Mindfulness: old wine in new bottles?

While on holiday earlier this month I read the introduction to a book about mindfulness. I had been aware of the concept becoming much discussed in the media but hadn’t up to now taken much notice. I had a quick look at it a year or so ago and decided, perhaps unfairly, that it sounded a bit like the transcendental meditation (TM) that was so popular in the 1960s and 70s – so just a case of old wine in new bottles. Like mindfulness TM does not have to have a religious basis, despite its origins in India and Buddhism. It is promoted as a method for relaxation, stress reduction and self-development, it begat an industry of practitioners, teachers and (paid for) courses, and it was adopted by corporations, government departments and other institutions. TM explicitly had mindfulness at its core, along with focussed attention “in the moment” and on the mind-body connection. There is an interesting study to be done (in fact it probably has been done) on the psycho-social and cultural background that generated the perceived need and market for TM in the 60s and 70s. There may well be parallels now in the emergence of ‘mindfulness’ in conditions of late or liquid modernity. I think a comparison of the two forms of mediation and their co-option by corporate interests and their respective conjunctures of origin and elaboration would be very interesting.  Both claim to reduce stress and anxiety and promote more inner peace, creativity, health, success and happiness. There may well have been somewhat different sources of stress and anxiety in the 60s and 70s as compared with now but the emphasis on individual solutions to problems, solutions that can be found by looking inwards rather than outwards to the underlying causes of the circumstances of our insecurities and anxieties, is common to both and points to the growing individualism of our culture and ideology. One possible criticism of mindfulness (and TM) is that it promotes a way of adapting to an increasingly selfish, monetised, individualised, amoral marketised (mindless?) society in which the burgeoning neo-liberal moral individualism exhorts us to take personal responsibility for our ills and problems and, like good entrepreneurs, seek individual rationalistic solutions in the market place. The fact that so many businesses see it as a useful adjunct to staff development and so many publications and articles about mindfulness equate it with enhanced performance at work rather suggests it is often seen as less about personal development and more about career and business development. This recent article in the Guardian touches on some of these issues.


The Civilising Offensive

I am going to an international symposium at Sheffield Hallam University, October 24, 2013, The civilizing offensive (het burgerlijk beschavingsoffensief): prospects for future understanding, or an obsolete concept? I had not come across the notion of a civilising offensive before although, after a little research, it seems a variant of fairly well known idea and social phenomenon but placed in the context of Norbert Elias’s work on long run civilising and de-civilising processes. The title of the symposium questions the usefulness of the concept and raises the possibility that it is already obsolete. I am interested in this topic as I am currently writing an extended piece on the relation between sociology as an academic, scientific and professional discipline and politics as an ideological and practical activity. Civilising offensives are clearly political at several levels and the study of them sociologically undoubtedly has political implications.

To get an idea of how the concept of civilising offensive has emerged from Elias’s writing on the civilising process and has subsequently been deployed I have read an article by Ryan Powell The Theoretical Concept of the ‘Civilising Offensive’ (Beschavingsoffensief): Notes on its Origins and Uses published in Human Figurations: Long Term Perspectives on the Human Condition, Vol. 2, Issue 2, July 2013. Ryan Powell is one of the convenors of the symposium and I will take this paper as an authoritative introduction to the concept.  What follows are simply some observations on the paper and questions that arise no doubt some or all of which will be covered during the symposium.

The abstract lays out the scope and objectives of the paper. To some extent the application of the concept of civilising offensive over the last 30 years has lost contact with its theoretical origins in Elias’s work. The use of the concept has been mainly as a tool “for exposing the targeted and stigmatising projects of powerful groups”.  However, this focus on elite projects to ‘civilise’ less powerful groups is unnecessarily narrow and excludes the processes internal to the target group that drive behavioural and attitudinal changes in the same direction – via within group and peer socialisation for instance. The abstract points to the paper’s conclusion that “the theoretical concept of the civilising offensive offers much potential in understanding group conflict and the role of the state in contemporary neoliberal society, as well as historically”.

The introduction describes how the concept and its application arose in Holland in the 1980s where it was identified as het burgerlijkbeschavingsoffensief – the bourgeois civilising offensive. The term and its application have been taken up more recently in the UK but often in inconsistent ways that make a comparative approach difficult. The concept needs to be more systematically connected to its original theoretical context. This will help refine and further develop the concept in a way that would facilitate comparative analysis. The paper also promises to engage (albeit implicitly, which is a shame) with recent debates about the neglect of politics within figurational sociology.

The second section of the paper gives a succinct description of Norbert Elias’s work and the origins of civilising offensives as an aspect of the civilising process. The first studies using the term in Holland look at paternalistic and cultural projects in the late 19th  and early 20th centuries to improve the lot of the working classes, to improve their morals and promote a national identity. There was often a strong religious component in the projects that can be seen as attacks on what was deemed to be irrational, uncivilised, primitive, immoral and otherwise inappropriate behaviours.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given the early industrial context, one thing mentioned repeatedly in these accounts is ‘the lack of work ethic” of the lower classes.

The paper at this point identifies a possible criticism of Elias’s focus on blind, long term unplanned processes. He apparently pays little attention to the agency and intentions of elite groups and even less of that of the lower classes. Powell, in an attempt to be fair to Elias, concedes that historical episodes of civilising offensives may have had little impact on the overall dominant trend of long term development. He returns to this possibility in his conclusion. But, regardless of the relation between instances of civilising offensives and longer term processes (directions and interim outcomes), “such civilising missions do have clear consequences, particularly for those less powerful groups on the receiving end”.

The third section gives examples of some key Dutch studies. One study of a religiously inspired civilising offensive (Verrips) makes use of Elias’s work on established and outsider groups. In this case the ‘civilisers’’ project was as much to do with confirming and reinforcing their own behavioural norms as castigating and modifying those of the target group. The “not very cautious behaviour” of Protestant labourers harmed the Protestant group as a whole. This points to the need to look at relations within groups as well as between groups. In the event this particular civilising offensive was unsuccessful due to the strong class identification of the Protestant labourers and their comparatively weak identification with the Protestant religious authorities.  If anything they had stronger solidarity with their Catholic labourer peers. In this case identification with their socioeconomic location trumped the ‘civilisers’’ attempts to make them see the world and act in it differently. This points to the necessity to look beyond the relations between and within groups to understand why the civilising offensive comes about and its outcome, successful or otherwise. In what does the power of the powerful and the relative powerlessness of the powerless reside? How does this enable and constrain the tactics, strategies and mechanisms of the civilising project and resistance to it? What resources, material, cultural, psychological can be deployed on either side?

The second case study develops some of these questions, that of Van Grinkel. This is an account of a successful civilising offensive. This was because a) the civilising offensive was complemented by the threat of punishment, what he calls a disciplinary offensive; and b) the civilising offensive was not only performed from without, imposed externally by the elite group, but also from within, based upon status competition in the subordinate group in attempts to emulate the standards and behaviours of the dominant group. Clearly some subgroups or elements within the subordinate group, in some circumstances, can internalise an aversion to the standards of their own (objective) group and subjectively identify with the ‘oppressor’. The two case studies both demonstrate the necessity to expand the analysis beyond the narrow idea of powerful groups attempting to change the behaviour (and one might say, attitudes, world view, doxa) of less powerful groups. The powerful groups are also constructing their own identity, legitimation and modus operandi in the face of external uncertainties and perceived threats. It is an internal and reflexive project as well as one targeted on a particular problematic group. The target group itself can internalise the civilising offensive, ending up civilising themselves. So there are different sorts of internal campaigns rather than just a top down civilising offensive. And, although not addressed explicitly in this paper, there needs to be taken into account a wider context that conditions and enables the various opportunities, objectivess and strategies of these complex relations between external and internal civilising projects and resistances to them. In fact, what are the factors that can explain why some civilising offensives are successful and others not? Perhaps some simply go, unknowingly, with the grain of the longer term, blind and unintentional civilising process. Or perhaps the occasional reference to bourgeoisie, work ethic, class, lower classes, labour (and even at the beginning of this paper to neoliberal society) may give a clue to the political economic context that would undoubtedly be a part of a broader explanation and understanding of ‘modern’ and contemporary accounts of civilising offensives?

