Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Community Life versus Individualistic Loneliness

As background for this inquiry let us bear in mind the mass surrenders which sanctioned the victory of totalitarian parties in several countries. The vanquished were without resentment, and, when they were not stunned, their defeat resembled a liberation. In fact, they felt that they were being freed from a condition so painful as to leave no sense for the worth of freedom. Such escape was particularly frequent in the proletariat and the middle class of the big cities. It interested young men rather than mature people. Individualistic loneliness was the condition, less tolerable than servitude, from which many were escaping into servitude.

There is nothing paradoxical about feeling lonely in a city. Descartes remarked that a large city gives a very good chance to the seeker of solitude; a place where voluntary solitude is easily found may also inflict solitude upon those who do not seek it. But solitude involuntarily experienced in a thickly populated place is particularly cruel. Every inhabitant of a large city is caught in a closely woven system of obligations; in all phases of daily life he has to choose against his own inclination; allegedly, the life of the city would be impossible without such continual sacrifices. If the individual feels that the returns are not fair, bitterness follows. As a recompense for loyal fulfilment of their duties toward society, men expect food, shelter, physical security, recognition, consideration, love. Notice, further, that the most generous component of man's sociability proves the most troublesome if it is denied satisfaction. According to the law of trans-subjectivity, which is that of rational nature, the frustration of the inclination to give causes more disorder than that of the inclination to grasp. Besides sociability by way of need, there is such a thing as sociability by way of dedication. The peculiarly dreadful frenzy caused by inclinations pertaining to the latter, when they are violently repressed, makes us realize that the act of dedication, which transcends all need, is, in a way, more needed than any object of need.

Thus, during the era of the dictatorships, which opened a short time after the first World War and whose end is not in sight, the story was gradually accredited that modern industrial life drives men into a state of isolation in the very midst of the crowded cities; isolation under such circumstances, so the story goes, causes anguish, frenzy, a sense of urgency, a craving for violent relief. Totalitarian movements grow out of this situation. A fitting leader for a totalitarian organization is, first of all and most indispensably, a man who knows how to give millions an intoxicating experience of integration in a community and of participation in its great work. The conclusion of the story is that technological society, by producing mass phenomena of individualistic loneliness, calls into being the totalitarian state and ends the era of democracy.


1. As a factor of loneliness, urban concentration itself must be mentioned in the first place. Communication with one's fellow-men is easier among few than among many. In the highly complex relations of the industrial city, involuntary contacts, which are superficial and leave the person alone and unhelped in the mystery of his destiny, leave little time and little energy for more genuine contacts and deeper communications. It may even be said that these quick and superficial encounters of daily life cause a real aversion to man. Without our being, in most cases, aware of it in the least, meeting a man, especially if he is such a familiar character as a companion of work, always arouses in us some hope and some expectation; our desire for communication and communion is stimulated and left bruised by disappointment. The prevalence of irony, sarcasm, skepticism, and cynicism among big-city dwellers may originate in such daily experiences. The cultural products of the modern cities -- novels in particular -- often express, together with misanthropy, a bitter resignation to the futility of relations which stimulate the social appetites of man without ever bringing about exalting communion or comforting communication.

2. As just recalled, the sentiments which cause the most painful restlessness when they are frustrated are not the most selfish ones. Generous sentiments, if denied opportunity, grow rebellious. Now there is normally, in the life of labor, a sentiment which, by transcending subjectivity, gives man a chance to enter into communication and communion with his fellow-men: it is the sense of service.

Most of the time the worker works not for his own consumption but for that of another person; he is thus rendering a service which is balanced by a recompense (wage, salary, fee, etc.). When everything is in order, the balance of service and recompense brings about marvels of social virtue. Through smooth relations of service and recompense, justice is satisfied in countless daily actions under conditions of faithfulness reminiscent of regularity in the processes of physical nature.

