Society is the aggregate of human beings on the planet Earth, how they view and interact with each other and with the physical universe of which they are part.

When describing society, there is an important point that we should bear in mind. Statements about society are generalizations of individual actions and experiences. These generalizations are similar to the conceptual structures that describe society that exist inside the minds of the individuals comprised by society; therefore we shall need to consider the nature of these descriptions in describing, from the outside, the actions of individuals and in describing trends about their behaviour. The complexity of society is bounded by the complexity of the structures that the people in society are capable of assimilating. It is not that difficult to understand society because it operates on a shared programme.

Reliance on common sense at the lowest descriptive levels

When we talk about history, we are using a linear, fixed idea of time, which might contradict relativity. Again, when we talk about people, we are using a discrete idea of individuality and streams of consciousness that people have. If we talk about objects that are had an effect on history such as crossbows, we are assuming that a crossbow is a distinct object from the air that surrounds it.

The aim for this article, in describing society is to describe, to a certain level of abstraction, that which we mean by the word ‘society,’ including ideas such as economics, war and international politics. Elsewhere on this site we may consider questions about the lowest levels of physics and how larger mechanisms are seen to emerge, up to the level of the objects and behaviours that we perceive in our consciousness. Everything we describe here should in principle be reducible to these basic facts of physics, but we won't talk about physics much, and just assume that time is linear and absolute, that objects exist, and so on. (When uses of non-intuitive ideas of physics by individuals occur, a lot of the time they can be viewed as black boxes if we are only considering how the course of history is affected. We can talk about nuclear power stations or space travel and the social effects of these technologies without worrying that much about how they work.)

We can reason with high-level concepts, and sometimes these will be defined in terms of fundamental concepts, and sometimes they won't. All our arguments, high or low level, seek to describe the same reality, and in principle it should be possible to synthesize them all. This may or may not be easy (or useful) to do.

Contingent history and general social dynamics

We can postulate certain phenomena that are seen to occur in many different circumstances, many of which are as old as time itself. In the course of history, individual's actions and movements are determined by both human nature and also transitory cultural phenomena that they have been conditioned by.

Social perception

The perceptions of society that individuals have within some culture will have many similarities. For example, there may be a shared concept of 'kingship.' The only reason one believes and obeys the law is because everyone else believes in the existence of the law too. This situation can be compared with the wearing of neckties. It could be that no-one wants to wear a necktie, but at the same time everyone wears one, and expects others to wear them too, because they are a shared social standard, and it would be too difficult to get everyone together to agree not to wear them. Similarly, even if everyone who spoke a language thought that it had some failing, it would be impossible to get everyone to agree to change it. A language is a shared structure and part of social perception.

Consensus can be preserved across time by churches, and other selective institutions - to become a priest, you have to be a Christian. If certain beliefs and taboos are common in politics, academia and journalism, they will propagate themselves by the selection procedures for joining those institutions.

We aim in this article to describe social perception of society.

Concepts of social perception

The State

The State is, and is seen as, an ‘entity,’ that is to say a person or organization that acts like a person, which tells people what they can and can’t do. If it acts consistently, then the body of knowledge that can predict its commands is ‘the law.’

It is remarkable that the state manages to exert power. If everyone in the country one morning got up and shouted ‘Fuck the polis!’, refused to pay their taxes and started wearing broadswords in the high street, then there'd be pish all the pigs could do about it. (I'm not saying that would be a good idea though.) The power of the state and social order are based on consensus, on belief in the system.

Call the rule of law a region that is under an empire. The continuance of the empire depends on the fear of law enforcement among the population (e.g. the police force and army), the inability to collude for revolt, and the brainwashing among the population that prevents the thought of revolt ever coming to mind. (C)

Let's see how this works. An army occupies a rural region, and starts collecting taxes from farmers. If an individual farmer doesn't want to pay his taxes he will be killed. The example of other farmers being killed for similar reasons encourages him to conform. Perhaps if all the farmers in all regions occupied by the army rose up suddenly in revolt, then the army would not be able to carry on taxing; but such a revolt can't be organized because as soon as one farmer stands up and calls the others to arms he will be killed. With time, no farmer fears to complain about being taxed, and so when the farmers speak with each other they seem to each other to be content with the situation. By social assimilation, there is a change in the consensual reality to accept the army as the natural rulers. This could be quickened if the army ran a television station which talked about current events from the perspective of the rightfulness of army rule.

Thus the following law has been established: that farmers must pay taxes to the occupying army, or else be slain by the sword. Insofar as the army acts as a single unit with a clear chain of command, the army can be said to rule an empire, machinations and power politics within the army notwithstanding.

