Social Experiments and Sects
Beyond category manipulation by advocates and opponents
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This note focuses on the category manipulation practiced both by those advocating and
engaging in social experiments, and by those opposing such experiments. Both engage in
definitional games of various kinds. The ensuing dialogue about the merit of social
experimentation is therefore highly confused. This confusion is exploited by establishment
forces to inhibit further experimentation. The repression of experimentation then
reinforces the perspectives of those critical of the status quo.
This situation is especially regrettable given the increasing concern about the
challenges of unemployment, especially among young people. The conventional response over
the past decades has been characterized more by its rhetoric than by its actions. It is
focused in an especially narrow manner on the notion of 'jobs' as a solution to
the merging social crisis. This is a typical consequence of an economic paradigm that is
now seeking its justification in globalization -- ignoring the effects on individuals,
families and communities.
There may always have been efforts to explore alternative approaches to employment and
community organization. There have been many experiments in intentional community. But
despite current government interest in sustainable community, there has been no effort to
recognize such social experiments as meriting investigation as options in their own right
-- to whatever degree they succeeded or failed. Indeed it has been found convenient to
associate all such experiments with questionable belief systems that are readily condemned
as cultist and associated, at least potentially, with suicidal disasters -- as though
disaster and risk were not potentially associated with the best of modern technology.
This marginalization has notably been accomplished with the support of established
religions, despite the many interesting experiments in sustainable community by a number
of religions in the form of monasteries, ashrams, or retreat centres, for example.
Experiments such as the collective farms of communism are condemned outright as a
product of an inappropriate ideology. This would however seem to be inconsistent with
earlier willingness to benefit -- in the interests of 'national security' --
from the technical expertise of the Nazi regime in rocketry, chemical engineering and
dubious medical practices, for example. Since then, despite condemnation of Nazi
experiments, Western governments have not been reluctant to engage in highly dubious
large-scale medical experiments on humans.
The 'science' of sustainable community is not recognized as independent of
the ideology which sustains the community. Ironically it is only the Chinese government
which has recently established a major program of social experiments in sustainable
community -- building upon its collective farm experience.
Is there nothing of relevance to sustainable community to be learnt from many centuries
of monastic experience, for example -- to say nothing of present day intentional
communities, whatever their belief system?
(a) By the advocates of experiment: Typically groups of individuals are
catalyzed into engagement in social experiment by one or more charismatic individuals.
Whether the motivation is political, religious or social, the early phase involves
reframing the current situation. In a sense a new language is developed through which to
perceive the environment. Categories are defined anew. New sets of values are placed upon
them -- whether positive or negative. Some things are to be sought out and enhanced,
others are to be rejected or transformed.
Typically this process involves some degree of dissociation from conventional language.
The process can be considerably energized by demonizing external forces, groups or
individuals. In this way, what the experiment is against becomes very clear to those who
participate in it. This clarity may reduce the need to focus on what it is for or to
evaluate objectively what has been successfully achieved through it. The more radical
experiments involve processes whereby each individual seeks, or is encouraged to, recreate
him/herself in some new image. This may be highly manipulative, although how a distinction
is to be made between manipulation voluntarily sought (as is chiropractics) and imposed
(as in some Japanese management education 'camps') is unclear.
Those engaged in the experiment need to protect it from criticism, whether casual or
persistent. Developing a 'we-they' barrier is then vital to the integrity of the
group. By extension 'we' are right, and 'they' are necessarily wrong,
whether in some or all respects. In religious groups, 'others' can be rapidly
transformed from being simply 'misinformed' into being
'mal-intentioned' and even 'agents of the devil'. Criticism is quickly
labelled as the voice of the neurotic or even 'of the devil'. This clearly
facilitates the task of the leadership, as well as keeping the parameters clear to
followers. Group members are then highly motivated to 'help' those anxious to
leave the group to stay, even to the point of using force 'in their best
interest'. They may well use force or (legal) harassment to constrain those that they
perceive to be their external opponents.
Some experiments lock themselves into a process which can end up in the kind of
disaster extensively covered by the media, namely collective paranoia and collapse
(Rajneesh) or mass suicide (Halle-Bopp, Ordre du Temple Solaire). Equivalent examples can
be readily found for experiments based on non-religious belief systems.
