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Sociology Gone Wrong · LRB 9 June 2022


Theperiod of human history when European people could confidently characterise themselves as ‘modern’ lasted barely a hundred years, from the upheavals of the 1870s to those of the 1970s. This was the era in which the bureaucratic nation-state appeared to have been secured as the building block of geopolitical power, and the welfare state became essential to the pursuit of social justice. Liberal democracy was to be realised via the steady expansion of suffrage and legally protected human rights. Experts in both the natural and social sciences (newly divided into separate disciplines) would bend their knowledge to the development of richer, healthier, happier societies. Industry would drive a steady expansion in productive possibilities. Artists, having lost their function of depicting the world, or of celebrating political or religious authority, were free to invent alternative forms of expression.

As Mike Savage emphasises in The Return of Inequality, the ‘modern’ also manifested itself as a distinctive relationship to time and space, felt most acutely when wandering the streets of the great European and American cities. Modern society existed in a condition of constant flux, between a past that was now defunct, and a future fraught with uncertainty yet full of possibility. The ‘premodern’ or ‘traditional’ was over, and therefore of little concern. Fatefully, as Gurminder Bhambra and John Holmwood show, this was also the way many non-European peoples were seen: as relics to be overhauled or replaced.

The hundred-year period that began around 1870 also witnessed the birth and growth of sociology, the discipline most preoccupied with ‘modernity’. Karl Marx produced his mature scientific writings between the late 1860s and his death in 1883, while the other two giants of the sociological canon, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, wrote their most important works between 1890 and 1920. As Bhambra and Holmwood show, this canon wasn’t established until after 1945, and then only thanks to the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, who led the effort to establish sociology as a credible scientific discipline. It was during the postwar period that the original vows of modernity were most energetically renewed, in the form of expanded welfare states, the progressive planning of economic and urban life, and the deliberate ‘modernisation’ of developing economies by newly independent governments. Sociology had much to offer governments that were committed to alleviating poverty and maintaining social cohesion, and that didn’t want to rely only on traditional (patrimonial, religious or otherwise irrational) solutions to social ills.

What happened to this project? The multiple crises that occurred in the wake of 1968 – economic, political and cultural – have been examined time and again. They include, inter alia, the inability of governments to deliver prosperity for all in the face of slowing productivity growth; the fear that welfare states were generating as many problems as they solved; the emergence of a political generation that prioritised cultural differences over collective needs; the perceived decline of urban community, rooted in the hubris of planners and modern architecture; the steady offshoring of manufacturing industries; and the feeling that experts – especially in such fields as psychiatry – had become flushed with power. The neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan may not have had answers to these problems, but it was at least willing to name them in ways that facilitated its political hegemony.

Sociologists responded in various ways. For those with the deepest professional investment in the discipline as it existed, Anthony Giddens, for example, the task was to work even harder at establishing sociology as the primary explainer and navigational aid of modern societies. Elsewhere, a kind of postmodern sociology emerged, inspired by French theory, which was suspicious of experts’ magical absence from their own discoveries. What role did statisticians play in the creation of this thing called ‘society’ that they claimed to know so much about? What power were doctors accruing to themselves when they promised to make people ‘healthy’? What were scientists doing to make ‘nature’ speak with such clarity in their laboratories and papers?

If we accept this periodisation, it is now more than half a century since the heyday of political modernism and the sociological project that accompanied it. Are we still, today, postmodern? Are we really still grappling with the fallout of 1968? It can certainly seem so when we are confronted with the latest eruption of the culture wars. And yet we also live in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis, of accelerating climate breakdown and a pandemic. At the very least, these events render unsustainable any terminological equivalence between ‘society’ and ‘nation-state’. In subtle ways, they have also contributed to a new type of sociological thinking, which doesn’t rely on concepts of the premodern, the modern or the postmodern. Instead, it draws insight and inspiration from a discipline that isn’t so invested in the conceptualisation of modern society: history.

