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Is Society Coming Apart?

Despite Thatcher and Reagan’s best efforts, there is and has always been such a thing as society. The question is not whether it exists, but what shape it must take in a post-pandemic world

Klawe Rzeczy/Guardian Design

In March 2020, Boris Johnson, pale and exhausted, self-isolating in his flat on Downing Street, released a video of himself – that he had taken himself – reassuring Britons that they would get through the pandemic, together. “One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society,” the prime minister announced, confirming the existence of society while talking to his phone, alone in a room.

All this was very odd. Johnson seemed at once frantic and weak (not long afterwards, he was admitted to hospital and put in the intensive care unit). Had he, in his feverishness, undergone a political conversion? Because, by announcing the existence of society, Johnson appeared to renounce, publicly, something Margaret Thatcher had said in an interview in 1987, in remarks that are often taken as a definition of modern conservatism. “Too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!’” Thatcher said. “They are casting their problems on society, and who is society? There is no such thing!” She, however, had not contracted Covid-19.

Of course, there is such a thing as society. The question now is how the pandemic has changed it. Speculating about what might happen next requires first deciphering these statements, and where they came from. Johnson was refuting not only Thatcher, but also Ronald Reagan. Thatcher’s exclamation about the non-existence of society and the non-ability of government to solve anyone’s problems echoed a declaration made by Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Thatcher and Reagan often conflated the two – to diminish both – but society and government mean different things. Society usually means the private ties of mutual obligation and fellowship that bind together people who have different backgrounds and unequal education, resources and wealth. Government is the public administration of the affairs of people constituted into a body politic as citizens and equals. Society invokes community, government polity.

According to the Reagan-Thatcher worldview, there is no such thing as society. There are only families, who look after one another, and individuals, who participate in markets. The idea that government is the solution to people’s problems rests on a mistaken belief in the existence of society. This mistaken belief leads to attempts to solve problems such as ill health with government programmes such as government-funded healthcare, as if these were problems of society, rather than problems of individuals. Government programmes like these will also interfere with the only place where real solutions are to be found, which is the free market.

Not many worldviews build worlds but, long before the pandemic, this one did. It not only contributed to the dismantling of social supports in the US and the UK, but also undergirds the architecture and ethos of the internet, which is ungoverned, deregulated, privatised and market-driven – a remote and barren wasteland where humans are reduced to “users”, individuals, alone, just so many backlit avatars of IRL bone-marrow selves.

Then came Covid. Remoteness replaced intimacy, masks hid faces, screens stood in for rooms. States enforced “social distancing”: stickers on sidewalks, chairs left empty. Much carried on as before, only more intensely. Corporations monetised “social networking”: predictive algorithms, “friends”, “followers”. The pandemic forced vast numbers of people not only to retreat from the actual world, but also to live their lives in the anti-government, antisocial world of the virtual, the ersatz, the flat, lonely, locked inside and burned out.

To be sure, campaigns to halt the spread of the virus have demonstrated, again and again, the strength of ties of mutual obligation, through sacrifices made for sick and vulnerable people and, not least, through the surging number of mutual aid groups, each another expression of love and nurture and care and fellow feeling, each another proof of the existence of society. All the same, angry unmasked Americans are punching flight attendants on planes and schoolteachers in classrooms, when asked to wear masks, and there is a general sense that social norms are under a wartime level of stress, absent a wartime solidarity. Picture the second world war, where, instead of queueing in the ration line, people are clobbering one another. Even among the peaceable, alongside grief, exhaustion and dread, loneliness and alienation remain as the lasting miseries of the pandemic. Whether the fateful social distance will ever close will depend on the ravages of the virus, on an aching longing for one another, and on something more, too: on political decisions about public goods.

This year, while the world begins to remake itself, and as each of us, like so many hermit crabs crawling along the blinding sand, try to get our bearings, it may be that the future of society can be found in its past. Even before the pandemic, intellectuals and policymakers on both the left and the right had been raising alarms about the future of society, launching initiatives designed to pin, stitch and darn the world’s tattered “social fabric”. In 2018, the American conservative columnist David Brooks founded Weave: The Social Fabric Project, advocating “a life for community rather than a life for self”. Last year, Onward, a conservative thinktank in the UK, founded Repairing Our Social Fabric, a programme aimed at offering “a comprehensive understanding of the state of community in Britain”. Nor have these calls come only from conservatives. More in Common, a nonpartisan, multinational research organisation, undertakes projects designed, for instance, to “strengthen the parts of Germany’s social fabric that remain intact”.