In a primitive economic system service is commonly rendered to known persons with whom the worker has a unique relation. The artisan, the small merchant, the small farmer, know many or all of the beneficiaries of their services. Personal interest in the consumer stimulates good work, and good work, in turn, fosters friendship. It is only natural to have friendly feelings toward a person for whom one works hard and conscientiously. But in modern industry there is almost always such a distance between the worker and the user of his products that the sense of service, deprived of the stimulation of personal acquaintance, is likely to be impaired unless it is subjected to stimulations of an almost sublime character, which are felt by only a few. The difficulty is increased when extreme division of labor deprives the worker of a chance to grasp, in a living and moving intellection, the purposes of the product. An assembly-line worker may, no doubt, entertain a very lofty sense for the service of man as he thinks that the finished product of which he makes a part will, in some unknown place of the world, satisfy human needs. His sense of service has to be refined and lofty; it cannot afford to be just sound and homely. But not many men are sensitive to the welfare of a deeply unknown, remote, impersonal, and even problematical consumer. If such lofty considerations are not effective, the sense of service is impaired and the worker's psychology centers about recompense. From then on, everything is out of order. The product, as it leaves the hands of the worker, disappears into a vacuum, falls into an abyss where men can neither be seen nor heard, although there is abstractive awareness that the product is actually delivered to them, at least in a majority of cases (for sometimes it is wasted or voluntarily destroyed). To be deprived of communication with those for whom one works -- this is a tremendous factor of loneliness, commonly felt in the daily life of industrial masses.

3. Distinction is a thing for which man craves; if he cannot obtain it on grounds bearing some appearance of reasonableness, he will be happy to obtain it on grounds built by unrealistic fancy and irrational emotions. Complicity in racial crimes was accepted by millions of persons for whom to be neither a Negro nor a Jew was the most highly valued privilege. Among the sentiments that account for the success of racism, none is more common or enduring than the desire for aristocratic distinction. It would be poor psychology to put all the blame on human pride. As they go looking for distinction with such eagerness as to welcome the most ridiculous grounds, countless men are more concerned with their survival than with their pride; lack of distinction means to them the most unbearable privation. Distinction procures company, and lack of distinction contains a threat of solitude.

The subject of uniformity in technological civilization has been so cheaply exploited by literary-minded amateurs that it calls for special precautions. As always happens with complaints voiced by literary men, the picture is distorted by exaggeration and by the fallacy of misplaced novelty. It remains true, however, that there is incomparably less diversity in the life of the modern industrial worker than in that of the traditional farmer. Notice, most of all, that uniformity, in technological organization, is not an accident; it is through uniformity of products that technology achieves the double purpose of cheap production and high wages. Thus uniformity must be considered a permanent feature of technological society.

It is easy to see how variety helps to satisfy the desire for distinction. When there is great diversity in possessions -- to say nothing of personal qualities which, of course, are to some extent shaped by diversity in the environment -- each person has a claim to uniqueness, at least within the circle of daily life, and beyond that circle few things are of much significance. I think, for instance, of homes and estates in a farming community of old Europe; one family has the distinction of living in the oldest house of the village; another one, that of owning the spinning wheel used by the last wheel spinner, several generations after the construction of the mule-jenny; another family owns an unusually large tree; one home commands beautiful scenery; another one is situated at the very place of a historic event; etc. Is it silly to draw satisfaction from the fact of being born in the oldest house of the village? None would pay much attention to such titles of distinction if they did not act as signs of a far-reaching fact. By granting me special consideration because my house is the oldest, the community expresses its disposition to consider me unique and most excellent in some respect. Whenever uniqueness is socially recognized, a man feels that he is not ignored, that he is not left alone, that he is not treated like a fungible good. What underlies common striving for distinction in society is not so much a desire for superiority as a desire for the recognition of one's uniqueness and of the uniqueness of one's possible excellence. Not to obtain such recognition is to feel ignored and rejected. Industrial workers are better housed in mass-produced houses than are old-fashioned farmers in damp and obscure dwellings built in the seventeenth century; their mass-produced food is wholesome, etc., but achieving social recognition of each one's uniqueness is for them a difficult task in which many fail.

4. Bearing in mind as a background the picture of the old system of orders in which most men were bound or strongly urged to remain in the social category in which they were born, let it be said that the first decisive step toward a fluid society was made when the principle of equal opportunity was posited. Although technical evolution had something to do with the abandonment of the order system, it is impossible to see in the principle of equal opportunity a proper effect of technology. Assuming that this principle was already asserted when society became technological, we propose to examine the contribution of the technological environment to social fluidity.