History and historians now frequently perform the role to which sociology and sociologists once aspired: to narrate and contextualise the conflicts of the present. The anti-racist movements of the last decade, culminating with Black Lives Matter, have focused on raising awareness of colonial history, including the importance of slavery, empire and settler colonialism in the development of European capitalism. Thanks to this, it is no longer surprising to hear the origins of National Trust properties or the crimes of Cecil Rhodes discussed in the news. To take a second example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to renewed reflection on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the often disastrous policy choices of the 1990s: ‘shock therapy’, which aimed rapidly to privatise and liberalise the Russian economy according to the dominant tenets of American economic thinking, resulted in economic collapse and a fall in life expectancy unprecedented in an industrialised nation-state. The ultimate beneficiaries were Vladimir Putin, who rose to power on a groundswell of resentful nationalism, and the oligarchs who gained ownership of privatised assets.

When the media want to discuss whether Donald Trump is a fascist, whether Brexit is an imperialist project or the way pandemics end, historians will be among the experts consulted. The public intellectual in the English-speaking world who has offered the most expansive sociological analyses of the financial crisis, the pandemic and their respective links to climate politics is not a sociologist at all, but the historian Adam Tooze. Savage, Bhambra and Holmwood agree that sociology was from the outset over-invested in a lofty vision of modernity, which can in retrospect appear deeply parochial. What might sociology be capable of if it had a more honest assessment of its own past?

The
global financial crisis, which originally excited the left because of the prospect of a major rupture in the capitalist system, soon turned out to be a coup for finance capital, further extending its social and political power. In the years that followed, powerful financial institutions sought to leverage their power over the powerless, and age-old cultural, national and racial inequalities became increasingly difficult to ignore. It is hard to sustain a vision of modern uncertainty or capitalist dynamism in an economy that, as left populists such as Jeremy Corbyn put it, feels ‘rigged’. The scholar who spoke most successfully to this indignation was the economist Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the 21st Century (2013) used tax data and other archival sources to demonstrate that rising inequality has been a basic tendency of capitalist societies for at least two hundred years. The reason for this, simply put, is that wealth grows at a faster rate than income: owners of assets get richer more quickly than the sellers of labour, causing a vicious spiral that leads inexorably towards a rentier economy.

Savage dates the emergence of a new ‘inequality paradigm’ to 2011, when Joseph Stiglitz, and then Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez, publicly identified the ‘1 per cent’ as the source of America’s economic and social problems. The study of financial elites, rentier power, global inequality and wealth management took off after that. Where sociologists had spent much of the 20th century trying to understand poverty and shifting class stratifications across the spectrum, Piketty focused on a small group of super-rich individuals, and posed a deceptively simple empirical question: where had they got all their money from? That so much of it turned out to be ‘unearned’ (either inherited or extracted from property as rent) undermines the modernist conceit that capitalism untethers us from the past. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the fact that wealth begets more wealth forces us to look backwards in search of its origins, in a long chain of succession between past and present. Viewed this way, modern wealth is no longer independent of old wealth – including whatever violent, colonial and extractive practices might have been its original source. For Savage, there is a link between the rise of an ‘inequality paradigm’ (focused especially on wealth, rather than income) and movements such as Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall, which seek to address the economic legacy of historical injustices. The spotlight that has fallen on Russian oligarchs since the invasion of Ukraine is another manifestation of the inequality paradigm, emphasising the links between present injustices (not to say humanitarian catastrophes) and political-economic manoeuvrings dating back to the 1990s. Meanwhile, the return (and rediscovery) of family inheritance as a transmitter of inequality presents a challenge to the purported liberalism and dynamism of capitalism – perhaps it isn’t as much of a break with traditional societies as sociologists once supposed. Inheritance insulates past inequalities from political interference. It is, as Savage puts it, a process by which ‘those who succeed in any specific field tend to convert their advantages to an “objectified” form that can be stored, transmitted, sold and passed on.’ It isn’t just meritocracy that is contradicted by the influence of inherited wealth, but the ideal of modern life altogether.