Racial justice has lately been framed as a social fabric problem, too. “A functioning society rests on a web of mutuality, a willingness among all involved to share enough with one another to accomplish what no one person can do alone,” Heather McGhee writes in her 2021 book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. “In a sense, that’s what government is. I can’t create my own electric grid, school system, internet, or healthcare system – and the most efficient way to ensure that those things are created and available to all on a fair and open basis is to fund and provide them publicly.” The problem, McGhee writes, is that for much of history, both in the US and in many other parts of the world, those goods have been “for whites only”. What with polarisation, tribalisation and atomisation, “the social fabric of the country has been torn,” said Eddie Glaude, chair of the African American studies programme at Princeton University, near the end of the Trump presidency. “We have to imagine a different way of being together with each other.”

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Sometimes people argue that the pandemic has made all these problems worse; sometimes they argue that the pandemic has cast such a glaring light on these problems that now, finally, they can be fixed. Either way, thinktanks are dedicating funds to the purpose: the Russell Sage Foundation announced a research initiative on Covid-19’s effects on the social fabric. And that’s interesting, because Russell Sage is a New York-based thinktank founded in 1907 by the widow of a railroad magnate who was concerned that the social fabric had been ripped apart by industrialism, which happens to be where the idea of a social fabric came from.

The English expression “the social fabric” was coined in the 1790s, the age of the machine loom, when observers worried that the growth of factories and cities, and the movement from farms and towns, was leaving people isolated and alone. Over the next century, all sorts of thinkers, from the Romantics, De Tocqueville and Marx to Hegel and the utopian socialists, agreed that something called “society” was coming apart. They disagreed about solutions but, broadly, for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, liberals placed their faith in liberal democracy. In the US, faith in society was a hallmark of progressive and New Deal-era liberalism, especially during the Great Depression. “The faith of a liberal is a profound belief not only in the capacities of individual men and women,” Franklin D Roosevelt said in 1935, “but also in the effectiveness of people helping each other.”

But by then, in much of the industrial world, in an age of bone-breaking economic inequality, the suffering masses had grown so impoverished, lonely and alienated that they bent before authoritarians. Fears of economic collapse, civilisational decay and social disintegration go back to antiquity. People are forever warning that the sky is falling. But in the 1930s and 40s, the sky fell. After the second world war, the anguished investigation into the rise of totalitarianism shattered liberals’ faith in society, and “gave rise to a theory of mass society that rooted totalitarianism in modernity itself”, as the intellectual historian Dorothy Ross has recently argued. As Ross writes: “The threat to liberal democracy of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union brought these fears into focus: the atomized individuals of mass society were ready supporters of totalitarian movements and the false solidarity they promised.”

The mid-century reckoning this wrought often concerned itself with where to draw the line between “society” and “government”, or between the social and the political. To that end, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt sorted revolutions into those that attempt “to change the fabric of society” and those that try “to change the structure of the political realm”. She admired the second and feared the first, arguing that revolutions can never solve the “social question” – poverty – and should not try, because “the whole record of past revolutions demonstrates beyond doubt that every attempt to solve the social question with political means leads into terror”. Overwhelmed by the desperation of the poor, she argued, revolutions that attempt to change the fabric of society will lead to the evisceration of order, the destruction of property, and the mass execution of intellectuals. She didn’t say that governments that address the problem of poverty are doomed. Only revolutions.

But conservative thinkers blamed the fraying fabric of society – and the masses’ vulnerability to totalitarianism – not on the dislocations and inequality wrought by industrial capitalism, but on the growing power of the state. In a 1953 book called The Quest for Community, the American sociologist Robert Nisbet lamented the modern state’s “successive penetrations of man’s economic, religious, kinship and local allegiances”. He believed that it was not capitalism but secularism and statism (especially, in the US, the New Deal) that had loosened social bonds, leading to “personal alienation and cultural disintegration”. He contrasted the pathology of modern life with “earlier times” (when “family, church, local community drew and held the allegiances of individuals in earlier times”). In earlier times, people knew where they stood, and they took care of one another, and didn’t look to the government to help them out when things got difficult.

