By Joe Hargrave – The phrase “social atomization” is one that appears frequently in popular sociological analyses of the contemporary West.
The phrase typically refers to a process by which each individual within a society becomes increasingly autonomous and independent from all of the other members. This process arguably began in the 19th century, though its intellectual antecedents date back to at least the 17th century in the classical liberalism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. In the 17th century, the idea that each individual was a bearer of certain inalienable rights was a liberating one. For most of human history individualism was not practically possible, and so it was not theoretically imagined.
Interdependence was a material or economic necessity that went without saying. As individualism became more practically possible, so did theorizing about the rights of individuals as such – not as peasants, burghers or nobles, but as human beings. This was a drawn-out process over several centuries, accelerating with the Industrial and later Information revolutions of the 19th and late 20th centuries.
In the 21st century, individuals in the Western world and increasingly in the developing world are no longer directly dependent upon one another for survival. We are indirectly dependent in a multitude of ways – few if any of us are self-sufficient. But our needs are satisfied either through the state or through the market, both of which are impersonal forces. One of the greatest forces of group cohesion, the presence of an immediate existential threat, has also largely been removed from daily life. On a purely material, political and economic level, each healthy adult is not only theoretically but practically independent to varying degrees. The process of social atomization that began hundreds of years ago is reaching its apogee. We don’t need each other anymore.
Except we do. Because with atomization also comes alienation. Alienation is a sense of isolation that one feels when they are separated from a group they belong to. Human beings are hard-wired for community and suffer in isolation, no matter how superficially comfortable they are.
The United States is the most atomized nation in the world, and the problems of atomization are therefore at an advanced stage here. The two examples that immediately come to mind are the opioid crisis, which has seen millions of Americans succumb to addiction and tens of thousands to death by overdose, and the frequency of mass shootings by alienated young men. We might also look to skyrocketing rates of illegitimacy, with a national rate of just over 40%. 35% of American children live in a single-parent home.
We find ourselves at a peculiar historical moment. The economic necessity of family and community has diminished to the point of near-irrelevance for the vast majority of us. We are free to do as we please – to marry or not marry the woman we impregnate, to raise or not raise the children we bring into the world, to share or to horde our resources exclusively for ourselves, to belong to a church or no church at all, to develop ourselves and our talents or live as wards of the state, to make friends or to be lone wolves. The circumstances of the past usually imposed one option only, and heavy natural and social penalties would apply to those who brazenly chose otherwise – unless they were wealthy. Now we are all wealthy, relatively speaking.
Of particular interest is the degeneration of religion and spirituality in this new atomized world. For the social penalties that incurred from making the anti-social choice in earlier societies were ultimately encoded and in some cases enforced by religion. It was not enough to simply recognize that the family was economically indispensable; it was also a divine command. We find throughout history, from hunter-gather bands to medieval villages and beyond, that whatever is of necessity for life – both here and now, and for future generations – is held sacred in the most spiritual and religious sense of that word. Plants, animals, rivers, forests – all exist in the primitive pantheon because of their role in sustaining human life.
So too, as civilization developed, did marriage and family become sacralized in whatever forms they took, as did other social bonds and relations.
We are now far removed from these life-giving categories. We first removed ourselves from those of nature by proximity at the very least; our direct dependence upon nature is not something we experience. Big businesses harvest the crops, slaughter the animals, and cut down the trees. The next to follow were the social bonds for reasons already discussed. Someone else – big business or the state – is doing for us what we once needed to do together. With practical independence comes the demand for social independence. The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s and continues to the present day is as important as the industrial and information revolutions and is a direct consequence of them. It is to social bonds what the technological revolutions are to economic relations: a dissolvent.
The question then becomes: since we are still obviously alienated, how can we “re-sacralize” what we have lost? Family, community, and nature are missing from our lives because they are practically optional, and yet we suffer without them. Clearly we “need” them, but the material basis for thinking of them as divine imperatives no longer exists. The benefits they provide are intangible and long-term. Simply declaring the sanctity of family and community is not enough. They require a rational foundation, if not a material one.
A critique of religion is not necessarily required here, because it can hardly be critiqued any further than it already has been over the past three centuries. All of its shortcomings and flaws have been laid bare. And yet religious communities persist, even in the “rational” and “post-religious” West. Outside of actual religious communities there is a sense among secular people that something is missing from their lives.
This accounts for the astonishing popularity of Jordan Peterson, whose central message appears to be that the key to happiness – or at the very least, not being absolutely miserable – is to embrace the inevitability of suffering with some kind of meaningful narrative. Many of us for various reasons cannot bring ourselves to submit to the narratives of the major world religions, and yet many of that number would like to experience the benefits of that submission, namely a sense of community and purpose.
Diagnosing the problem is relatively simple. Formulating a solution is the real challenge. For one must walk the line between re-sacralizing community and contributing to a new virulent strand of tribalism, now called identitrianism, which is a replacement for collapsing religions and has the potential to become more irrational and violent than the old religions ever were. George Orwell’s observation of Nazi Germany remains relevant today: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” This phenomenon is neither “right wing” nor “left wing”, though; it is simply human.
Objectively, statistically, empirically: the world that Western man inhabits, and a growing number of non-Western peoples, is less dangerous and impoverished than at any point in history. Subjectively, it is the moment at which identitarianism on both the left and the right has created a siege mentality among countless groups: Men and women, black, brown and white, gay and straight, Christian and atheist, and the list could go on. Every group casts itself as the victim of isms and ologies, oppressive phantoms and their institutional embodiments, and thereby casts its collective purpose as liberation and victory over these oppressors. Whatever else we may say about identity movements and the legitimacy of their various and many grievances, it is here that purpose and community are found.
The challenge therefore presents itself in the following question: in (relative) peace and prosperity, can we find meaning in life? Or are we doomed to exaggerate every threat, no matter how theoretical or distant, into an immediate existential crisis to supply that meaning?
If humanity finds meaning in struggle, but also longs for peace, then the answers can lie in only one place: the frontier. In the historical imagination, the frontier is conceived of as place that bloated societies can unload their problems. The New World was the destination not only for bold adventurers and missionaries, but also criminals, debtors, and other elements for whom there was simply no place.
We can also consider the frontier from the standpoint of the colonists and the settlers, which will require us to abstract for a moment from crimes committed against indigenous peoples – crimes which ought to never be repeated in any new frontier. Colonization is never an individual enterprise, but a collective one. Each individual or each family is obviously out to improve life for themselves, but in the hard and desolate environs of a new frontier, they must rely on one another for survival. As for purpose, it is here that the creative rather than the destructive tendencies of humanity can find an outlet. To build civilization from nothing is a momentous undertaking, an achievement upon which one can look with pride and satisfaction.
Where are the new frontiers? That may be a question better left to scientists than social theorists. What might humanity do – in Antarctica, on the ocean floor, in the vast uninhabited deserts, in the vast reaches of space, or on Mars? We are limited only by our technological and political imaginations. The crucial task of physical and social science will be to provide an answer to the question: what next? What next for our species? Without such an answer, the habitable parts of our planet will remain battlefields for increasingly deranged and isolated individuals and groups contending for scraps. For there will be no Earthly eschaton – no point at which all the people in the world subscribe to the One True Belief about how things ought to be, ushering in a universal utopia. The appeal of “struggle, danger and death” will always be with us.