What actually connects us, binds us together in profoundly meaningful, emotionally satisfying ways? Is it abstract concepts, ideas, or beliefs about 'how the world should be?' Or is it the immediate experience we have of our selves and others interacting, collaborating, co-operating?
Societies are meta-systems composed of many interacting subsystems. These include political, legal, judicial, financial, educational, governmental, health care, communication, cultural and religious systems that are networked together. From the overall interactions of these systems emerge the particular characteristics of a given social order. But all this derives from the participation of autonomous individuals who participate in those systems. Thus a society is termed an "agent based" system. Ant colonies are also agent based systems. But the self-ordering, self-perpetuating operations of human societies depend upon whether their individual agents willingly submit to the constraints of the social order. Thus the authority that social institutions exert over individuals must in some way be justified or legitimated as serving the interests of the individuals it constrains into a particular social order. Certain concepts, purposes, and values are used to generate a collective identity that the social systems supposedly represent. This has been referred to as the "social contract."
This 'glue' that holds a social order together can involve racial or ethnic attributes, religious beliefs, nationalistic identity, or specific ideals for how individuals are to be treated. The authority of most modern social systems justify their authority on the basis of "rule of law" and references to some basic "human rights" that give individuals an expectation of protection and equality. In actual practice, however, even the societies that justify the "power of the state" with the most overt claims of liberty, equality, and justice, manifest overt inequity in the status of their citizens. Individuals in Western democracies are not equally served or empowered by their social systems. Vast inequities in social, financial, judicial, educational, and political status permeate these social orders. Despite the concepts and values employed to justify them, in practice they are highly stratified and hierarchical. The many labor, and often suffer, for the indulgences of a few. Nonetheless, the majority of agents in these social orders appear to acquiesce to the authority of systems that betray the supposed basis for their existence.
There is a curious contradiction in claims that a society exists primarily on the basis of individual liberty. If a social order exists 'for the good of all,' yet is justified by the rights of its individual agents to 'do as they please' so long as their actions do not infringe upon other's right to 'do as they please,' then the basic value justifying the social order is actually that of competition, not cooperation or equality. Such an orientation to social relations necessarily leads to stratified inequality and suppresses genuine communality, in which resources, services, and privileges are equally shared.
This conundrum about how to ensure both individual liberty and communal equality has manifested in the forms of competing social ideologies, distinguished by terms such as socialism, communism, anarcho-syndicalism, and capitalism. However, none of the political states that claimed these ideologies as their basis and justification have generated non-hierarchical, broadly egalitarian social orders that do not contain privileged elites and a significant "under class." Once there is a formalized "state," or privately owned corporation, which asserts legally sanctioned authority over individuals, hierarchy and inequality seem inevitable. Civilization, it appears, is a con-game, in which the manipulative domination of a few is justified on the claim of benefiting the whole. Is this just 'human nature' or is it something inherent in any formalized political state system?
Perhaps it is just not possible to configure a social order that can maintain both the liberty of competitive individualism and communal equality in a civilized "mass society"--meaning one in which people are not personally connected to the majority, or "mass," of others. One might well wonder if any such social condition ever actually existed. What exactly might a mass society of communal equality look like?
Studies of behaviors associated with severe disruptions of normative social orders, such as from natural disasters, indicate that individuals will suddenly become more communally oriented. People will abruptly shift their emphasis of concern from their own competitive individual interests toward that of others and a sense of community needs when 'all are at risk.' Major disruptions and threats tend to 'bring us together,' directing the attention of individuals towards the well-being of others around them. Catastrophe tends to promote compassionate, prosocial communal behaviors even in highly stratified societies.
As Jamil Zaki, researcher at Standford University writes, "For decades, social scientists have documented two narratives about human behavior during crises. The first holds that, following disasters, individuals (i) panic, (ii) ignore social order, and (iii) act selfishly. . . . The second narrative comes from historical records. Far from rendering people antisocial and savage, disasters produce groundswells of prosocial behavior and feelings of community. In their wake, survivors develop communities of mutual aid, engage in widespread acts of altruism, and report a heightened sense of solidarity with one another. . . . In addition to being prevalent, catastrophe compassion appears to be beneficial. Prosocial behavior exerts positive effects on helpers – including increases in happiness and decreases in stress and loneliness. Following disasters, mutual aid also tracks increases in positive collective outcomes such as social connection, solidarity, and shared resilience."