Nisbet, the man who quested for community, was something of a misanthrope. At home, he liked to watch Gunsmoke on the family’s black-and-white television, play croquet with his kids and potter in his rose garden. He went to church only at his wife’s insistence. He did not enjoy society. “I very much like individuals,” he’d say, adapting a quote from Linus Van Pelt in a 1959 issue of the Charles Schulz comic strip Peanuts. “It’s people I can’t stand!” There is no such thing as society, Thatcher would say later. There are only individuals. Thatcherism, in the end, came from a misreading of Linus’s original observation: “I love mankind ... it’s people I can’t stand.”

Conservatives had long placed their faith not in society, but in the free market. But the gap between liberalism and conservatism closed in the 1950s, when liberal intellectuals, terrified at the prospect of a collapse of liberal democracies into totalitarianism, lost faith in the idea of society and abandoned their commitment to social democracy. Ross argues that these liberals no longer believed their role was to protect society by arguing for assembly, mutual concern, cooperative action and equal inclusion. Instead, they strove to protect the individual, and the individual’s ability to make choices, as if the act of choosing, and the market-driven rhetoric of choice, could inoculate the masses against becoming a mass. In the 1960s, liberals would seem to have renewed their commitment to the idea of society – by way of the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – but this, for Ross, was a mere blip, a slight detour, in liberals’ decades-long abandonment of the social. “The political resurgence of social liberalism during the 1960s did not last,” Ross writes, “for it provoked a political and intellectual resurgence of conservatism and the fragmentation of liberal politics and social thought.”

Other scholars see more continuity, an unbroken tradition of liberal and social democracy on the left, from early 20th-century progressivism down to the 21st-century version. But no one disputes that the political revolutions of the 1960s provoked a counter-revolutionary conservative insurgency, animated, in part, by a furious opposition to civil rights. To McGhee’s point, a great many white people appear to have stopped believing in the existence of society just at the point when Black people won enough political power to declare that society could no longer be “whites only”.

In the 60s, Nisbet’s work found a new audience, not among liberals but within an emerging, communitarian New Left. The social, on the left, took on a new cast: liberals gave up on social democracy; the New Left decided to fight for “social justice”. The Quest for Community had gone out of print soon after it was published, but was reprinted in the 60s because it had become fanatically popular among the New Left. For the 1962 edition, Nisbet changed the title to Community and Power. It sounds leftier, but it’s the same book, a manifesto about the loneliness and alienation of modern life. Here’s Nisbet, in a preface written for that edition, decades before quarantines and stay-at-home campaigns and the loneliness epidemic and social distancing and lockdowns:

“By alienation I mean the state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire, inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility. The individual not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it. For a constantly enlarging number of persons, including, significantly, young persons of high school and college age (consider the impressive popularity among them of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), this state of alienation has become profoundly influential in both behavior and thought. Not all the manufactured symbols of togetherness, the ever-ready programs of human relations, patio festivals in suburbia, and our quadrennial crusades for presidential candidates hide the fact that for millions of persons such institutions as state, political party, business, church, labor union, and even family have become remote and increasingly difficult to give any part of one’s self to.”

New Leftists who read Nisbet weren’t joining conservatism; they were trying to marry liberalism to socialism, and to other traditions, too, including Catholic social thought, and the writings of the American philosopher John Dewey. Their manifesto – the Port Huron Statement, issued in 1962 by the Students for a Democratic Society – bemoaned “loneliness, estrangement, isolation”, and celebrated “human interdependence” and “human brotherhood” as “the most appropriate form of social relations” (the word “social” appears 38 times in the document). It pledged that “a new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system”.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, people on all sides seemed to agree about the problem: the vulnerability of rootless, ignorant mass society to political persuasion and propaganda. But they had different ideas about both its causes and the solution. Nisbet and his conservative kin, blaming the state, placed their faith in a laissez-faire free market and a return to institutions more powerful in “earlier times”: the family, the church. Black civil rights activists called on the communal traditions of the Black church and the Nation of Islam. The New Left, which began as a movement of students, placed its faith in the university and, ultimately, in cultural rather than social or political change. And white liberals invoked a vague notion of choice – the rational political choices of voters, the informed purchasing choices of consumers. Even abortion would be framed as a “right to choose”. But everyone seemed to agree that no matter what they tried, social bonds kept weakening.

