At the end of March, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said that the coronavirus crisis had proved there really was such a thing as society. There is no apparent rational basis to his assertion. He seems to have been alluding to a notorious remark of Margaret Thatcher’s to the contrary. Many people have tended to regard Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society” with moral revulsion, as some sort of expression or defence of individualistic selfishness. This is mistaken.
But the claim that there is no such thing as society is common. For instance, many sociologists would be very reluctant to say that they believe in the objective existence of society.
That view is associated in particular with the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. He argued that the objects of study in sociology are ways of acting, thinking and feeling, which he called “social facts”. He argued that because they can have a causal effect upon individuals, social facts are just as real and just as objective as natural physical objects and forces. We can be affected by, say, public opinion or inflation as well as by something like gravity. For Durkheim, society is the ultimate “social fact”.
Many sociologists would say that, on the contrary, what appears to each and all of us as “social reality” is, to a greater or lesser extent, subjective. It is a product of our own social interactions and the meanings we attach to them. On this account, societies are like the sorts of “imagined communities” that nations are sometimes said to be.
The current coronavirus pandemic gives no reason to abandon such a view of societies. For each of us, it might be said that society as it was prior to the lockdown no longer exists and never will again. After the lockdown, we will be faced by different social realities.
Who is society?
Within social sciences, there are longstanding controversies about the nature of social phenomena and the proper ways of explaining them. The celebrated philosopher of science Karl Popper argued that societies do not exist. According to him, such collective terms refer to concepts, to theoretical entities that we construct to try to explain what actually exists and occurs rather than to existing things themselves. He writes that:
Even ‘the war’ or ‘the army’ are abstract concepts, strange as this may sound to some. What is concrete is the many who are killed; or the men and women in uniform, etc.
This might sound strange. It might even seem unintelligible. It might, as I think, be false. Still, there is no reason to be morally outraged by what Popper says here especially if we do not understand what he means. There is no obvious logical connection between the opinion that society does not exist and any particular political or moral stances. In particular, there is no intrinsic association with it and selfishness or with any opposition to altruism, social solidarity and cooperation.
Popper and those who share his view do not say that because society does not exist, we do not or need not concern ourselves with the welfare of other people. In an interview for Women’s Own in September 1987, Margaret Thatcher said:
Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business …
She is not saying that we all should be solely self-regarding. Rather, she says, we have responsibilities towards ourselves, our families and other people. It is other actual people, not a mere abstract entity, who bear the responsibility and the cost of giving us help when we need it.
This is hardly an inappropriate moral outlook in the present or in any other circumstances. Does the government have a different one? If so, it should tell us what it is. Thatcher said this:
There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
If a politician of whom we approved were to say this in a speech, we would be more likely to cheer than boo. We would ignore the phrase “there is no such thing as society” as an irrelevance if it displeased or puzzled us.
If we believe there is no such thing as society, nothing about the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic gives us a reason for changing that innocuous view, despite what Boris Johnson has proclaimed.