(b) By those opposing experiment: For those well-established groups and
institutions, any social experiment can only with great difficulty be perceived as
anything but a threat -- whether direct or indirect. It questions the validity of their
For established religions, it is an easy task to label any group claiming religious
inspiration as totally misguided, even heretical or 'inspired by the devil'.
Just as nations, in time of war, emphasize imagery of innocents being raped and
cannibalized by the enemy, so established religions seize on phenomena which arouse
emotional support in opposition to such experiments. The difficulty for such religions is
that they often consider each other to be heretical and inspired by the devil, but have
been out-maneuvered in their historical efforts to ensure suppression of any
For those with psychotherapeutic skills, identification with one group to the exclusion
of others, also lends itself to easy labelling as unhealthy. Again, particular cases can
easily be found where 'deprogramming' techniques are seen to be appropriate. The
value of applying such techniques to some individuals in more conventional social groups
is not considered.
For economists, the efforts by many social experiments to explore other solutions to
economic challenges are totally questionable, despite (or because of) past experiments
with collectivization. Criticism may have to be nuanced in the case of cooperatives and
kibbutzim. But little attention is given to intentional communities, despite the success
as sustainable communities of monasteries. Anything that contributes to the
de-monetarization of the economy, notably the use of bartering systems, is perceived as a
threat to a system which increasingly takes on the characteristics of a global
For those concerned with legislation and regulation of such experiments, it is usually
convenient to label social experiments as of marginal political significance -- in
comparison with initiatives which attract widespread popular support. Artificial
distinctions between established 'churches' and 'sects' can therefore
be reinforced in simplistic legislation. Ironically this can best be done by ignoring the
historical circumstances of the emergence of 'churches' from their origins as
'sects'. The process is facilitated by excluding sect-like groups to which
leaders and elites belong, notably semi-secret societies.
(c) Worthy opponents: It is ironic that the 'manipulation' of reality
by advocates of social experiments is so clearly matched by the 'manipulation'
of evidence against them by their opponents. The experimenters seeks to manipulate reality
to offer new possibilities, but in so doing they tend to exploit those they lead. Their
opponents manipulate the case against the experimenters, but in so doing they further
constrain those they themselves lead, whose suffering they can only continue to promise to
alleviate in some distant future.
Both use selective approaches to evidence, exaggeration of isolated phenomena,
deliberate conflation of categories, some form of demonization, and 'harassment'
(where its form is consistent with the reasonableness of the user's own self-image). As
with any political opponents, both are convinced of the abnormality and irresponsibility
of the other and its fundamental danger to society.
Both tend to ignore their own failures and to focus on those of the other. Social
experiments tend to emerge as though there were no history to such experimentation, and no
record of its failure. They are presented as bright new hopes. Similarly those opposed to
such experiments, present their own policies as though they did not have an impressive
track record of failure -- often directly reflected in the misery and suffering of the
underprivileged. Ignoring history, they are both condemned to repeat it.
Learning from failure
In any form of research (and development), the failure of a particular experiment is
not usually considered as a failure of the experimental method, nor is it usually
considered a definitive indicator that further experiments cannot be successful --
following a change of parameters whose appropriateness may have to be determined through a
long series of delicate and dangerous experiments involving many false starts.
With respect to social experiment, the point has perhaps been most clearly made by
'Changing towards long-range social planning requires that,
instead of avoiding exposure to and acknowledgement of error, it is necessary
to expect it, to seek out its manifestations, and to use information derived
from the failure as the basis for learning through future societal experiment.
More bluntly, future-responsive societal learning makes it necessary for
individuals and organizations to embrace error. It is the only way to ensure
a shared self-consciousness about limited theory as to the nature of social
dynamics, about limited data for testing theory, and hence about our limited
ability to control our situation well enough to be successful more often
than not.' (In: On Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn, 1973)
The difficulty in learning from failed social experiments is that dialogue about them
is fraught with challenges. It is virtually impossible to express appreciation for success
on one dimension without being condemned as supporting whatever dubious processes led to
the failure on some other dimension. The extent to which processes, equivalent to those
identified as dubious, are to be found in long-established bodies, cannot be explored.
