The depersonalisation of capitalism

I have been in email correspondence with my colleague Richard Kilminster following on from some very interesting and constructive comments on a draft article I am writing on critical pedagogy. The discussion concerns various issues around the marxist underpinnings and the normative basis of critical pedagogy as developed from the Frankfurt School Critical Theory and its successors, Habermas for instance. Richard’s main issue is that it all still depends to some extent on Kantian transcendental categories and a prioris that act as founding assumptions rather than empirically substantiated concepts. To this extent sociology generally is still in the thrall of philosophical forms of thinking, to its detriment. Richard strives for a post-philosophical sociology and to this end is developing the work of Norbert Elias who recognised the problem and made significant progress towards this goal.

Richard pointed me towards an article by Godried Van Benthem Van Den Bergh where he demonstrates how in practice  sociological analyses and diagnoses often look for the causes of the state of affairs of interest  in order to produce an explanation and, perhaps, help develop a plan of action or set of policies to alter that state of affairs. Often, in practice, these diagnoses and explanations take the from of  finding something to blame for the condition. This can then lead to a ‘personalisation’ of the causes in a manner not dissimilar to other sorts of pre and non-scientific orientations to the world. From a scientific point of view this is an obstacle to knowledge as this form of attribution of cause and explanation  “implies that one has to isolate the action(s) of one identifiable entity, whether individual, group or reified (and at the same time often personalised) ’cause’, from a complex sequence of events”. He gives examples of ‘capitalism’ and ‘modernisation’ being used in this way. This form of thinking, or at the very least this style of writing, is still prevalent in contemporary sociology. In a forthcoming article Richard gives a number of examples of this quoting from well known and influential current sociologists, for example  –  “modernity ‘is coming of age’ and is now ‘consciously abandoning what it was unconsciously doing”; “Post-modernity may be conceived of as modernity conscious of its true nature – modernity for itself”; ” What happens when modernization, understanding its own excesses and vicious spiral of destructive subjugation begins to take itself as object of reflection”? – and others.

With respect to ‘capitalism’ Richard points out that  ‘capitalistic’ social relations cannot exist without being embedded in “a whole socio-genetic complex of interdependencies that makes them possible. The specifically ‘capitalistic’ aspects may not in fact be the most instrumental in producing what are perceived as the undesirable consequences of contemporary global developments”.

This implies that ‘capitalism’ cannot be a singular foundational unit of analysis based on the notion that ‘it’ is the primary cause of what appear to be, or are assumed to be, ‘its’ effects and consequences. If this is a mistaken orientation than solutions may be misdirected and may exacerbate conditions rather than improve them, amounting to, perhaps at best, an amelioration of the condition rather than changing the system – like an aspirin ‘cures’ a headache without having any transformational effect on the underlying causes. In fact it can make things worse by developing new forms of subjugation, dependence and the reproduction of the very system we are seeking to change.

What is the broader sociological context that must be factored into an analysis of globalising capitalism for activists who want to do something about inequality, exploitation and the destruction of the environment? It will be interesting to see how Norbert Elias’s sociology conceptualises and constructs ‘capitalism’, its apparent contradictions and contemporary neoliberal ideology. If the analysis is too general and too synthetic it may be difficult to draw political and policy conclusions from it. In which case, pragmatically, where do we go?

Godried Van Benthem Van Den Bergh (1986) The Improvement of Human Means of Orientation: Towards Syntheses in the Social Sciences in Development Studies: Critique and Renewal Eds R Apthorpe and A Krahl

Most, but not all, of this article is available on Google Books

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *