Is Society Valuable?

December 15, 2011

Political Theory

Throughout the semester, we have looked at theorists who have all espoused the view that society is a worthwhile and necessary thing. This is partially out of pragmatism, as returning to the hunter-gatherer days is not a simple alternative to political systems with the population size being what it is today (and was even back in the 16th century). However, it is useful to consider the alternative viewpoints of anarchists as a way of framing the question of what makes a political system, or society more generally, worth living in.

The two “theorists” I think are particularly interesting in this mode of thinking are Ted Kaczynski and Chris McCandless. Both rejected modern society, and in their own way contributed something valuable to political thought. Their lives were quite tragic, of course, as Kaczynski murdered several people, and McCandless accidently killed himself in pursuit of a simpler way of living. It is this common element of extreme sacrifice which makes them interesting cases of applied anti-social theory.

The basis of the anarcho-primitivist school of thought is the idea that modern society is not an ideal form of living. Despite the advances of modern medicine, the conveniences of modern food and amenities, and entertainment, they claim that domestic living alienates man from his roots to an unacceptable extent. They also believe that organized living in any form leads to inequalities and injustices due to the very nature of role specialization and social stratification present in any political system. Their argument further claims that a long-life may not be the best ideal to strive for; because people are scared of death, they want to live as long as possible regardless of whether or not they will be able to fill that extra time with something profound. In a state of nature, people are less concerned with death (at least as an abstract entity, obviously the predator lurking in the bushes is a more real possibility), and so do not worry about how old they are, but rather live in the moment. The lack of fulfillment commonly felt in modern society is attributed to an absence of purpose and surplus of time in which to contemplate one’s own unhappiness. The effect of the conformity demanded by society on the psychological health or spiritual wellbeing of its constituents is also of interest, especially to some of the oldest theorists in this school, the Transcendentalists.

Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson have served as inspiration for generations of non-conformists, such as the Beats of the 1950’s. The Transcendentalists all believed that there was an unacceptable level of conformity within society, and that a return to nature and increased self reliance was what was needed for society. Emerson famously stated, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members”. They lived in an unnerving time; the momentous rise of the industrial revolution during the 19th century and the American Civil War led to a literary movement concerned with feelings of alienation from the values of surrounding society, and the need to delve into one’s own inner-self to discover the meaning of life. Obviously this kind of philosophy leads one to develop anti-social patterns of thought, which inevitably serve as an important source of inspiration for those discontent with living in society to begin with (I don’t mean anti-social in the negative, stigmatized sense that it usually implies).

Reconsidering McCandless and Kaczynski, it becomes easier to comprehend their seemingly perplexing choices to leave society and move to the woods after realizing that there have been and always will be many people who make similar decisions. McCandless was always restless and embarked on several adventures before his final, fatal Alaska expedition. Jon Krakeur’s In to the Wild does an excellent job of detailing the stories of many individuals of a similar persuasion who inevitably died in their attempts to find meaning out in the wilderness. Though McCandless’s death is seemingly a tragic story of a senselessly and recklessly led life to most of society, there will always be a subculture of people who can’t understand how mainstream society is so willing to sacrifice the thrill of adventure and satisfaction of living off the land for 70 years of monotonous domesticity.

McCandless in front of the bus which served as his place of residence for four months while attempting to survive in the Alaskan wilderness

Ted Kaczynksi, a brilliant mathematician with a PhD from UM, decided to pull a Thoreau and retreat to a cabin in the woods. Unlike Thoreau, who found living alone in his cabin by Walden Pond to be unsustainable for any extended period of time, Kaczynski was entirely committed to living in solitude out in the woods in Montana. The story goes that land developers encroached on his territory, serving as one of several inspirations for his reasoning that society at large would inevitably engulf him and destroy the natural world. As we are increasingly seeing with global warming and the natural resource depletion rate in the 21st century, he may not have been completely off base, though certainly at the time the evidence for the need for serious concern about the environment was not nearly as complete as today. It is probably reasonable to conclude that Kaczynski was a profoundly paranoid individual.

Ted Kaczynski's Montana shack

He wrote a Manifesto entitled “Industrial Society and its Future” (also known popularly as the Unabomber Manifesto), which details his concern about the course of mankind and attempts to rationalize his mail bombing campaign. He essentially believed that people were too concerned with “surrogate activities”, and that true satisfaction can only come from a simple, natural way of living. He believed that society was too difficult to maintain, and would eventually destroy the natural world, which he saw as inherently valuable. In order to bring about a change of heart in society at large, he attempted to bring people’s attention to his hypotheses through violence, which unfortunately has had rather the opposite effect (society at large having completely discredited his opinions). The explanation given for this method was that there was going to be extreme violence in the future anyway, so minor violence now was preferable to the endgame scenario he envisioned in the future. Though clearly flawed, Kaczynski’s Manifesto contains many interesting, albeit not particularly original, ideas worth considering.

My line of thinking about society vs. nature involves several questions about the ethics of dealing with the proportion of society who does not want to participate in the system. What should be done with those who don’t want to live by society’s rules? Obviously the law and the means of enforcement are necessary for the integrity of society, but it seems tragic that there isn’t a way to reconcile the needs of a large minority of people in society. The Native Americans serve as a cogent example of a failed attempt at allowing a group to maintain their own lifestyle in an enclave separated from the rest of society (I’m referring to the low quality of life typically encountered in government set up reservations). Alaska in many ways represents the last frontier available for those who decide they do not want to be a part of society. As McCandless found out, however, it is an extremely unforgiving place, and not one particularly conducive to a hunter-gatherer life style. Currently, the option to leave society and “go to the woods” in the vast majority of cases means either a certain death, or an incomplete and bastardized experience (not really escaping the reaches of society). All of the natural, habitable land in the world is currently lived in. Aside from creating islands (the subject of my previous post), there really doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go but to stay within the confines of a society somewhere.

Clearly the question of whether or not society is valuable is a decision made by each individual, but the reality remains that for those who decide that it is not valuable, there is little or no choice to follow that inclination. What do other people in the blog think? Is it more worthwhile to work in an office and go to the grocery store for food, or is hunting deer a more fulfilling use of your time? Though it may seem obvious what most people’s choice would be, consider the fact that McCandless didn’t go to the woods until after graduating from college and before abruptly cancelling what his parents thought were certain Law school plans.

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About Brian Hall

I'm a sophomore at UM studying German, Arabic and Linguistics, and am pre-law.

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