An MIT political scientist named Ithiel de Sola Pool coined the expression “social network” in 1957, founding a field that he called “small world” studies. Two years later, he founded the Simulmatics Corporation. Its name was a portmanteau, and its purpose was to automate the computer simulation of human behaviour in order to make predictions that it could sell to corporations and governments; it was, in short, the first artificial intelligence-driven data services company. In the 1960s, De Sola Pool made a series of predictions about what would worry people in our day, about society. “In the 21st century, the sort of critic who now attacks conformity in society may be complaining of an atomized society,” he predicted in 1968. “Modern technology, he’ll assert, has destroyed our common cultural base and has left us living in a little world of his own.”

De Sola Pool, a technological utopian, believed that emerging technologies of communication – he was at the vanguard of what would become the internet – would instead, by bringing people closer together, make the world smaller. De Sola Pool started out as a liberal but ended as a neoconservative and, technologically, libertarian. Networking computer networks, he predicted in Technologies Without Boundaries: On Telecommunications in a Global Age, a book published posthumously in 1990, would produce “communities without boundaries”. This was the fantasy of the founders of the internet.

The world wide web is the 21st century’s machine loom. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric,” said the venture capitalist and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya in 2017. Critics lately argue that the social network is destroying the social fabric, but the people who built the social network thought it would repair the social fabric. Facebook’s actual mission statement – part of its terms of service – is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. Technological utopians have always believed that if the machinery of industrialism had torn apart the social fabric, another machine could repair it. Technologies of transportation and communication always seemed especially promising: bringing people closer together, faster. The telegraph, the telephone, the radio, television, cable television, the internet, the so-called world wide web, its wispy threads gathering us all together.

This vision owes a great deal to De Sola Pool, who argued that the internet was a “technology of freedom”. It owes something, too, to Nisbet, and the attraction his ideas held for the strange bedfellows responsible for establishing the lawlessness of the internet: communitarian New Leftists and anti-government conservatives. In the 1970s, Nisbet taught at Columbia. In New York, he spent a lot of time with conservative intellectuals, including William F Buckley. Then, at the age of 64, he moved to the American Enterprise Institute, a leading conservative thinktank. Nisbet disliked what conservatism had become in the age of Reagan. “I dislike intensely the hold on him the people of Moral Majority far right have,” he fumed. “Lord, how I detest these religious-political fanatics.” But in the 1990s, and even after Nisbet’s death in 1996, his work became even more influential than it had been before.

“Another Nisbet revival is on right now,” the liberal columnist EJ Dionne wrote in 1996, “this one fueled by political conservatives searching for a coherent philosophy to support their efforts to tear down the modern welfare state and replace it with more localized and voluntary efforts to lift up the poor.” But the Nisbet revival was fuelled not only by conservatives but also by New Democrats, including Bill Clinton himself, and it found its most powerful expression in the anti-government vision of the internet advanced by the coalition of leftists and conservatives, led by the self-described “conservative futurist” Newt Gingrich, architect of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which set up an internet free of all government interference and oversight.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” the libertarian John Perry Barlow wrote in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace in 1996. “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.” Barlow’s rhetoric was anti-government (“Cyberspace does not lie within your borders”) but pro-society (“We are forming our own Social Contract”). He predicted that the internet would be all society and no government. He was half right. With notable exceptions – above all, China – it is ungoverned.

In 2000, Wired magazine predicted that the internet would heal all of America’s divisions, and the world’s. “We are, as a nation, better educated, more tolerant, and more connected because of – not in spite of – the convergence of the Internet and public life. Partisanship, religion, geography, race, gender, and other traditional political divisions are giving way to a new standard – wiredness – as an organizing principle for political and social attitudes.” Few predictions have been more wrong. Turning the world wide web into a social network, with the rise of “social media” in the first decades of the 21st century, only further corroded social ties. It produced a seemingly unending series of lamentations, and yet another Nisbet revival.

In 2013, George Packer published The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, his chronicle of America’s crisis of loneliness and alienation and isolation, which won the National Book Award. “No one can say when the unwinding began – when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way,” Packer wrote. “Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways – and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.” For Packer, the unwinding began “countless times” – a faint echo of Nisbet’s equally vague “earlier times” – but readers understood The Unwinding as a lament about the abandonment of the New Deal, first by the New Left, then by the New Right, and then by the New Democrats. Packer believed that the weakening power of the state diminished community: less government, less society. Nisbet believed the opposite, that the rising power of the state diminished community: more government, less society.

