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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.

Excluded options

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?

Definitional games

(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 approach.

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 well-established opposition.

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 'pyramid' scheme.

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 Donald Michael:

'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 'business venture'.

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.

Enabling community

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 central government.

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.

Specific possibilities

(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.

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