a) Industrial necessities and expediencies often cause instability with regard to place. In 1850, when the French bourgeoisie decided that the vote of the factory workers should not be a significant factor, a handy solution was procured by making franchise conditional upon a residence qualification of three years. This requirement was commonly met in the farming population and in the middle class but rarely in the industrial working class, as a result of which elections would be overwhelmingly conservative. Recall, also, the quick movements of population occasioned by the discovery of mines in the North American West and by the early exhaustion of many of them. Besides such extreme cases, which may be limited to periods of transition, an important factor of instability in place is the mobilization, at irregular intervals, of additional labor by industrial centers. The working population of an industrial region comprises a nucleus of families enjoying stable residence and several layers of temporary residents; as a rule, skilled labor enjoys more stability, and the most unskilled laborers are those who shift most often according to the demand of the labor market.

b) Over and above fluidity with regard to place, a great part of the industrial working class is subject to fluidity with regard to occupation. Among the factors of change in occupation let us mention the progress of technical education and the ability of rationalized industry to make highly productive agents out of unskilled workers.

c) The artificial environment of daily life, which plays a great part in the shaping of personalities, changes fast in a technological society. Through most of recorded history quick changes in this environment were restricted to dress and particulars of minor significance. The dwelling, at least, was a thing designed to last. But an idea which has recently gained much ground is that, in order to enjoy the best housing conditions, we should plan homes of short life, to be replaced as soon as better techniques make better ones. The high cost of construction has, so far, restricted the tendency to include dwellings among the things which should wear out so fast as never to slow the march of progress.

d) Changes in family mores follow upon the facts just mentioned with an appearance of inevitability. The least that can be said is that, all other things being equal, quickly changing environment causes a tendency toward instability in family relations. Tendencies of this kind are never necessitating, but they may exercise decisive influence merely by increasing the difficulty of certain courses of action. Faithfulness and never ending devotion in marriage and family life are, at all events, difficult and are rarely carried to perfection. If they are made incomparably harder by the instability of the circumstances, the ratio of virtuous accomplishment is bound to decrease. People of distinguished morality can preserve all the goods of absolutely stable family relations under all circumstances, but the great number of men, though capable of heroism on the battlefield, are known not to have the kind of fortitude needed to overcome extreme difficulties in daily life.

5. It seems to be the consensus both of men of common experience and of sociologists that evidences of individualistic loneliness are few and of minor intensity in societies characterized by the stability of family relations, the pervasiveness of family influence, the extension of the family circle, and the recognition given to families by society at large. Using this common opinion as a regulating postulate, we shall try to describe some effects of the technological environment upon the family with regard to stability, pervasiveness of influence, and social recognition.

It would hardly be exaggerating to say that the whole story is epitomized by the adventures of the word "economy" and its derivatives. Our concept of economy is so related to the nation and to the world that we always feel somewhat amazed at remembering that "economy" originally meant nothing else than the government of a household. The description of the family found in Aristotle's Politics (Book i) is that of an institution dedicated to the welfare of man in the needs and acts of daily life; with regard to such needs and acts, the family aims at self-sufficiency. Except for slavery, the Aristotelian description remained until recently the pattern followed by the rural family. It is hardly necessary to stress the advantages of a system which incloses the whole cycle of wealth, from ownership of the land to the use of the product, within a small unit in which strong feelings of friendship make possible an almost complete community of goods. Such a system rules out the infuriating disorders, so intensely resented by the men of the twentieth century, resulting from the nondistribution of the available product. It was inevitable that the traditional pattern be challenged when a number of duties previously discharged by the family came to be fulfilled (often in more satisfactory fashion) by other agencies. Technology played, directly or indirectly, a decisive part in the process which deprived the family of such functions as weaving, baking, schooling, nursing, entertaining, etc. Whether a family deprived of these functions still has enough weight, enough life, enough discipline, and enough charm to constitute the basic community in which man finds the safest refuge against loneliness is dubious. There are idealists who believe that the oaths exchanged by the spouses on their wedding day, the natural inclination of parents for children, of children for parents, of brothers and sisters for brothers and sisters, etc., should suffice to keep the family stable, closely knit, indispensable to the individual's happiness, and capable of giving all its members a sense of perfect security. Of course, it is always possible to find excellent personalities who defeat the influence of the environment; such examples are significant in several respects, but they do not invalidate laws expressing the tendency of environmental data to produce definite effects on men. With due allowance for exceptions, it cannot be questioned that the technological society such as we know it has enormously contributed to the weakening of family life. In so far as men deprived of community life and delivered to loneliness are ready material for antidemocratic movements, it must be confessed that technology, by creating circumstances unfavorable to the family community, prepared material for government by the leaders of the mob.

