impossible,” by Vaclav Havel) He stated, “When I talk about contaminated moral atmosphere, . . . I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unalterable fact of life, and thus we helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all–though naturally to differing extents–responsible for the operation of totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim: we are all also its cocreators.” When you make something outside of yourself responsible, you give up the power to change it.

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  8. I disagree that societies can be reduced to individuals. That notion seems to me to ignore the many emergent properties of societies — such as government and science.

    It’s all very good to say that individuals make up society — provided you don’t really mean it. For societies have properties not found in individuals. For instance, individuals do not have governments, social classes, or even science, among other things.

    To say societies can be reduced to individuals seems to ignore the emergent properties of societies.

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  9. Acknowledging the young master Webs:

    I’ll often use and reference Wikipedia as a relevant source. I believe it’s well regulated and accurate. An equalizer, if you will.

    With regards to Thatcher helping England through the ’80’s… Well, that was both her job and her passion. Let’s not forget she was re-elected time and again. I may have something of an advantage here, if not perspective, in that a significant portion of our family hails from Birmingham and London. Both sides of Parliament are well represented at our dinner tables!

    Acknowledging Paul Sunstone:

    Think in terms of “one man, one vote”. Thatcher always did. And, I think leguru is seeing this. I’ve read Havel’s: “The Art of The Impossible”. It comes from direct and bitter experience. Thanks for sharing leguru. It rounds this matter out nicely.

    Cork

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  10. Paul:

    I’ll submit that the word: fallacy may be subjective. But, this is, after all, your Blog.

    Thatcher always humanized the citizen’s role in a civilized government. She witnessed as well as lived the agony of the average British citizen emerging from the 2nd World War. That drama aside, she understood the country could only come back into the light through individual sacrifice. And, she encouraged, enforced and exemplified what it took to realize clearly stated goals and objectives.

    Thatcher held parliament accountable. She counted every pence. She led by example via prudence and fierce loyalty (to her countrymen and national allies).

    To be specific, Thatcher understood that every citizen had to be informed on all the topics. Parliament was expected to drive initiatives that benefitted a people that now had a kind of scienter. Everyone needed to be accountable. Hers was a government for the people. And, the people’s voice’s were clearly heard throughout the government.

    Everyone was involved. The english society was as strong as it’s weakest link.

    Even the British athletic machine was afire with world champions abounding and represented across boxing, soccer, track and field, etc.

    The result was unprecedented prosperity for the next twenty five years. This was the ideal of government going back to earliest civilizations.

    One man, one vote, and we can realize virtu.

    Cork

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  11. @Cork

    She didn’t help Britain through the 80’s. She ruined the place. She set a match to Northern Ireland and she destroyed whole mining communities. We’re paying for the old cows ideology today with the collapse of the banking sector due to deregulation.

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  12. Good morning Stephen.

    The deregulation element reflects many a view of Ronald Reagan as well, eh?

    But that comes from people that failed to regulate themselves and use prudent decision-making in their own finances. Having stated this (on this Blog in particular), I’m heading into one of my other offices to pull an old lacrosse helmet off of the trophy tables!

    Meanwhile, I’m doubtful Thatcher “set a match to Northern Ireland”. She may have held a match up, along with an arched brow. But, that place was it’s own powder keg. And, her’s was a focus for all of the United Kingdom.

    I’ll commit to research the mining communities concern. But, my instincts cry a kind of unions system. And, I’ll never condone that. I may be on the wrong track with that. So, please correct me the effort suits your own senses.

    Each national leader faces a unique set of circumstances and challenges.

    Cork

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  13. Cork, I think you are defending Thatcher’s political record rather than her puzzling notion that “there is no such thing as society”. You’re free to defend her political record all you want, but I myself am not interested in her political record.

    As to her notion “There is no such thing as society”, it seems to ignore the fact human social groups have emergent properties. I might — might — be able to see how she could reduce societies to individuals if human social groups failed to have emergent properties. But the fact they do have emergent properties seems to render her notion problematic.

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  14. That’s fair Paul.

    I’ll add that Thatcher took the position that there can be no society without the individual (obvious). And, she counted on the individual to hold themselves accountable first, as an example, and the formative elements of a platform from which a stable society could work and grow under the right rules, laws – and, then governance.

    Does that help?

    Cork

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  15. Unfortunately, Cork, it is well known that without set rules, in any human situation, the individual tends to run out of control. It happened with Big Finance after deregulation and with many other concerns. There needs to be a balance between regulating and individual impulses and greed for money or power.
    A whole social environmemnt can be sent askew by one individual if that group does not have built in safeguards. The same is true about tightly reined in individuals who find themselves in a more liberal environmemnt.
    To be a society, you need rules otherwise chaos ensues and you have a jungle. Individuals make a society…but that society can make or undo an individual when there is no checks nor balances.
    That Thatcher did not understand.

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  16. Paul:

    I would submit that Thatcher was the Subject Matter Expert on that very line-of-thought.

    However, allow me to make a dignified retreat here. And, let’s holster our pistols, and agree to disagree.

    But, as the master of free enterprise, and thus, capitalism at it’s best, himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, once said (while in disguise and with tongue in cheek): “I’ll be back” for future posts.

    Cork

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  17. Dear Cork, I’m canadian and we, canadians, do not carry guns. So I very peacefully agree that we may disagree.
    As for Arnold, he has driven California into bankruptcy, his school system is in disarray and he can not pay his civil servants. bad example.

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  18. Well Paul… I’ll imagine that if Arnold could realize his previous role as the Terminator he could solve many of those problems by removing the primary cause from flooding over his southern most borders.

    But, he did an admirable job for himself, as an immigrant, in demonstrating how the (imperfect of reliable) model of capitalism can work. He worked hard, built enormous personal wealth, and then went to work to (keep building himself) make California a better place for everyone (including those other visitors). But, even Conan the Barbarian can’t stand against the enormous horde of humanity pressing down upon him and California’s infrastructure.

    I lived in Southern California for eight years, and was a first-hand witness to the epic drama that still, has no foreseeable solution

    Cork

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  19. Accord.

    They’ll certainly prove useful as a “border-buffer” against encroachment if and when we’re referred to as The United States and Mexico.

    Cork

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  20. Thanks to the one who posted the full quotation. I’d always wondered what it was in context.

    It changes the meaning…a little. Nozick’s libertarian view is still the foundation view, and it is shared by right-wing libertarian phastasists and fans of Ayn Rand everywhere. It’s basically an a-historical view of contemporary society that takes no account of how we got to where we are, and assumes it does not matter.

    I’m always boggled that anyone can take this view seriously. It’s good for trying to stump people in a debate, but it makes no sense and has no explanatory power at all. Sure, indivdiuals act, society does not act, except through individuals. Okay, but we all know that the group, or society, in which we live has a lot to do with how we act. It’s sort of…uh…obvious.

    So, it must be that this collective entity that has no reality, society, is significant in some way.

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  21. I hope all we individuals are what makes a society, because if there’s no such thing as society, I’m going to have to find something new to blame for all I feel is wrong, lol.

    I believe a society is a group of people who need someone to blame for their apathy.

    It’s a large group of people who prefer to shame, blame, and make excuses, rather than act responsibly, by doing something about the things they complain about.

    Therefore I fit into society very well, lol.

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