Four solidarities plus one: the pluralistic society

Some time ago, we introduced Michael Thompson’s book as Book of the Week, but we did not get the excerpts in time to do a follow-up the same week.

As a reminder, this book (Organising and Disorganising: A Dynamic and Non-Linear Theory of Institutional Emergence and its Implications) posits five different solidarities or types of intersubjective relations, and it puzzled me how it could be squared with the typology that is at the basis of my own theorizing on peer to peer, i.e. Alan Page Fiske’s relational grammar.

But after receiving chapter 2 for excerpting, I now understand how the approaches complement each other. The four basic solidarities of Thompson can be matched with the fourfold typology of Fiske, and the fifth, which Michael Thompson calls autonomy (the way of the hermit), is an integration of the other four, that avoids their coercion and totalitarian tendencies.

Indeed, the way of the market, the way of hierarchy, the way of egalitarianism and the way of fatalism are each based on different metaphysical assumptions, views of nature and man that cannot be proven but are strongly adhered to, and each category’s adherents tries to mold the world to its own image.

They are therefore inherently coercive. Obviously, if our own peer to peer approach where to be this first stage egalitarianism, it would be coercive as well, and I believe that it isn’t. Since none of the four can ever be eliminated as a basic feeling of the universe, we cannot propose a system that wipes the other out; however, it is legitimate I believe to think that just as the 3 other solidarities were once dominant, the fourth, peer to peer or communal shareholding, can also becoming a core organizing principle of society. But it should be a non-coercive core, which honours the other 3 modes.

Here are the excerpts from Michael Thompson, i.e. an explanation of the four solidarities followed by what cultural theory can bring to their understanding.

Michael Thompson (Chapter 2):

“* For upholders of the individualist solidarity, nature is benign – able to recover from any exploitation (hence the iconic myth of nature, illustrated in Figure 2.1: a ball that, no matter how profoundly disturbed, always returns to stability) – and man is inherently self-seeking and atomistic (i.e. the way the methodological individualists assume man is). Trial and error, in self-organising ego-focused networks (markets), is the way to go, with Adam Smith’s invisible hand ensuring that people only do well when others also benefit. Individualists, in consequence, trust others until they give them reason not to and then retaliate in kind (the winning “tit for tat” strategy in the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game [Rapoport 1985]). They see it as only fair that (as in the joint stock company) those who put most in get most out. Managing institutions that work “with the grain of the market” (getting rid of environmentally harmful subsidies, for instance) are what are needed.

* Nature, for those who bind themselves into the egalitarian solidarity, is almost the exact opposite (hence the ball on the upturned basin) – fragile, intricately interconnected and ephemeral – and man is essentially caring and sharing (until corrupted by coercive and inegalitarian institutions: markets and hierarchies). We must all tread lightly on the Earth, and it is not enough that people start off equal; they must end up equal as well – equality of result. Trust and levelling go hand in hand, and institutions that distribute unequally are distrusted. Voluntary simplicity is the only solution to our environmental problems, with the “precautionary principle” being strictly enforced on those who are tempted not to share the simple life.

* The world, in the hierarchical solidarity, is controllable. Nature is stable until pushed beyond discoverable limits (hence the two humps), and man is malleable: deeply flawed but redeemable by firm, long-lasting and trustworthy institutions (i.e. the way the methodological collectivists assume man is, as in “Give me the boy and I will give you the man”). Fair distribution is by rank and station or, in the modern context, by need (with the level of need being determined by expert and dispassionate authority). Environmental management requires certified experts (to determine the precise locations of nature’s limits) and statutory regulation (to ensure that all economic activity is then kept within those limits).

* Fatalist actors (or perhaps we should say non-actors, since their voice is seldom heard in policy debates; if it was they wouldn’t be fatalistic!) find neither rhyme nor reason in nature, and know that man is fickle and untrustworthy. Fairness, in consequence, is not to be found in this life, and there is no possibility of effecting change for the better. “Defect first” – the winning strategy in the one-off Prisoner’s Dilemma – makes sense here, given the unreliability of communication and the permanent absence of prior acts of good faith. With no way of ever getting in sync with nature (push the ball this way or that and the feedback is everywhere the same), or of building trust with others, the fatalist’s world (unlike those of the other three solidarities) is one in which learning is impossible. “Why bother?”, therefore, is the rational management response.

