The Stable Society, Wadebridge Press, Devon, 1978
The notion of a ‘stable society’ appears to be an important element in the developing consciousness of the Ecology Party, and a central plank in it election platform. But what does the term really stand for? Are we happy with the possible implications of this concept? Does it help us to express our ideals more clearly, or does it merely get in the way. Does this book provide any answers?
It seems to me that as a party that is soon to be fighting its first ‘serious’ election, it is important that we are able to answer such questions. So when I left the Birmingham conference the proud owner of a mint copy of The Stable Society (duly signed by the author), I expected to get some answers. Well I have, and they are not answers that I like. Now my view is no more important, no more ultimately valid than that of anyone else, but if as a long active member of the environmental movement, I react in this way, what will be the reaction of those who are already hostile to our ideas and our cause? Thus the sole purpose of this review is to expose what seem to me to be the central features of this book, and thereby help to stimulate much wider discussion within the party about them. If many others come to share my views, or similar ones, then important consequences may follow.
The book set out to examine the systems of social control that, according to the author, once ensured stability in so-called primitive societies. The attenuation of these control systems – religion, the family, recognition of ‘natural’ limits – has contributed to the ‘undifferentiated’ and ‘unstable’ character of modern societies. So far, so good. But what should one do about all this? Well, the central and controversial message of this book is that if we want to live in a stable society then the ONLY way to get to one is to return to pre-industrial (or even pre-Christian – it isn’t clear which) ways of life! Women must return to traditional roles, religion be re-established in its role as a societal control mechanism, a cultural hierarchy must be re-imposed, and presumably most forms of technology abandoned. Only thus can we achieve stability and order.
But, you may ask, is that not an unacceptably high price to pay for stability? Indeed, are not other social goals equally or more important? What are the actual human costs of such an operation? Were primitive societies ever really that stable or desirable? Is this really part of our political philosophy? Is he serious? Of these, we may be sure that the answer to the latter is ‘yes’. Goldsmith is serious, so we’d better deal with this book seriously.
Let me say at once that to my mind this is one of the bleakest books I have ever encountered. This is a harsh judgement, so what are my reasons for it? Well, in the first place, it is a difficult book to read. This is not because the subject matter is presented in any intellectually challenging way, or because the material itself is inherently weighty, for it is not. The first problem for the reader is that of Goldsmith’s self-indulgent style. It lacks discipline, humour and coherence, and betrays no sense of the limits of certainty. Worse, Goldsmith cannot seem to rid himself of the excruciating habit of writing down to his readers, as if he alone had seen the One True Light.
Indeed, admire him as we may for his past work in the environmental movement, it nevertheless remains difficult to warm to a writer who flails out in all directions at those whose vision, experience, profession or way of life differs from his own. His attacks on what he thinks of as ‘science’ (a word concept that bestows a false unity on a very diverse set of values, activities and practices) are frequently quite meaningless when they are simply not banal (eg. p 64). We learn for example that logical positivism is ‘taught as gospel in our universities’, that we the gullible public ‘sincerely believe that science will provide us with the means of solving…(our problems)’, and so on throughout the book. Is this the way to win friends and influence people, or, for that matter the way to help build up a political party?
The analytical flaws in this work are also numerous, and I can only note a few of them here. One of the most consistent features is the way in which the author presents what are in fact highly arguable assertions as if they were clear certainties. Besides impairing the credibility of the thesis, this also has the effect of continually presenting the attentive reader with the difficult choice of either giving in, and suspending disbelief and rational thought, or of giving up, and finding a more rewarding way to spend his or her time. Indeed, the author seems to have a sure instinct for extreme statements and extreme forms of argument, and an equally sure gift for missing entirely the much more intellectually demanding middle ground where reasonable people usually try to reconcile their differences. (See for example the ‘discussion’ of scientific orthodoxy on page 53.)