In 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning, Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times who wrote the introduction to a new edition of The Quest for Community, published The Decadent Society. Its arguments rest on a Nisbet essay about how golden ages end when the balance between individual and community is lost, in favour of rampant individualism and what Douthat calls decadence. In another 2020 book, A Time to Build, Yuval Levin, the founding editor of the conservative magazine National Affairs, quoted at length from Nisbet’s work. Nisbet wrote of a “twilight age”, marked by the “decline and erosion of institutions” and a strong “sense of estrangement from community”. This is the sort of thing Levin means when he writes that “we are living in an era marked by vacuum of allegiance”.

A man scrolls through his smartphone in Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: Songyuth Unkong/Getty Images/EyeEm


“We Americans are living through a social crisis,” he writes, describing a crisis of “loneliness and isolation, mistrust and suspicion, alienation and polarization”. We have lost faith in institutions: “From big business, banks, and the professions to the branches of the federal government, the news media, organized labor, the medical system, public schools, and the academy, confidence in our institutions has been falling and falling.” For Levin, this decline, which can be measured by public opinion polls, began in the 1970s. For Douthat, who is less interested in loneliness than in cultural decay, the fall began in 1969, when men landed on the moon, and can be followed, among other places, in American cinema, with its endless remakes of old movies. (How many more Star Wars and superhero movies can be left to make?) This comes straight out of Nisbet, and Douthat acknowledges that debt. “The creative burst can last just so long,” Nisbet wrote, “and then everything becomes routine, imitation, convention, and preoccupation, with form over substance.”

You can’t really take an indictment written in 1953 and republish it in 2020 as a diagnosis of something that started around 1970. Nisbet’s quest for community, written during the presidency of Harry S Truman, identified New Deal liberalism as the problem, because Nisbet was still living in the New Deal. Levin and Douthat want to blame liberalism, but the decades they identify as marking the decline of society are the very decades marked by the rise of conservatism of the Thatcher and Reagan variety. Those decades are also marked by the increasing illiberalism of the New Left which stands as profound danger to knowledge-driven social institutions, especially education and journalism. If the social fabric really is rent, there is, as ever, plenty of blame to go around.

Arguments made in the shadow of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin do, eventually, become obsolete. Now might be a good time to return your copy of Nisbet’s Quest for Community to the public library for reshelving. In many parts of the world, totalitarianism remains a danger, not from the state but from corporations that control data, knowledge and information. There is no escape. They know everything about you. You can hardly engage in a transaction – political, financial, cultural or social – without them. It’s less that the social fabric has grown frayed, its edges unravelling, than that the so-called social fabric is now manufactured, for profit, by monopolistic businesses, a cheap, throwaway fake.

Before the pandemic, there was a real world, and this fake one, real friendships and “friends”, political communities and “followers”, genuine political expression and “likes”. The risk, when interactions with other human beings are narrowed to these remote, glancing and often combative exchanges – simulations – is that, once the lockdowns are over, people will bring the culture of the virtual into the real, creating even angrier, more impatient, more superficial, more transactional, more commercial and less democratic societies.

Forging stronger bonds in a post-pandemic world, if one ever comes, will require acts of moral imagination that are not part of any political ideology or corporate mission statement, but are, instead, functions of the human condition: tenderness, compassion, longing, generosity, allegiance and affection. These, too, are the only real answers to loneliness, alienation, dislocation and disintegration. But the fullest expression of these functions across distances as easily spanned by viruses and flood waters as by broadband cables and TikTok videos, requires both society and government. What’s needed is nothing less than a new social contract for public goods, environmental protection, sustainable agriculture, public health, community centres, public education, grants for small businesses, public funding for the arts. It won’t be a new New Deal. The dangers are graver because decades of a world, both real and virtual, shaped by Reaganism and Thatcherism, has left the waters rising, all around us, and the forests on fire. Governments rest on a social contract, an agreement to live together. That contract needs renewing. But the problem, in the end, isn’t with society, or the social fabric. It’s with governments that have abandoned their obligations of care.

Liberalism didn’t kill society. And conservatism didn’t kill society. Because society isn’t dead. But it is pallid and fretful, like a shut-in staring all day long at nothing but a screen, mistaking a mirror for a window. Inside, online, there is no society, only the simulation of it. But, outside, on the grass and the pavement, in the woods and on the streets, in playgrounds and schoolyards and ballparks, in council flats and shops and pubs and agricultural fairs and libraries and union halls, society hums along, if not with the deafening thrum of a steam-driven machine, then with the hand-oiled, creaking clatter of an antwacky wooden loom.

This article was amended on 29 November 2021 to include Linus’s original “mankind ... people” quote from Peanuts

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