Some Thoughts after reading Saint-Simon
Our Amida society is perhaps more like Saint-Simon's ideal than most organisations or communities. It is a kind of productive workshop as well as being a community of values and these two dimensions have to be kept intermeshed in order to preserve the harmony and effectiveness of the whole. We could say that when both function well together a kind of common good is served and the whole functions in an organic manner. Individuals are expected not to pursue their individual interests at the expense of the common good. Even though the common good is not always easy to discern and cannot be reduced to a simple mission statement or signugular motive like profit, growth or service deliever, it is a central and real concern. The whole is governed by deferrence to the belief in an overarching wisdom and it is the duty of those who guide the system to try their best to discern this wisdom and everybody plays some part in this guidance. We do not expect anybody to be perfect at doing so and so there is a pervasive sense that we must help one another toward clarity as well as make allowances for weaknesses and failings. This trying, therefore, includes a lot of listening to others. Those in authority are hesitant to act without first making efforts to discern the wisdom and those who do so gain respect while those who do not do so tend to lose credibility. This is ideologically expressed through the sense of being guided by Nyorai. Each of us is a mirror for Nyorai in proportion to our faith and since none of us has limitless faith we must piece together our sense of Nyorai's wishes from the pieces that we have. This listening to members of the community encompasses discernment of the competing or conflicting interests of different parties but it is not primarily concerned with that, since there is a basic value that says that competition and conflict probably indicate some departure from what Nyorai ideally wants of us and the more conflicted a person is the less they are likely to be acting as a good reflector. More important is the attempt to see how the practical tasks facing the community as a whole can best be shaped and distributed to contribute to the advancement of the individuals, advancement here referring to alignment with, depth of appreciation of, and competence in the key values and valued skills of the community. This is, therefore, a learning community at all levels and one in which there is a consistent circularity of basic thinking. It is also a complex society in which simple hierarchies are tempered by overlaps of functions. A person may be senior to another in one capacity while junior to them in another. Redundancy of information channels and complexity of relations are valued as providing both the best opportunity to discern the wisdom and shock absorption when something goes wrong. Individuals are given areas of responsibility but they are not unprotected. All of this, I think, comes somewhere near to the kind of social organisation that Saint-Simon had in mind. The open question in my mind is whether this can work on a larger scale and what this might look like.
Saint-Simon was a precursor of sociology. He proposed that the ordering of social life could be guided by a science of society and wrote extensively upon the potential nature of such a science which then hardly existed. His social vision does not fit readily into any of the conventional categories such as socialist, utilitarian, meritocratic, etc. He was a conservtive in favouring progressive change and respect for what was tried and tested but his vision was widely different from the programme of conservative politicians today. He was broadly non-hierarchical but not formally democratic, believed in organisation and the centrality of material production but was not socialist. He did not see the economic sphere as in the least degree separable from the political but was no enthusiast for the state. He saw society proceeding by gradual evolution but also saw a role for expert guidance and what we would now call social engineering. Because his ideas do not fit neatly into modern categories he is often misunderstood. Broadly he believed in the supreme importance of the public good and regarded society as basically consisting of a productive workshop in which each person can play a part in contributing to that public good. A difficulty of his system, therefore, lies in the definition of public good. He does not think that unregulated processes of supply and demand serve the public good nor that those of democratic election are likely to define it either. People pursuing their individual whims and wants do not serve the public good, but when the public good is served then the security and ease of individuals collectively is maximised. It was because the public good is not an automatic consequence of any simple mechanism that Saint-Simon believed that the science of society needed to be advanced further. As it advanced, he felt, it would become easier to discern the public good and social administration could thus gradually become a more precise matter.