Revolutions in Thought - Part Two: The Warp of Order

January 26, 2021

A side effect of the social nature of our species is our never-ending redefining of norms: customs and values change over time, and, as they are usually meant to be fluid and not codified into law, their enforcements are typically employed at the social level. This lack of precision gives flexibility to the instantiator of a given norm as they may rely on implication rather than explication exclusively. Critically, however, that does not mean that the formulation and justification of the norm should also be thought up with implication as a motive: that is merely the mode of transmission and administration of the norm. Yet, all too often, norm redefinitions seem too lightly scaffolded: clarifying revisions seem to be issued as understanding continually evolves over time. Of course, it’s impossible to fully understand all aspects and impacts of a ruleset without deep knowledge and experience—intrinsic resources hard to come by—and people sometimes quickly need summaries on how to conceive of things adjacent to their areas of expertise.

But, as with all things, the conduit of norms, being a construct utilized by humans, is ripe for abuse and misuse. Norms, being inherently implicative, allow people at all levels to exploit the inherent flexibility to their advantage. And without sufficient grounding in rigorous definitions, the reach and fluid nature of norms can easily lead to a perpetual social hypnosis where even basic laws may be called into question, a society where people only nominally decide together what is real and what should matter, eventually leading to real power laying only in the hands of administrators or opportunists who consciously decide how to think or otherwise bandlimit discourse according their feeble reach.

The US has become bewitched by a spell hundreds of years in the making: a runaway appeal to norms across generations to sidestep the hard, central tension between individualism and collectivism. It is the forlorn note struck again and again in our history, our American Struggle that keeps swelling to a boiling point whenever an unresolved theme emerges and can no longer be concealed with the tools of implication and inference, when the people and the notion demand resolution by rule and by law.

It has been expressed through the years in varied forms, the just answer swaying topic by topic in either direction. Our nation, unlike others, was not created as a simple democracy of a single government and its people: we instead have states which, as intermediates between the federal level and the population, at once help prevent the federal level from consolidating power, aid the federal level in administering power, seek degrees of autonomy separate from the federal level or other states, and are such that the federal level may not exist without it. Such a complex of multivalent interplays of individualist and collectivist forces has existed perhaps never before in human history.

Our democracy was deliberately built with both individualism and collectivism in mind. A person’s vote is atomic, just as the person and their thoughts are presumed to be atomic and independent—we do not tally a ballot proportionate to one’s political, cultural, or religious leanings (gerrymandering notwithstanding). And, at least on paper, we’re supposed to be voting for laws, initiatives, and representatives that further the betterment of society—there are probably very few voters out there who would support atomizing forces were they fully aware of what that really meant.

How, then, do we maintain the network of American society? Maintenance requires at least some understanding of that which is being conserved. Lucky for us, an old schematic for democracy still exists from the 1830s (though, from the state of things nowadays, it’s apparent that the master copy has been collecting dust for some time). It’s a wonderful segment by de Tocqueville from his book, titled, appropriately enough, Democracy in America:

Amongst democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself. As each class approximates to other classes, and intermingles with them, its members become indifferent and as strangers to one another. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it.


As Christopher Laschen points out in The Culture of Narcissism, de Tocqueville, strictly speaking, is advocating for a highly-individualized society where, as de Tocqueville put it, each person “owe[s] nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone” as a result of an as-yet-to-be-established equality which, according to his vision, would prevent any person from accumulating wealth or power through which they may “exercise any great influence over” others (hardly the American situation nowadays).

Nevertheless, structures of the network of a society begin to present themselves: the topology of an undemocratic society—be it aristocratic, oligarchical, autocratic—is such that the nodes are highly ordered. A democratic society, by contrast, must necessarily maintain a healthy degree of disorder among the relations of persons. The deeper the troughs, the wider the gulfs among the class distinctions, the heavier the strain is put upon the weave of democracy, ultimately risking a tattering into patchwork and ruin, all to satisfy the construction of new tyrannies.

De Toqueville perhaps believed that the ideal democracy was completely bereft of any form of macro order: if every person need only have a proximal focus, the links may therefore remain everywhere severed. Perhaps his utopia is an achievable goal, but we will not get there or to a better standing of any category without understanding and effectively maintaining a society, which, as he implied, critically also means effectively managing the orderings formed which extend beyond propinquity—the macro power structures of a society.

Power, according to Foucault, “must not assume that state sovereignty, the form of law, or the over-all unity of a domination, is given at the outset; rather, these are only the terminal forms power takes”. Specifically, he defines power as an ever-evolving, ever-fluid “field of force relations, wherein far-reaching, but never completely stable, effects of domination are produced”. In a civilization that more or less adheres to the idea of free expression, we may restrict the general fields of power such that we focus on projections not onto the population’s physical bodies but instead onto the softer social relations that affect each person’s standing and ability to meaningfully participate in society; in this case, each force relation is the social relation between any two persons, i.e. it is the edge connecting any two nodes in the network. And here, in this network, does any society find expressed “the strategies in which [these force relations] take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies,” and, more relevant to the discussion at hand, mutual strengthening “which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions or contradictions which isolate them from one another [emphasis mine]“.

An effective democracy must find balance between the extremes of individualism and collectivism. To achieve this, it would help to view time as a natural force external to a democratic society which forever exerts an entropic pressure upon it. From this, it becomes clear that the weft of time is every instant broken but only while the watch of all stand guard, that the warp of order must be kept everywhere thinned lest a clotting unmake the plait of the people.

It is worth remembering that no society has lasted long in humanity’s history. Given how far our current civilization has come, if we falter now, it may very well represent the ultimate failure of the experiment that is our species.