The principle of collusion is fundamental to processes involving people's power over each other, and can be applied everywhere. If we ask how the law is enforced, there are various entities which enforce it. In any hierarchical organization, the people at the top rely on the people at the bottom to get things done. A high court judge who makes a court order expects it to be carried out. It is immediately enforced by entities such as the police force, civil service bureaucrats and prison wardens. If we ask why it is not these entities who actually hold the power, it is because there is no organized decision-making process within them. An individual prison officer might think that it is wrong to jail a particular person, but to actually make a change, he needs to get the support of his fellow jailers to not beat him up when he tries to release the prisoner, and to persuade the bank that he is a legitimate employee of the prison service and should receive his wages at the end of the month. If a top-level civil servant was making a nuisance of himself, and even if he was fired him he'd still own the keys to the building and would have support from social networks within the civil service, then you could imagine the PM sneaking into the basement and unplugging the electricity supply or internet to his office in order to stop any collusion.

Such collusion is impossible at the moment, but what if there was some way of anonymously colluding, using some kind of cryptography? If the leading generals of the army agreed among themselves a collection of cryptographic keys, they could discuss in secret on an Internet forum whether or not they should obey HM, the the Privy Council, the Prime Minister, high court judges, or any other individual or organization that might normally have control. For this to work:

  • The operatives would have to first agree on the possibility of collusion, although not towards any particular direction, so they could set up the forum and distribute the keys. This is the first hurdle: what stops the first operative to suggest such a thing being instantly fired?
  • The deliberations of the forum would have to stay secret, to prevent other bodies taking preventative actions when they learn of the plot. This requires that there be no traitors on the forum.
  • If the deliberations do leak, then it would be important not to know who has made or initiated suggestions of rebellion. Within the forum, it should be certain that the participants are actually members of the circle of operatives, but it should not be known specifically who each one is, so a single voice on the forum could belong to any one of the individuals who are likely to have been given access. This could be done by having a a separate key for each individual, along with the knowledge of what other keys have been given out, but not with the knowledge of who specifically each key belongs to.


I am often surprised at how can people be so disingenuous. I was for a time a member of a religious sect. While preaching love of mankind, and claiming this love as a motivation for trying to convert people to the religion, they at the same time despised people not members of the religion, most especially the clergy of mainstream Christianity. Non-Christian religions were a laughing stock. This contempt extended to homosexuals, blood donors, people in the army, and people who smoked.

A Muslim may talk about religious tolerance and multi-culturalism. In countries where Muslims are a majority, there is no religious tolerance. I think it is very likely that a dynamic as I saw would also be found in Islam too.

Such a mechanism explains how it is possible for politicians to claim to be in favour of free markets and free speech, while regulating and censoring whenever they want. They have a certain belief that they are right. They identify with historical movements. Their beliefs are reinforced by their political comrades. That's why they are willing to lie, to steal, and, sometimes, to kill to get their way.

Think of someone who feels that they’ve been hard done by and is complaining about it. Say their house blew down in a storm and they hadn't bothered to take out insurance. You can imagine them with a half-smile, and they keep on looking from side to side, as if to look to someone for confirmation of their beliefs. They derive their certainty in their beliefs from an ideology that has been built up by all the statements by politicians and in the news media, talking about how the disadvantaged need to helped. Democratically elected politicians never come out and say, ‘No, we aren’t going to help these people. They got themselves into this mess and it's their own fucking fault.’ No, they always pander. This is where they get their massive sense of entitlement from.

You can imagine a crowd of Germans kicking to death a Jew, or a crowd of black Americans kicking to death a white American, or a crowd of revolutionary ‘anarchists’ (not real anarchists though) kicking to death a right-winger. It's easy to hate someone you see as powerful and an oppressor, especially when you've been exposed to a continuous poisonous stream of propaganda from politicians and news media. You can imagine a masked ‘anarchist’ throwing a brick through a shop window and then running off, smirking and laughing nervously, looking to his side to his comrade for confirmation.


I don't think ideologies, like Protestantism, or philosophical theories, like Communism, have any power at all. Religion and ideology are black boxes used for crowd manipulation. No one reads the Bible, or reads theological commentaries. No one reads economic or social writers (Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Rosseau, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Proudhon, Marx, all these people). It's a real mistake to say that any of these people had powerful ideas. Any effect they may have had can only be seen in specific events, individual opinion and action, and institutions. It wasn't the pouring of new thoughts into an ocean of public opinion. The official ideology of the Soviet Union was ‘dialectical materialism,’ or ‘diamat.’ Can we honestly believe that any tenet or argument of diamat made any difference to anything at all? If anything mattered at all about this philosophical school, it was the way that it was viewed in society at the time: the justification it gave to state policies, the prestige it gave to an elite, and the verisimilitude of having intellectual foundations.