Why does this happen? What changes that suddenly transforms normally remote, even contentious relationships, into egalitarian cooperation? From a systems science perspective, the normative flows of feedback are disrupted and a new network of more broadly interdependent relationships emerges. One way to phrase this is that people cease to act as competitive agents responding to the hierarchical structures of normative social networks and reorient their sense of purpose to collective, communal needs. They act 'for social interdependence' rather than for 'social advantage.' They suddenly identify even with strangers and former antagonists when all are facing similar immediate challenges and the flow of feedback becomes more 'lateral' or ;horizontal' and less 'vertical' .
What is presently occurring in Ukraine, under relentless bombings of civilian infrastructure, is a case in point. Ukrainian society had more than its fair share of divisions, inequality, and corruption prior to the Russian invasion of February, 2022. But that brutal assault suddenly triggered a reorientation of social behaviors and sense of purpose. It appears that part of this abrupt shift derives from the fact that destruction of the electrical power supply systems ensure that most Ukrainians, regardless of political persuasion, or social and economic status, are being rather equally effected. The preceding hierarchical advantages and disadvantages have in significant degree been abrogated. Any sense of superiority or inferiority, of 'us versus them' within the social system, has been profoundly dampened. The shared deprivations have connected individuals in a more horizontal network of identifications. Each person's efforts are suddenly more connected to the survival of others. It has become much more reflexive to feel that 'we are all in this together.'
Zaki notes that there is the mor common narrative about human behavior under such disruptive conditions expects people to be selfish and even criminal. But in contrast, historical analysis reveals the opposite. The first narrative can be understood as the attitude taken by normatively hierarchical, control-oriented social orders--the dominance of state power and socio-economic elites. The authority and privilege of such systems depends on stoking individual fear of disruption. But disruptions that enhance mutual identification of agents with each other actually tend to promote self-organizing prosocial behavior. Neither the state nor socio-economic elites can simply compel such behavior. Indeed, that mode of behavior threatens the very existence of the way they dominate and exploit flows of feedback in the larger system.
Ukrainian society is presently offering us all a model of a more communal social network in a "mass society." They are demonstrating that such behavior is possible when the majority are subjected to the same level of difficulty and need. This shows that inequities of wealth, power, and privilege in a social order depress such behavior. When asked 'how long can you continue to resist?' the Ukrainian answer seems to be, 'as long as necessary.' In other words, they will suffer whatever they must to care for each other, survive another day, and resist domination. They are willing to suffer and die for each other. That attitude appears to be shocking to the more individualistically competitive Western social attitudes. Indeed, some of the ambivalence in Europe about assisting Ukraine might well derive from the existing hierarchical systems fearing a threat from Ukrainian collective egalitarianism. The Ukrainians are showing us how we could behave--if we reoriented our priorities and restructured our social orders. "Glory to Ukraine."
Russian failures in accomplishing their goal of military domination in Ukraine are also instructive. Despite elements of surprise and superiority in numbers and equipment, the top-down control network of Russian command structure has proved incompetent in adapting to Ukrainian determination, individual initiative, collective coherence, localized self-organization, and tactical ingenuity. This Russian system characteristic mirrors much of our governmental and corporate systems worldwide. It illustrates our failure to act effectively in response to the well-known threats of the climate crisis.
Of course, it is unlikely that social orders not under such threat and deprivation will act similarly. Ukrainians did not choose to be in these circumstances so that they would become more communal. But this situation provides a preview of what humans collectively are facing worldwide.The accelerating disruptions of the climate crisis pose an existential threat that will soon put most of us under similar stress, whether by local disasters or the extended effects these have on distant regions. Our existing top-down, competitively exploiting systems have proven they are incapable of addressing, much less avoiding, the looming catastrophes. So bear witness now to Ukraine. And prepare for a radical shift in social order, to act collectively, cooperatively, prosocially, on your local level, as the Great Disruption breaks upon us -- when we are, at last, 'all in this together.' And then, to experience an amplification of meaning, purpose, and satisfaction.
Catastrophe Compassion: Understanding and Extending Prosociality Under Crisis