More damaging still perhaps are what we might call the philosophical assumptions expressed here. Goldsmith seems totally preoccupied with the idea that the goals of society are (or should be) those of stability and order. This is, as another reviewer noted (in Resurgence 69) an extremely partial view. He rightly suggested that ‘liberty, equality and fraternity or the progressive evolution of consciousness’ represented just ‘two other possibilities’. Amen to that! We should also note that this strong emphasis in Goldsmith’s work on stability and order strongly imply that, at some point, the imposition of authoritarian power is envisaged. Hence his continual emphasis on social control, – a concept that comports better with the technocratic view than with any other, to my mind. This helps to explain the air of veiled oppression that permeates this book and my dislike of it. (Incidentally, other critics have also noted this tendency: see the review of Deindustrialising Society in New Scientist 26/5/77.)
Goldsmith’s conception of man is also a singularly depressing and unpromising one to say the least. For him, the social context determines the boundaries of life and consciousness. He quotes approvingly from Murdoch, who in part writes ‘…man is not biologically a social animal…but in every individual case must be bent and broken to group living’ (p 14). We are also told that the ‘goal of behaviour (is) to maintain the system’s continuity’, or again, ‘the notion of freedom is largely illusory’ (p 89). Surely we have heard all this before, and not only from writers like Huxley and Orwell.
What a bleak and soulless distance this is from Mumford’s heartfelt and altogether more promising view of man as ‘pre-eminently a mind-using, symbol-making, and self-mastering animal’. Unlike Goldsmith, Mumford believes of man that the ‘the primary focus of all his activities lies in his own organism’. What a contrast too with the transcendent visions of a Roszak, a Schumacher, or many other writers. Goldsmith’s reduction of man to a powerless cypher in a pre-ordained social matrix (ie, one in which all power relations are not questioned, but taken as ‘natural’) represents to me the least acceptable feature of this depressing book. He has written out most of the very qualities and powers of humankind which in themselves give us hope for the future: our sheer inventiveness (not confined to the material sphere), our transcendent gifts, visionary power, our refusal to submit to tyranny, our ability to participate in shaping history as self-aware and self-motivating beings. All this Goldsmith would deny, and in so doing he attempts to deny us a part in creating our own future.
It is thus entirely consistent that Goldsmith fails utterly to convey any feeling for the sheer living promise of a truly egalitarian, decentralised society. If the book looks forward at all, it is toward ‘inevitable collapse’. The author clearly prefers the simple certainties of a pre-industrial world, and sees within this frame the only possible pattern for our future. Now I expect most of us would agree that traditional cultures contained (and contain still) great wisdom (as well as great folly, let us not forget). But instead of translating traditional insights into terms that speak to our age, as say, Van der Post does in some of his novels, Goldsmith has unwittingly built of them a prison for the human spirit.
The title of this book is The Stable Society, but the underlying concern may lie in another direction entirely. The pretentious style, the creeping totalitarianism inherent in its uncompromising philosophy, the disdain with which it treats the identity and experience of its readers reveal it to be a book that was not, I am sad to say, written from a position of intellectual strength, but from the opposite. Wisdom does not require such sterile posturings, rather it seeks a simplicity and directness that are utterly absent here. (Compare, for example, Schumcher’s A Guide for the Perplexed.)
We may find it in us to admire Goldsmith’s dogged persistence in following through what must have once seemed a productive idea – after all the family probably is the basis of social structure. But in my view it is now clear that the project is a failure. By scorning the infinitely varied and subtle realities of history, science, the human personality and indeed the Twentieth Century itself, Goldsmith has cobbled together a tawdry little system that borrows from all of these but gives little back, except perhaps to its creator. As an attempt to bolster a self-image, a particular worldview, it may attain some success.
As part of the intellectual baggage of the Ecology Party it is a continuing disaster.
Published in the UK Ecology Party Newsletter, March/April 1979, pp 9-10.
Copyright (C) Richard A. Slaughter, 1979.