Philosophy is the history of philosophy.
- G.W.F. Hegel


Although the political spectrum is a silly way of describing one's political ideology, the idea of a political spectrum is powerful. It is extremely compelling to divide the arena of actors into 'us' and 'them'; into 'left' and 'right.' It's probably even part of the brain chemistry to view things this way. This idea has power in that people mentally position themselves on this line, and correspondingly vote for this party or the other.


History is two-dimensional. At any one point in time, there will exist a view of history up to that point, which view in turn affects what will happen subsequently. In Islamdom1, the present view of the crusades may encourage insurgency against the American occupation of Iraq.) Modern leftists claim an heritage from former revolutions, and from liberal and atheist thinkers. All such claims should be taken with a pinch of salt, but are important to understand the course of history. In an individual's own personal perception there might be an entity such as ‘1960’s liberalism,’ and under it there might be all kinds of historical phenomena - free love, LSD, pacifism, pop music, and so on. So turning away from one of these might lead to doing the same for the rest; and voting for Reagan instead of Carter, even, although I don’t know if that's a sensible thing to say or not. Of course, the reflexivity extends into the ordinals, but that isn't a huge problem. In only a few cases do we go in more than one level. When describing the actions of prominent figures we might say that they did what they did as a result of their outlook on what the outlook the general population had. Again, if someone read a description of history that expressed the same as the foregoing sentence, and acted on it, we’d have to use an outlook (of the person) on an outlook (of another figure) on an outlook (of the population) in explaining the person's actions. It’s not too complicated and we could probably subsume the more obscure layers of description into a generic category of understanding of society.


Roads are for driving on. Pavements are for walking on. This is the convention, which is reinforced by the law. The State determines social perception to a great degree.

Other concepts

  • Money, trade, jobs, various contracts, business corporations
  • Foreign exchange
  • Words and languages


Social perception can only change if enough individual perceptions change that they can influence everybody else into changing with them. For example, somebody could decide to issue a new currency, but it would only actually become the new currency of the land if enough people accepted it as a medium of exchange. Changes in social perception are emergent from changes in individual perception. To understand the latter one has to understand the motives of an individual. For example, if a new government is trying to form (example: the Irish Republic in 1919), it has to assert its legitimacy and enforce its decrees.


Rich people and corporations often try to influence politicians for their own benefit.


I would say that it is a fundamental, natural opinion that people have that they would like wealth and power that others have got. Revolt of the poor, perhaps encouraged by leaders, to take away from the rich.

We don't really need to go back very far from the Russian Revolution to explain what happened, methinks. We don't need to look back to the founding of the Russian state, the dynastic provenance of the Tsar, the intellectual nitty-gritty of Marxism, or the roots of socialism in the Protestant Reformation. Being poor and hungry is enough to revolt. We could also apply this paradigm to the growth of Christianity.

To destroy socialism, it's not just a case of winning an intellectual argument. One must realize that the appeal of socialism and the ability of demagogues to stir up rebellion is rooted in human nature.

Geographic areas of empires

Given similar levels of technology particular areas of the world seem to get governed as contiguous political entities no matter what happens or whoever wins specific wars. Each empire doesn't necessarily have to descend from the previous one in a clear manner. Think:

  • Anatolia - (the Hittites), the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman empire
  • Egypt/the Nile Valley - many succeeding dynasties. The Ancient Egyptians, the Ptolemies.
  • Mesopotamia - the Sumerians, Akkadians, Amorites, Babylonians
  • Iranian plateau - Persian empire, Parthians, Sassanids
  • China

The relation between geographical features and historical events. Mountains and oceans are obvious barriers, but oceans can also facilitate transport. Grasslands and deserts. I'd like to see a map of productivity of farmland across Eurasia. Different ways of living, like nomadism.


It is technology which changes the rules of the game, and stops history going round in circles.

Technological change is the driving force behind history, in communications, agriculture or weapons.

I'd like to know why it was that certain inventions were invented when they were and not earlier.

  • Why didn't the Romans discover America? Weren't their ships good enough?
  • Why didn't the Romans discover firearms?
  • Why didn't the Romans discover moveable type?
  • Why didn't the Romans discover electrical currents? Didn't they have the passion for science?

Communication technology

Communication technologies, such as the Internet, have been very important to society.

For example, pop culture, which has replaced Christianity as the provider of shared narrative in Europe, thanks to inventions like cinema, radio and television, allowing mass brainwashing on a scale never before seen.

The Internet won't change this as much as one may think, even if it allows some people to get a different view. The mass (entertainment) media is still hugely important and there's no alternative to it (your blog doesn't count).