In answer to the question of why some civilising offensives work and others don’t, Powell suggests it is a matter of to what extent the target group comes to internalise the standards of behaviour that the elite group are trying to inculcate. In the case of Verrips’ study of Protestant labourers, they did not internalise the project’s goals and it failed. In the case of van Grinkel’s study the target group did internalise the goals and it succeeded. What Powell does not comment on with the successful case is that this is the one where the civilising offensive was complemented by a ‘disciplinary’ offensive which rather suggests that the elite group in this case had rather more and different resources available to it than did the religious elite in the unsuccessful case. This in turn suggests a rather more ‘strenuous’ material relationship between the civilising and target group in this case.

In the fourth section Powell turns to the use of the term in the UK. The Dutch development and use of the concept was in critique of the history of Dutch paternalism. The two case studies cited above refer to civilising offensives during an earlier period of industrial development, late 19th to early 20th century. The UK examples deal with contemporary issues the background to which is the ‘criminalising social policy’ of neoliberal governments. The dominant contemporary discourse claims the post-welfare settlement has failed resulting in a culture of worklessness, benefits and welfare dependency and a lack of work ethic in some sections of the community. The example case studies look at civilising offensives with respect to immigrants, gypsies, Scottish football sectarianism and climate change. Rodger (2012*), referring to the work of Wacquant, relates the criminalisation of those precariously on the margins of society to the damaging effects of neoliberal ideologically informed economic development and social policy. The development of specific civilising offensives in response to what Wacquant calls the ‘advanced marginality’ of surplus and excluded groups looks like a fruitful area of research. In addition, theoretical links have been made with processes of ‘moral panics’ in the work of Cohen which seem to share some of the key features of civilising offensives.

Powell concludes this section with the general observation that the UK studies demonstrate how an historical informed analysis of aspects of the civilising process, i.e. civilising offensives that are targeted on outsider and relatively powerless groups by powerful groups and governments, can be brought to bear on contemporary developments.  A general and historically recurring aspect of the civilising process can be analysed and understood in terms of specific contemporary manifestations of the process. This demonstrates the utility and the power of the engagement of figurational sociology with ‘the politics of the present’.

The paper concludes with a discussion of potential areas for inquiry. The first aims to address a perceived weakness in the UK use of the idea of civilising offensive. It tends to assume and critique a top down process expressed through government policy. The Dutch examples point to a more complex and nuanced account that looks at aspects of the process that develop within target groups, how standards are internalised and are passed on through parents, families and peers through processes of socialisation.  Secondly, there is more scope to develop the analyses in ways that facilitate international comparative studies. For example there seems to be a tendency across Europe to focus civilising offensives on immigrant groups rather than the indigenous population (although in political strategic terms stigmatising and controlling immigrant groups still has the indigenous population as a target at one remove, in terms of ideological incorporation for example). In all cases this is linked to reinforcing ‘imagined’ national identities. It would be informative to see what impact difference in national habitus and governmental techniques have on the similarly focussed civilising offensives with similar objectives.  (This could be useful in looking at different ‘local’ responses to more general global developments). The third area of possible development would be to look at the changing targets of the offensives over the centuries –who are the target groups, who are the ‘civilisers’, what is the source of the imbalance of power, what resources are available to each group, etc.? It does seem to be the case that target groups have become more narrowly defined. What can account for this?

Powell’s conclusion is quite clear and brief. The major finding is summarised as follows:

The evidence presented, however, implies the need for a widening of the conceptualisation of civilising offensives, from an overly simplistic notion of the relationship between state and religious authorities and popular mentalities, to one which acknowledges the different levels at which civilising offensives are mediated and enacted; and which accounts for the changing objectives of ‘civilisers’ alongside wider social processes. Central here is the importance of internal pressures and the role of peer and group socialisation in the internalisation (or not) of constraints on conduct, which are less apparent within accounts of UK civilising offensives. There is also significant scope for international comparative analyses within Western Europe and beyond, not only in terms of the behaviours and targets of civilising offensives over the long-term but also the spaces in which they are regulated, both public and private.

However, he finishes on a cautionary note about the ultimate significance of civilising offensives in the longer run process of historical development. He claims there is little evidence of the lasting impact of civilising offensives or that the civilising process can be steered intentionally. Where offensives appear to succeed it is likely that the target groups who modify their behaviour and attitudes are already predisposed to do so because of other developmental/structural factors. The implication is that whether civilising offensives succeed or not depends on whether the door they are pushing at is already being opened by aspects of the wider developmental process or not.

A few observations:

The political, economic and global context are crucial to prevent studies of civilising offensives becoming ‘just so’ stories or exercises in cultural anthropology. The wider context is also necessary if the specific content of the offensives are to be understood, for instance there are aspects of techno-managerialism, quantification and neoliberal moral individualism in current efforts to stigmatise and control marginal and excluded groups. A different set of assumptions and doxa would be in play at different historical periods.

General processes of ideological incorporation, group socialisation, cultural and material forms of social control, etc. are ongoing and ubiquitous. Presumably the mechanisms of civilising offensives are always operating in less overt and ‘offensive’ ways all the time. What is it that marks out an intensification of the process that makes it historically visible? Like moral panics they seem to be the symptoms of some specific acceleration in the pace and quality of change, a response to significant shifts in balances of power, or the emergence of new groups, challenges and contestations.  Civilising offensives may be the reflex of new conditions of uncertainty, disillusionment or alienation. In contemporary conditions the combination of looking for personalised causes of distress and a blame culture may be predisposing factors in the development of civilising offensives.

Finally, if specific instances of civilising offensives are merely illustrative or symptoms of a long run, blind and unintended developmental process, then understanding specific instances adds nothing of significance to our understanding of the overall process. They cease to have any theoretical contribution to make. Perhaps this is why the title of the symposium contains the question “prospects for future understanding, or an obsolete concept”? It may be that studying civilising offensives has only political significance rather than a continuing contribution to make to the development of core figurational sociology.  But how does this seeming disembodied and unintended view of the civilising process square with the hope that more object adequate sociological knowledge would in principle facilitate the solution of pressing problems to do with poverty, injustice, war etc. My, admittedly ‘engaged’ view is that politics, struggle and resistance, even education, can have an influence on which of many possible futures actually comes about.


* The Rodgers 2012 publication referred to above is a chapter in Rodger, J. J. Loic Wacquant and Norbert Elias: Advanced marginality and the theory of the de-civilising process in Squires, P. and Lea, J. (Eds) Criminalisation and Advanced Marginality: Critically Exploring the Work of Loïc Wacquant, pp.87-106. Bristol: Policy Press. This is of interest as it specifically relates the notion of civilising offensives to the Bourdieuian work of Wacquant, providing the neoliberal context. I cannot get hold of this book as it isn’t in the Leeds University library but most of the relevant chapter is available via Google books.

Sociology – professional or pragmatic?

Once again I came away from the BSA Conference with the message that sociology was in crisis but at the same time at a moment of great opportunity if only it could sort out precisely what it is and what it’s for. And once again I came away feeling cautiously optimistic. One source of this optimism was the presentation given by John Holmwood Sociology’s ‘moments’: Democracy, expertise and the market. A major contention of his paper, and one that has significant consequences for sociology, is that the dominance of neo-liberal public policy since the late 1970s has sought to replace ‘publics’ with ‘markets’.

