George Walford: The Problem of Solutions

IC has received a paper announcing the establishment of Problems Researching Exchange (PRE). The aim of this project is “to provide a point of contact and focus for institutions, groups and individuals concerned with human problems and their solution” (If you would like to make contact, a note sent to IC will be forwarded). PRE has been founded “following the publication of the first edition of the ‘Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential'”(referred to below as “the Yearbook”).

PRE and the Yearbook both take the same general line, and it is one which implies a certain view of society. PRE mentions the solution of problems, but it is clear that the reference in to solutions that have yet to be found. The Yearbook mentions “human potential,” but it is clear that the reference is to potential that has yet to be realized. Neither of them is concerned with the past or present achievements of society. Both have their attention directed to problems which have yet to be solved. Both of them see society as something which faces problems.

This is not the only possible view; there are (as we shall see) two others receiving significant support. There are three main views of the relation between society and social problems.

These three views are not, of course, material objects, and although they are certainly linked with the emotions of those who hold them (an attack upon any one of them tends to produce resentment), yet they are not themselves composed of emotions. They are constituted of ideas, beliefs, conceptions, interpretations, convictions, assumptions and the like. They are, in short, ideological phenomena. The presence of three views raises the question of the relations between them, and since these views are themselves ideological phenomena this is a problem for systematic ideology.

One of the views is that there are no social problems. There are certainly troubles, but these are not problems, not things we need to study and think about in order to correct them. In order to overcome our troubles all we need do it apply the cures that lie ready to hand: get rid of the immigrants, be more industrious, or more devout. Our troubles are not problems to be solved, they are patently the consequences of human deficiencies, of the greed or wickedness of our opponents or the weakness, laziness of sinfulness of our own people. This is the view of the brown [Expediency] and blue [Domination] ideologies, those that appear in politics as, respectively, unthinking compliance and Conservatism.

The other alternative view is that there are social problems but the solution to them are known; what is needed now is to put those solutions into effect. This will require an extensive reform or revolution in society, and it is the refusal to accept these changes that causes our problems to continue and become more acute. This is the view of the pink [Reform], red [Revolution] and black [Repudiation] ideologies, those that appear in politics as, respectively, Labour-Socialism, Communism and Anarchism.

The view taken by PRE and the Yearbook, the view that there are social problems and we need to study them in order to find the solutions, is the view of the yellow [Precision] ideology, the one that appears as science (particularly physical science), and in politics as Liberalism.

Before going on it will perhaps be well to enter a caveat. The ideological classification given above refers to the three views mentioned, not to the people who put those views forward. It is of course true that the views do not exist apart from certain activities performed by these people, and accordingly the classification of those activities is implied. But, still, not classification of the people who perform those activities. We cannot classify the people who perform those activities. We cannot classify the people because we do not have full ideological information on them. If, on the evidence above, we were to classify the people connected with PRE or the Yearbook as predominantly identified with the yellow ideology we might afterwards find that in other connections these same people exhibit identification with the red, or the black. Our classification would have been proved wrong. Activities and the products of activities – views, papers, books, speeches, projects – can usually be classified ideologically, and so can groups, but people are more complex; rarely, if ever, is it possible to classify a person with certainty and precision.

We know the major ideologies form a developmental series. So do these three attitudes toward social problems: 1. There are no social problems. 2. There are social problems and we need to study them in order to solve them. 3. There are social problems and they have been solved; now we need to put the solutions into effect.

In the series formed by the major ideologies each term depends for its continued existence upon the continued functioning of the previous one. The same is true of the present series.

The people holding the first view concern themselves with operating society as it is; in doing so they provide the food, clothing, shelter and security without which the second and third groups could not maintain themselves. And it is from the studies of the second group that there emerge the solutions the third group works to establish. Nor is it the case that the second group has finished its task once a solution has been found, for no social problem ever is solved finally and exhaustively. This is demonstrated whenever a Socialist or Communist group obtains control of a country and whenever the ideas of Anarchism appear to be receiving any considerable degree of general acceptance. The attempt to put into practice the solutions propounded before the takeover invariable fails, and it is good fortune if the attempt produces no massive disaster. The particular problems facing that particular social group under those particular historical conditions need to have their own particular solutions worked out. The second view, that there are social problems and they need to be studied, is a functional necessity even after a revolution.

