Social engineering’ is seen in some circles as a swear phrase and is associated with socialism – meaning surrendering individual sovereignty into State control.
In a recent heated interview with Redi Tlhabi, Gareth Cliff attacked the notion of collective wellbeing, arguing that it’s all about social engineering and that we would have a better society if we all became libertarians (not exactly his words) and were all left to ourselves. This piece is not necessarily a counterargument against what Cliff said during the interview but against the kernel of an idea that Cliff, as a celebrity, and others like him clone and reproduce regularly.
Cliff was presumably defending a version of Western liberalism and the capitalist system. He was railing against too much State control and ‘socialist’ ideas entering our lives.
There are a variety of meanings of social engineering, collectivism and social anarchism. With respect to social anarchism – its entire leaning is towards greater autonomy for communities and collectives. The great historical experiment of the Paris Commune is often cited as an example.
The early proponents of this collectivism and autonomous communities were Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, as well as Murray Buchin, who is regarded as the founder of social ecology. One has not seen such a model really work on a national scale, but in isolated experiments. The closest large-scale experiments – outside communist States – were the worker cooperatives comprising the Mondragon experiment, in Spain, and the kibbutz system, in Israel (and here I plead ignorance of others that may also exist).
Cliff would not have known that he has allies among his socialist enemies, but his reading does not seem to venture that far. But let us examine the phrase ‘social engineering’. The most basic things that give order in life are all forms of social engineering. Take, for instance, the stop sign, a common feature in all countries that have roads and motor vehicles. It induces behavior among drivers that is instinctive and necessary and is a positive contributor to liberty. Imagine if all people did not obey the stop sign, like some do. Illiberal things would happen: accidents, injury and death.
We as a society have agreed to these social measures through the law and each autonomous actor has to abide by the basic restrictions imposed on us because they are there to protect us.
Even the inspirer of the early version of libertarianism, Karl Popper, recognised that, for an individualistic society to thrive, some forms of ‘piecemeal social engineering’ are necessary. In his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper recognised that social engineering had to go light-touch rather than heavy, as in Utopian social engineering. (Popper, by the way, had great influence on George Soros, which is why we have the Open Society Foundation). Utopian social engineering was a place run by a few, with these few men and women deciding what was good for society and handling State and citizen affairs with the greatest authoritarianism possible.
Social anarchism is against this form of social organisation.
We must not also be oblivious to the undercurrents in Western liberalism – even though democracy prevailed, there have always been thinkers that viewed popular democracy with great suspicion. This was the basis of Edward Bernays’ foray into crowd psychology, and he quickly became a sort of expert on public relations. His famous book, Propaganda, is an attempt at a theory of crowd psychology, where the task of propaganda and the rule of the elite is to use the science of psychology to manage the ‘passions’ of mass psychology for democracy and capitalism to thrive.
Those who think that socialists are designing grand schemes of social control should watch the BBC documentary by Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self, to understand that elites all over the world have sought ways to avoid popular democracy in its true sense, resulting in something between popular representation and management by elites. Corporations have long learnt this art with consumer products and have used skillful ways to socially engineer our desire for material things. Recently, this has become the subject of a detailed book written by Shoshana Zuboff, called Surveillance Capitalism, which describes how an old art has enhanced its capabilities through Big Data and algorithms.
Cliff betrayed a jaundiced view of the world, slinging a slogan used more as a slur instead of demonstrating his knowledge of the issue, even though he pretended to do so. Perhaps the phrase ‘social engineering’ is wholly inappropriate for our time, whether it is implemented by liberal or nonliberal societies.
It reminds me of the advice Simon Sinek gives in his book – that the engineering of social life imagines that social beings can truly be engineered in ways that make them pliant to an orderly manifestation of society.
As Sinek notes, extreme social engineering – of the kind Ivan Pavlov imagined in the Soviet Union – is untenable because autonomous will is hard to engineer entirely. Pavlov had a counterpart in the US who was also interested in scientific psychology, the behaviourist BF Sinner, who, in 1957, published the book Verbal Behaviour, which dominated the field of linguistics for a while. Pavlov and Skinner were not far off in their own Orwellian versions of the world except they contextualised their versions in two different types of economic systems. However, the intent was the same: control over the minds and behaviour of the populace.
Humans have a natural inclination towards freedom, but they also recognise that individual freedom ensues when society is orderly and that orderliness also benefits all those who live under the same roof and in which the system is not skewed towards the interests of one group at the expense of another. Libertarianism is also contradictory: the obsessive focus on abuse of State power is always accompanied by the short thrift given to corporate power.