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From the simple to the complex
Function by Level of Organization

Help LA FIN PROGRAMMEE DE LA DEMOCRATIE Participatory Society and The Trajectory of Change Une Proposition Libertaire: L’économie Participative
Book : Parecon : Life After Capitalism
Original modules
Tool Module : Trois grandes théories sociales Three Major Social Theories

If we think of each individual as a regulated system, then the social group within which that individual lives constitutes the servomechanism (external control) that determines the various values of that individual’s behaviour.

Most people contribute to the maintenance only of their own sub-group, caste, or class, rather than opening themselves up to the larger grouping at a higher level of organization: that of the species. In other words, within every living organism, each level of organization is open to the next level up, but it seems very hard to achieve this same kind of openness between individual human beings and the human species as a whole.

Tool Module: Cybernetics


Like all sets or groupings, a society is defined by the relationships among its elements–in this case, the individuals who compose it. However, these social relationships are too complex for us to embrace them in their entirety. We can apprehend only a subset of this social Structure (with a capital S), and any social theory can therefore describe only a subset of this kind (a social structure with a lowercase s).

When people are blinded by political ideologies, or even by a certain narrow view of science, they tend to regard their own particular conception of this subset as the actual Structure of the complete set of relationships in the real world.

Too often, this mistaken belief in the universal value of the partial structure that they perceive leads one group of people to try to impose it on their contemporaries, sometimes by persuasion, but often by force.

We can never understand social reality completely. But if we want to get closer, we should try to learn about as many elements as possible within this set of relationships.

To understand a society, we must therefore examine how it is influenced by physical environment, culture, and interpersonal relationships–especially since each of these determinants generates social values and institutions that act on it in return. For example, industrialization pollutes the environment, fashion and artistic trends transform the culture, and social taboos shape our interpersonal relationships.

The following diagram shows these reciprocal influences while stressing how society evolves over time, in ways that are undeniable though not very perceptible in one human lifetime.

(For a brief definition of each underlined term, place your cursor over it.)

Some of our social values, such as those from our families, we assimilate at a very early age and carry with us for the rest of our lives–most often, unconsciously.

Other values, such as those from our work, religion, or culture, we learn later on, and each of us can accept or reject them consciously or unconsciously. Lastly, the prevailing political and economic values of the society in which we live (such as democracy, totalitarianism, liberalism, and anarchism) exert a more generalized, abstract influence. These values are manifested through institutions whose primary purpose is to preserve the social order, which generally operates for the benefit of one dominant sub-group in the society.

Cultures are not etched in stone. Not only do they evolve according to their own logic, they are also subject to all the events of history and the relationships between these events and their ecological context. Some political, religious, technical, and demographic factors can bring cultures together, but they can also become sources of conflict and alienation.

In the past, profoundly inegalitarian systems of economic and linguistic colonialism have caused the disappearance of original, unique cultural heritages. Since the 15th century, European expansion into North and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands has been in one sense a massacre of cultures. The way that the whole world is currently being “McDonaldized" is another sad example.

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