The adherents of the three views are not bound, by the logic of their respective positions, to oppose each other. The rational approach would seem to be for them to work together, supplementing each other’s efforts intentionally as they do now inadvertently. But they do not do this, they are not mutually supportive but hostile. Each repudiates the others, blaming them for its difficulties.

Those who hold the first view, that there are no social problems, blame their troubles on those who hold the second view and third. If only the “trouble-makers” would stop pointing out new problems, and the “agitators” stop trying to impose their solutions, then things would be well enough. We could all settle down comfortably.

Those who hold the second view see those who hold the first, those who operate society as it is, as the source of the problems confronting them. Seeking profits they wreck the environment. Seeking cheap food they produce factory farming. Seeking sexual pleasure they produce a population problem. And, in the view of those who hold the second view, those who hold the third view only make matters worse by trying to impose their solutions before they have been worked out in full detail.

Those who hold the third view are (in their own estimation) standing there with the solutions to social problems in their hands, only to be rejected by the first and second groups. It is the persistence of these groups in the old, outworn ways that causes the continuance and the worsening of our problems.

It seems that the real source of our difficulties is the failure of the three groups to co-operate, their persistence in hostility when the rational course would be to support each other. Yet the history of attempts to get them to work together, to accept a compromise or consensus, is not encouraging; if that is the answer to which our studies lead it is an answer of little practical value. Back to the drawing-board.

Instead of looking at what these groups ought to be doing, let us look again at what they do. Each of them develops its own view and maintains it against the others. They are in conflict, each trying to prove itself right and the others wrong, each striving in this way to eliminate the others. The first group strives to prove that the second and third groups are needlessly making trouble. It does this by operating existing society as well as it possibly can by operated. The second group tries to prove that the first and third groups are deluded, their efforts misdirected. It works to prove that the important thing about society is the problems it faces, and does this by bringing those problems into the light where they can be studied. The third group tries to prove that the first and second groups, by their rejection of the solutions it offers, are ensuring a continuance of our difficulties. It strives to prove that the solutions it offers are real, effective solutions by putting them into effect.

Each of them does this in the course of its conflict with the others. Does it, partially at least, because it is in conflict with the others. It is the conflict that provides the motivation. One can almost say that there, as in the physical world, action and reaction are equal and opposite; that the repudiation of one view supplies the impulse to perfect another and to demonstrate this perfection in practice.

To seek consensus or compromise, or to suppress or restrict any one of these views in the hope that thereby the others will be better able to flourish, is to repeat the error of those who try to encourage a species by removing its predators. It is the activity of the predators that keeps a species viable, and it is the presence of hostile views on the relation of society to social problems which ensures that each view on that subject shall be developed and promoted to the full, both in practice and in theory.

Each of the three views goes with a particular activity. The first, the view that there are no social problems, goes with the activity of using productively the solutions that have already been discovered and accepted. The second, the view that there are social problems and we need to study them, goes with the identification and solution of problems, and the third goes with the activity of obtaining (often against resistance) acceptance for the solutions that have been discovered.

These three activities together cover the identification, study and solution of problems, obtaining acceptance for the solutions, and putting those solutions into use once they have been accepted. They cover, in fact, all that society needs to do, or can do, about its problems. When each of these activities is developed, in theory and in practice, as far as it is possible to develop it, then society will be doing everything it is possible to do about its problems and their solutions.

The way to ensure full development of any one of these views is not to restrain or suppress the others but to encourage them, to suppress whatever would restrict their development. In this connection as in others, the policy indicated by the results of ideological study is: The suppression of nothing but suppression itself.

from Ideological Commentary 4, January 1980.