However, the superiority of rural life with regard to community feelings does not hold in all respects and is not unqualified. In old-fashioned rural families, community feelings are generally restricted to a narrow group and are accompanied by isolationist dispositions which may prove acutely antisocial. Intense devotion to the family often combines with readiness to treat the rest of the world as foreign and hostile; the sense of justice is often uncertain when the partner does not belong to the family circle or to the native community, which is confusedly identified with the family. Besides its general inconveniences, such an attitude of distrust beyond the limits of a small circle is exceedingly harmful to democracy. It makes impossible the normal operation of two essential organs of democratic life -- the party and the labor union. In societies where family feelings are so exclusive as to arouse distrust of every outsider, political parties turn to cliques, and exploitation thrives on unorganized labor.

The merits of the family community are at their lowest with regard to international and world relations. The two world wars and a few other recent events have compelled us to realize the necessity of a world consciousness, of a world conscience, and, generally, of the enlargement, to the dimensions of the world, of all social sentiments. This realization often was exceedingly painful. In other times the ratio of crime was high, but people were blessedly ignorant of what was going on beyond the limits of the town or county. We are tempted to regret the happy days when good hearts were protected by limited information and restricted conscience. Were not the sufferings of our village hard enough to bear? Why should I be born in a society which constantly arouses my emotions in relation to remote sufferers, to the atrocious mistreatment of the innocent in a hundred parts of the world? Peace and justice may be undisturbed for a while in our home and in our city, but the world is never free from an awe-inspiring amount of crime. Just as the sun never set on the empire of Charles V, so crime, horror, hatred, and anguish are always at work in the world. If my awareness extends as far as the borders of mankind, there will never be for me any rest or any unmixed joy. This means great suffering, but the dignity and the fertility of such concerns and sufferings are obvious. We are witnessing the incarnation of an old Christian idea, that of the universal republic under God, respublica sub Deo. This idea is now descending into a body of moral sentiments and natural emotions. In order to experience these sentiments and emotions, not exceptionally but in daily life, it is no longer necessary to be distinguished by enlightenment, extreme generosity, vibrating sensitiveness, or inappeasable anxiety. None of these distinctions is needed in order to have a conscience as large as the world. No more is needed than willingness to heed the suggestions of the technical environment. For it is technology which, with quick communication, instantaneous information, duplication of sense appearances, and increased range of the means of destruction, has made it possible and easy, though painful, for the ordinary man to have a moral conscience equal to mankind and proportionate to theological charity. Men whose community feelings fall short of complete coincidence with the border line of mankind are still in a primitive and childlike state of moral conscience. In a technological world the common man can develop community feelings equal to the dimensions of the human community.


At the conclusion of this long exposition a fresh effort is needed to overcome the depressing effect of what sounds like a hopeless platitude. The eighteenth-century theorists were not entirely wrong. The rural environment is in many respects the more favorable to the ethic of democracy; yet some phases of democratic life are greatly enhanced by technology. This conclusion is unglamorous; it is not of such a nature as to appease our anxieties; but it is not, either, expressive of despair. Its dualistic character may seem to suggest an attitude of disillusionment and passivity; it is rather meant to express a program of never ending inquiry into difficulties which cannot disappear but can be defined with more and more precision.

The radicalism often observed among our agrarians is barren (so far, at least, as theoretical understanding is concerned, for as a psychological disposition it may lead to worthy achievement). There is no use for this most unreal of all constructs -- a general return to primitive conditions with no motor transportation and no heavy machines. On the other hand, the picture of a society in which the farm and the industrial city are related as sources of opposite and supplementary forms of democratic life appeals to creative thought. To recall only one example, we consider it obvious that the goods of family life, though not unattainable in the industrial city, are found more certainly on the farm. Even if endeavors to restore family morals in large cities succeeded beyond hope, it would still be reasonable to consider that the exaltation of family ideals is in a peculiar sense the duty of the rural home. And no matter how broad-minded farmers may be, organized industrial workers will remain those whose special duty it is to extend a sense of brotherhood, with noble readiness, to newcomers, passers-by, unidentified members of the laboring community (from which it follows that a disaster takes place whenever labor indulges in policies of racial discrimination and strict control of immigration).

Concerning communications between the farm and the industrial city the present state of affairs suggests the following remarks:

1. There is a steady migration of the farm youth to the city; this may be deemed regrettable, but little or nothing can be done about it on a broad scale.

