Speaking truth to power

Today’s brief post is about my growing irritation with the frequent cries that we should ‘speak truth to power’.  Of course we should but this is not the real problem. The people who have and manipulate power in the various political and corporate institutions and organisations know full well, generally speaking, that they are not dealing in truths. They’re not usually stupid. They know for instance that immigration is not the cause of most people’s problems, that many aspects of austerity policies are not necessary, that free markets are in fact inefficient and cause a great deal of poverty, insecurity and stress. They do not make the policies they make and say the things they say through ignorance so that if we could just put them right they would become good guys. They know the world could be different and that the world we live in and that advantages them so much is largely constructed through an ideological narrative and the policies, actions and manipulations of powerful people and institutions that make it real. They don’t want change and will resist and denigrate any other narrative that, should if ever be implemented politically, economically and culturally, would destroy their world. So they are not suffering from a knowledge deficit and consequently addressing this supposed knowledge deficit is not a sufficient strategy to change the world we live in for the better.

Arguably the real problem is that their narrative has been normalised and largely accepted by the people who keep them in power. The power we are encouraged to speak to is exercised through various political, economic and cultural processes and institutions to produce a more-or-less compliant and often complacent public who in the majority of cases have been schooled to accept the narrative of the powerful and see the world in their terms, accept that this is the natural order of things, there is no alternative and that individuals must sink or swim according to their own faculties and abilities and, whatever the outcome, it is their individual and personal responsibility. This is the underpinning of the belief that virtue is commensurate with income, wealth and material possessions. Rich equals virtuous, poor equals degenerate and all those in the middle are doing the best they can with whatever talents god gave them. It is a notion of the just society built on the assumption of just desserts.

Our compromised and hollowed out democratic process is just one of the ways that the powerful exercise their power. The people have spoken, so it is the democratic will of the people. But what if the people have been ventriloquised by the powerful’s narrative? After the 19th century Reform Acts that progressively gave voting rights to, initially, working men and the legitimacy of government moved from being based on the monarch and god to ‘the people from below’, the subsequent education reforms to extend education to workers (prompted in part by the perception the British economy was beginning to lose out to other nations with better educated work forces) were seen as problematic politically. Somewhat cynically it was said at the time that it would be necessary to ‘educate our masters’ and a form of elementary schooling was introduced which would socialise the poor into subservience.

Louis Althusser, a french sociologist and philosopher, studied the ways that individuals were induced to see the taken-for-granted world and their ascribed place in it as legitimate and inevitable. Key to understanding how this essentially ideological process takes place, he said, is to see it as the role and outcome of what he called ‘ideological state apparatuses’; in particular the education, religions and the mass media. There are serious problems with much of Althusser’s thought but the ideological incorporation and recruitment of the population into particular narratives is undoubtedly of enormous political significance in today’s world. So as well as speaking truth to power it seems that those that want to promote change to a more fair, just and equal world must tackle the fact that the dominant power is exercised through a variety of cultural and political institutions that must either be bypassed or transformed in some ways. Religion, the mass media of communication and the education system become important sites of resistance and the promotion and promulgation of an alternative narrative, different ways of thinking that tear away the ideologically constructed veil behind which power hides and legitimates itself, and different ways of conducting our lives and relations with others. And this is happening.

Nothing in the corridors of power for his kind of sociology

This is a quote from Madeleine Bunting’s profile of Zygmunt Bauman’s Guardian profile in April 2003.


He says he “sees nothing in the corridors of power” for his kind of sociology; the audience he has in mind for his work are ordinary people “struggling to be human”. What preoccupies him is how social conventions obstruct the possibility of human liberation and it makes him a stern critic of the status quo, particularly in his growing focus on how an individualistic society finds common cause, and how the public realm can be renewed and sustained.

This reminds me of something that BSA Presidential Event, held on 8 February 2010 at the British Library London, on ‘How to put “Society” into Climate Change’ that was said by Malcolm Wicks MP in his opening address ‘Climate Change: What is the Question?’. He made it quite clear that he was only interested in what social science had to say about climate change to the extent it was inline with government climate change policy. All the rest is ideology.