The healthy approach required is best seen by analogy. If there is an explosion in a
chemical laboratory or a space shuttle, the key question is what precise elements were
poorly made or out of control -- what incompatible elements were exposed to each other
inappropriately? The risk of chain reactions and explosions is well-recognized, as is the
need to avoid leakage of certain products into the environment.
It is many years since experimenters in the natural sciences had to defend themselves
against accusations of using 'devilish' compounds and engaging in
'devilish' practices -- although, ironically, some current biological
experimentation with ethical implic ations is now being labelled in this way. Social
experiments, however, have never been examined with such detachment because of the vested
interests of those involved. As a consequence there is no clear way to understand how to
improve upon such experiments for those wishing to engage in them. Social experimentation
as a whole is condemned -- just as scientific experimentation might have been -- had
established religions not been out-maneuvered.
The criticism of social experiments and their failure frequently focuses on the
personality defects and manipulation practised by the charismatic leader or inner group.
The existence of such defects in the leadership of established groups, and even in major
intergovernmental institutions, is considered unrepresentative and of no significance --
and discussion of it is necessarily avoided. No account is taken of equivalent limitations
associated with many originators of technical innovations or in breakthroughs in the
fundamental sciences -- as the history of such breakthroughs, and the vainglorious pursuit
of Nobel Prizes, illustrates so well. There have been few theoretical discoveries
unaccompanied by dubious social dynamics between competing researchers.
It is ironic that many of the established religions were originally social experiments
which had much to offer society. For the young unemployed, unfortunately, they are
increasingly identified with failures from which it is difficult to learn. Further
experiment is discouraged and unsupported -- unless it is can be defined as a
Creating meaningful community
Given the recognized limitations in the capacity of government and other institutions
to 'create jobs', what would it take to create meaningful living environments
for young people in which 'employment' and 'unemployment' might be
experienced and defined in other ways?
Similarly, given the recognized future limitations in the capacity of governments and
other institutions to provide 'social security' for the elderly, or for the
physically or mentally challenged, what would it take to create meaningful living
environments for such people in which again 'employment' and
'unemployment' might be experienced and defined in new ways?
And, given the progressive de-skilling of many jobs, what would it take to provide a
meaningful environment for those currently employed in increasingly meaningless tasks --
ensuring once again that 'employment' and 'unemployment' might be
experienced and defined in new ways?
In each case it is clear that current policy-making is in a gridlock situation, bound
by regulations and obligations which powerful interests continue to reinforce. This system
will continue to flourish in favour of those who are 'in', and at the expense of
those who are 'out', until it collapses through a major social crisis -- of
which several are considered imminent. The question is what can be explored with, or
without, governmental support, without infringing such regulations.
It would appear to be a mistake to focus on the particularities of possible social
experiments, thus prejudging their results and the future ingenuity of those who may
choose to undertake them. It is also a mistake to assume that results deemed
unsatisfactory by one group would not be considered highly satisfactory by another. The
sustainability of community may be evaluated as differently by individuals as it is by
plant or animal species variously adapted to arid or temperate ecosystems. The range of
monastic communities or kibbutzim illustrate the point.
Setting aside the question of why there is so much resistance to social experiments, it
is useful here to draw attention to the opportunities for 'community enabling'.
This is understood here to be any action which enables groups of people to experiment with
new forms of community and mutual support -- to safeguard and enhance the quality of their
lives. The opportunities for community enabling can perhaps best be understood in terms of
the disciplines, professions and vested interests which have been less than helpful in
supporting such initiatives -- but from whom valuable support might nevertheless be
obtained in the future.