These solidarities, in varying strengths and patterns of pairwise alliance, are clearly discernible almost anywhere you care to look: in debates over water engineering in South Asia (Gyawali 2001); in the international fora where delegates struggle to do something about climate change (Thompson, Rayner and Ney 1998; Verweij 2001); in the different ways international regimes cope with trans-boundary risks such as water pollution (Verweij 2000) and municipalities go about the business of transport planning (Hendriks 1994); in the various ways households set about making ends meet (Dake and Thompson 1999); in the different diagnoses of the pensions crisis in countries with ageing populations (Ney 1997); and in the different panaceas that are variously championed and rejected by theorists of public administration (Hood 1998), to mention but a few.

In all these examples we find that each solidarity, in creating a context that is shaped by its distinctive premises, generates a storyline that inevitably contradicts those that are generated by the other solidarities. Yet, since each distils certain elements of experience and wisdom that are missed by the others, and since each provides a clear expression of the way in which a significant portion of the populace feels we should live with one another and with nature, it is important that they all be taken into some sort of account in the policy process. That, in essence, is the case for clumsiness: the case that I have tried to be persuasive about in the previous chapter.”

2. A Cultural Theory of these patterns

Michael Thompson (Chapter 2):

A quick recapitulation of the argument so far – a recapitulation, moreover, that brings in the fifth solidarity – is a sensible first step on the way to this proper theory, and it can be set out in the form of five crucial observations. All five are to do with what is involved in going from the classic markets-and-hierarchies distinction to the cultural theory scheme with its five “eddies”: its five recurrent regularities within an endless transactional flux.

Economic incentives and (or, perhaps, versus) social sanctions” is one way of explaining the markets-and-hierarchies framing. Hierarchies enforce the law of contract, without which markets would not work, and they also do other vital things (such as repelling enemies); markets then get on with the wealth-creating process of innovating, bidding and bargaining. Each, we can see, needs the other, though of course there is always considerable disagreement about just where the line between these two transactional realms should be drawn – most famously, perhaps, in the titanic struggle, in the first half of the last century, between Keynes and Hayek. Keynes wanted a major role for hierarchy; Hayek saw that as “The Road To Serfdom” (Hayek 1944) and wanted the line pushed back as far as it would go. Either way, as Keynes pointed out, a line has to be drawn, thereby winning on points, as it were (“Game, set and match”, in the estimation of his most recent biographer [Skidelski 2000 p285]).

The same sort of uneasy symbiosis is evident in what is called “the new institutional economics” (which, since it goes back to Williamson’s 1975 book, is really quite long in the tooth: a bit like Oxford’s New College, which was new in the fourteenth century). In this framing, spiralling transaction costs (as changing technology, for instance, renders quality control more difficult and expensive) lead to market failure and to the hierarchy having to step in to set prices; and, conversely, markets taking over when transaction costs fall (as, for instance, they recently have – to almost zero – on the Internet). Each of these ways of organising, moreover, is seen as promoting a distinctive rationality – procedural and substantive as they are sometimes called: hierarchies being primarily concerned with propriety (“Who has the right to do what and to whom?”); markets being much more outcome-focused (“The bottom line”). In this way, each rationality legitimises one of these ways of organising and, in so doing, renders it viable in an environment that contains the other.

Cultural theory does not reject this classic distinction, but it does add the following crucial observations:

1. You cannot have hierarchies without hierarchists, nor markets without individualists.

That is, the organisational requirements of the whole – the pattern of relationships – must somehow be internalised by the parts. The pattern-making, in other words, goes both ways – from the whole to the parts and from the parts to the whole – and this goes on in such a way as to strengthen that pattern and differentiate it from the other patterns. In this way (and like the chicken and the egg) each becomes the cause of the other: we create the patterns and the patterns create us. Individuality, in consequence, is not within each of us but between us: the individual, in Jon Elster’s memorable phrase, is inherently relational.

2. If two rationalities are justifiable, as they obviously are here, then the upholders of those rationalities will have to have different convictions as to how the world is and people are: different social constructions of nature, physical and human. Otherwise they could not justify their different actions as being self-evidently sensible and moral, the world and people being the way each of them insists they are. And, for contradictory certainties such as these to persist, there must always be sufficient uncertainty as to how the world, and the people in it, really are.