Democracy and its discontents

A Facebook friend posted this quote from Asimov and it prompted me to return to some thoughts I have had on democracy since the democratic votes that won the referendum on EU membership for the leavers campaign and Trump won the USA presidential election. Asimov was writing about America but there has been a similar anti-intellectualism in the UK for generations, particularly in England. This has been manifest in a number of ways in the past – the preference for the amateur over the professional (for instance as portrayed in Chariots of Fire), the privileging of commonsense over abstract theory and most recently in Michael Gove’s claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He’s rowed back on this recently and now says he was referring to economists in particular. He said that he wanted people to trust their own judgement rather than listen to experts. But on what are people’s judgements made? Is it on the basis of their own research, their own examination of the evidence, or perhaps just on the evident facts? I think for most of us the first two are unlikely. So we are probably most swayed on the basis of facts as they are presented to us in the media and by politicians and self appointed opinion leaders, amongst them Gove himself of course. At the same time he is encouraging people to trust their own judgement he is of course trying to influence that judgement by encouraging them to ignore experts. One fact offered in the brexit referendum campaign was that we sent the EU £350 million a week and, post brexit, this was pledged to be spent on the NHS. The first is a rather selective fact as it is a gross figure and takes no account of the money that comes back from the EU. In fact the rebate is deducted before anything is sent so in practice only about £55 million goes out. And this takes no account of the significant financial income we get via business, trade, grants etc. by virtue of our membership. As is now becoming increasingly clear in the aftermath of the vote as these less visible returns to us become evident, we get a positive return on our ‘expenditure’ to the EU. As for spending an additional £350 million a week on the NHS, it’s a promise for the future. That the pledge was made is a fact. The promised expenditure, if it happens, lies somewhere in the future.

The Asimov quote claims that the anti-intellectualism rests on the false notion that one individual’s ignorance is as good as another’s knowledge. If this is so, and in theory it is since every vote is equal and has the same influence on the resulting decision, than policy driven by the numerical count of votes alone could be based upon the aggregate ignorance of the people or the aggregate wisdom. Who knows? Obviously I think that my decision to vote to remain was based upon knowledge and, being in possession of that knowledge, I can’t understand why anyone would vote for leaving other than supposing they must lack my knowledge. Why they lack the knowledge is an open question. Lack of reliable information or being exposed to false information? Lack of a general knowledge about what the EU is, how it works and, despite its flaws and problems, how it has and would continue to benefit our economy and security? I think we ‘the people’ have made the wrong choice. But I don’t know for sure. Time may prove that is me and others like me who voted to remain made the wrong choice. The point is that in reality neither the leavers or the remainers know if they have made the right choice. If that is all there is to it, that ‘the people have spoken’ (in fact 37% of the eligible vote which didn’t but arguably should have included 16 and 17 year olds since it is their future we were gambling with) then the executive and legislative wings of our parliamentary system should just implement the policy diktat of the 37%. However, I would have thought the problem with letting the unmediated decisions of multiple ‘men on the Clapham omnibus‘ drive final policy decisions is obvious given the complexity of the law and governance and its necessary dependence on intricate and detailed knowledge. This is what the role of parliament is, not the role of the people. We vote for the people we want to make decisions on our behalf, based on the best knowledge and evidence available, weighing up all the pros and cons and coming to a measured assessment of the nation’s best interest and how best to secure it through legislation and policy. Yes, I know it doesn’t work this way either, but at least we can reverse our electoral decisions periodically and can seek to influence how our masters specify pros and cons and the nation’s best interest. This is why I think parliament should be involved in the over sight and conduct of the brexit negotiations and, through the opportunity of debating and voting on it, be responsible for the final decision.

One very reasonable argument against policy dictated and designed purely by experts and technocrats is that it makes our democratic institutions and processes redundant. They know best so let them get on with it. Rather than elections we should have exams and peer selection. The reason this is a bad idea is that technical expertise on achieving given ends very often has nothing to say about what the ends should be. This discussion requires not just instrumental knowledge but a morally engaged wisdom. In any decision there will be unintended consequences, winners and losers, collateral damages of various sorts, medium and long term consequences that may make implementing today’s good idea into a massive shot in the foot. But if this is a flaw and danger in technocratic rule then equally is it a flaw and danger of populist rule. If all we need to do is implement unquestioningly the decisions of ‘the people’ as expressed in referendums, why would we need parliament in its current form and the democratic process as we currently understand it? Democratic procedure would be reduced to mere opinion polls and politics to the unquestioning and unmediated implementation of opinions thus expressed. On the one hand we have the dictatorship of the technocrats and on the other hand the dictatorship of the masses as orchestrated by undemocratic opinion leaders and demagogues.  It is negotiating a course through these two extremes that is the essential role of parliament and our democratic system however imperfect. Heaven knows, there are serious problems with our party political and parliamentary system and what passes for democracy but collectively these are still immeasurably better than either a dictatorship of the technocrats or of the the masses as ventiloquised by mass media and political demagogues.


