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.
It’s over two years since I posted on this blog. This has been partly, but not exclusively, because of health problems, a serious mountain bike accident last year and a diagnosis of prostate cancer and surgery this year. Actually this has given me quite a lot of time to read and write but this would also have needed a frame of mind I just didn’t have. Anyway, all is pretty good at the moment and it looks as if I have a life expectancy now of between 5 and 15 years, probably as good as most 70 year olds! So I hope to get this blog going again. If nothing else it will serve as a diary and notebook of sorts for me. At best it may make a contribution to the development of ideas and debate.
The two big events this year that have served to both deepen my depression but also to kick me out of my complacency are Brexit, the referendum held June 23rd 2016 where ‘the British people’ (actually 51.9% of those who voted from a turnout of 72.2%, so about 37% of the elegible electorate) voted to leave the EU and on Tuesday 8th Novemebr 2016 when the US electorate voted for Donald Trump for the next President. In both cases the widely held assumption of who the winners would be, the remainers for the Brexit vote and Hilary Clinton for the Presidency, were confounded. Immediately links were being made between the two startling results. Trump, before he won, said his victory would be Brexit plus plus plus. There does seem to be some underlying similarities – the hidden masses disaffected from politics and excluded by the forces of global developments of economies, the perception of being ignored by a wealthy business and political class and its administration, the extension of the precariat into previously privileged middle classes, and so on.
These results are also heralded as the end of the liberal (in the wider sense of the term) project but whether it is also a threat to the neoliberal project remains to be seen. There is much in Trumps rhetoric that suggests that his presidency will try to roll back some of the effects of magnetisation and globalisation but this may offer his voters false hope if his proposed cabinet is anything to go by.
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.
Over the next couple of months I will be using this blog to make a few notes and try out a few ideas on a more substantial piece I am writing on the relationship between the academic discipline of sociology and political activism. This is the first note.
I am currently reading David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 2. in the introduction but he makes a claim about the relation between Marx’s theory and his historical analysis. In particular there is a contrast between the historical analyses and the general framework of his political economy. His historical writings don’t seem to make much reference to his general theory and this in turn mostly ignores historical particularities. The generality of the theory is problematic when one attempts to apply it to concrete historical and political contexts and it is not clear how activist political programmes can be informed by it. However, according to Harvey, the exclusion of the historical details and contingencies allows Marx to develop a framework which transcends his own time and is applicable to the subsequent development of capitalism and today. Harvey refers to a more detailed account of this claim in his article History versus Theory: On Marx’s Method in Capital. I have not so far managed to get hold of this but the summary in the introduction to his ‘Companion’ may be sufficient for my purpose which is to explore the tension between sociological ‘detachment’ and political engagement – the possibility of an activist sociology. Harvey concludes his introduction with a call to arms:
Confining himself so tightly within the level of generality permitted Marx to construct an understanding of capital that transcended the historical particulars of his own time. This is why we can still read him today – even Volume II – and make sense of so much of what he has to say. On the other hand, this framework makes for difficulties of any immediate application to actually existing circumstances. This is the work we are left to do.
Harvey’s approach implies that there is something more detached (more scientific?) about Marx’s general theory of capitalism as an economic system than is the case with his detailed historical and political writings. His theoretical writings are about how things are, a relativity neutral account of how things work, whereas his political commentary is influenced by how he would like things to be and a programme to achieve this. In my longer piece I will be questioning this distinction between the detached nature of theory and the involved nature of politically orientated thought and action. Rather than an opposition it might be seen as a fruitful, even unavoidable, alliance. It is here that Norbert Elias’s ideas on involvement and detachment and notions of ‘involved detachment’ and ‘detours via detachment’ can usefully be elaborated. I’m not aware of anyone reversing these terms before but there may be scope to explore the possibilities of ‘detached involvement’ and ‘detours via involvement’, especially the idea that there is a constructive dialectical relationship between theoretical accounts and politically informed projects. This would be particularly the case if an ‘objectively’ detached approach reveals the incomplete and contingent nature of history, politics and social reality and that it has always been ‘completed’ for the moment along with the ideological illusion of finality (‘there is no alternative’ e.g.) by some group or others’ political project. If ‘involvement’ in some fundamental social sense actually constitutes the objects of neutral detached ‘apolitical’ theoretical contemplation and theoretical construction, then the call for social sciences to be detached, objective and politically neutral is both forlorn and naive.
There is a video of a lecture Harvey gave in November 2011 with the same title as the later 2012 article History versus Theory: On Marx’s Method in Capital
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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?
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.