The return of society

12/06/2012 § 1 Comment

One of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis — and it extends into social theory based on psychoanalytical theory — is the return of the repressed. That which is repressed doesn’t go away. It reappears in some other form, such as the famous ‘Freudian slip’.

It used to be we had something called ‘society’. There were arguments about its role and importance, memorably set to music in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ from West Side Story. Even as late as 1975, Dr Scott’s line in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (all hail Richard O’Brien) still made sense: ‘Society must be protected!’

Things changed. Thatcher could claim, with a straight face, ‘There is no such thing as society.’ There were individuals, and families, and neighbours — but there was no society. There is truly nothing like a Dame.

The problem, of course, was that saying it doesn’t make it so. This attempt to repress the idea of society didn’t make it go away.

We are now seeing the resurgence of the idea that we are connected to each other. We are taking to heart the idea that what I do affects you and what you do affects me. However, this return of the repressed fits the new ethos of individuality. Instead of ‘society’, we have ‘externalities’. ‘Society’ contains an idea of connection. Even when society is in strife and riven by internal factions, it is still a collective noun. ‘Externality’ is combative, each individual for the self. It tallies and totes up.

The debate over raising the superannuation age in New Zealand is formulated as the burden that retirees are imposing on the rest of us. The fight over other people’s diets — their fat and sugar intake — is couched in terms of how much it will cost taxpayers. Stricter smoking and alcohol laws are defended because of the costs we all bear for these vices.

So what has really changed? We still recognise that ‘No man is an island,/Entire of itself./Each is a piece of the continent,/A part of the main.’ We are just recognising it differently. Now, we are simply trying to keep everyone else off our lawns.



§ One Response to The return of society

  • JC says:

    In the full quote Thatcher is trying to decouple the two words “government” and “society”; as in one person says he has a problem and “the govt must help me” and his mate chimes in and says “a decent society would help this man”. You can reverse the order of the two words but it doesn’t change the meaning because they’ve largely come to mean the same thing.

    Advocates for social change recognise this devaluation of the society word (which has also now got bluenose connotations) and are appealing to “taxpayers” and the like.

    PM Jim Bolger probably killed the word when he introduced the politician slogan of “a decent society”.. and then put a tax on the pensioners 🙂


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