Second, Piketty’s tracking of the economic share taken by the ‘1 per cent’ reveals a worrying historical trend: in countries including Britain and the United States, inequality is rapidly returning to levels last seen around the time of the First World War. Savage reproduces Piketty’s graph representing top income shares in the US over the course of the 20th century as a ‘U-shaped’ curve. In most Western economies, inequality (in both income and wealth) fell between 1914 and 1945, was relatively flat for thirty years, then began climbing again in the late 1970s. There are many reasons for this, in particular wars and fluctuating top marginal tax rates, but what Savage first wants to point out is how much the U-shaped curve messes with our sense of progress and modernity. What are we to make of the fact that, in some respects, we are witnessing the revival of an Edwardian economy? The establishment of postwar sociology occurred at a time when societies could still reassure themselves that they were on a journey from the old to the new. ‘The deep challenge of Piketty’s work,’ Savage argues, ‘is that it urges us to examine whether the 21st century is now receding from this vision of modernity, and we are instead marked by a cyclical process of return as the weight of the past increases.’ If the 20th century – and especially the comparatively egalitarian thirty years following the Second World War – turns out to have been a blip, that would unsettle much else that sociology has taken for granted about modernity. Piketty is now attempting to revive an egalitarian political project that he traces all the way back to the Enlightenment, but which has stalled since 1980. In A Brief History of Equality he lays out a programme of democratic socialist reforms – to taxation, property rights, corporate governance, international regulation and much else – that would invert recent trends. But even at his most hopeful, he is forced to concede that concentrations of wealth (if not of income) are remarkably resilient in the face of political efforts to challenge them.

Against the backdrop of the new inequality paradigm, Savage proposes that sociologists rethink some of their most basic assumptions about the nature of time and space. In place of the modernist idea of chronology, in which individuals and societies are continually uprooted from tradition and thrust into the unknown, a proper appreciation of wealth inequality forces us to consider time in terms of ‘duration’. It isn’t just wealth that gets passed down from one generation to the next, but costs and risks too. The historical injustice of persistent inequality casts a material shadow over the present, so that contemporary crises – climate breakdown, the pandemic – can be understood as legacies of our predecessors, not as sudden or unforeseeable eruptions. Rather than being a ‘storm’, as Walter Benjamin described it, history is a perpetual process of sowing and reaping. Liberal democracy struggles to sustain authority under these conditions, because elections are experienced as mere staging posts in a historical longue durée, rather than as possible turning points.

The inequality paradigm of the past decade has further weakened the status of the nation-state as the default unit of economy and society. As more information emerges about the power of oligarchs and rentiers, the clearer the importance of offshore wealth, mercantilist city-states and international elite networks becomes. The nation-state has not evaporated because of globalisation, as we were continually told in the 1990s, but has instead become enmeshed in transnational flows of capital and networks of elite power. The geopolitics of wealth today is better understood in terms of the dominance of metropoles over peripheries – bluntly, imperialism – than in terms of nation-states or globalisation. In his studies of international inequality, Branko Milanović has shed new light on the vast populations of states so large and diverse that they might be regarded as empires: China, Russia, India, the US. The metropolis, meanwhile, loses its modernist allure once it becomes a space for rent extraction and self-ghettoisation by the super-rich. Such cities are, Savage writes, ‘predictable, ordered, lucrative – and also highly policed and surveilled’.

One conventional distinction between the social sciences and the humanities is that the humanities explore artefacts produced by people (novels, documents, letters, political tracts), while the social sciences generate new empirical facts about people through various quantitative and qualitative methods. As Savage notes, Piketty’s work bridges the divide, and not just because he brings Austen and Balzac into his economic analyses. By turning to the archives for material, rather than survey instruments or orthodox inequality measures such as the Gini coefficient, Piketty presents the problem of inequality afresh, using new forms of historical narration and explanation that cut across disciplines and theoretical frameworks.

