Up

SAINT-SIMON : THE ORDERLY SOCIETY

 Paul Vinit

 

If the modern world tries to adhere to the maxim of a place for everyone and everyone in his place then one of the thinkers to blame for the effort is Saint-Simon (1760-1825) Believer in capitalism classlessness, the power of science but at the same time the pre-eminence of the passions. He brought into modern consciousness the notion that society can be orderly that there need be no irreducible conflict between the personal and the impersonal Everyone’s nature could be fully realised within a suitable social role, including of course an appropriate sexual role When each person fulfils his nature in a social role commensurate with it all conflict evaporates Saint-Simon is one of the irresponsible optimists for social roles are never natural At best there is an approximation to a person's “nature” in the social role they fulfil. Further what we inherit from nature does not define us. What I am is a composite of what I have been given and what have made of that endowment. Nevertheless, there is simple common sense in the idea of a degree of harmony between my "nature" and my social role. If I am tone deaf I am unlikely to fulfil the role of entertaining people by singing. But that society can ever offer me a place for which nature has formed me is an illusion. There is no such perfect match between genes and the social. 

Society, to distort Emerson, is always in conspiracy against me. It always wishes to cut me down to size, to make me fit. It wants me measured. Yet because society is made for masses it can never be made for me. Discrepancy between my individuality and my social role is inevitable. Nor is my social role "natural”. What is society? The sum total of the relations into which people enter in order to fulfil ulterior ends. But how are the ends chosen? If by a powerful elite, why should there be any necessary consonance between their purposes and mine? If by a democratic collectivity, the same reservation applies. There can never be a complete agreement between person and society because society is not personal. It is not the dictates of nature which are expressed by society but human purpose. Now who is to say that the purposes of society, any society, are bound to be in agreement with my nature? Is it not just as likely that the disagreement between the two is absolute? A person who is not in conflict with society, to at least some degree, is an automaton. Every live person must struggle to shake off the demands of society. Between individual and society there can be no absolute peace, except in the death of individuality. 

If society is to force me to fulfil a role in its purposes, then it is better that the force be conspicuous than that there should be a pretence of willingness, agreement, co-operation, association. It is better both for society and for myself that the coercion be acknowledged. We need you to lay bricks or deliver letters or perform appendectomies or wait on tables and we are going to force you to do it. So be it. I will go along so far. I will perform a function to which I do not have too much objection. But do not suppose I do it absolutely willingly. Do not overlook my recalcitrance for it is there that you will find my being, my individuality. Let me be as willing as you like to wait tables there arrives, all the same, a point at which my willingness and society's demand grate against one another for society does not want me; it wants merely my function. Society has no interest in the personal except to obliterate it. Society is pure ulteriority. When we submit to society we renounce what we are for the sake of what society might be. But the ulterior purposes of society can never be our own. As persons we must live personally. But what can society make of me as a person? It has no interest in what I am personally, it wants me only to lay bricks efficiently, to deliver letters promptly or to fill shelves competently. 

What serves nothing but itself is what makes me authentic. Whatever serves ulterior ends is redolent of unreality. Saint-Simon is the enemy of the personal of the real. He would have us all reduced. Do you work in a bank? Then you are by nature a banker. This is your reality. Yet how can the reality of a human being be reduced to mere function? Any person of spirit, any alive person will kick against such a reduction. When activity is mere function then the authentic individual will hate it. To be done with impersonality of function and to return to the reality of the personal, to be impatient with work that is mere work, engaged in principally for wages or for the tawdry reward of status; to want it finished, dispensed with after a minimum of effort so that the life of the personal, the true life can resume its course: that is the attitude of any person of real spirit, of independence, of any alive and authentic individual. 

Social orderliness, the smooth, organised, co-operative society of Saint-Simon is a living death. It is a society of cockroaches. Only when function is relegated to at best a secondary status can society give adequate space to the personal. The cost may be social disorder but, to stand Goethe on his head, it is better to have disorder than injustice. Orderly societies destroy the human spirit. Discrepancy is freedom. Yet my freedom depends on others. Even Defoe had to grant Crusoe his Friday, but not for friendship. Crusoe had to teach his man what English society demands of him. The apparently self-reliant Crusoe is in fact a slave. On his island he cannot meet another human being and be glad. He cannot make a friend. He must try to form an English gentleman. Crusoe needs Friday for society for the pursuit of ulterior purpose. As my freedom depends on others I must not abuse them, but I do not have to agree with them. I do not have to submit to society I must keep my distance. Much of what society demands may be foolish. If society tells me to pursue wealth and celebrity, I scoff at it. If society tells me to respect people because of place, I dismiss it. If society tells me that I should judge everything foreign as alien to my nature, I laugh out loud. If I am to cooperate with society society must accommodate me, in all my quirkiness. I demand the right to decide absolutely what is important in my life. 

Saint-Simon is pre-eminently interested in the ulterior ends of society, and this is true even when he turns his attention to human intimacy he, like Fourier, is a precursor of sexual politics which, pushed to its logical extreme, becomes the belief that there is no such thing as a private act. Even in my bedroom with the door closed and the lights off society is keeping an eye on me. The very way I make love is a political issue. My sexual satisfaction or frustration is society's concern. I must permit society to decide how best the affairs of my heart and my loins might be organised. When society's purposes are raised to this level they lose, paradoxically, their raison d'etre. Society has no raison d'etre but to serve the personal. History contains no teleology. There are no overarching aims nor is there any ultimate end. If I exist to serve society, what is society for? If society exists to serve me, then what am I for? Obviously, for myself, for the personal, but this is not solipsism. I am not personal in a vacuum. What is personal, however, is not ulterior. It serves itself. Nor is this narcissism. I am at my most personal in love and friendship when my centre of interest is outside myself. It is the impersonality of the ulterior which encourages narcissism. The instrumental relations of society do not engage me personally. They require, on the contrary, the suppression of the personal. They ask that I work with others for collective ends and that the relations into which I enter in so doing be simply instrumental. In order to be a good postman I do not need to love those to whom I deliver letters. If I do, then so much the better, but it is not a requirement of performing the function well. When the personal is pushed into abeyance, all that remains is narcissistic compensation. 