G H Mead (1863–1931)

In elaborating on the problems this presents to sociology, not least because the discipline and its institutional home in Universities are also being subject to a process of marketization and financialization, John contrasted the Parsonian project to create a professional sociology immune to ideological distortion with the American Pragmatists that developed the notion of the social self in the process of a critique of liberalism (1). It was Mead at the turn of the 19th century that saw the increasing tendency for government to merge with business and the industrial world. Dewey maintained that government did not so much represent the public interest as those of corporations and markets. Then, as now, this has significant consequences for our notions of democracy and the political role of the public sphere. But, according to Mead, this presents opportunities to the ‘public’ that emerge from forms of resistance and moments of critique.

A conception of a different world comes to us always as the result of some specific problem which involves readjustment of the world as it is, not to meet a detailed ideal of a perfect universe, but to obviate the present difficulty ….  [The Working Hypothesis in Social Reform American Journal of Sociology, November 1899]

This has implications for the nature of sociology as a form of expertise and its role, according to John. It could be in the service of government and its partnership with the corporations and industry. Or it could serve the more public project of adjusting and coping with the effects and  consequences, intended and unintended, of neoliberal corporatist policies. This implies  a role for sociology in dialogue with  ‘publics’ as they try to organise around the effects, to paraphrase C Wright Mills, that public issues have on private lives and communities. This may not sound radical or ‘activist’  enough for some but it is worth serious investigation and consideration. John makes the point that this is not an ’emancipatory’ sociology. It is not a programme or project to bring into being ‘a detailed idea of a perfect universe’. However it does confront and critique the taken for granted assumptions of reality and the doxa that supports and reproduces it. It does expose the historicity and contingency of the taken for granted and demonstrates that other realities are imaginable. In serving the public rather than the dominant troika of government, industry and finance, sociology serves democracy in that it exposes and resists the multifarious processes and policies that combine to hollow out and neutralise democratic institutions. In a previous ‘radical moment’, in the 1960s and 70s, sociology could be seen as harnessed to a project of institutionalised reform and betterment operationalised by the welfare state and influenced by the new social movements focused on forms of equality and inclusive citizenship. But from that time on sociology has been squeezed between a neoliberal critique of the welfare state and citizenship rights and its denigration as a form of expertise in the service of a now derided and demonised programme of betterment and entitlement.  John concluded with the question, what is it to practice sociology in a profoundly undemocratic system where reform has been de-institutionalised and sociology has lost its institutional locus and legitimacy? One suggestion is that it should revivify itself in response to a new radical moment and in doing so can revisit and be informed by some of the lessons and messages of the American pragmatists of the early 20th century. Sociology can inform a defence of wider social values in the face of a declining democracy. It can do this by providing publics with new and alternative accounts of the present and possible futures. In the face of TINA (there is no alternative) it can be asserted there always were and still are. To this end sociology (and therefore sociologists and their practice) must occupy (with all its post financial crash connotations) public debate in the service of democracy (not markets) and make inequality matter.

A great deal of John’s paper seemed to chime in well with the rather modest and arguably realistic (pragmatic) claims Zygmunt Bauman makes for sociology. Like John in his paper, Zygmunt offers a  history of the development of sociology mapped onto key stages in the development of modernity and the state. In Zygmunt’s account this can be represented by his distinction between sociologists as legislators and, as this function is stripped away from them, as interpreters. He also offers a diagnosis of the current parlous state of democratic institutions based on a corporatist account of government and the separation of power from state politics as a result of economic aspects of globalisation. His conclusions for the contemporary role of sociological practice are similar too in that it should engage in dialogue with various publics in the service of wider social values, democracy and justice. I’m not claiming that John’s account and Zygmunt’s are reducible to one another. I’m sure there would be points of disagreement and differences in emphasis. I only draw attention to a similarity in their conclusions for the practice of sociology today.

Alvin Gouldner (1920 – 1980)

There are two points of interest that I’d like to pursue. The first one is the notion that sociology develops in confrontation with ‘radical moments’ that are precipitated by social developments external to its discourse and therefore changes in the environment with which it has symbiotic and what might be called co-evolutionary relationships. The second is the notion that sociology should concern itself with and service democracy and wider social values such as those that are concerned with inequality and justice. I will return to the second point in another post but in the spirit of John’s return to the early American pragmatists I thought I would revisit an influential reflection on sociology at another radical moment in its history, the 1950s and 60s, by Alvin Gouldner. This will draw on two of his writings. The first is Anti Minotaur: The Myth of a Value Free Sociology (Social Problems, Volume 8, Number 3, Winter 1962, pp. 199 ff.) first given as a Presidential Address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) in 1961. The second is The Sociologist as Partisan: Sociology and the Welfare State (The American Sociologist Vol. 3, No. 2, May, 1968, pp. 103-116). This was a critical reaction to the Presidential Address given by Howard Becker to the SSSP 6 years later entitled Whose Side Are We On (Social Problems, Vol. 14, No. 3, Winter 1967, pp. 239-247) where Becker advocated we should conduct our sociological practice from the point of view of the ‘underdog’. Both these articles are conveniently collected together as chapters 1 and 2 of Gouldner’s book For Sociology: Renewal and Critique in Sociology Today Allen Lane 1973. (I first looked at these readings in 1977 when I was doing A level sociology at an evening class and frankly hardly understood a word of it)!  This critique is quite damning and one wonders if Gouldner and Becker where friends! Gouldner’s critique of Becker’s attempt to side step the problem of values in sociology is instructive for thinking about the grounds upon which an engaged sociology should focus on social values concerned with inequality and justice as advocated by both John Holmwood and Zygmunt Bauman.

I’ll commence Gouldner’s discussion of the myth of a value free sociology with an extended quotation that mirrors very well some key concerns we, or some academics at least, still have today with respect to the role and practice of sociology.

 The problem of a value-free sociology has its most poignant implications for the social scientist in his (sic) role as educator. If sociologists ought not to express their personal values in the academic setting, how then are students to be safeguarded against the unwitting influence of these values which shape the sociologist’s selection of problems, his preferences for certain hypotheses or conceptual schemes, and his neglect of others? For these are unavoidable and, in this sense, there is and can be no value-free sociology. The only choice is between an expression of ones’ values, as open and honest as it can be […] and a vain ritual of moral neutrality which, because it invites men (sic) to ignore the vulnerability of reason  to bias, leaves it at the mercy of irrationality.

In Gouldner’s view a value free sociology is impossible due to the unavoidable necessity of making choices between subject matters, research hypotheses, concepts and explanatory frameworks. To mistakenly claim and offer value free knowledge, however sincerely, is to obscure the inevitability of this process, the values that inform it and its knowledge productions. If it is claimed that social values can only distort knowledge when in fact they are an indispensable condition of its production, then all knowledge is distorted. Distortion in the sense of partial, selective, contingent, is inevitable. But the term ‘distortion’ can be left out of this characterisation of knowledge as it implies the possibility of an undistorted knowledge that is impartial, complete(able), absolute and universal. This is the modernist utopian vision of knowledge that underpins the post-political world of techno-managerialism and expertise. For Gouldner, claims of value freedom translate into moral and value relativism. This leads to the claimed ‘value free’ sociology being at best politically irrelevant and at worse it surrenders authority, legitimacy and power to the dominant discourses of the status quo in which it becomes complicit. It is in danger of becoming the hand servant of and harnessed to the technologies of domination, legitimation and obfuscation. ‘Nudge theory’ springs to mind here along with behavioural economics and sociologically informed tools of post-political techno-management. A purported value free professional sociology can be used to help sell cigarettes as well as advise those who wish to reduce smoking. The domain of the value-free morally neutral sociology is that of the “spiritless technician who will be no less lacking in understanding than they are in passion, and who will be useful only because they can be used”. Gouldner warns us that however blunt and dull these sociologically informed tools are they are capable of building a social technology “powerful enough to cripple us”. In his day prisoners of war and GIs were being systematically brain washed and compulsive consumerism was being driven by advertising and scientific marketing. As he observed, the social science technologies of the future will “hardly be less powerful than today’s”.