The technologies of knowledge production that have transformed the world in the 21st century share this quality of muddying the distinction between social science and the humanities. The science of ‘big data’, made possible by the vast surveillance capacity of digital platforms, coincides with the inequality paradigm, and, like Piketty’s use of tax records, involves the analysis of data that have been routinely deposited over time, rather than generated by professional social scientists. One of the deep injustices of a data-driven society is that inequalities of the past are projected onto the future: there is, for instance, clear evidence that existing racial prejudices are reproduced by algorithms. On the other hand, the vast digital archive of images, video and text that became available to us in the early 21st century places the past at our disposal, as a tool for political mobilisation and criticism. Digitised photographs, memes and visually arresting charts perform a political and cultural role in co-ordinating social movements and facilitating collective expression. The historical archive has become ubiquitous. In any case, and in contrast to the modernist vision of technological innovation, the digital revolution has bound us more closely to the past, not liberated us from it.

The​ inequality paradigm, by abruptly expanding the geographical and historical reach of empirical inquiry, helps us to see how brief and local the European and American postwar project really was. The idea was to alleviate social ills and impose order on the international economy via the nation-state, which seemed the most advanced of geopolitical forms. But today, Savage writes, ‘the nation-state can be better seen as a contingent response to the imperial meltdown in the total wars of the early 20th century. Rather than making a stable and enduring mode of government, perhaps it only represents a short-lived phase before the resumption of “imperial business as usual”.’ Even so, the sociological fixation on the nation-state, and the neglect of empire, cannot be entirely explained by the historical circumstances of the mid-20th century. As Bhambra and Holmwood emphasise, sociology’s birth in the late 19th century coincided with the high point of European imperialism, and the evidence of the previous three hundred years should have been more than enough to show that European modernity was coterminous with the violent, extractive, colonial economy, yet the likes of Marx, Durkheim and Weber neglected to accord any major significance to colonialism in the genesis of the modern world.

Bhambra and Holmwood trace this blinkeredness back to the origins of liberal political thought in the 17th century and the ostensible birth of the modern nation-state following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The essential props of liberalism – a sovereign state with clear territorial boundaries and an autonomous commercial economy – proved to be convenient fictions disguising the colonial reality. The conception of the Westphalian state, later defined by Weber as having a ‘monopoly on the legitimate use of violence’ within its borders, took as read that sovereign power was tidily contained within designated national territories. Its optimistic vision of the commercial sphere, meanwhile, pictured a path towards a peaceful, rational, prosperous society, a departure from the violent, lawless epochs of the past. The truth was, however, that an alliance of sovereign and capitalist power was put to work in the form of licensed corporations (the East India Company, the Virginia Company, the Royal African Company and so on) to plunder colonised people. Commerce did not, as liberals such as Hobbes liked to think, gradually displace barbaric and murderous economic practices, but grew along with them. The reminder that colonialism was very often an arms-length affair, channelled via ‘economic’ institutions, strengthens Savage’s argument that empire, not the nation-state, is capitalism’s typical territorial form.

The liberals of the 17th and 18th centuries adopted a perspective on history that has polluted dominant understandings of modernity ever since. Their assumption was that societies progress through ‘stages’, and that liberal capitalism was the final one – or, at least, the most advanced. It follows from this that Europe and the settler-colonised territories of North America are simply further along in the historical journey. Don’t blame Europe for the devastation, blame history. Bhambra and Holmwood show that even Marx was beholden to this ‘stadial’ view. Although he was a fierce critic of colonialism and slavery, it wasn’t, to him, as historically significant as the capitalist exploitation of ‘free’ labour taking place in Manchester at the time. The younger, more romantic Marx showed greater curiosity about the manifold ways in which workers are dispossessed (which include theft, violence and slavery), but in his search for a scientific critique of capitalism, his focus narrowed to the terrain of industrial production. The industrialised city was where history was made, while everywhere else was playing catch-up. Yes, all capitalism rested on inequality and exploitation, but there was only one variety that had real historical and political potential: the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, enacted via labour markets. Racialised, gendered and colonial systems of oppression were outmoded, and would eventually dissolve as capitalism advanced. Piketty, to his credit, places these forms of extraction at the centre of A Brief History of Equality, emphasising that in the long history of capitalism violent colonialism endured until relatively recently. He takes heart from its slow demise. But its legacies persist.

Of the three founding fathers of modern sociology, Weber comes out worst in Bhambra and Holmwood’s account. Piecing together evidence of Weber’s nationalist sympathies, including remarks about the new German nation’s right to a colonial share equivalent to those of France and Britain, and its need for more territory further east in Europe, they wonder whether Weber’s premature death in 1920 did his postwar reputation a favour (he would have been 69 in 1933). Weber’s great myopia, which later became the myopia of political sociology, was to focus so intently on the Westphalian nation-state at a time when European states exerted military and economic power all round the globe. It wasn’t that he was entirely inattentive to imperialism (including Germany’s short-lived empire), but that he treated it as a justifiable side effect of European states’ pursuit of their political and economic interests. Similarly, he sought the origins of capitalism entirely within European culture and religion, once again occluding the integral contribution of colonialism and slavery. Durkheim, meanwhile, whom Bhambra and Holmwood credit for avoiding the ‘stadial’ view, made no comment at all on French imperialism, which was at its height in the years he was writing his most famous works. This silence has shaped the discipline of sociology.

Those who witnessed American society first-hand found it less easy to sweep aside questions of race and violence. Bhambra and Holmwood turn to Tocqueville’s writings of the early 19th century in search of a theory of racial capitalism and colonialism, and find some awareness of the threat to the future of American democracy posed by the racial divide. Tocqueville was critical of slavery, but he was also a qualified enthusiast for what he perceived as the egalitarian political model that had taken hold in the New World. He paid little attention to the French colonisation of Algeria, which occurred during his lifetime, and was implicitly critical of the Haitian revolution, in contrast to the peaceful abolition enacted by the British government. His gravest concern throughout was that abolition and its aftermath would harm slaveowners and the young democracies they had established. In the event it was W.E.B. Du Bois who provided the first adequate theorisation of the role of race, slavery and colonialism in the formation of the modern world, but this wasn’t a message that his academic peers of the late 19th century were eager to hear. Bhambra and Holmwood suggest that were it not for racism in the academy and the discomfort caused by Du Bois’s analysis, he would have been as much a pillar of the sociological canon as the three white European godfathers – they are confident, for example, that The Philadelphia Negro (1899) deserved the acclaim lavished on the Chicago School of the 1920s for pioneering the use of urban ethnography.

Historical​ sociologists and Marxists might bristle at the suggestion that they have failed to learn sufficiently from history; Weber’s devotees would no doubt point out the invaluable contributions he made to the study of economic history. But this is precisely what Savage, Bhambra and Holmwood are getting at: it has often been those most invested in understanding the history of modernity who have shown least interest in what exists beyond its stated boundaries. ‘One paradox of modern social theory as a historically formed enterprise,’ Bhambra and Holmwood write, ‘is that it does not appear to be changed by changing historiographic accounts. Rather it relies on a relatively unchanging view of the rise of the West, associated with the emergence of democracy, industry and science.’ The claim that modern societies are constantly on the threshold of some great change that will liberate them from the past turns out itself to be a historical relic, forged in a particular time and place, that continues to constrain our sense of chronology. Piketty’s unusual contribution, as Savage sees it, is to strip the representation of time down to simple fluctuations and trends, to which further political and economic explanation can be added. This theoretical ‘naivety’ makes possible a rebooting of the sociological enterprise.

A vital part of that effort, as these authors see it, is a reckoning with what Savage calls ‘imperial modernity’, a concept with far greater explanatory power over the long term than the ‘sovereign nation-state’. What’s also required is a downgrading of such categories as ‘risk’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘crisis’, which carry with them the modernist sense of history as a runaway train, cut loose from its origins, destination unknown. From that perspective, disasters arrive at random; they can be insured against to some degree, but their occurrence is neither guaranteed nor eliminable. For those whose job it is to keep us safe from financial meltdowns, ecological collapse and public health emergencies, this is a convenient story. But what if we are, in Savage’s words, ‘driven by the predictability of long-term processes, many of which [have] been repressed or ignored in the giddy search for novelty’? After all, such developments as climate breakdown or the fiscal effects of ageing populations unfold pretty much according to schedule, perhaps even with a terrifying sense of inevitability and irreversibility. To accept the predictability of the long-term future would require that sociologists master a different conceptual framework, focused on legacies, inheritances and responsibilities. Rather than responding to a financial crisis, for example, with the mentality of an investor, tweaking the models we already have in order to capitalise the next time round, we could respond as a historian or air crash investigator would, sifting the wreckage in search of a chain of causal events.