A brief sketch of the history of society

First civilizations created - Egypt et al; Greece; Rome; Invention of printing press; Christendom; In some order, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and the Age of Enlightenment; Democracy; French revolution & revolutions of 1848; WWI; New Deal; WWII; The Prague Spring, Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam protesting, McCarthyism (in some order); Socialist governments in Britain and maybe elsewhere too; Less socialist government under Reagan, Thatcher; Replacement by other parties, like Labour.

So I'm supposed to come up with my own interpretation of world history here, from the Paleolithic onwards? I expect that even professional historians would find that difficult.

I see two driving forces behind history: technology and public opinion.

A purpose of history is so we can learn from it. It's questionable how we can do this, when any phenomenon to be studied occurs alongside a lot of other ones too which we don't care about. Conclusions are always subject to "special pleading." E.g., someone might argue that communism is bad because of the 100's of millions dead under Mao and Stalin: but, contrariwise, maybe that wasn't true communism. You can't judge the competence of a race at doing great things by any historical record, because they may have been oppressed or unlucky.

I suggest that a study of history can complement a priori theorizing. You could come up with arguments about economics, e.g. explaining why free markets work well, without knowing much about how these principles have shown themselves in economic history. On the other hand, it would certainly help. Thinking about how your principles have applied in practice may make you consider possibilities, distinctions, exceptions, etc. that you wouldn't have otherwise.

History is a painting, and we all add our own paint-strokes to it, great or small, for good or bad.

Of course, history isn't just for society or politics. It's for cooking too. If you want to know how to bake a pie, look at the past experience of other people who've tried to bake pies.




If you transported a historian of the Napoleonic wars back in time and asked him to command Napoleon's armies, how well would he do? If he did badly, he didn't really understand history.

Human nature

I have to say that a very thin line separates humans from the apes. Think about it this way. We entered a civilized state as soon as our genes allowed it, and there hasn't been an awfully great length of time in which further evolution may occur since then. Therefore our genes give us the minimum we need to be civilized. There could exist species whose specimens compared to modern humans would be much more able to process abstract symbols, be more willing and able to plan, be willing to see a broader context to their actions, and be more empathetic and willing to be selfless.

History is useful because it can help to develop theories of society, although Wikipedia tells me that this isn't a common belief nowadays. I don’t know what specific lessons we can learn, but there must be some.

If you wanted practical lessons from history, you would be better off taking a year and learning everything you could about that year - motivations and characters of important individuals, prevailing culture, existing technology, battle tactics. This would be much more informative than looking for airy historical forces. There is only so much you can learn, however, even today when we have so much information. For example, I still couldn't really tell you why the US and allies invaded Iraq in 2003. I worry that I know very little about the history of the last 50 years, but really, even though I could get a feel for that time by reading old newspapers and watching old news bulletins (assuming I could get access to such things2) I couldn't really trust them to give an accurate picture, but would expect much misrepresentation and distortion.

The future

In the future, we will continue to have more and more access to and knowledge of what has gone on in the past. People will easily find out what the ethos was in different eras, and will be exposed to a wide variety of views. There will be fewer views that are specific to the present, because they will be easily shown to be cultural in origin. People will not think of themselves as living in a Modern Age, where human nature is radically different from before and the old rules don’t apply; because the past will be more accessible and there will not seem to be a cut-off date (AD 1, 1066, 1945, etc.) where the modern age began; but elements of former times will seem to be present in the present time too.

In the future there will be no fashions and no movements. Modern composers can look at the music of the 1990’s, the 1980’s, the 1970’s, the 1960’s and the 1950’s, and be influenced by them all. In 2040 I doubt we'll look back nostalgically at the Twirling Twenties, at our old days as moppers, when we used to listen to flopnotes with our friends. We won't look back and say, ‘Oh, how could we have worn those niceshirts! They look awful now.’ The subculture of the moppers will not have identified themselves with the growing political movements of ‘deontocracy,’ ‘nexarky,’ and ‘teleomorphism.’

On the other hand, I can’t see what a future which doesn't go round in circles would be like. Nevertheless, it should be an aim.

Individual stories which shed light on the whole

  • Language
  • Religion
  • Technology - Textiles, weaponry, energy sources, transportation
    • Writing
  • Science and mathematics
    • Astronomy
  • Government
  • ‘The arts’ - painting, music, architecture, sculpture, etc.

Cyclic dependency

It's interesting to consider cyclic dependency in the operation of society. For example, the police guarding a pen factory from looting, and then buying pens. This is a mutual dependency of the military and economic spheres. Another example is using coal to smelt iron, and then using iron to make picks for mining with. This is a cyclic dependence within the economic sphere. It's interesting to consider how this came about - a 'chicken and egg situation.' I think military-economic cooperation would be easier to establish within a smaller society.

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