As implied above, government legislation has rarely been helpful in facilitating modern
community experiments. Seen in a different light however, governments of some countries
have traditionally been supportive of such initiatives where they have been undertaken by
established religions. This has been the case with respect to Christian monasteries and
convents. In countries such as India, for example, there has been little opposition to
ashrams. Indeed India went further in providing enabling legislation in support of a major
social experiment at Auroville (near Pondicherry), which has received significant
international recognition from Unesco. At best governments have tolerated such experiments
where they could be framed within existing legislation regarding cooperatives or mutual
societies, or as with the Amish and Huttite communities in the USA. But governments have
also quashed social experiments, as in the case of the widespread community credit system
in Wörgl (Austria) -- which reduced the unemployment system by 25 percent in a single
year (1932-33) -- but proved too attractive to other local authorities in the eyes of
As indicated above, government has however used its powers to impose social experiments
such as collective farms under the various communist regimes. In Israel critical support
has been given to the kibbutz movement which at various stages pioneered opening of new
agricultural lands and was vital to border security. Through its current 'settlement
policy', some questionable limitations of such initiatives are highlighted.
Less controversially, government has been supportive of cooperative movements and
mutual societies and has provided enabling legislation. The importance of such initiatives
has been recognized internationally through the International Labour Organization, and
more recently through the European Union.
But whilst governments have recognized the vital role of investment in technological
research and development, no corresponding efforts have been made with respect to social
research and development in living community experiments. Irrespective of whether public
funds could be made available to improve the chances of success of such experiments, no
enabling legislation has been developed to facilitate the undertaking of such experiments.
Where they are undertaken, it is despite the obstacles provided by government rather than
with any form of government encouragement -- whether non-financial or otherwise.
(a) Free zones: Governments have over the past decades experimented with
'free zones' as a means of boosting manufacturing and trade, whilst avoiding the
inhibiting effects of taxation, import/export duties and bureaucratic form-filling. There
has been a clear economic argument in favour of this initiative. There is a strong case
for equivalent free zones in which social experiments can take place, free of the various
constraints which normally inhibit them and render it impossible to create exceptions. The
viability of such zones merits a feasibility study in the light of the possible social
advantages to society. Traditionally monastic enclosures, university campuses and
diplomatic compounds have had some qualities of such a free zone. Walled suburbs are not a
reactive variant. Ironically, in the absence of such proactive initiatives, dysfunctional
free zones are already being created in urban environments in the form of 'no
go' zones where gang power prevails and in red light districts, and similar, areas
where police 'turn a blind eye'.
(b) Exemptions and privileges: Governments have long taken special measures to
enable initiatives viewed as vital to the national interest. These include tax exemptions,
creative approaches to social security, and provision of a variety of other exception
clauses. This is most clearly seen in the case of the diplomatic corps (for which there
are a number of intergovernmental treaty provisions), the international civil service
including work in the United Nations and similar bodies (for which treaty provisions have
again been made), and military service. In each case, special provision is made for
personal taxation, social security and pensions, education of children, and tax-free
acquisition of goods, for example. The argument for such privileges is that they are
necessary to attract the highest qualified personnel and to compensate them for any damage
such exceptional activity may cause to their career opportunities. An equivalent case
could be made for those who engage in long-term social experiments.
One possibility is for governments to use fiscal incentives to actively encourage
corporate enterprises and universities to engage in social experiments through tax
incentives. This could be justified as research into ways of redefining the social safety
net and extending employment possibilities.
(c) Social sciences: Despite the considerable resources invested in the social
sciences over past decades, it is debateable whether this has led to any social
innovations permitting the creation of new kinds of community or forms of employment. The
major social impact of such research has been associated with marketing, opinion
formation, motivation, and propaganda, which were the early justifications for investment
in the behavioral sciences. Whilst these skills have been used by governments for the
destabilization of foreign regimes, they do not appear to have been used to create new
forms of social organization more appropriate to the emerging challenges of the future.
Again it is appropriate to challenge the social sciences to design new social
experiments and to treat their implementation as worthwhile field experiments whose
improvement and viability is their responsibility. This would complement their proven
ability to investigate social experiments designed by others without the benefit of their
skills and insights.
It is ironic that whilst funds can be found for such experiments as Biosphere2,
and plans can be seriously put forward for L5 O'Neil habitats in space, no
experiments are undertaken with respect to the social viability of such environments
-- even by the International Space University network. There is a place for 'Sociosphere2'
experiments, especially with the increasing tendency to create walled suburbs,
compounds and enclaves, for security reasons.