Home Societal / Political Freedom Freedom: From Collectivist to Individualist Structures and Realities

Freedom: From Collectivist to Individualist Structures and Realities

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Collectively-imposed standards were dominant in most societies for many centuries. In Europe, we can look to the old days when church bells governed daily life (especially in John Calvin’s Geneva). Among the Catholics there were similar (though not as stringent) calls to prayer as well as a weekly ritual of church attendance and a yearly calendar of religious celebrations and holidays. Even further back, we can find the powerfully-imposed standards in Judaism (that are still to be found in the more conservative branches of Judaism).

Today, we still witness the strong role played by standards in Islamic countries. I remember hearing pronouncements beamed over loud speakers from the high minarets in Istanbul when I was working in Turkey. These words of divinity were very impressive (especially for me as a person who grew up in a highly secular community in California). The exertion of standards coming from the minaret would seem to say much about how those who are observant should schedule their day and conduct their life. These pronouncements are a daily reminder to observants Muslims (as if they are not already fully aware of their duties).

As a respectful (but naïve) nonobservant, I find myself amazed at (and appreciative of) the way these powerful Islamic standards seem to culminate in the religious pilgrimage to Mecca during the observance of Ramadan. The remarkable flow of the Islamic faithful around a square is miraculous—what chaos and complexity theorists would describe as a self-organizing system: no formal choreography or organizing group. Powerfully organizing and deeply-shared standards of conduct are fully operational in this Mecca gathering.

What about standards in contemporary secular societies? Certainly, there was the structure imposed on work life during much of the 20th Century – when the modern, industrial era was dominant in Europe, North America and many other “developed” countries. The 9 to 5 work day was normative, as was the weekend. While premodern societies typically did not (and still do not) have a regular work day, there are standards in the modern world. Many premodern societies have relied heavily on the extraction of natural resources (lumber, minerals, fish) or the cultivate of plants and raising of domesticated animals (agriculture). In these societies, the work day typically begins at dawn and ends at dusk. Work is often dictated by seasonal patterns (heat, moisture, wind, etc.) rather than an arbitrarily-imposed standard work day.

Even older premodern societies (that are rare today) relied on hunting and gathering, with tribes being nomadic, traveling with the food source or with changing weather conditions. There was little imposed structure in each the agrarian or hunter-gatherer societies, other than a keen awareness of the shifting nature of the environment in which members of the society lived and worked. There certainly are rituals and patterns in these societies, but the structure is usually informally imposed (“tradition!”) and adjustable (dancing with the environment).

Perhaps, we shouldn’t go too far in accepting this analysis of structure in premodern societies. The structure might more closely resemble late 19th Century music in the Western World – the structure is provided through the narrative being offered around a fire, during a dinner or while sipping on some mind or mood-altering libation. In the hunter-gatherer society, a compelling narrative is particularly appropriate since the traditions of this society are embedded in their culture, rather than in any one specific location (which is more often the case in an agrarian society). Perhaps the narrative of journey in a hunter-gatherer society is comparable to the narrative of journey in a Richard Strauss tone-poem.

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