Good enough sociology

I remember my first encounter with academic sociology doing A level sociology part time in one year at an adult education centre at the age of 31. My only exposure to sociology up to that point (although I didn’t realise it at the time) was in the two years I worked as a bus driver in Leeds, from 1976 to 1978, when my conductor, who was our TU shop steward, spent many hours explaining the state of public transport (and just about everything else) in terms of a Marxist analysis of the public sector and its crucial role in support of the capitalist economic system. Studying for the A level I understood that there were several different sociological perspectives – structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism and conflict theory are but three that spring to mind but there are more. I also learned that there was something called ‘the sociological imagination’ but I was never clear what the relationship of this was with the various competing perspectives. Soon after I discovered that there were a number of perennial problems in reconciling the tension between structure and agency, objectivity and subjectivity, determinacy and contingency, science and meaning, and so it went on. One of the first questions you are asked to address as a beginning student is ‘what is is sociology?’ Now, 36 years later after a BA and PhD in sociology and having taught the subject at Leeds University for 27 years, I still find this a hard question to answer outside of one of the usual formulaic and rather abstract definitions. This has been complicated for me in the last few years as I have got embroiled in discussions about the relationship between sociology, politics and activism. This has tended to focus on issues like the government’s neoliberal austerity programme, the attack on the public sector and the welfare state, and developments in the education system and national health service. I thought it would be useful to try and construct a sociological framework that could be used and applied pragmatically to these and other everyday issues and problems with a view to understanding them and, perhaps, as a guide to possible strategies and actions for individuals and groups who want to make a difference and have some influence on events and processes.

My starting point is pretty much what you get from C Wright Mills and his characterisation of the sociological imagination – to quote; “It is the task of the social scientist continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is the sociologist’s task to display in their work this kind of sociological imagination”. So the sociological imagination is one that is able to link the exigencies of individual and group life to the broader historical and structural processes and changes that are often not obvious or known to actors with their noses pressed hard against the coal face of life, so to speak. So the question arises what are these broader historical and structural processes and how exactly do they impact on our lives – both in what we do and what we believe, our understanding of our social environment and of our selves. The personal and political value of this can be illustrated by a short extract from H G Well’s ‘The History of Mr Polly’.

I come back to Mr. Polly sitting upon his gate and swearing in the east wind, and I have a sense of floating across unbridged abysses between the General and the Particular. There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding, seeing clearly the big process that dooms millions of lives to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstance […] and, on the other hand, Mr. Polly sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned, confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it were, nettled in greyness and discomfort [..]. (H G Wells. The History of Mr Polly 1910 Chapter 7 Part III).

In the novel the ‘man of understanding’ is a member of the Climax club with a broad detached knowledge of the economic and structural, not to say historical, understanding of Mr. Polly’s situation and those of a large class of people and their families at the time. On the other hand Mr Polly sitting on the gate, in despair, with his head in his hands feels powerless in the face of unknown forces against which he has no defence other than to run away and throw his hand in with what ever fate brings, which he does. What if the two perspectives could be brought together, Mr. Polly’s experience and predicament with the broader sociological understanding of the why and the how? Perhaps nothing other than a deepening of the conviction of powerlessness. Or perhaps the beginning of the development of individual and communal proactive responses.

Mr Polly’s predicament (and many of the petty bourgeoisie of the time) has been brought about by a range of political, economic and demographic processes of which he is only, if at all, dimly aware. These processes are mainly known to him in terms of their immediate impact on his experience and the exigencies, the intractabilities, of his everyday life – in this case a life of poverty, fracturing relationships, petty animosities, hopelessness and desperation. At one point he is brought to the contemplation of suicide. What Mr Polly doesn’t know is that he is one of thousands of petty bourgeois shop keepers and small business people in the same boat in Victorian England in the end of the 19th century, a period of economic decline after a period of comparative high growth. There was a great deal of unemployment and poverty due to changes in the economy explainable in terms of the cyclical downturns in the capitalist economy and continuing globalisation of production. But alongside the labouring  unemployed and the unemployable but less visible were a great proportion of what Wells referred to as the lower middle classes many of whom were among the increasing class of small shop keepers. They were in much the same position as the unemployed but were able to eke out an existence for some years at least because they had some savings or perhaps a small inheritance (as was the case for Mr Polly) accumulated during the comparative good times. Many of the new small shop keepers had lost there jobs as the labour market restructured around technological and organisation changes. Many had been, again like Mr Polly, sales assistants in larger shops that were laying off staff. Setting up their own shops was a way of continuing to make a living but typically they only made between 60% and 70% of their costs and living expenses. The shortfall was therefore drawn from an ever decreasing capital. To quote from Wells again:

Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic process of consecutive small losses which may end if the individual is exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned. The secular development of transit and communications has made the organisation of distributing businesses upon large and economical lines, inevitable [….] The day when a man might earn an independent living by unskilled or practically unskilled retailing has gone for ever. Yet every year sees the melancholy procession towards petty bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt go on […] Every issue of every trade journal has its four or five columns of abridged bankruptcy proceedings, nearly every item in which means the final collapse of another struggling family upon the resources of the community ….

So the idea is to outline a ‘good enough’ sociological perspective that can be applied pragmatically to any issue, from public to personal, and help an understanding that contextualises the issue, looks behind the surface of events (tears away the veil, so to speak) and, possibly, helps answer questions of what could be done, if anything. What I thought would be a fairly quick and easy thing to do has turned out to be far more complicated than I thought. So rather than specify such a sociological framework in advance I feel the best approach will be  to attempt to exemplify such an applied perspective through reflections and commentary on various issues and events as the mood takes me . This is the current plan – a sort of piecemeal specification of a practical sociological perspective via examples from which, perhaps, a more coherent specification might be cobbled together in due course. 


This blog has been somewhat dormant for a while and this is because, since fully retiring last July, a year ago today, I have not been regularly or consistently engaged in the study and teaching of sociology. In fact the emphasis has been rather more self-directed since my doctor advised me, about 2 years ago, I had a near 30% risk of suffering a heart attack in the next 10 years! So the prospects of an enjoyable (never mind useful) retirement of a reasonable length (say 20 years!) seemed unlikely. I won’t bore you with the details but in the ensuing 2 years I have shed 3 stone and reduced my cholesterol levels and blood pressure largely through a gradually increasing schedule of exercise coupled with a modest reduction in eating and drinking. I now tend to walk and cycle as a mode of transport (if the distances are reasonably short) as well as an occasional leisure activity. In addition I started playing racketball about a year ago. Although I hadn’t played for nearly 25 years I used to be a regular squash player. I consider starting again but have found that racketball is kinder to my reduced flexibility and speed, more fun and more sociable. Enough of this.

Much of what I’ve written in this blog has been connected to and inspired by my work as a sociologist. This is no longer the case. I’m not so intensively engaged with sociological literature, articles and research. I no longer spend part of nearly every day talking about and discussing sociology and sociological issues. However, I still tend to turn a sociological gaze and framework of understanding on the issues and problems of the day, particularly as they affect me and my friends and family. Inevitably this gives a rather more pragmatic and political caste to my thinking. Henceforth posts here will reflect this change in impetus and purpose. Close to my concerns at the moment are issues around ageing, health and well-being – no surprises there! But I have young relatives and friends who are struggling with the insecurities and uncertainties of the world of work, the housing market, the gradual (and not so gradual) withering of the public sector and welfare provision, the loss of faith in traditional political and democratic process, the degradation of the environment, and so it goes on. I’m hoping this blog will continue to be alive and interesting (to me at least – anything else can be seen as collateral benefit) rather than just an archive of an ex-sociology teacher.

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.

Feeding the world

Last Saturday I went to the Not the G8 1 day conference at Leeds Uni run by the World Development Movement. The day was roughly scheduled to coincide with this year’s G8 summit to be held on the 17th and 18th June in Northern Ireland.  As one of several pre-summit events, on the 8th June Cameron hosted a G8 Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science. The first speaker at the Not The G8 event, Raj Patel, used Cameron’s speech to illustrate and critique the sort of policy being promoted as “Diet Coke Plus” Politics. The general thrust of the G8 event was to decouple problems of nutrition from poverty and promote technocratic big business and market based food programmes. The World Development Movement has been pointing out the often disastrous limitations of this approach and organising actions against it for many years. This is an area which interests me a great deal and I would like to follow up on some of the ideas, practices and policies set out at the conference. This post is just a note and a record of a couple of resources I will be looking at. One is the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report from 2008 that demonstrates that a corporate business as usual model of agricultural development will not solve problems of poverty, food security for billions of people or malnutrition and in any case it is environmentally unsustainable. This has had an ambivalent reception from many western governments. The other report is the Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not report published in January 2013 by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. This makes the claim that up to 50% of food produced to feed us does not reach human stomachs. The current world population is just over 7 billion and is forecast, according to the UN, to increase to between 8 and 10 billion by 2050. One authoritative model predicts that the world population will reach a maximum round about 2050 and thereafter remain fairly steady or even decline. Either way, if no food, at current levels of production, was wasted we already produce enough to feed 14 billion. In fact, as the UN reports, we are currently producing more calories of food per head of the world population than ever before, more than enough for each individual. The problem of malnutrition is clearly one of waste and distribution rather than production.  But there is a lot more at stake when critiquing current dominant food policies – politically, culturally and ethically.