Saint-Simon wished to dispense with both conflict and coercion. The former would disappear as we found ourselves slotted into our appropriate role in the social order, the latter would be replaced by love. It's true that it was in the work of the Saint-Simonians, pre-eminently that of Enfantin, that the doctrine of love reached its height, but the master left no shortage of hostages to fortune. On the face of it, the idea is benign. Who could prefer coercion to love? Yet the problem of love as the basis of social organization is that it cannot do without coercion. What is to be done with those who refuse the doctrine of love? How to deal with those who show "anti-social" tendencies? Failing to distinguish between the personal and the impersonal, Saint-Simon cannot see that force is a social necessity. If letters are to be delivered on time, the postman must feel some degree of compulsion to get out of bed and do his job. So long as we admit this we are in little danger. Once we believe, however, that it is love which inspires the postman, we are lost. Society has no right to demand that the postman love his work. It has no right to make any incursion into his inner world. It has no right, ultimately, to demand anything of him should he choose to disaffiliate utterly, but as most of us prefer not to be hermits, as we expect to benefit from some of the conveniences of society, we ought to recognise our duty to make a commensurate contribution. This does not imply, however, that society should have any rights over our beliefs or feelings. Society may have the right to ask that a postman deliver letters, but it has no right to ask that he subscribe to the management of the postal system. 

"Decisions," declared Saint-Simon, can only be the result of scientific demonstrations, absolutely independent of any human will.." Despite the partial apostasy of New Christianity, published shortly before his death, this notion of a process to which humanity is submitted, of history as a machine, is a fundamental part of Saint Simon's legacy. It was incorporated into Marx's dialectic. Without it, the orderly society is impossible. If, as Saint-Simon believed, the progress of industry is certain to eradicate poverty and crime, if the operation of laissez-faire at home and a foreign policy grounded in the pursuit of peace lead to internal harmony and external tranquillity, then there is virtually no social space in which conflict can survive. On the surface this looks perfect, but without conflict, without, to be precise, the irreducible mismatch between society and individual, what would be left of human life? Saint-Simon believes we are made by society. In truth, we make ourselves out of our struggle with society. Indispensable though it is, society stands against us, alien, cold, impersonal. Our struggle to be is the fight to be personal in spite of society. If, as Saint-Simon envisages, the individual shall be absorbed so that between the personal and the impersonal there is no longer a visible seam, then what is society for? 

This is the enduring dilemma of human life that being individual but not self-sufficing we need society. Yet in creating society we risk diminishing or destroying our individuality We are always in danger of letting the ulterior ends for which society exists, swamp the personal, the service of which is their only raison d'etre. 

It is not in society that I can lose myself, for society is a mere nexus of mechanisms. In love, in friendship, in parenthood in commitment to what is other than myself but what like me is personal, my individuality is realized. In commitment to an institution lies my death. Society and all its institutions are instrumental. They have no justification, finally, but to serve the personal. Saint-Simon is one of those thinkers, so many of whom have formed modern consciousness and modern institutions, who see society as an end in itself, for whom the orderliness and peace of society are all and the suffering that individuals must undergo to realize them, a bagatelle. In Saint-Simon's conception, society and individual are conjoined, private and public are conflated, personal and impersonal are melded. 

The orderly society spells the death of the personal. For the personal to flourish, society must admit the space for disorder. This is not to say violence or maliciousness. On the contrary, it is rather to argue for fun. Nor is this facetious. As far as the personal is concerned, only that which serves itself is authentic. In the personal there is always a strong element of pleasure. It is right to take delight in love, to enjoy one's friends and one's children. It is moral. In contradistinction, to submit to society and its institutions is to renounce morality in favour of time-serving people who think and act for themselves are likely to be awkward. What is society to do with them? To ask this is get things the wrong way round. We should ask rather: what are they going to do with society? None of this implies an excuse for bad behaviour. Hiding behind doctrines of liberation in order to behave selfishly is common enough. But considerateness towards others is distinct from sycophancy towards institutions. Heinrich Boll once remarked that as a matter of principle you should always be more polite to your social “inferiors” than to your social “superiors". He is right, for to behave well towards someone who has no power over you and to whom you owe nothing but simple kindness, is true morality. 

Submission and obedience to society and its institutions are no morality at all. Recognizing the instrumentality of the social is the best means of putting its purposes into perspective. Society exists to serve the personal and this is the only excuse for its coercion. The modern notion that individuals exist to serve society and that morality exists in doing what the boss requires or the majority agree with is as abject a view of human life as has ever existed. In this miserable vision society has it own aims and ends and drags us along in its wake. We become the servants of blind forces. But this is always an illusion. Social forces are the outcome of many human actions. Society cannot exist without human aims. If we have reduced the personal in order to elevate the impersonal it is because we have chosen so to do. The pursuit of the orderly society gives rise to disorder, disturbance, dysfunction. Only when society serves our personal ends will there any semblance of social serenity.