What is a Society?

An Existential Liberalism

umair haque
Oct 31, 2017 · 8 min read
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There is a question at the root of the turmoil in the world today, deeper than merely saying we are at bitter odds with one another, the twin forces of barbaric nationalism and hate pitted against enlightenment and humanity. What is a society, anyways? Perhaps you think a society is a an “ocracy”, perhaps you think it is an abstraction of class and power.

If I say to you: a society is a set of values — no more and no less — it will no doubt strike you as uncontroversial. Let us examine my statement together. It will prove more controversial than you suppose, and therefore take us to a place we are forbidden to go, which is what all knowledge truly is.

You no doubt agree with the statement that “one should never impose one’s values on others”. And you are precisely wrong to do so. How can a society be a set of values, if values are things we should never impose on another? It is in just that way that you yourself have failed the first test of being civilized, and we will return to that. First, let us go into it deeper. To say “one should” is a value, too, so to believe one “should” never impose one’s values is itself a value, and therefore, one is not free of values at all in such a stance, either, and to think one is enlightened in this way is only confusing high-minded puffery for genuine understanding. So: let us begin at the beginning, only with what is, not with the meaningless ideologies of what should be. Ah, that dangerous should again.

What is a value? A value is something that we think everyone you should have. The “thing” we will return to. Let us first understand the point. A value is not what we think we deserve, like, or want for ourselves, which is a preference. Let me prove it to you, and let us discuss the difference, because the whole social project depends on it.

I prefer leather jackets. That much is biology. The sun can kill me, and I can only wear leather jacket — not suits, blazers, sweaters, or anything else. Now, I wouldn’t impose that preference on you. Maybe you’re built like a football players, not a skinny rake like me. You’d look terrible in a leather jacket, and probably feel terrible too. It’s my preferences, not mu values, that I shouldn’t impose on you.

I value healthcare. The “thing” in a value can be anything at all. Can it even be murder, as in fictional dystopias, like, for example, Logan’s Run, where everyone deserves to die at the age of 30? dDstopias teach us a lesson of values precisely in this way by reminding us that when we are speaking of things everyone should have, those things should benefit us, in at least a Kantian way — I do unto others as I wish done unto me — or they are not really values at all, only disvalues, anti-values, and that way lies feudalism. So, though it could also be transport, education, libraries, self expression, an endless list of beneficial things, I will say that I value, not just prefer healthcare first, because, since the sun can kill me, and so I know, in a visceral way, that we are all one day, one misstep, one tiny sudden collision of chemicals and matter away, from illness, disease, death, and your life holds meaning to me in this way. I don’t care much if you wear leather jackets, but I do care that every single human life has healthcare. Why?

Ah, now we come to the real question. Why should we care about anyone else enough to value them, for that is what we are really saying when we “value” things — that we value the people who enjoy those things (and the people who produce them), too. First, let us talk about our confusion of values with preferences. To talk about values this way, as universals, everyone-should-have-things, not as absolutes, will no doubt feel alien to many of you, especially Anglos, and that confusion is itself abundantly vivid evidence of just how far you have been indoctrinated by extremism, so much so that your basic grasp of epistemology and ontology — what things are, and how we know what things are, in this case, human lives — is now going up in smoke, and that is really why Anglo societies are failing now. We will return to that, in a roundabout way, because it is the linchpin of collapse.

Now. Because you, especially Anglos, are confused about what values are, you you have come to believe that you should never impose your values on anyone else, and so the whole social project has come grinding to a halt. Let us think about it carefully. If there is nothing I believe that anyone should have, then what reason is there for society, and what role is there for society to play? There isn’t one, because a society is only really a manager, a provider, of things everyone should have, whether they are libraries or parks or money. And yet, today, many people believe that there is nothing everyone should have, save guns.