Within the institutionalised forms of sociology this can be experienced by its students and practitioners as isolating and alienating. In the words of Gouldner,  “They feel impotent to contribute usefully to the solution of [society’s] deepening problems and, even when they can, they fear that the terms of such an involvement require them to submit to a commercial debasement or a narrow partisanship, rather than contributing to a truly public interest”. There are two strategies for psychological accommodation for the institutionalised sociologist. One is to embrace relativism, particularistic anthropology or the post-modern turn, solving the problem of value-freedom by promoting it to an intellectual principle.  The other is to become a sociologist of sociology and engage in a learned and scholarly critique of its competing paradigms and methods. Both are ways of sheltering from the real world of political action and passion, uncertainty and messy pragmatism.  “It evokes the soothing illusion, amongst some sociologists, that their exclusion from the larger society is a self-imposed duty rather than an externally imposed constraint”. It disguises the fact that to refrain from social criticism reflects the personal interests and insecurities of some sociologists rather than “reflecting a higher professional good”.

So two tendencies that Gouldner identified in the 50s and 60s are for some sociologists to either ‘sell out’ or ‘opt out’ neither of which sound particularly edifying as a job descriptions for young sociologists today. Arguably the  two tendencies are still alive and well but fortunately they don’t represent the only options available or for that matter already manifest. In his day Gouldner was not saying that the ‘critical posture’ is dead in American sociology, only that it was ‘badly sagging’. He cited several authors that were bucking the trend many of whom would be largely unknown today but C Wright Mills, Dennis Wrong, Lewis Coser, Bernard Rosenberg  and David Riesman may still stir the memory of some of us. Gouldner considered these to be intellectuals no less than sociologists, the larger tradition from which sociology evolved and which is itself founded on the assertion of the right to be critical of tradition. We have our own contemporary representatives of this contrary and troublesome breed.

For me, at least, a number of problems emerge from this. What is it to be critical? What is practically entailed in practising a sociology that engages in dialogues with various publics? On what basis do we choose the publics to engage with? What is the justification for adopting and focusing on values associated with inequality and justice? (2) Don’t financiers, bankers, the police,  torturers and hedge fund managers constitute publics and operate in their own universe of values? If we claim we should side with the victims, given a sociologist’s systemic sensibilities, are we not all victims one way or another? And in a world of unavoidable and irreducible uncertainty in which we have abandoned utopian visions and meta-narratives, political and scientific,  isn’t pragmatic adaptation and problem solving doomed to be absorbed and neutralised, even exploited, by the status quo to enhance its legitimacy and wealth and further secure its domination? As Zygmunt Bauman, John Holloway and Slavoj Žižek all say, in no particular order, there are no guarantees this will all end happily. Perhaps the best we can do is live in the limbo of a hopeful resignation. Perhaps it is, after all, quite rational to tend our own gardens, retreat behind the barricades of relativism and incestuous methodological flagellation? Or make alliances with the centres of unassailable power to minimise our own victim-hood?  I think there are positive, life enhancing and, yes, emancipatory answers to these questions. The next post will continue with Gouldner and examine his account of why we should side with the exploited and those that are subjected to an excess of suffering, given that to suffer to some extent is part of the human condition.

(1) In another session devoted to an exploration of the relationship between economics and sociology it was pointed out that Parsons claimed that sociology is concerned with the residual problems left over by economics.
(2) It is not clear that a sociology that is informed by a concern with inequality and justice and that exposes the complex and contingent mechanisms that work ‘behind the curtain’, as Bauman and Kundera would have it, and therefore debunk the assertions of TINA cannot and will not be used to inform the policies and strategies, both explicit and hidden, of the dominant classes to preserve something like the status quo. This would mean that a body of critical knowledge would not be enough to produce a society that embodied the preferred social values of equality and justice. The knowledge would have to be translated into countervailing political and cultural processes and activities – a call for an engaged activist sociology  perhaps using ‘action’ forms of research and engagement.

Of possible interest is the post I did last year reflecting on the BSA conference in 2012 http://terrywassall.org/2012/04/14/reflections-on-britsoc12/

The inevitability of simplification?

Reading a recent exchange between Doug Belshaw and Dave Cormier on Doug’s blog post Gaining Some Perspective on Badges for Lifelong Learning prompted me to think about the role of simplicity and simplification in teaching and learning. You may wish to check the discussion yourself but I think Dave’s point is to claim simple solutions are possible for complex problems is tantamount to denying the underlying complexity itself. This is argued against Doug’s position that a possible approach to the problem of complexity is to try and provide simple solutions.

I’m with Dave in that I believe reality is ‘actually’ (ontologically) complex, uncertain, multilayered, emergent, and in important ways underdetermined and contingent. I am with Doug in that we have to simplify in order to understand and act. I say ‘have to’ because I don’t believe we have any choice in the matter. If this is correct the question is not whether we should simplify or not. The question is how to simplify without compromising our aims and objectives. This means that our simplifications must map onto actual features of the complex processes we wish to understand and intervene in and find ways to do this that minimise the influence of ideologically informed wishful thinking. I guess this is just another way of saying that some simplifications are better than others and so the debate is about how we can make these distinctions rather than do we simplify or not.

Simplification is what language does (and this includes the language of mathematics). We could not grasp the world or communicate without constructing concepts and categories. Language is profoundly metaphorical. It is a symbolic representation based on multiple forms of simplification – metaphor, similes, signifiers, concepts and categories. This is evident in our most developed forms of knowledge. In sociology we have Weber’s ideal types, Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity, anomie and alienation, competing models of class structure, the construction and selection of independent and dependent variables, and so on. It hardly needs emphasising that the crude mathematical simplifications constructed by mainstream economics are so far divorced from the complexity of the real world of ‘economic’ behaviour and the systemic features of human groups and societies that they are a significant part of the story of our recent woes. It is an interesting lesson that the increasing complexity of the economic ‘engineers’ mathematical models did not bring them one iota closer to predicting or even providing an explanation of the crash. Increasing complexity of the models did not lead to a better fit to the actual complexity of the processes being modelled. Complexification does not automatically equate to the improved ontological fit of the model

In the natural sciences it was Thomas Kuhn (developing the ideas of the scientist Ludvig Fleck) who first demonstrated that scientific theories are simplifications and, as such, develop increasing numbers of unexplainable (in the terms of the current theory) anomalies that scientists initially protect their theories from. Then, at some point, a competing theory is sufficiently developed to both explain what the old theory did and the anomalies. Although this pattern of scientific change is not without its critics and problems there are many historical examples of this sort of process. In physics, from the point of view of the theory of relativity Newtonian Mechanics is a simplification and incorrect in a number of demonstrable ways, despite being adequate for getting humans on the Moon. In geology, the simplification of geological processes according to the once dominant ‘fixist’ theory was shown to be fundamentally flawed with the discovery of the much more complex theory of plate tectonics (the mobilists).

History seems to suggest that simplification is inevitable and unavoidable but the simplifications improve in the face of their application in research and in practical application in the real world. Very often the theories and models become less simple, knowledge more esoteric, but they remain simplifications none-the-less.

