Yesterday my neighbour had a large lathe, to turn and mill metal, delivered to his door. Four guys pulled the palette off the lorry and drove off leaving it in his drive. It was enormous and heavy, and he was unable to move it. Luckily, shortly after this, a van with some local youths, on their way back from shearing sheep, passed by. They noticed his dilemma, stopped and helped him lift the crate up to his workshop.
After unpacking the lathe and assembling its stand in the workshop another problem became apparent. The machine weighed 300kg it was going to be difficult to lift it up, through the door, and onto its stand. I was passing, walking the dogs, and started to help. We fashioned a moving shelf with a car jack and a metal plate but, even with crowbars, we couldn’t get the machine up onto the shelf.
Luckily another farmer was passing bringing hay back from a field recently cut. We flagged him down and asked if he would help us with the last leg of the lathe’s journey. This was no minor request. This weighed over quarter of a ton, was difficult to handle and could cause serious injury, or death, if it toppled and fell. But none the less we all set to and after an hour of panting, groaning and swearing the job was done. We gossiped for a while about politics and Brexit, then I completed my walk with the dog, the farmer finished his journey with the hay, and my neighbour settled down to read the lathe’s handbook.
What struck me, as I was walking the dog, was how ready people are to help each other. Happy to help for no reward other than to be helpful. It struck me how often I see this. Or local community hall is run and shared by volunteers who maintain the grounds at their own cost and who give hours of time to organize local events. I recalled spending an afternoon with a man I did not know as we cut and cleared a tree which had fallen and blocked the road, and a prior evening when a different stranger had helped me round up someone’s sheep that had got out through a broken fence and were wandering the lanes. I have an evening booked, later this week, to go to the pub with some people in the town who, like me are Community First Responders, and give up some of their free time to help should anyone be in need.
Life would scarcely be liveable were it not for these multiple acts of kindness from strangers. If I drop my wallet, or leave my phone on the table, as I leave a cafe someone will call to alert me or run after me to make sure I don’t lost my property. Anyone with the misfortune to be in an accident will recall the offers of help from bystanders. Anyone lost knows you can ask a passerby for directions. Every day our interactions with others is usually helpful. When we walk on a busy pavement in the city we do not jump and jostle for space but step aside and ensure we can all move as freely as possible. It’s the way we are made, it’s our nature, we are designed to be helpful.
It is for this reason that I get annoyed with post-apocalyptic films and novels which suggest that when the state is destroyed we will all descend into barbarism. The usual scenario is, that after a disaster, man-made or natural, all the authorities have gone and our heroes have to travel across a land populated by villains intent on rape and murder. These dystopias paint a bleak picture of life without the state. The message is clear, without the state to protect us we world all be at risk from the murderous impulses of our neighbours.
This runs counter to our general experience. We rarely call on the state to defend us and every day we experience pleasant or useful communal interactions with our fellows. Our instincts to be sociable and create society are so innate and quotidian that we fail to notice them. Rather, we only notice when people fail to be nice and are, on rare occasions, rude to us.
There is a misconception that the state creates society. It does not, individuals by their nature create society. The state, by contrast, creates power; rather than fostering cooperation it creates compulsion and obligation. Humans do not by instinct kill each other, if you want to see violent and cruel behaviour you need a ruling class to compel it. The mass killings our species has seen (wars, genocide or pogroms) have always been instigated by a state and a call to the authority of a God, King, Nation or ideology. We have to compel people to go to war and sometimes shoot them if they won’t go – to encourage the others. People spontaneously build communities and society not war and oppression, you need a state for that.
Even the benign aspects of the state carry their risks. If, ‘for or own good’, the state looks after our welfare it takes it out of our hands. It means we do not make the choices and priorities, and we do not make the social bonds and links to promote our welfare. Charity, locality planning and fraternal organizations all become weakened when the state steps in. As the sociologist Frank Furedi noted :-
“Indeed, it can be argued that state intervention in everyday life corrodes community life no less, and arguably even more, than market forces. In many societies, people who come to rely on the state depend far less on each other and on their community. When what matters is access to the state then many citizens can become distracted, and stop cooperating and working with fellow members of their community”
In a practical sense, here is some free advice. If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, or jungle, or crossing barren windswept plains after a nuclear holocaust, and you see other people don’t run away from them. They are your best hope, do what all your instincts tell you to do and run towards them shouting for help; they probably will.
If we ever do see the breakdown of the state then I will be even more reliant on my friend and neighbours. We would quickly reorganise our local community again and people might take the opportunity not to return to power structures that we had lost, with all the inequality that accompanied it. The world would go on but sone of those who leeched of our backs would now have to fund a way to be helpful and productive.
The state might tell us whether we can buy a lathe or not, or might put taxes on its purchase to fund its own agenda, and it may punish someone if they steal it from us, but it doesn’t do much else. It didn’t design it, make it, or transport it, individuals working cooperatively did that. The state didn’t help us move the lathe in the past and we will still be able to move it, despite its weight, once the state has gone.