3. Since markets institute equality (of opportunity) and promote competition whilst hierarchies institute inequality (status differences) and restrain competition, there are two discriminators at work here.

A full typology, therefore, should contain the other two permutations: equality without competition (egalitarianism) and inequality with competition (fatalism).

4. Since it is possible to contemplate both hierarchies and markets without having to be convinced that either’s version – of how the world is and people are – is true, and since the same holds for egalitarianism and fatalism, there may well be a fifth way of organising (it is called autonomy) that is stabilized by the deliberate avoidance of the sorts of coercive involvement that are entailed in the other four. However, hermits (as the upholders of autonomy have been dubbed) do not transcend the social sphere, because they stabilize their distinctive way of organising in contradistinction to the others. If the four “socially engaged” forms of solidarity were not there the autonomous life would not be liveable. The objection – “four permutations and five solidarities” – recedes once we realise that the cross-over point of our two discriminators corresponds to a rather strange “all-zero” permutation (this will become clearer in the next chapter when these discriminators are recast, more correctly, as a transaction matrix).

5. Though each pattern is made up of individuals and their transactions, we should not assume that an individual is part of only one pattern.

Indeed, as Lockhart (1997) has pointed out, people who strive to keep all their transactions on just one pattern are hard to live with – we call them fanatics!

In general, if transactional spheres – workplace and home, for instance – are fairly separate then an individual may lead different parts of his or her life in different patterns. Just because we are physiologically indivisible it does not follow that we are socially indivisible; hence the need to think in terms of the dividual, and to take the form of social solidarity (the pattern together with its viability conditions) as the unit of analysis, not the individual.

These, then, are the barest bones of cultural theory. In the chapters that follow I will try to put some dynamic flesh on these bones (particularly on the fifth bone – the form of solidarity as the unit of analysis) and I will try to do this in a way that will make sense to students of institutions: no easy task, given my anti-dualistic and unobvious starting point. But cultural theory does have one thing in its favour: its even-handedness. Where students of institutions have long been faced with a stark choice – methodological individualism or methodological collectivism – cultural theory offers a welcome, and perhaps surprising, escape route: “a plague on both your methodologies!

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3 Comments Four solidarities plus one: the pluralistic society

  1. AvatarMarc Fawzi

    This is obviously very interesting work.

    However, I don’t yet understand what you mean by non-reciprocity as the basis for a P2P economy. If BitTorrent (BT) did not force downloaders to sharer some of their upstream bandwidth then it would fail to harness enough collective bandwidth to make it a viable mass sharing tool. This aspect amounts to Communal Sharing of bandwidth, i.e. everyone is sharing the collective bandwidth. Even more than that, most BT communities enforce share ratios, which amounts to Equality Matching.

    So you have CS and EM at the foundation of the most popular P2P model on the Internet.

    And both CS and EM involve reciprocity, but with CS it’s not 1:1 but 1:many and many:1, so you can download 100GB of movies and give e.g. 1G of your bandwidth to the collective bandwidth. With EM, you’d have to give 100GB of your bandwidth to the collective bandwidth.

    My point is that Communal Sharing of collective bandwidth does involve reciprocity between each peer and the P2P network.


    Can you clarify what you mean by non-reciprocal exchange as the basis for P2P economy?




  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear Marc,

    You have to remember that we are working with models, typologies, which are present as templates in reality, but often under hybrid conditions.

    Equality Matching requires you to repay what you received, striving to regain equality that was distorted by the gift, but in communal sharing, you give what you can, and take what you need.

    For Wikipedia, any individual can contribute, but does not get any direct exchange in return, though he benefits indirectly in various ways, similary for voluntary contributors to free software projects.

    Most users in Bittorrent would be using it in such a fashion, though in this case, a for the users mostly hidden mechanism indeed introduced a measure of some kind of reciprocity. In this case I would say that the model has been hybridized … I think it depends on the measure and continuum of abundance vs. scarcity. Where one worries about cost-recovery, one introduces measures that impinge on the purity of the non-reciprocal arrangement. To the degree that things become conditional on reciprocity, to my mind, we move away from pure communal shareholding.


  3. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » The fifth solidarity

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