This article features in our June Institutions Special Issue.
Much has been made of the atomisation of society in recent years, and there have been many attempts to theorise how to go about reversing, freezing or merely slowing this change.
Less consideration has, however, been given to one particular consequence of social atomisation, that being a series of irrevocable alterations to societal institutions, and perhaps even to political constitutions.
Even prior to the widespread adoption of the internet, Western society had begun a retreat from shared experience and commonality. Yes, church attendance declined, and as Putnam famously remarked, we began ‘bowling alone’, no longer participating in other group activities. In the idea space, we began to prioritise the reading of books (and later the consumption of other media) merely to confirm our own bias; no longer were we eager to share what we’d learned and discuss how it related to a sense of the common good.
Now, in an age where limitless information lies at our fingertips, we use social media similarly, retreating into echo chambers in which the ideas and views presented to us do not challenge us enough to make us uncomfortable.
Every one of us does this to a degree, intentionally or not, regardless of politics or creed. Despite disagreements and conflicting perspectives being common throughout history, we feel a decreasing need to engage, in good faith, with ideas that don’t quite make sense to us.
In Issue Nine, Michael Psaras expressed pessimism with regard to the continuation of the British monarchy as an institution; I believe that if the current course is maintained, the abolition of the
monarchy is a certainty.
Thorstein Veblen, an American economist and sociologist, divided institutions into two categories, ceremonial and instrumental. Ceremonial institutions were inherited social constructs that tied contemporary society to those who came before, these institutions were wasteful and superfluous, and had to be altered or replaced with instrumental institutions that better aligned with the contemporary level of technological progress. Veblen outlined these concepts prior to the First World War, but it is
clear that for many, the monarchy has long been a ceremonial institution; Veblen himself must have taken notice of this after so many crowns fell at the conclusion of the Great War.
The twentieth century saw previously monarchical states adopt a variety of ideologies, each setting up new institutions that were claimed to be instrumental. I consider not just the logic of democracy of which we are all familiar, but also the ‘science’ of socialism, the ghastly conception of modernity espoused by fascists, and more complicated arrangements seen in autocracies such as Salazar’s Portuguese ‘New State’.
Many of these very different ideological groups believed that society progresses or evolves with time, although they had radically different ideas of what progress might look like.
I believe that regardless of the benefit of an institution in reality, if a sufficient amount of society sees the institution as ceremonial, it is on borrowed time.
Even in an atomising society, if the fall of an institution makes sense to enough people, even for radically different or opposed reasons, the institution becomes impossible to defend.
What recourse exists then, for the would-be defender of institutions? I hope the reader forgives me for bringing up a divisive recent alteration to an institution, though I suspect the reader will not forgive me for being critical of it. I speak of the redefinition of state-recognised marriage under a Conservative Prime Minister.
Like the institution of the monarchy, the institution of marriage has varied rather widely throughout history and through the lenses of different cultures. Yet, I believe it would be disingenuous to argue that there was not a cohesive understanding of marriage in the West and in Christian cultures, and it would be equally disingenuous to argue that the recent redefinition was a natural and logical action.
Marriage, as classically understood, encouraged a stable environment in which children could be raised. In cultivating family bonds, it could be said that community would grow naturally, as society itself is built upon the strong foundations of authentic personal relationships. To the Christian, marriage should be modelled on the relationship between Christ as bridegroom and His Church as bride; it could be said that marriage provides the safest way to Heaven for those who are not called to live the celibate life.
Yes, as I’ve noted above, there is no reason for others to respect this institution, especially if one is irreligious and of the view that there is a progression in human development justified by ideology rather than the graces of a deity. However I would argue that, instead, in their torpor and acedia, conservatives merely resolved to retroactively alter their own conceptions of marriage.
The new definition after all, still encourages stable personal bonds, and in encouraging two-per-
son-income households provides more secure opportunities for the raising of children. It seems to have been easy for many opposed to the change to rewrite the change as a victory, despite birth rates being continually low and the turning of society from virtue and purpose being painfully present.
I would warn against inaction for those of us who do not subscribe to a progressive or whig understanding of history.
We should make the strongest arguments possible for the institutions that we love, identifying the merit we see and when possible adapting it to make sense to those with different philosophical and ideological bases.
Engaging with others constructively and with a view to the common good of society, does service to each of our causes, even if people ultimately remain in disagreement.
However futile, we must promote commonality again and we must insist on the wisdom of those who blessed us with the pillars of society that we so love.
To contrast a progressive view of history, I am reminded of the words of Tolkien, ‘Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory’.
Remember that a long defeat is not a long retreat, but instead a long battle that we will not see relief from in this life. Perhaps like Tolkien and myself, you have come to believe in the end that human institutions are bound to fail, but that we should take solace in the institutions of Heaven.
Photo by Leonard Bentley on Flickr.