Following some recent essays of mine, readers Michael Lotus and James Bennett recommend this chapter by Alan MacFarlane.

Human life can for convenience be divided into four major spheres, the pursuit of power (politics), the pursuit of wealth (economics), the pursuit of salvation and meaning (religion), the pursuit of social and sexual warmth (kinship). In the normal state of affairs these are fused into one totality, a holistic merging based on the dominance of one sphere to which everything else is secondary. Tribal societies provide this dominance or infrastructure through kinship, India and Islam through religion, traditional China through kinship and ethics (Confucianism), ancien regime Europe increasingly through kin-based politics. What is peculiar about modernity is that there is no institutional infrastructure, or, if it exists, it is provided by the impersonal, contextual, contractual pressures of the ‘free’ market economy and the ethic of trust upon which it has to be based.

MacFarlane continues,

…Always in human history the tendency for one, or two spheres in collusion, to dominate has quickly emerged and some form of ancien regime has established itself. Even in the twentieth century, those who worked in the name of the two massive ideologies of right (fascism) and left (communism) have been united in their attempts to bundle things together with one superior master, the State or Party. That they only very narrowly failed to return mankind to an undivided world where liberty and real equality of all men would have vanished is well known. The political institutions of modernity are extremely precarious and may well be transient.

…large-scale civilizations which first emerged tended to re-enforce the birth-status groupings, caste and kinship, while integrating them into a powerful State. Much of Indian and Chinese history fits broadly within this pattern. A second variant, which we often describe as the ancien regime, was somewhat different. There were functionally defined birth statuses – peasants, nobility, bourgeois, clergy – but alongside these there were also many groupings with some contractual mobility. Yet while these groupings were not based on birth, they were explicitly recognized and licensed, as it were, by the State. Thus all meaningful groupings either derived from birth or from delegated power from the State.

In such a social structure, as wealth increases it automatically strengthens the organising institutions of religion, re-enforcing kinship and caste. Part of the wealth will go to strengthen occupational and hierarchical blood divisions, between workers, priests and warriors for example. Part of the wealth will go towards increasing the power of the State. Each of these institutional orders will cast a jealous eye on the wealth producers, whether peasants, merchants or craftsmen, and try to siphon off as much as possible of any new surpluses they make.

…If, basically, the essence of modernity is an ever-vigilant patrolling of the borders between spheres, …They cannot afford to let any particular drive win out for long. All power tends to corrupt, so power must be muzzled. Kinship loyalties and warmth must be held in check and love can seldom be unreserved. Belief and ritual must be tempered and all ethical judgments are provisional and relativistic. Even the pursuit of wealth has to be moderated and many areas are put ‘out of bounds’.

…when a prophet arises who promises the re-integration of life, the overcoming of alienation and anomie, the togetherness of a purpose, whether a Mao, Hitler or Pol Pot, many are ready to abandon their somewhat dessicated lives of efficiency in order to surrender to the new wholeness. Or they may be attracted to the ecstasies and loss of self of a new Pentecostal religion or New Age faith.

…the answer to the question of how [modern society] worked seems to lie in some alternative to the primordial institutions, that is in the various imagined rather than actual communities, not the nation alone, but all the imagined and invented communities of civil society…

Once these middling groupings have gained a foothold and been allowed to develop, they soon reach a stage where the inflow of increasing wealth is fed into them. They are like middle-sized plants, filling in densely the space between the high vegetation, the tree-tops of the State and Church, and the single individuals or family on the forest floor. In most civilizations, this middle level has been increasingly cut away, leaving a huge space between the State and the Established Religion on the one hand, and the clinging bed of short, flattened, lateral links that is the extended family…the peculiar associations start to…crowd into this middle area, weakening the despotic power of the two extremes, the roof canopy of State and God, the amoral familistic demands of the kinship groupings. Loyalties are multifarious, activities are protected, there are huge advantages to be gained from associating for numerous purposes.

…In only one or two exceptional cases, for example Holland, parts of Scandinavia, England, does one see a move from contract and status to something beyond both of them, namely trust and association.