A Brief History Of Human Society

1.4m BC To 2015

VI. Moral Provisioning Under The Nation State

As the broadest possible generalization, it's possible to say that, once human communities became too large to be governed by direct exercise of morality within the group, religion evolved as the mechanism by which a moral infrastructure was maintained, and often enforced. Religions themselves are groups, hence their appeal to 'groupish' individuals, although they are so much larger than the ancestral human group of up to 150 people, that it is easy for the leaders of religious groups to abuse the morality that underlies them and that they overtly preach. However, throughout the period in which religion had the lead role in moral provisioning, many communities were not that far away from the original kin-group level (guilds, villages etc) able to maintain a local moral structure based on the shared knowledge of their members, which supplemented the church's morality. This sharing of moral provisioning between religion and the local community (not forgetting the trade-based groups as well) was the situation until the Nation State began to interest itself in the morality of its citizens.

Broadly speaking, the emergence of the nation state has gone hand in hand with the suppression or outright destruction of the collective way of life which had evolved among human groups over hundreds of thousands of years. Law, trade, kin-group society and morality have changed out of all recognition as the State has gradually taken over control of all these aspects of human life.

Jouvenel describes the breakdown of collective belief structures, to be replaced by the all-powerful State, during the 16th to 18th centuries: 'the great period of rationalism was also that of enlightened and free-thinking despots . . . all persuaded that they both could and should overturn the customs of their peoples to make them conformable to reason, all extending prodigiously their bureaucracies for the furtherance of their designs, and their police in order to smash all opposition.'

Benedict Anderson points out that: 'all profound changes in consciousness, by their very nature, bring with them characteristic amnesias'. In this way the group consciousness that was so strong in humans up to the late Middle Ages was overwhelmed by the power of 'national' consciousness.

Throughout Europe, the State used the power it had gained by the 18th century to demolish the remnants of collective life, by arrogating to itself the supervision and conduct of the law, of education, of social provision, and of many other areas of life. In England, for example, the enforced enclosures of the 18th century converted the commonly-held majority of English land into the estates of the nobility. 'And sheep do drive out men'. It probably wasn't done out of any animus towards the people, simply out of greed; but the effect was just as deadly to communal life.

19th century thinkers were very exercised about the moral dimension of the state. There was a major debate in the late 19th century between 'individualists', inheritors of 18th century rationalism, and 'collectivists', often socialists. Individualists believed that humans had taken on board the moral structures necessary for society to function, and that the State could therefore be minimalist. Herbert Spencer14 was one of the most prominent champions of the Individualists. Collectivists addressed a different agenda, believing that only the State could be relied upon to ensure the provision of moral and material goods to the majority of the population.

In terms of the academic argument, by the end of the 20th century, individualism had won out over collectivism, but individualists had thrown the groupish baby out with the collectivist bathwater, helped along by the discrediting of group selection as a primary evolutionary mechanism.

In terms of real-politik, however, the State had won, since between approximately 1600 and 1900 it comprehensively took over the legal systems which traders and other collectively-based social institutions had developed, as it would later take over education and the provision of other social goods. And the Bolsheviks were still to come.

Marriage, itself a culturally evolved mechanism that forms part of the moral structure of a social group, is another (collective) human institution whose control was in due time taken over by the State (via a period in which the Church regulated it) but for most of our social existence it was a matter between two kin-groups. Thus Radcliffe-Brown15: 'In Anglo-Saxon England a marriage, the legal union of man and wife, was a compact entered into by two bodies of kin. As the Church steadily increased in power and in control of social life, marriage became the concern of the Church and was regulated by canon law. . . . At the end of the Middle Ages there came the struggle for power between the Church and State in which the State was, in Protestant countries, victorious. Marriage then came under State control.'

State control of social mechanisms eventually proved unsuccessful from any moral perspective, but its takeover of commercial law had particularly immediate and adverse results: by the 19th century, traders, especially international ones, were so dissatisfied with State legal systems that they re-invented their own legal systems through the arbitration process. In the 20th century the State was busy once again trying to nationalize arbitration (States after all are run by lawyers!). However, globalization has given a new lease of life to independent (private) commercial law; and the WTO, despite the fact that it is a compact between nation states, is nothing but the Hansa writ large.

Although the State has pretty well extinguished the private sector in moral provisioning, even in the 21st century there are still groupish organizations which maintain the ancient, collective virtues as a way of life in defiance of 'modern' life, such as the Amish in the US and the Hutterites in Europe. For David Sloan Wilson16, the Hutterites are a testament to the success of groupish, anti-individualistic living: 'By fostering a selfless attitude towards others and minimizing the potential for exploitation within groups, they are spectacularly successful at the group level.'

The most important consequence of the effective ethical monopoly of the Nation State is that its model of top-down moral suasion (the 'Nanny State') is unsuited to the way in which the human mind works, leaving individuals without an effective internalised moral structure. Litter, suicide, rape, violence, thuggery and the rest are the all too obvious result. Humans, though, won't be stopped from associating with each other (even hoodies are being groupish) and it is not surprising that the growth in power of the State – denying individuality on the one hand – is matched on the other hand by an explosion of interest in association. People's individuality is reinforced, even perhaps created, on the basis of associative building blocks, and what the major institutions of society no longer provide for them they will always seek to provide for themselves.

Many associations (groups, clubs, call them what you will) play an ethical role in addition to their 'groupish' contribution. Lots of them exist for charitable purposes, or have such purposes in addition to their basic role ('friends' organisations at schools, for instance). Many more have sets of internal rules which control the behaviour of members during group activities, or even in some cases beyond. A London gentlemens' club will be quick to censure or expel a member whose public conduct is thought unacceptable, and the member of a tennis club who persistently cheats will quickly find that this reputation dogs him both inside and outside the gates of the club.


14 Spencer, H (1884) The Man Versus The State, Liberty Classics, Indianapolis 1981

15 Radcliffe-Brown, A R (1950) Introduction to African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, ed Radcliffe-Brown, A R and Foorde, D, OUP for The International African Institute

16 Wilson, D S (2002) Reintroducing Group Selection to the Human Behavioural Sciences, Biological and Brain Sciences, 2002