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Social Organicism in the Service of Power

The sinister side of unity discourse

Socialists, social democrats, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and even liberals like Barack Obama, have been condemned for promoting “class warfare.” However, condemning those who combat oppression and injustice for “dividing society” is to participate in the defense of the social order as it currently exists. Such condemnations of attempts at social reform or revolution are not isolated phenomena, but are products of the ideology of those in power: social organicism. This is a concept so deeply embedded in the structure of our social norms and institutions that it is not typically mentioned nor even noticed. The purpose of social organicism is not to provide an accurate description of society, nor is it to advance social justice; its purpose is rather to justify and protect power relations and structures that are oppressive and unjust.

In any society with power relations, where there is class hierarchy or groups oppressed by social structures, there is a ruling and prevailing ideology that justifies, promotes, and naturalizes such oppressive structures. The purpose of this essay is to examine how the ideology of those who benefit from or defend systems of power (e.g. capitalism, patriarchy, and racism) often assumes an idea of what society is like which may be referred to as social organicism — the idea that society is like a unified organism, with its various units, groups, institutions, and individual members operating together in a manner that is analogous to the cohesion of the various organs in an organism. Considering the fact that society is already heavily divided along economic, racial, and gender lines, social organicism can be observed as a faulty way to view society — the social order is not a unified organism, it is unjustly stratified.

Those who are in power today  who benefit from the social system, such as capitalists, the police, the military-industrial complex, and the prison-industrial complex, use social organicism to ideologically defend the status quo. Social organicism holds that a healthy society is one that is united, much like a bodily organism, and that the “promotion of social division” is therefore bad for society. In other words, socialists who fight for working-class interests, black communities resisting systemic racial violence, and others who engage in disruptive resistance to power relations are regarded as harming the unity and health of society. Using social organicism to defend the social order, however, is not without extreme irony. That is because the social order is one that is already rife with (economic, racial, and gender) divisions, conflict, and inequalities as it is. These divisions exist as part of society today, current society cannot be coherently thought of as a social organism. Thus, the defense of the status quo through an appeal to social organicism is the defense of oppression and social division on faulty premises.

The idea that society is a cohesive organism is shattered when one is forced to face social reality. This contradiction between the ideology of wholeness suggests and reality of scission in society is not merely ironic, it reflects how the ideology functions to omit mention of social divisions for the convenience of those in power.

When those in power actually do acknowledge social divisions, they do so within the social organicist ideological framework, typically calling not for structural change of an inherently divided society, but only for reforms to help restore its unity, not for the abolition of class, but for “unity” and the restoration of “order”. To have this unity and restoration of order, social organicist ideology explicitly or implicitly equates unity and the restoration of order with the elimination, silencing, or weakening of the critics of the status quo. For example, it equates the rise of anti-status quo activity from communists, trade unionists, black civil rights activists, feminists, and gay rights activists, to the disruption of “order.”

The ideology of those in power, with its social organicist assumptions, is selective and inconsistent in what it condemns as “divisive.” The ideology does not only condemn divisiveness, it also defines for itself — with little consistency — what is divisive and harmful for society and what is not. For example, when the state used violence in order to suppress protestors or entire social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, [1] it was generally overlooked. When black communities stand up in order to defend themselves from police brutality, they are condemned as divisive and violent. Thus, the dominant ideology hardly ever considers state violence, structural racism, or the capitalist class system to be divisive or violent — the epithets of violence and divisiveness are reserved for those that challenge power. In other words, challenging the status quo is divisive; defending the status quo, even when the status quo is itself divisive, is presented as unity.

When defending the social order, one common form the ideology manifests itself in is through condemnation of political enemies, dissident groups, or those willing to challenge power as being “divisive” or “unhelpful”.

For example, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s criticism of Black Lives Matter also assumes the basic premise of social organicism. According to Bratton, “Unlike the civil rights movement…the Black Lives Matter movement has focused entirely on police, and is not engaging in dialogue, instead engaging in protests where there’s a lot of yelling and screaming.” [2] To suggest that the fault with Black Lives Matter is the lack of dialogue with the police and other institutions of power is to assume that the police and the black community are part of a single social organism. Such an assumption overlooks the role of the police in the systematic oppression of African-Americans, through racial profiling, police shootings, and mass incarceration. These practices themselves implement and enforce a division between white America and its racial minorities. Such critics of Black Lives Matter tend to thusly identify the problem not as a problem with the police force or the systemic racism of the United States, but as a “few bad apples” and the uncooperative behavior of Black Lives Matter .

In the capitalist social order, social organicist ideology undermines the actions taken by the working class against their employers. The relationship between worker and capitalist is a fundamentally exploitative one that rests on the extraction of surplus value, the unpaid labour time that went into the production of a commodity — a source of profit for the capitalist.[3] Given that a decrease in exploitation would result in a decrease in profit, the interests of the capitalist class and the working class are fundamentally incompatible.[4] Class conflict, and the division it entails, is thus simply ingrained into the capitalist system. Thus, it is necessary for the capitalist class to maintain power over the working class in order to ensure the survival of the system.

However, power does not manifest itself through coercive force alone, but also through the dominance of the ideology of those in power. Without social organicism, a concept that ignores or underplays class antagonisms, it is difficult ideologically justify or to tolerate capitalism when there is an inherently exploitative relationship between the two classes. Social organicism enables those in power to make socially acceptable claims about labour being too powerful, “class warfare” being reprehensible, or that employers and employees should cooperate, to name a few examples. Workers now have to consider not simply their own interests, but the interests of the capitalist ideological construct of the social organism; they must consider the interests of the capitalist class, the very class that exploits and oppresses them.

The fundamental purpose of social organicist ideology is to protect the social order. It underplays existing systemic social tensions between the oppressed and the powerful in order to keep the order intact. Once society is no longer viewed as an organism, the protection of unequal and unjust social structures will not be viewed as the protection of “order”, but will be viewed for what it really is: the reinforcement and justification of oppression. The benign “order” promoted by the authorities can only be seen as benign, good, and necessary if society is viewed as being a social organism, not as being already unjustly divided with its inequalities. Therefore, those in power cannot justify their actions against workers, racial minorities, immigrants, etc. as being done for the sake of “order” without adopting and promoting a social organicist view of society.

Assad Asil Companioni is a student of International Relations at the University of Sharjah. His research tends to revolve around critical theory.
Kurtis Brade is a British Labour Party member studying sociology at Bilborough College.


[1] Conor Friedersdorf, “14 Specific Allegations of NYPD Brutality During Occupy Wall Street,” The Atlantic, last modified July 25, 2012.

[2] John Annese and Leonard Greene, “NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton Blasts Black Lives Matter with Comparisons to Civil Rights Movement of Past,” NY Daily News, last modified July 11, 2016.

[3] For a clarification of surplus value see Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms, s.v. “Surplus Value,” accessed 21 December, 2017. See also Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, Marx’s ‘Capital’, 6th ed. (London: Pluto Press, 2016), 28-40.

[4] Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, Marx’s ‘Capital’, 6th ed. (London: Pluto Press, 2016), 36.

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