As a teacher dealing with complex issues (for instance the relation between history, politics, culture, science, technology, economics, society, ecosystems, etc. in my Society and the Environment module) I am constantly simplifying in order to complexify later. This is, I think, my approach to my own learning as well as teaching. But I am the simplifier and as such make the decisions about what is central to understanding, what can be ignored for current purposes (who’s purpose? my purpose?) and what can be left in black boxes that can be opened later as part of the complexifying process. So simplicity always involves selection on the basis of some criteria, some explicit and known but others due to factors embedded in language, common-sense and taken for granted, unexamined, assumptions. This seems to me to be inevitable. But I have a particular world view and value orientation that leads me to select theorists, data, examples and arguments that emphasise the role and effects of globalising footloose capitalism and its neoliberal underpinnings. I think this is essential to understanding environmental issues. But it would be possible to construct an account of the environmental issues based entirely on a Whig history of science and technology for instance that takes for granted precisely what I want to bring a critical gaze to. My students know exactly what my position is and the assumptions and values that inform my approach to understanding and explanation. They know this because I tell them and then exemplify them in my approach. They are privy to the process of my knowledge construction. They know I am offering a particular view and they can see the nuts and bolts of my construction process. The discussion of the process is integral to the discussion of the knowledge claims. I would argue that exposure to this process is at least as important and maybe more so than the packaged simplifications I offer.

Gramsci said in his article about popular education (Avanti, 29 December 1916) that his most effective teachers where those that insisted students should know about the long, messy social history of the making of the current knowledge they were being asked to learn. This demonstrates an element of contingency in knowledge, at the very least the existence of two entwined strands in the history of knowledge, what Bachelard called lapsed and sanctioned histories. A key result of this approach is that students become aware that knowledge is a moment in a process of change, not a body of final truths and techniques. As students they are entering this process, not consuming its current manifestations as a product or outcome. I guess my approach to the inevitability of simplification is to embrace it but at the same time historicise and problematise it.

As a footnote to this post, I recently came across the video of Richard Sennett’s  Compass Annual Lecture 2012  entitled The Craft of Cooperation in which he expressed some interesting ideas on the pernicious use of simplification. The relevant section of the video is between 20 minutes 20 seconds and 23 minutes 35 seconds although I would recommend the whole lecture. Sennett makes a distinction between declarative speech and subjunctive speech. Declarative speech is basically this is what I think, take it or leave it. It forecloses on the possibility of ambiguity, discussion and negotiated meaning. When people say I want to be as clear as possible they usually simplify and try to be as precise as possible. But, in Sennett’s view, socially this forecloses the ability to have a discussion. He prefers the subjunctive mode of speech that includes maybes and perhapses. I’d be interested to know what others think of Sennetts ideas here. My feeling is that no doubt he is right some of the time but this by no means covers all of what I mean by simplification and its possible roles. There are modes of simplification in different contexts and they do not all foreclose on ambiguity and discussion. You can simplify in the subjunctive mode of speech as well as the declarative. I would like to think I teach and engage in discussion very much in the subjunctive mode. But perhaps not always.

Economics as capitalist science

On Monday 6th February I went to the first in a series of introductory lectures and discussions on economics, Crashing Through Capital: An Introduction to Economics, hosted by The Really Open University at the Space Project. The lecture was given by David Harvie, an economist at the University of Leicester. This post summarises some of the key points and issues as they struck me, so it will not be a detailed transcript of the lecture or the Q&As. A recording of the lecture was made and hopefully this will be made available on-line in due course. If so, I’ll link from here. David has given permission for his slides to be attached to this post – Economists and Commoners (slides).

David opened the lecture by questioning if it was necessary or useful for us, as lay people and activists, to learn about economics. He made it quite clear very early on that establishment economics, which he referred to as a capitalist science, is highly problematic and in some particulars simply wrong. None-the-less we need to know about it so as not to be deceived by it. As, metaphorically speaking, economics functions as a sort of handbook for capitalism, we need to study it in order to ‘know the enemy’.

He made a distinction between two approaches to economics as a discipline – the positive versus the normative. The positive view sees economics as a science that reports on the way the economy works. It claims to be a neutral account, just like any other science, that simply tells us the way it is with no value assumptions or axes to grind. Opposed to this is the view that economics should be normative. It should be based upon and express values. It should be concerned with value judgements about how economies should work, the way society should be. It is clear that the positive view and its assumption of value freedom are highly problematic. David drew our attention to this but did not elaborate. Sufficient to say that the claim that science is value free and simply produces objective models of reality has long been discredited. There is no such thing as a value free science and therefore no such thing as a value free economics. Positive economics that claims to be value free is in fact shaped by values whether its practitioners and advocates realise it or not. In practice these unacknowledged values are based on some underlying assumptions including that capitalist economies are in some way natural.

David introduces another perspective on economics that he favours. Economics is performative. Economics doesn’t just describe the world; it is the basis of policy and action and is instrumental in shaping society and producing aspects of its reality. This is why he is ambivalent about just claiming establishment economics is wrong. It is certainly demonstrably wrong in some of its assumptions about society, human nature and so on. But there is some sense in which it is correct simply because the world it describes has been partly produced according to its theories and models. It studies and describes phenomenon that to some extent have been produced and made real according to its dictates and templates. It is correct in much the same way that a plan (say of a road system) becomes a map once the plan has been carried out and there is a reality that corresponds to the plan. There is a long tradition for this sort of thinking. I immediately thought of W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), the American sociologists whose famous theorem was “if men (sic) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. Today readers may be more familiar with something like Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ perhaps.

We then had a brief tour of historically influential economists that still shape economics today, starting with Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his seminal work The Wealth of Nations. Smith is the founder of political economy, the forerunner of modern economics. Using a series of quotations David established three basic tenets of economics that still inform the discipline today – individuals are selfish, they have a natural propensity to truck and barter, and therefore markets are natural. In addition, when individuals seek their own advantage (as they do naturally due to their inherent selfishness) the cumulative consequence of this benefits the whole of society as if guided by an invisible hand. (Once someone mentions ‘unintended consequences’ my sociological antennae begin to quiver. One description of sociology is the study of the unintended consequences of human behaviour). These assumptions are still alive and well (or ill) in modern economic theory – markets are natural and are the most efficient allocator of goods, the trickledown effect, human beings are naturally rational economic actors (homo economicus), and so on. David appeals to a variety of writers and anthropological evidence to call these assumptions into question and asserts that in practice there is virtually no empirical, historical or anthropological evidence to support any of them. For instance there is virtually no evidence that markets in the truck and barter sense existed prior to capitalism. What economics assumes is natural about today’s economy is actually produced by capitalism and the capitalist state. David referred to the work of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. But despite some of his assumptions being incorrect, Smith’s account of the economy was not wrong in any simple way. He described what he saw and offered an explanation for it but in doing so helped to shape the processes he was describing. In this sense his economics was performative. His ideas helped create markets that had not existed earlier and in his own time were highly contested, for instance the food riots where people wanted to pay what they saw as the moral, fair, price rather than what the merchant could get by keeping the produce and taking it to market. The food was taken and sold at the fair price, the money taken being returned to the merchant. This account was taken from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and a later essay, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (1971).

One of the most original and influential insights Adam Smith had was the centrality of human labour to the production of wealth. Before him wealth was seen as arising from the land and agriculture (the Physiocrats) or from minerals like gold and silver (the Mercantilists). He recognised that wealth was produced by human labour but couldn’t explain how it was produced; where profit came from. The answer to this riddle was provided by Karl Marx. At this point David gave a brief explanation of Marx’s theory of value (value basically means profit). In summary, the labourer sells his capacity to work to the capitalist employer for a specified working day. The time it takes to produce the value that covers his wage is, say, four hours. This means that in a twelve hour day (not uncommon then), for the remaining eight hours the value of goods produced goes entirely to the owner. The owner can increase profits in a number of ways. One is to extend the length of the working day so the worker works more hours producing profit beyond his or her wages. Another method is to shorten the number of hours it takes for the worker to create the value of his wages. This latter strategy can be accomplished by either making the labourer work harder and faster or by making the worker more efficient, perhaps by reorganising the work or introducing new tools or technology. Of course both can happen – the lengthening of the working day and the improvement of the workers’ productivity. In practice, as the position of workers has become more powerful (for a number of reasons including collective organisation) the working day has tended to shorten but profits have been increased by increasing productivity – the intensification of labour. But it is the production of value over and above the wages paid that is the source of profit. Of course it is more complicated than this, for instance profit is increasingly made from rent rather than directly from human productive labour, for instance software licenses and other intellectual assets. But it is still the case that the majority of wealth is created ultimately by paying workers less than the value of their work. In this sense the the capitalist labour relation is essentially exploitative, however benignly you care to interpret that term.

