#71: The Improvement of Society Never Ends

“Aren’t we tired of change? Can’t things just stay the same? Why can’t we just fix our society once and for all and be done with it? Just do it, do it right, have the right people in charge, and we’ll all be happy and can go back to our own lives.”

This fictitious quote probably represents what a lot of people are feeling, and have been feeling, around the world, throughout all time. It’s a familiar desire, it is at the core also of any utopian promise: Create the perfect society, let us be happy, and leave us be.

Such a promise is deeply anti-political: Politics is the domain of the constant management and improvement of society. No matter which political model is followed, this will always apply. Aristotle categorized societies according to two parameters: number of rules, and good/bad implementations of such a model. He distinguishes between rule by one (Monarchy1/Tyranny2), few (Aristocracy3/Oligarchy4) or many/all (Democracy5/Ochlocracy6). Notwithstanding these distinctions, there will always be politics, but the reach of political participation will be limited.

You could argue that if you limit participation, you spare most people from having to deal with politics. They can live in peace and quiet while people who know what they’re doing are taking care of things for them. Even in democracies, many people who would have citizenship rights self-limit their engagement out of a variety of reasons.

In a utopian society – or so the fantasy goes – that should be ok. Yet we are not living in a utopia, no matter what you believe. Thus if you do not have political participation rights, or choose not to execute them, you are relying to others doing that work for you. You will be at the receiving end of decisions made by others. These others may or may not be well-meaning; but even if you grant that (you shouldn’t always, but let’s just for sake of nicety do so), they will always be human beings, or – in the case of algorithms or artificial intelligence – be programmed by human beings. They will always be imperfect, always be flawed. Monarchies may claim to draw their power from that one which is perfect (typically called God), but no monarch themselves will be God, not even Pharaohs, Emperors or God-Kings.

In addition to that, you may have created the perfect society, but challenges will continue, life goes on, history will continue. There will be external threats, technological and economic changes, environmental challenges, weather, diseases, dangers from events in space, you name it. Unless you freeze society in time, change will happen always. Time is the master of us all. The longer we live, the longer our society lives, challenges will keep coming. No single state has ever lasted for ever. Even the biggest, most powerful, most resourceful empires, and the smallest, most secluded, most protected states, have all disappeared over time. Mortality is the essence of all our being, and all our institutions, and we can fight it only for so long.

This means that change cannot ever be avoided. Now you can choose to prefer a societal and political model that limits your ability to fight those challenges yourself, and to promote positive change. Of course, this is a constant struggle, and it will be unending. Once change brings about countless others, and so on and so on. The Greek story of Sisyphus shows him continuing to push a boulder up a hill, but the bolder keeps rolling back, and his work will never be finished. This is life, this is all of us.

But maybe this is a good thing. We cannot not be political – either we are participating in society, or we will be society’s victim. Participation thus is critical, in whatever form possible, and fighting for participation is part of the human struggle forever.

Is it worth it? Maybe Albert Camus has an answer here: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


1 μόνος / monos = one; archein = to rule
2 τύραννος / tyrannos = tyrant
3 ἄριστοι / aristoi = the best
4 ὀλίγοι / oligoi = the few
5 δῆμος / dêmos = the portion of the people that are allowed (and expected!) to be politically active, typically called citizens, in distinction from strangers, unfree people, and sometimes relatives of citizens without citizenship rights themselves (typically children and – historically or still in some countries – women, or others with minority status)
6 ὄχλος / ochlos = the mob. Sometimes, the distinction for rule of many/all is called Polity/Democracy, in which “polity” just means “political community”, and democracy means “mob rule”. Athens called its democracy ἰσονομία / isonomy, which means same law for all.