Institutionalised racism

Yesterday 2 men where found guilty of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago, April 1993, in Eltham, south east London. Although several people were arrested the evidence was found to be inconclusive and the cases dropped. For a variety of reasons including an inquest that returned a verdict of unlawful killing “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five youths” and the evidence that the police had not investigated the murder properly, the MacPherson Report was commissioned. The report, published in 1999, identified ‘institutionalised racism’ in the Metropolitan Police as a fundamental factor in the bodged investigation. For a full time line of the story see the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16283806.

On the radio this morning, BBC 4 Today, the concept of institutional racism was explained by asking the question; did the police give the murder the time, resources and serious consideration it warranted? The answer was no. Was this because the victim was black? The answer was yes. The police always have to make decisions and judgements about how to allocate scarce resources and if they routinely take the colour of victims into account when making these decisions, this is institutionalised racism. It is a matter of a pervasive culture that provides the background to individual choices on procedural matters. If we take this as the meaning of institutionalised racism, then it still boils down to racist attitudes and decisions by policemen, police staff and police managers and leaders. The institutional culture provides the recipes for thinking and acting, and also for relatively unthinking routine engrained behaviour, language, attitudes and so on.  The thinking and unthinking acting reproduces and reinforces the culture. It is institutional racism as it permeates the whole institution and provides it with its taken-for-granted common-sense view of the world. In an interesting piece today in the Independent  (The killing of Stephen Lawrence ended Britain’s denial about racism), particularly on the initial coverage of the murder of Stephen Lawrence by the media, Brian Cathcart defines institutional racism using a quote from Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, on the day the Macpherson report was published:

“The very process of the inquiry has opened all our eyes to what it is to be black or Asian in Britain today… and the inquiry process has revealed some fundamental truths about the nature of our society, about our relationships, one with the other. Some truths are uncomfortable, but we have to confront them.”  Chief among these truths was the existence of institutional racism, and Straw was clear that it went beyond the police: “Any long-established, white-dominated organisation is liable to have procedures, practices and a culture which disadvantage non-white people.”

However, there are other aspects of institutionalised racism that the discussion on the radio did not bring out. An example of another dimension to institutionalised racism is the 1981 British Nationality act. This act created a number of different bands of citizenship and importantly removed the ‘right of abode’ in the UK  from many commonwealth citizens who previously had it. The new Act defined a category of full UK citizenship with the right of abode that systematically excluded the majority of ‘new’ commonwealth citizens – predominately black –  but retained it for the majority of individuals in the ‘old’ commonwealth countries, for instance Australia and Canada. To have full British citizenship with the right of abode it was now necessary to have had a UK domiciled relative who was a British citizen prior to 1949.  The Act therefore had a disproportionate effect on black and Asian commonwealth citizens – not by accident including, for instance, Hong Kong. Once this law is in operation and applied by border controls, it matters not whether the individual immigration officers are personally racist of not. They may not have a racist fibre in their bodies. The application of the racist law produces racist effects independently of the individuals applying the law equally to all who present themselves at the border control, or issue passports at the passport offices in commonwealth countries.

In the case of the institutionalised racism of the Metropolitan Police we have an example of  colour-blind criminal law being distorted by the discretionary decisions and practices of racist personnel. In the case of the British Nationality Act we have the example of institutionalised racism of a different sort where racism is embedded in the structure of the law and is equally consequential whether its operatives and officers are personally racist or not. This latter type of institutionalised racism does not depend on personal racism. One implication of this is that institutionalised racism cannot be solved simply(!) by race awareness training and tackling the cultural issues. Colour-blindness must be built into the process of making laws, rules and regulations as well as in there subsequent application and enforcement.

This was cross-posted to the Leeds University Public Sociology blog http://www.sociology.leeds.ac.uk/public/2012/01/04/institutional-racism-job-done/

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.