Maynard Keynes partyingIn contrast to this we were then introduced to John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), quite a party animal according to David.  Keynes, although radical in his approach to economics with his analysis of the demand side of the economy and the economic role of the state, was by no means anti-capitalist. David illustrated Keynes position with a number of apposite quotations. Keynes was more realistic about how the economy works, recognising that to some extent markets have to be produced and enabled by supporting the conditions for consumer demand. There is no point in capitalist enterprise producing more and cheaper goods if they stay in the warehouses for want of buyers. In the early days of capitalist production the wages of the labouring classes were rarely much above subsistence, if that. Most manufactured goods were sold to relatively wealthy customers. But as production increased the working classes gradually became important as consumers as well as producers. The tendency had been to drive wages down to increase profits but once profits also depended on the purchasing power of the workers in expanding markets the capitalist was faced with something of a contradiction – two drivers of capitalist development that seemed to pull in opposite directions. To some extent the welfare state, inspired in part by Keynes’ argument that the State had a role in supporting the demand for goods, offered a solution to this dilemma by promoting consumption by state expenditure, effectively putting money into the economy and people’s pockets. The freeing and encouragement of debt has had a similar function in recent decades. So like the previous orthodox economics, Keynes’ theory was a theory of the capitalist economy but one that recognised how the modern economy worked in the early 20th century rather than based upon an idealised version of how it worked in the late 18th century. And like previous economics it was performative in that it shaped the reality it described via government policy. Economics is performative in the sense that it is prescriptive as well as descriptive.

However, despite Keynesian economics achieving near orthodoxy in the post WWII era of reconstruction and development, it was largely defeated in the 1970s with the return of something like the positive economics based on the ideas of Adam Smith. There are a number of complex reasons for this including a world recession, globalisation and so on but these were not covered in this lecture. The current performative economics is now represented by the neo-liberal and Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker whose acceptance speech was published as Human Capital (subtitled A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education). David suggested we might like to read this as a paradigmatic example of current neoliberal economic thinking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and found it thought provoking. It left me with a number of questions. David implied (although didn’t say) that the improving share of wealth the working class achieved over the best part of 300 years was due largely to their increasing power and resistance through organisation and collective action. Also, by implication, he suggested that the dramatic fall in that share since the mid 1970s is largely due to the weakening of working class power. Undoubtedly this is of central importance but the rise and fall of the fate of the working classes, including the managerial and administrative classes, is tied to a number of systemic features of a now global capitalist economy that I think we may be addressing in future meetings for this course. My other main reflection is that the lecture and presumably future lectures focus on and study economics as a performative discipline. However, what emerges from this first lecture is the notion that the concept ‘economy’ as used in economics is an abstraction from a social reality where ‘the economic’ does not exist as an isolated separate sphere of behaviour or social process. A critical stance towards economics as a discipline exposes its ideological and partial (and historically contingent) nature and therefore demonstrates the necessity to go beyond the bounds of orthodox economics to make sense of living and working in late modernity. I guess this is what a sociologist would say.

I have reconstructed this account from my near unreadable notes. I would be very happy if anyone else at the lecture wants to take issue with any of this or add anything I’ve missed. Please leave a comment.


For a more detailed account of the way capitalism accumulates value, its impact on the division of labour today and some of the political consequences, in his view, you might find Zizek’s recent article in the London Review of Books interesting . The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie is a short post here and a link to the original article.

I was very interested in what David had to say about the notion of a moral economy. I found the following article about E. P. Thompson’s ideas on this – Moral Economy as an historical social concept.

An interesting paper by Ben Fine (who David referred to as a Marxist economist and a critic of Gary Becker’s neoliberal fundamentalism)  that outlines Fine’s view of modern classical economics, its exclusion of society and even an understanding of its own history, its assumptions and narrow focus, etc. is Economics Imperialism and Intellectual Progress: The Present as History of Economic Thought?

The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie – Slavoj Žižek

The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie – Slavoj Žižek, London Review of Books, 26 January 2012.

Interesting take on Marx’s notion of the ‘general  intellect’ – “by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical know-how”.

He claims there is a shift from the selling of commodities that derive  their exchange value from the human labour used in production to the renting of resources including knowledge – rent appropriated though the privatisation knowledge and resources.

Any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply.

In a passage redolent of Bauman’s wasted lives as the collateral damage of global capitalism Žižek writes

In the ongoing process of capitalist globalisation, the category of the unemployed is no longer confined to Marx’s ‘reserve army of labour’; it also includes, as Jameson notes, ‘those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, “dropped out of history”, who have been deliberately excluded from the modernising projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases’..

The general thrust of the argument seems to be that a paid proletariat involved in production is much less central to capitalism than it used to be and increasingly surplus to requirements. Rents produce massive profits part of which are paid in salaries to a bourgeoisie that manages corporations but it is ‘surplus’ salary in the sense that its allocation is less to do with merit or competence and more to do with ideological and political objectives. In this sense they are being paid more than they are worth by any normal economic criteria. Most middle class and student protest is to do with maintaining their salaried position in the system rather than overthrowing it.

These are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians. Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job is itself a privilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but those privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police). This also accounts for the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life.

One thing that is not covered in the article is the role of those that rent and consume. There is still a great deal of production of material goods that require effective demand and a market. In addition many of the salaried bourgeoisie get their wages from administrating one way or another the poor and excluded and, in the process of which, legitimate the inequality and ideologically disguise the role of the poor in maintaining the system. Is this the commodification of the poor or their constitution as a resource for rentiers?

Stuart Hall on ideology

“…the link between ideology and class is forged, not because the former directly ‘expresses’ the latter, but by the way of a more complex process in which a specific disposition of class power is unconsciously transferred or displaced into the unstated premise of an argument, which then structures the whole of the logic apparently beyond the conscious awareness of the so-called ‘author’…”  (Hall 1986 p51)

Hall, S. Variants of Liberalism in Donald J and Hall S.1986

DONALD, J. and HALL, S. eds. 1986 Politics and Ideology. Milton Keynes, England. The Open University Press.

Also look up HALL, S. The Rediscovery of ‘Ideology’: Return of the Repressed in Media Studies in Gurevitch, M. et al (eds.) 1982.

GUREVITCH, M., BENNETT, T. CURRAN, J. & WOOLLACOTT,J.(Eds.) (1982) Culture Society and the Media Methuan Ltd., London

Note to self: Dig out my old materials for the OU course DE354 Ideology and Belief (long gone so will need to check the details) which had a useful categorisation of theories of ideology placed on a continuum from negative to positive conceptions of ideology.

Foucault and the role of the intellectual

The final section of the interview discussed in a previous post, Truth and Power, deals with the role of the intellectual. This is particularly of interest  to me because of current discussions of the public role of intellectuals and Bauman’s writings on the appropriate role of sociologists. Foucault talks specifically about Left intellectuals who had considered themselves to be offering universal truths based upon their analysis of the subject-object of universal history, the proletariat. The assumption had been that an obscured, collective form of this universal truth is embedded in the fate and experience of the proletariat. The intellectual is claimed to be the bearer of this universality in its conscious, elaborated form (page 126).  This pretension is exposed as unsustainable and its period is now gone, according to Foucault, and intellectuals need to find another basis upon which to forge the connection between ‘theory and practice’. We are no longer able to pronounce upon the universal, or a once and for all truth. As intellectuals we are now obliged to work, to theorise and ‘practice’ within the specific locations of our experience and knowledge – housing, education, the laboratory, family and sexual relations, and so on. Here we deal with problems that are specific to us and different from those of others. The forms of knowledge, explicit and tacit, formal and informal, and the types and degrees of reflectivity and ‘cognitive surplus’ vary. The problems that specific intellectuals confront are  not universal. They are not, for instance,  the terrain and experience of a putatively homogeneous, cohesive and collectively conscious class, either first hand or at a remove.