And that is precisely the problem in the Anglo world. In America, for example, society is quite literally undoing itself, regressing, imploding, self-destructing — that much is obvious. What is less obvious is that it is doing so because people are giving up on having values at all. If I ask the average American “is there anything that you think everyone — every single person in this society — should have?”, they are likely to look at me as if I’m crazy, and then cry “of course not!”. But the problem is that saying there’s nothing we believe everyone should have is precisely the same as saying that we don’t believe anyone deserves anything at all is precisely the same as saying we don’t believe in society itself.

In this way, we have come to a place of nihilism, grim and pure, in history. Many people have no values at all, only preferences, but to only have preferences without values is precisely the same thing as saying that one only cares about one’s own self satisfaction even if it costs one’s fellow man, life on the planet, one’s grandkids, or even neighbours theirs. The necessary corollary is that society itself cannot exist, only little raging atoms of hurt can. Society is a kind of displeasure, as Freud once observed, to which we surrender, perhaps only a little, but still even that much is crucial, so that, through the process of being civilized, we earn not just greater pleasures tomorrow — but orient ourselves towards worthier pursuits. But without values, and the necessary displeasure in them, we find ourselves empty of human worth at all — for in saying there is nothing we believe everyone should have, so too, we must include ourselves.

Now. It has become trendy to say that “democracy is in retreat!” and so on. But that is not really true. The issue is deeper and the threat graver, by a very long way. The social project is stalling. Leaps and bounds in the social project are the single greatest accomplishment of the last century. We can say that people have always lived in societies, but we can also say that society as a human project is an endeavour which reached a high art in the late 20th century. The EU was born with the explicit aim that every citizen should enjoy things that no person previously had or could: advanced healthcare, higher education, public transport, and so on — and today, its citizens enjoy the highest quality of life human beings have ever enjoyed, by a very long way. Values become rights, and in that way, the social project advances. But if those values are not had at all in the first place, the rights they give birth to — painfully, whether through revolution or upheaval — never come to be at all.

All that — surrendering the idea of values— is the untold story of now. In this way, the globe is in a perilous and perhaps unparalleled moment in history. A poison has taken root, and it is more deadly than is often supposed. It is not just that there are foolish sad lonely men scapegoating the weak and the different. It is much deeper and more dangerous than that. It is that increasingly, people, perhaps you yourself, have come to believe that values are only preferences, only ego-pleasures, and therefore, have failed to develop any sophisticated conception of values at all, and in that void, society itself remains unborn. Thus, the social project is stalling, running on empty, as people turn away from their truest birthright: the belief that they have in life itself.

For that is what a value really is. When I say that I believe everyone should have healthcare, I am also making a statement about human possibility. I am saying that I believe everyone can live a long, healthy life, because that is the first kind, level, aim of existence. If I don’t value healthcare, the precise opposite is also true: I am a nihilist in an existential sense, because I don’t believe that the purpose of life is to be lived, and therefore, it doesn’t exist at all to me. Maybe life is only there so one can be a slave, to be chattel, to be discarded and so on — but certainly not to live. It is in this way that the Anglo speaking world now is in a state of profound ontological and epistemological confusion — a lack of understanding about what life is and why it matters — not just political turmoil. The political turmoil is only a superficial effect of a profound ontological and epistemological failure: to suppose that life itself is not something that should be valued at all, because it does not really exist.

To value existence is to give life to the possibility of life. Or, to put it more simply, our first responsibility is just to value life, which is to love. I say this a lot. Perhaps now you understand a little more why I do. Not just as an exhortation of YOLO: “value your life, man, you only get one!!”. We exist only to the degree that we are valued, and precisely that far. It is precisely for that reason that I say the challenge of now is valuing life. Not just as a kind of narcissism, but because that is where genuine liberalism begins. The “liberal” in liberalism is not about “liberty”, but about giving freely and generously. And today what we are not giving that we must discover anew is the first gift, and the truest gift, that we can, without which all others are not even burdens, but only nonexistent things: existence itself.

October 2017

Bad Words

Essays by Umair Haque

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