2. Many city dwellers seek refreshment, recreation, fun, and, when they are too old to work, a convenient retreat in the countryside; let us call them "tourists."

3. The category of the so-called "rural nonfarm" increases steadily. These are people who work in town and live in the country, draw money from a job in town but grow most of the food needed for family consumption on their small piece of land.

The movement of the rural youth toward the city cannot be considered a link between the farm and the factory; it would be one if many went back to the farm after a few years; but this is not the case. Tourists and rural nonfarm people connect the city with the countryside but in different ways of unequal value. Attention should be given here to the great psychological significance of the division of human activities into those which obey strict rules and those which call for fancy. Let the first be described as the "system of legal fulfilment," the latter as the "system of free expansion." The connection between the city and the farm, in order to be meaningful, ought to be contained within the system of legal fulfilment. The factory worker who becomes acquainted with the farm in the same way as a traveler with a Baedeker city may go back to work with fresh energy and spirits; this fine result does not shorten the distance between the factory and the farm by any means. No relation of far-reaching significance is established by such a division of life as labor in the city and pleasure in the country. Rural nonfarm people, also described as "onefoot-in-the-landers" have a distinct sociological significance, inasmuch as they exercise activities of legal fulfilment both on the land and in the factory. No room is left for amateurism, sentimentalism, histrionic attitudes; both ways of life mean to them life in earnest. The semirural people are many millions. So far as big cities are concerned, their movement is not likely to grow far beyond its present limits. But many signs support the forecast that industry, in the future, will no longer produce gigantic cities but rather favor the scattering of enterprises in cities of moderate size, where heavy concentration will be avoided. Around such cities many more millions of industrial workers will enjoy some of the privileges of rural life.

Let us remark once more that in the general relation between industrial and rural mores the leading role belongs to typical forms, i.e., to highly rational industry, on the one hand, and to comparatively simple farm economy, on the other hand. Fatal rupture of equilibrium would follow from the disappearance or extreme weakening of either. Now it seems that simple methods of farming, anterior to industrial agriculture, are so completely doomed by irreversible developments that people engaged in these methods exist merely as survivors of another age; they are still numerous, but they lack wealth, and, above all, as an effect of their antiquated way of doing things, they seem hardly capable of leadership. Men lose courage unless they feel that their effort concurs with the general movement of history. The romantic primitivism common among our agrarians may be nothing else than a distorted expression of a truthful perception: the maintenance of rural life, with all the virtues attaching to family economy, is a task which demands a special kind of enthusiasm. Over and above the generous emotions without which nothing great is accomplished, this task demands a conscious determination to assert man's freedom against, if need be, historical forces bearing an appearance of inescapable necessity.

Among the objective demands discoverable in a given state of society, some are such that, by general agreement, there is no reason to worry about the possibility of their not being satisfied. We use a variety of metaphorical expressions and of entia rationis to voice our certitude that such and such a line of events, firmly drawn in the past and down to the present, will actually extend into the future. Considering, for instance, that modern societies need industrial production organized in such fashion as to attain the triple goal of abundant output, low prices, and high wages, we know that, except in case of unprecedented and unforeseeable catastrophes, the operation of the technological apparatus will not be interrupted and the triple goal will remain within human reach. Between such a trend of events as the enduring operation of scientific industry and human freedom, the relation is such that the suspension of the former by the latter is devoid of probability. In order to keep this trend going, human freedom needs merely to follow, in daily occurrences, the line which spares everyone the cost of rebellion against overwhelming powers.

But it is also easy to recognize, in any given state of society, demands which, though real and all-important and urgent, are so related to human freedom that, in order to satisfy them, man needs to exercise, with a high degree of self-consciousness, his mastery over the nonrational part of his self and the nonrational elements which weigh so heavily on human history. Such profound acts of freedom are decisive in spite of the small number of those who perform them and the secrecy in which they are performed. It is unreasonable to oppose technology; it is not unreasonable to consider that a small number of lofty souls can give the family farm, in our time, a historic and, as it were, transcendent meaning. Things may be eased by the distribution of technical power; but, even if extreme difficulties had to be met in never ending struggle, the enthusiastic few needed to maintain the family farm as a pole of attraction acting upon the whole of society will not be lacking. All that is necessary is awareness of a link between farm life and the preservation and promotion of things that can never become indifferent to men -- communion with universal nature, the conquest of time through everlasting faithfulness, temperance, dignity in poverty, holy leisure, contemplation.

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