Having said that, Foucault believes none the less that intellectuals since the 1960s have been drawn closer to the proletariat (a term he still seems happy to use!) and the masses, for two reasons. Firstly there is a common context to their disparate real, material, everyday experiences and troubles. Secondly, and related to the first, they are often confronted (albeit in different forms) by the same adversaries – the multinational corporations, the judiciary and police apparatuses, the property speculators, and we could add to Foucault’s list the new and growing accretions of neoliberal managerialism, hedge fund managers, ’embedded’ Goldman Sachs alumni in undemocratic layers of State and government, interpenetrating networks of politicians, State executives and major corporation leaders – in fact the whole cancerous excrescence of corrupt and suppurating undemocratic forms and modes of corporatism.

In this sense Foucault sees that the age of delusional universal intellectuals has given way to a more realistic age of ‘specific’ intellectuals. There seems to be some, useful, overlap here between what Foucault is describing and Gramsci’s notion of ‘organic’ intellectuals. It also hints that intellectuality itself is situated and located in its material circumstances and in its forms of reflexivity. Universalism is now replaced by the over-arching system that all specific instances are part of and from which are constructed their specific problems, opportunities, and possibilities for understanding and action. This is not a relapse into universality since the ‘system’ is itself not universal or fixed. It is historically contingent and changeable. It is the exposure and demonstration of this fact that is crucial; the fact of historical contingency, the fact that what seems unalterably real today, what we are persuaded  is ‘just the way things are’, has in fact had a history, it could have been different and can be different. As a matter of fact, it will be different, one way or another.

In the circumstances Foucault describes, every individual’s activity is a basis for politicisation. Every corresponding  form of knowledge is capable of lateral connection, of the linking of one focus of politicisation to another.

Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists, have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicisation of intellectuals. (127)

To this list we could  add teachers, administrators, accountants, in fact any occupation to which the addition of the prefix ‘radical’ does not seem completely ludicrous or oxymoronic. And how about the fertile and fulminating hoards of trade unionists and the myriad and variegated ranks of Gramsci’s organic intellectuals?

Foucault singles out for particular significance the University and the academy. It is here, manifest in the feeling of crisis in the university sector, that the antennae of the educationally situated intellectuals feel the currents and reverberations of their specific experience, problems and struggles but also have the resources to see and forge the lateral connections with distant and other instances of struggle and politicisation and their situated ‘particular’ intellectuals.

However, Foucault points to obstacles and a danger. We have a disparate and dispersed collection of only potentially networked specific intellectuals. The danger identified is that of

… remaining at the level of conjectural struggles, pressing demands restricted to particular sectors. The risk of letting himself (sic) be manipulated by the political parties or trade unions apparatuses which control these local struggles. Above all, the risk of being unable to develop these struggles for lack of a global strategy or outside support: the risk too of not being followed, or by only very limited groups. (130)

So the focus of the specific intellectual is on his or her own particular experience, problems and issues and the attempt to understand and make sense of these in order to have some control, some exercise of autonomy, some say on how they perform their function. This does not necessarily and automatically link to others, their experience and problems, their specific location of potential politicisation. Foucault considers that each intellectual has a three-fold specificity. Firstly, class position (“whether as a petty-bourgeois in the service of capitalism or ‘organic’ intellectuality of the proletariat”); secondly, the conditions of their life and work linked to their intellectual field (professional practice, research or laboratory, etc.) but also the political and economic demands to which they must submit or rebel, in university, hospital, whatever their work location; and thirdly, “the specificity of the politics of truth” in our society. It is here, Foucault feels, that the specific, sectoral  intellectual can have wider effects and implications, beyond the narrow concern with their particular circumstances and problems. This is the ability, as a consequence of their more sectoral concerns and struggles, to challenge the ‘regime of truth’ that that is “so essential to the structure and functioning of our society”.  My way of understanding this, although it no doubt misses a lot of the subtlety and nuance of Foucault’s thought, is that in the act of critiquing his or her own disempowerment, alienation and dissatisfaction, the specific intellectual is calling into question some of the pervasive and powerful assumptions and procedures that bring the specific circumstance being critiqued into being – organises, regulates, legitimates and justifies, sets in motion myriad self-fulfilling and self-reproducing processes and routines, creates a whole ecology of attitudes and behaviours, and so on. But this ‘regime of truth’ and its strategies are not entirely specific to one sectoral set of problems, obstacles and site of resistance. Each act of critique and/or resistance has the potential to challenge and undermine these assumptions and the ‘reality’ they both produce and maintain. Perhaps the most valuable contribution intellectuals of all types and shades can make is, ultimately, to challenge the constitution of the reality they are fighting against and, if nothing else, expose its historicity and contingency and open up the possibility to common consciousness that things can be different and it is not counter to common-sense or Utopian to both hope for change and actively to strive to achieve change.

It seems to me there are some parallel strands here with Bauman’s ideas on the tendency for intellectuals to have shifted from being legislators of knowledge in the service of the State to being interpretors of knowledge in the service of the public domain with a distinct emancipatory intent. I’ll write a piece on the similarities and differences between Bauman and Foucault in due course focused specifically on the role of intellectuals and the nature of knowledge.

The last post and this are a commentary on chapter 6, Truth and Power, in the collection of interviews and lectures Michael Foucault; Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordan, Harvester 1980. I’d be happy for any help on clarifying Foucault’s ideas in this chapter and on what its contemporary significance might be for today’s crisis in education and intellectual life. The whole article is available for download at http://www.scribd.com/doc/10262971/Foucault-Truth-and-Power-in-Power-Knowledge but for some reason the pages are in the wrong order, first to last. They can be printed in the correct order of course.

Truth and Power

Foucault outlines his ideas on truth, power, ideology and the possibilities of political action quite clearly in an interview he took part in in 1977, reproduced a chapter 6, Truth and Power, in the collection of interviews and lectures Michael Foucault; Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordan, Harvester 1980.

In the last post where I outlined a few provisional thoughts on ideology I noted Foucault’s critique of ideology, that it implies there are ideas, beliefs, discourses, that are in some way non-ideological. If ideology is defined as distortion or mystification, then this implies that it is possible to have undistorted or un-mystified forms of knowledge – truth. This is Foucault’s objection. Eagleton (Ideology: an introduction Verso 1991 page xii) denies this is fatal for the concept of ideology by pointing out that we can brand Pol Pot a Stalinist bigot without having to appeal to some metaphysical certitude about what not being a Stalinist bigot would involve. I’m not sure this entirely refutes Foucault’s position on ideology and in any case he uses the term in his writing occasionally without it seems any qualification or provisos. It would be interesting to examine these examples of the concept in use by Foucault and see if they accord with any of the 16 definitions listed on pages 1 and 2 by Eagleton. Perhaps another post. In the meantime it is useful to identify the main points Foucault makes in the ‘Truth and Power’ interview and any interesting implications and consequences.

Early in the interview Foucault is asked about the relationship between structuralism and the events of history. Structuralist analysis downgrades the actual messiness of historical events or,  in perhaps in the more familiar language of structure and agency, leaves out agency. For instance, one criticism of Althuser is that his theory reduces individual actors to simply ‘bearers of structure’, programmed cultural dopes. Foucault asserts he is an anti-structuralist in this sense but warns against prioritising historical events and ignoring structure.  History, as a chronology of events, has no meaning of itself but is intelligible and susceptible to analysis ‘down to the smallest detail’. But the intelligibility must be sought in the struggles, strategies and tactics evidenced in historical events. Against certain forms of structuralism that look for coherence in systems of meaning, the structure of communication or even the logic of contradictions, he claims these cannot account for conflict.

