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  • Jon Matthews

The Pillars of Society


The 7 Pillars of Society, so the theory goes, are education; family; church; business; art and science; government and media. This Summer (and hopefully beyond), alongside two other pillars, Eliza Fraser and Christian Russel-Pollock, I am going to be travelling around festivals and art centres to satirise these pillars, poke fun at them, question them and maybe even replace one or two.

The theory goes that society is dependent on these pillars in order to function, as one pillar gets weaker and loses influence another will get stronger. If, however, these pillars should fall, society itself will crumble. The civilizations which have collapsed in the past, it is claimed, have all done so because of the failure of some of these pillars. A strong, successful society is based on strong pillars and conversely weak pillars will equate to a weak society.

This theory, however, is somewhat dated as well as having more than a few inherent flaws. It does, however, provide a useful starting point for any examination, serious or otherwise, of how effective a society is and I believe, that satire and comedy play an important role in this examination - as we will, hopefully, demonstrate with our show.

Society is the network of interdependence within which we all exist. The word is derived from a Latin term referring to the friendly bond between individuals who interact. Adam Smith believed it to be more pragmatic than that, based less on camaraderie and bonhomie and more on mutual benefit, but as the founder of modern capitalism he didn't know a huge amount about friendship. Margaret Thatcher took this a step further by claiming that society doesn't exist and that we are, rather, just individuals and that our interactions are simply acts of self-preservation. When it was proven to her that society does exist, she dedicated her political career to destroying as much of it as she could and a fine job she did too.

The waxing and waning of these pillars and their control is clear to see. In the last 100 years the influence of the church over society has diminished. Has this led to a collapse in society? Certainly not, other pillars have become more prominent and new pillars have been established. Furthermore, with Britain becoming more multicultural, it is perhaps fair to label this pillar as 'religion' generally rather than specify one faith group by naming it 'church'.

The business pillar has undoubtedly become the most dominant, controlling as it does large elements of the media, the arts, government and even education. The rise in modern technology and the power this gives companies such as Apple over the day to day lives of individuals (as well as the access to their personal information) has further increased the reach of businesses, increasing brand loyalty and market penetration. Studies have suggested that visiting an Apple store, for example, and purchasing a new device is neurologically akin to visiting a cathedral and having a religious experience. The zeal with which an iPhone user will defend their decision to purchase that device when provoked is comparable to the zeal a religious person may show when their views are attacked. Have brands replaced church as a pillar of society?

Peace and justice are the products of a stable society, one whose pillars are in order and all have a fairly even capacity to steer the direction of society. However, when one pillar becomes too powerful and even begins to hold too much sway over the others, society is damaged and it becomes incapable of delivering justice. In Medieval Europe the Catholic Church was the supreme pillar, holding dominion over many of the other aspects of society and eroding its ability to perform justice. In this situation atrocities become far more likely as a result of the absence of social and political justice ensured by an even distribution of influence. The horrendous acts committed by the Catholic establishment in the Middle Ages was a tragic but inevitable consequence of the monopoly of influence it held over the steering of the direction of society.

In our own time the prevalence of business over the other pillars too is leading to atrocities. As I have already mentioned, in Britain business controls large sections of several other pillars, corrupting their position, usurping their core ideals and replacing them with their own. Already we can see the atrocities committed as business holds sway over government and political parties exercise the will of businesses at the expense of ordinary people. Businesses are able to get away with unethical and even illegal behaviour because of the sway they hold over society. Child labour, slavery and environmental atrocities are very much back in vogue, in the business world and companies are not punished by government nor consumer for their crimes.

Plato argued that society and specifically the way it executes justice, favours the 'strong'. In a modern, capitalist setting the strength Plato refers to suggests wealth and influence. It is undoubtedly the case that the wealthy, with their business and government contacts, wield much more control over society than the impoverished masses in the same way that the strong wielded greater control over Athenian society. This state of affairs is far from the ideal of universal justice and democracy that either society are alleged to represent. A strong society is undoubtedly a just society and this is far from a just society. This is a society where both homelessness and tax avoidance are rife and the relationship between the two is undeniable. Justice is about more than the punishing of crime but is also about the distribution of wealth and the giving of help to the vulnerable. The 'strength' of the wealthy and the vast control they posses over the other pillars of society have granted them immunity from the law and exemptions from the usual obligations placed upon the ordinary citizens.

When one pillar becomes too powerful (and swallows up others), in the manner of the Church pillar in the Medieval period and the business period in our current epoch, it has the knock on effect of undermining democracy and usurping the power of the masses. The sway companies have over the government is anti-democratic and the electorate are increasingly considered a lower priority for their elected representatives than the businesses represented by party donors, as the influence of business erodes the strength of other pillars.

The 'Pillars of Society' model can be useful but the nature and names of the pillars that underpin society have changed and are rapidly changing further and the relationship between them is complex. Democracy is being cheapened by the increasing influence of business and its ability to exert control over other pillars. The knock on effect of this is a diminished sense of social justice and increase in the divide between the wealthy and the impoverished.

Often, in different societies, certain pillars begin to be viewed as sacrosanct, essential and immune from criticism. The Medieval Church, again, is a fine example of this. The truth is however, that for justice to reign, no pillar must be immune to a critique of its virtues, failings and place in society. Satire holds the crucial role in a democratic society of reminding people that nothing is sacred, nothing is immune to criticism and all can be mocked. Medieval clowns and jesters would mock the church, the monarchy and the guilds with impunity (mostly). Comedy, in this way, is an pro-democratic action. It brings the powerful low and reminds the masses of their right to hold the establishment into account. It does not replace protesting, lobbying or other forms of activism, yet works hand in hand with them to remind people of the part they can play in influencing society.

The Pillars of Society Comedy Roadshow previews at The Room Above in Bristol on the 21st April 2018. Tickets available here.


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