Mass Society is insane (because we’ve lost real community)

The modern condition of pervasive mass society has built up slowly over a long period of time. We tend to not have much perspective on it.

Until about five thousand years ago all people had lived in humanly-scaled tribes or villages for all the millions of years our race (“homo”) had existed. In other words, for 99% of our natural history.

Even since the beginning of the rise of the modern complex of statism, expansionism, development, and urbanism five thousand years ago, until fairly recently (about four hundred years ago) the vast majority of people across the planet still lived in aboriginal tribes or agricultural villages or small towns (under 10,000 population). For example, in 1600 the population of Berlin, one of the larger cities in Europe, was 9,000. In 1776, the population of Philadelphia was 40,000, New York 25,000, Boston 15,000, Charleston 12,000 … and all the rest of the American towns and “cities” had under 10,000 residents. Divided into neighborhoods, a town of six or eight thousand can be a real community.

Beyond human scale you lose real community, and then people exist within the very different social context of mass society — characterized by anonymity, anomie, and impersonal interaction. People behave differently under those circumstances.

Instead of recognizing the problem, we keep going more and more in that misguided direction. Megalopolis is one manifestation. The internet is the latest “advance” . . . in that problematic direction.

In a February 26 editorial discussing the electoral primary process, the New York Times wrote: “How fitting that Twitter — a social media platform apparently built for bickering — co-sponsored a political debate on Tuesday night that often descended into an unintelligible screaming match among too many candidates.”

“Built for bickering.” Sitting alone in a room in front of a screen people will write things they probably never would say to someone else in-person. The internet is a channel open to a zillion anonymous others; not surprising, then, that it becomes a dystopian zoo of noise and acrimony.

The density and anonymity of our modern domains of experience is toxic. In every human grouping there’s a spectrum of psychopathology and sociopathology. Within the context of family life, manifestations of pathology can be focused on and directly attended to with personal compassion and care. To some degree a similar personal attention is likely to be prevalent in a humanly-scaled community. But it’s unlikely to be prevalent under conditions of mass society.

In a modern city, a small percentage of sociopathology has a large effect. The same applies to our social media “communities” . . . which are obviously nothing like real communities. Understanding this, it was predictable that a social media platform like Twitter would seem to have been “built for bickering.”

Mass society has been “built for anomie.” We need to regain the human scale, in all things — our localities, our governments, our institutions, our technologies — as E. F. Schumacher said fifty years ago in his book Small Is Beautiful.

A co-editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a Green movement activist for almost thirty years.