Here I believe one’s point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history that bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power rather than relations of meaning. (p 114)

This introduces the centrality of power to his thinking. At the time he was wrestling with the notion of power the French left saw it as located within State apparatuses and the Right saw it in constitutional and legal terms and questions of sovereignty. For the Right the ‘other’ was Soviet socialist power denounced as totalitarianism. For the Left the power of Western capitalism was denounced as class domination. This is about as far as an analysis of power got at that time. The detailed mechanics of power, at the level of events and history was not addressed. 1968 changed all that for Foucault when the concrete nature of power became visible  as revealed in the daily struggles at grass roots level  engaged as they were in the fine meshes of the web of power. This moved the analysis of power out of the realms of traditional political analysis in to the realm of civil society and private life.

It is on page 118 that Foucault addresses the issue of ideology specifically where he identifies three drawbacks:

1) It always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth. I disagree with this but concede it depend on how you define ideology in the first place.

2) The concept of ideology necessarily refers to something of the order of a subject. I’m not entirely sure what this means in detail but if it means that individuals are implicated in ideology, as its target in some sense and as its effectively (the effects it produces) then I see no problem.

3) Finally he claims that ideology always relates to some sort of more fundamental determinant such as the economy. Here he seems to be invoking what I now consider to be an outdated old Marxist base-superstructure model.

He does not see these three problems with the concept reason to abandon it but says that it should not be used without circumspection and, as mentioned earlier, he continued to use the concept himself. He seemed to have had a certain traditional Marxist concept of ideology in mind, a conception that derives from a range of other Marxist assumptions he takes issue with. But there are more developed conceptualisations of ideology that avoid these but, in preserving the centrality of the nature and operations of power, would not be incompatible with Foucault’s analysis of power.


Increasingly my reading and thinking about the current state of affairs – austerity policy, neoliberalism, the occupation movement, ‘there is no alternative’, discussions and projects about free and open universities, the critique of education, in fact criticality generally – has turned me back to a consideration of the nature of ideology. My preferred approach to ideology has always been as a process rather than this or that political ideology or system of thought or as any sort of more-or-less organised and coherent way of thinking, world view or totalising theory.

My starting point is that we necessarily live in a world of meaning made available to us through a series of symbolic systems pre-eminent amongst which is language although there important and powerful material and visual symbolic systems too. We make sense of the world and act in it within a multi-layered cultural universe. This determines both our unconscious and automatic habitual behaviours and our conscious actions, those that we recognise as motivated, purposeful and of which we can give an account in those terms. This dichotomy is rather crude as quite often our conscious behaviour is influenced by our unthinking common-sense behaviour – routine, embedded, taken for granted – and can be seen as, in some instance, sublimations, and in others post hoc rationalisations.

Language mediates our relations with the world and others, and structures and gives meaning to our experience. It is a part of culture which more generally gives us recipes for understanding and for behaviour. All our problems are constructed within and through culture and solved or accommodated within and through culture. There is no by-passing this fact. It is the human condition.

I will be digging through my old readings and notes to come to a clearer understanding of how I now think about ideology and its relevance for critical action and ’emancipation’. Emancipation as a concept needs a bit of work of course and I think Bauman’s ideas on freedom and unfreedom will be relevant. I will be reviewing Gramsci’s ideas on how ideological processes shape common-sense and colonise culture and Althusser’s on how ‘ideological apparatuses’ construct our identities and subjective experience through a process of interpellation. Stuart Hall’s writings on ideology also influenced me a great deal when writing my Ph.D. thesis. I think I will need to look at Elias’s work on the meaning-making process and ideology. Foucault will be hard to ignore too. I have always found his critique of the very idea of ideology to be compelling. His problem with ideology is that it implies there are ideas, beliefs, discourses, that are in some way non-ideological. The problem remains if we understand ideology as constructing a distorted or skewed account of reality as this implies the possibility of an undistorted account of reality – the ‘truth’. This view depends on the possibility of establishing the ontological and epistemological ground on which one must stand in-order to access the ‘truth’. The position I take on ideology as a process is that it doesn’t just produce ‘accounts’ of the world. It also produces to some extent the material and social reality of the world as a social and material construction. It doesn’t so much produce a distorted version of the world as a particular version of the world. Ideologies are ‘true’ to the world they produce, construct, and ‘realise’. Since it is a cultural, political (in the broadest sense) and material process ideology cannot be seen as just a set of ideas that claim to be true. Even if we see ideology in this way it is not clear how we could establish its distortions of existing reality since it has produced the reality we are trying to judge it against. The implication is that we can only critique ideology in terms of other possible realities that also would need to be constructed, realised, through a similar ideological process. And, given that we have to start from where we are, an alternative reality has to be a potentiality within the possibilities of the current reality. If nothing else this means building upon and reforming or revolutionising existing forms of knowledge and institutions. At this point ideology seems to be the common term, the denominator, of all aspects of the historical social process; it looks as if it can be removed without loss of conceptual and analytic clarity.  Maybe, but I would want to hang on to it as it makes it clear that different forms of power and their distribution are key to understanding how historically contingency is to some extent and temporarily foreclosed and one version of reality, one set of social relations and cultural forms, one world, is what we are living in and have to confront and critique rather than another. The objective of critique is to expose and demonstrate the process and how power operates within it to produce, sustain and legitimate a reality that seems to offer no alternative and in so doing make other possible worlds thinkable and offer some idea of what would be involves in bringing it about.

Language and culture, common-sense and intellectual ‘terms of engagement’ are indispensable but always the contingent outcome of historical processes shaped by relations of power and inequalities of symbolic and material resources. In this sense everything is an aspect of ideological process to some extent. It is the aspect of what Norbert Elias calls ‘the meaning making process’ that is most intimately connected to and influenced by ‘power’, its interests and its agents. The ideological process is power in action – the way it shapes lives and actions and recruits us to its version of reality, legitimates that reality and brings it about culturally and materially by shaping the social processes and relations that, reproduce and maintain it.

The ideological process, broadly conceived, works on many levels, has many modalities and operates in different time frames. It is a sedimentation of culture and practices from the past that still echo in the present. It is innovation captured, co-opted and seconded, neutralised or adapted. It operates via certain geographies and materialised discourses – the separate boys’s and girls’ entrances and play grounds at some schools, the gradations of status and influence inscribed in office geometries, décor and facilities, the reserved car parking spaces for senior management and executives, the different rationales invoked for paying some high wages and others low wages. It operates through the taken-for-granted framing of issues and policies – both in terms of concepts defined and the relations between them and in reductive and partial perspectives that we are persuaded describe and explain all we need to know to understand and act. It establishes what can and cannot be thought.

Bauman sees the role of sociology as tearing away the veils that hide and disguise the operations of power that naturalise the social relations and the world we live in. Today this is the marketised capitalistic world Mark Fisher (Capitalist Realism) and Zizek speak of. Bauman does not see sociology as having any legislative privilege in this for the very good reason it cannot offer any certainty or recipes for specific action. There is always a deficit that must be made good via politics of one sort or another. Sociology can however develop and offer a reading and understanding of social reality that helps make possible and contributes to a discussion of other possible worlds and how to achieve them. No particular worlds, good or bad, are guaranteed. The project is emancipatory with respect to current forms of exploitation, inequality, alienations and forms of wasted lives and, as Bauman calls it, collateral damage. But there will always be a trade-off between freedom and security and there will always be forms of power and constraint in various personal and institutionalised forms. So emancipatory and critical sociology exposes the ideological process by necessarily being within it and offers the possibility of intervening in the ideological process in order to produce alternative realities.

To be continued …