Von Mises: Society Is No Super-Organism And History Is No Guide

von mises

“The natural condition of man is extreme poverty and insecurity,” says von Mises in his monumental work, Human Action. Contraposed to this is man’s innate desire to preserve and strengthen his life and to lesson his pain, discontent, and uneasiness.

Because Man is a logical animal, he realizes pretty quickly that cooperation, and the division of labor which comes with it, improves his life more than isolated activity.

Says von Mises…  “The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization and transformed the animal man into a human being are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man’s reason is capable of recognizing this truth. But for these facts, men would have forever remained deadly foes of one another, irreconcilable rivals in their endeavors to secure a portion of the scarce supply of means of sustenance provided by nature.”

Contrary to what some have asserted, says von Mises, it is not friendship which causes Man to form Society, but “the higher productivity of cooperation under division of labor.” This makes Society “the foremost means of every individual for the attainment of his own ends whatever they may be.” Friendships are not the seeds but “the fruits of social cooperation.”  Friendships thrive only within the framework of society, and they did not precede but flowed out of the establishment of social relations.

In reality, the fundamental social relation, states von Mises, is “the exchange relation.” It is the “interpersonal exchange of goods and services”  which  “weaves the bond which unites men into society.”

In utilizing division of labor for more efficient work, von Mises asserts that humankind is only following the example of nature. “The principle of the division of labor is one of the great basic principles of cosmic beginning and evolutionary change,” he observes.  Besides the obvious examples of ant colonies and bee hives, wherein there are numerous divisions of labor shared by differently specialized individuals, we have long known that even inside one individual “there is division of labor between various parts of any living organism.” Von Mises considers the division of labor “a universal law determining cosmic becoming.”

It is true, says von Mises, that adjusting one’s self to the requirements of social cooperation demands sacrifices; however, these are only “temporary and apparent sacrifices” which are “more than compensated-for by the incomparably greater advantages which living within Society provides.”

Von Mises strives to make very clear that by forming Society, humankind is not forming some sort of super-organism with its own agenda– a belief held by certain Hegelians or Marxists, among others. This erroneous belief sees Society as “an entity living its own life, independent of and separate from the lives of the various individuals” and acting on its own behalf, with its own aims and ends– ends which are “different from the ends sought by the individuals” comprising it.

The actual truth of the situation, says von Mises, is that “society is nothing by the combination of individuals for cooperative effort. It exists nowhere else than in the actions of individual men. It is a delusion to search for it outside the actions of individuals. To speak of a society’s autonomous and independent existence, of its life, soul, and its actions, is a metaphor which can easily lead to crass errors.”

Relatedly, von Mises does not believe with Marxists or others that different Societies can fashion individuals who think fundamentally differently than the individuals fashioned by other Societies. There is only one mode of logical thinking available to humankind at this stage in its evolution– and it is shared by ALL human individuals.

Another reason von Mises is so dead-set against the interpretation of Society as some super-organism, is that this interpretation can be used to set-up “an antagonism between the aims of the Society and those of its members.”

Governments can use such a situation to compel its members to sacrifice their own individual needs and desires for the so-called greater good. Individuals who do not “sacrifice their egoistic designs to the benefit of Society” and continue to “pursue their own ends” are then labelled as “wicked.”

Von Mises contends that there is no superior agent called “Society.” Instead, “the life of a collective is lived in the actions of the individuals constituting its body,” and the best way to predict group behavior is to predict individual behavior.  Every choice made in a Society is an individual’s choice. There is no super-organism making its own choices toward its own aims.

Von Mises observes that, unlike animals, Man always has the choice before him of committing suicide or of dying for some cause other than himself. Thus, “to live, for man, is the outcome of a choice, of a judgment of value.”

In a world without causality, Man could not use his innate logic to make choices. “In order to ACT, man must know the causal relationship between events, processes, or states of affairs,” says von Mises. This means that human action has a certain irony to it… because Man acts with the end in mind, ends are in a way also causes.

Before an individual acts, states von Mises, three conditions must be met: 1) he must NOT be perfectly happy in his current circumstance, 2) he must be able to envision an “a more satisfactory state,” and 3) he must have “the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least alleviate” his current situation. I find the last of these three conditions especially applicable to situations in which groups or individuals feel unempowered or disenfranchised by the dominate social system. It would also explain the lethargy and despondency which accompanies mental depression– why act if you don’t feel like it would do any good?

But even to not-act is to act, says von Mises, for “wherever the conditions for human interference are present, man acts no matter whether he interferes or refrains from interfering. He who endures what he could change acts no less than he who interferes in order to attain another result.”

Thus, the opposite of conscious choice is not a non-act, but action resulting from reflex or instinct which is not controllable by human volition.  These actions, explains von Mises, would be those stemming from “mechanical or chemical responses to mechanical or chemical stimuli.” Thankfully,most instinctive responses are good for us.  Von Mises says that Feuerbach was correct when he observed that “every instinct is an instinct to happiness.” 

But even if a choice is a conscious one, it is not necessarily purely logical one, says von Mises. Sometimes, emotions can cloud the judgment…

When we make a choice logically, we take into consideration the different values we assign to different possible outcomes. However, says von Mises, “emotions disarrange valuations.”  When a man becomes “inflamed with passions,” his view of the world is distorted, and he sees “the goal as more desirable –and the price he has to pay for it as less burdensome– than he would in cool deliberation.”

Besides the problem of making emotionally clouded choices, von Mises points-out that using the past to predict the future is also fraught with danger. Not only does each historical experience “deal with unique and unrepeatable events” but “every historical experience is open to various interpretations.”

Continues von Mises…

“The writings of historians are always one-sided and partial; they do not report the facts; they distort them.” […]  “At every step of his activities, the historian is concerned with value judgments.” No historian “registers all facts as they happen. He must discriminate, he must select some events which he deems worthy of being registered and pass over in silence other events.” … “History can never be anything else than distortion of facts.”

There are also those writers of history who consider historical events as their own personal “arsenal of weapons for the conduct of their party feuds.”  These so-called historians are more properly called “propagandists and apologists” says von Mises.


Other HAMMERING SHIELD Posts On Von Mises:

Von Mises On Values, Selfishness, and Government Intrusion

Von Mises:  Business Cycles Caused By Government-Induced Credit Expansions

Von  Mises On Heroic Businessmen, King Consumer, And The Wage-Rate We Deserve

Von Mises On Why Reasoning Humankind Is Destined To Cooperate

Von Mises On The Question Of…  WHY BOTHER?


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