Acton Institute Powerblog

Status and function: Drucker on the keys to a functioning society

This is the fifth in a series of essays on Peter Drucker’s early works.

Peter Drucker published The Future of Industrial Man in the midst of World War II (1942). He was conscious of the need to defeat authoritarian governments beyond the battlefield. Free societies would have to prove themselves superior or the problems of fascism and communism would continue to recur.

In the book, he offered a formulation that he would go on to repeat in many other books and articles. “No society can function as a society unless it gives the individual member social status and function, and unless the decisive social power is legitimate power,” he wrote.

Two words stand out in that sentence: “status” and “function.” Without these two things, Drucker wrote, human beings are “social atoms flying through space without aim or purpose.”

Social status and function tell us how the individual integrates into the group. This formula “expresses the individual purpose in terms of the society and the social purpose in terms of the individual.” As a result, the group and the individual are able to make sense of each other.

It should be clear that this act of reconciliation requires beliefs about the society and the individual. In order to exercise power without simply relying on coercion, there has to be some “ethical or metaphysical principle” that is widely accepted. Very often, religious belief has served this integrative function (e.g. Christianity in the West).

Without some kind of cornerstone, the door is open to corruption and arbitrariness. It will increasingly depend on might over right. What is needed is some kind of broad-based legitimate power that transcends arbitrariness and reduces the vulnerability of people to irrational forces. Demagoguery rises when faith in the foundational principles of a society is receding. The faith of many people in the society declines when the challenge of status and function is not met.

Drucker singled out the 19th-century American frontier as an especially good theater for the realization of status and function for individuals (those not blocked by race or sex). Men such as Jackson and Lincoln were able to rise and transcend traditional barriers because the frontier elevated ability beyond class.  Wide access to property helped integrate massive numbers of people into the social group and to make sense of their own purpose. The encouragement to acquire private property fit extremely well with the task of inhabiting a largely open continent and accomplishing economic development.

These notes on status and function, combined with Drucker’s observation about the American frontier, may lead us to think about John Locke. With Locke’s revolutionary theory that property is connected to our productive activity rather than our identity as a member of a family or caste, the options for achieving fulfillment radically expanded. One labors and gains access to property, but in doing so, one makes property fruitful, which can benefit the whole community.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is a professor of political science and the dean of arts and sciences at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in religion & politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.