Margaret Thatcher shared with Thomas Hobbes, the great English political philosopher, a typically British, myth-busting receptivity to common-sense. Thatcher saw through the self-serving rhetoric of moralists whose ideals were bankrupting the economy. She pushed government to basic accounting principles and put Britain back on track. Yet “there is no such thing as society” is the heartless, bean-counting claim for which she is remembered by community-oriented lefties. She gutted societies with the logic of mergers, acquisitions and downsizing, then in vogue, erasing the entity whose existence she denied.

We should interpret Thatcher’s claim more and less charitably. Three hundred years earlier, when Hobbes argued, “there is no such thing as ‘the people’ ” he, admittedly, supported monarchy. But his enlightened point was we should never forget the faces of real human beings, with artificial, abstract concepts like “we, the People” (or, to emphasise this “they, the Africans”). It’s fine to raise appeals on behalf of “society” but who represents individuals on the ground, if not they themselves, in person or in contract? Thatcher was right, sociologically, there is no “society” in the real world; only the members which make up the set. But her anti-essentialist kudos (also in vogue, at the time, like big hair) was unmatched by naïve faith in economic entities of mythic proportions, like, the “market” and its omniscient, omnipotent author, the “invisible hand”.

There is no invisible hand guiding the market; just the grubby hands of individuals engaged in transactions. Moreover, the “market”, like “society”, is not a category into which each member identically fits. And, just as the term “society” often assumes illicit commonality between politicians and “the people”, so, the concept “market” masks contracts and relations of power between actual people, some in large, lonely mansions, many crowded into broken, little homes. Yet, realistic economists — who may baulk at a “common good” beyond the actual goods of individuals — are committed to more laws of the behaviour of this abstract entity and are prepared to sacrifice more corpses to it, than any religious order has paid its gods.

I mention this to draw attention to the public, secular concerns of a young, private, Catholic university in South Africa. St Augustine College is not battling as one may expect to balance conflicts between old-school universalism and modern religious tolerance; that is a balancing act Catholics have managed for several centuries. Rather, the dominant tension this institution anxiously, even, pedantically confronts, all year long, in its teaching, funding and administration, lies between its values of integrative education for the common good, and radically private “market” principles now used, globally, to replace the outmoded values of traditional universities.

As a newly employed philosopher at St Augustine, accustomed to the commercial logic driving the administrative restructuring of universities into supermarkets, I am surprised to find such conflicts of values still fought out, high up in the administration. Yet, despite their insistence on these standards, these poor Catholics struggle to “market” the universal Intellectual Traditions they hold dear, even as many state universities drop standards beneath a tsunami of numbers. One may rail against lack of state support, but the “state”, here, is, mostly poorly educated parents, embedded in “market” norms, determined to ensure their children are trained by the most expensively branded institution, in a narrowly defined skill that can be directly connected to a clearly determined career path.

This is not a call for popes, cathedrals and castles, but, when your children go to university, stop expecting them to know what they’re going to do with an arts, humanities or social sciences degree, so they can invest in theoretical reflection on abstract ideas, for one liberating moment, and find out. Since religion is devoted explicitly, perhaps, absurdly, to immaterial purposes, it is no accident religious institutions, historically, were the only places black elites could get a theoretical education, as opposed to the practical, “adapted” education provided by the apartheid state. “Practical education” has been used for over a century by classically educated elites to support a lower stream of uncritical, industrial education for the “mob”.

This is not to reject practical training but to call for awareness of the implications of efforts to align the “supply side” with the “demand side” of universities, that is, provide labour for the “market” (see the recent green paper on post-school education and training). These demands are important. But, first, South African companies under-invest in practical training, especially in comparison with industrial economies, like Germany, who provide us with engineers, who often practise here, in their early careers, as our experts. We expect the state to provide essential practical training but trust it to manage nothing else. Second, we must learn, as a “nation” to appreciate the value of education the state traditionally provided, in elite universities, teaching abstraction to rich, white men, so we can reclaim this value for the “common good”. It’s not just inheritance but training in abstract reasoning that helps rich, white men stay wealthy.

There is no “society” but there is a dangerous quota of barely literate, unemployed, restless people. There is no “career” but a series of salaried activities you will perform until you’re retired, fired or dead. One requires a critical, rational capacity to adapt principles, learned in theory, to these unique, changing contexts that can never be captured in a textbook, and which no theory can settle, once and for all. We are a strangely religious “nation” for this day and age, yet we treat our faith with the disrespect with which we treat real, individual members of “Mzansi” — as means to a narrow group concerns and interests. Likewise we place high value on “education” but disrespect its fundamental public value by reducing it to profitable private practice. Given our history, you would think we’d be wary of the metaphysical order of the invisible hand. But too few of us study history.


  • Chris Allsobrook is a lecturer in philosophy at St Augustine College and a politics research associate with the University of Johannesburg. He is also managing editor for the social and political theory journal Theoria and serves a two-year-old child in his spare time.


Chris Allsobrook

Chris Allsobrook is a lecturer in philosophy at St Augustine College and a politics research associate with the University of Johannesburg. He is also managing editor for the social and political theory...

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