This raises uncomfortable questions about culpability and guilt. The call to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, the canon and heritage institutions (to which Bhambra and Holmwood add their voices) invariably runs into resistance on the part of those who fear, consciously or otherwise, that they are about to be shamed and punished, or at the very least forced to tick various boxes in the cause of ‘diversity’. The imminent climate disaster is a material consequence of two centuries of industrialisation, but also of serial political failures over the last thirty years to respond to the scientific consensus.

‘Wherever we look at our changing climate,’ Andreas Malm writes in Fossil Capital (2016), ‘we find ourselves in the grip of the flow of time.’ The result can be collective depression, with the weight of the past overwhelming the capacity for action. But confronting history as long-term ‘duration’ needn’t require self-flagellation for past sins, and that certainly isn’t what Bhambra and Holmwood are demanding of sociology. The hope must be that it allows for a more empirically sensitive means of understanding the relations between past, present and future – what policymakers call ‘path dependency’ – that will, in turn, help us to accept some of the vast responsibility we have for future societies. ‘Those who are born today are not individually responsible for this burdensome heritage,’ Piketty writes in A Brief History of Inequality, ‘but we are all responsible for the way in which we choose or fail to take it into account in analysing the world economic system, its injustices and the need for change.’ He makes clear that the problem of colonial guilt must be addressed, to some extent with economic reparations, not least because the financial benefits of empire and slavery continue to accrue.

This challenge to sociological orthodoxy has an additional significance in the context of ecological breakdown. The difficulty of climate politics lies not only in the global nature of the problem, but in the way it brings hypermodern centres of technology and power into relationship with far-flung glaciers, forests, oceans and tundra. Contra sociological and Marxist orthodoxy, the forms of exploitation that will shape the future are not confined to cities, nation-states or specific markets, but involve the destruction and extraction of goods, and the exploitation of people that social theory and political economy have treated as expendable. This requires more expansive conceptions of capitalism and modernity, in particular a recognition that colonial violence and theft are not peripheral or accidental to these formations, but integral. Jason Moore, for example, has argued that 1492, the year that Columbus landed in the Americas and that the confluence of European violence and resource-based accumulation began, represents the origin of capitalist modernity (and not, as in the liberal ideal, 1648 or 1789). The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which recentres US history around the year enslaved Africans first arrived, provides a different perspective again.

One political effect of this shift in historical consciousness is that the task of shedding the weight of the past is frequently framed in terms of ‘divestment’. This takes on a literal financial meaning when activists demand that pension funds and asset managers divest from fossil fuels and other destructive forms of capital. One eventual result of such divestment is the ‘stranded asset’, the investment that gets written off because it can no longer generate a return, thus freeing up capital to be invested elsewhere. The demand to ‘defund the police’, for example, seeks to raise awareness of how much capital has been drained away from possible alternative investments, such as children’s services and schools. The exceptional economic and cultural sanctions recently placed on Russia have resulted in a mass divestment spanning everything from financial portfolios to sport. Statue-toppling can also be understood as a form of symbolic divestment from a past that would otherwise loom over the future. Bhambra and Holmwood have expressed reservations about the model of ‘academic investment capitalism’, in which the canon is treated as a set of fixed assets that can be protected or disrupted. Decolonisation, for them, ‘is not necessarily about taking things out, but putting them in’. Nevertheless, they agree that ‘challenging the canon will pose a threat to the value of these assets and will, thereby, generate resistance.’ A demand for some divestment from reading lists centred on sociology’s postwar founding fathers seems to follow from their critique. The aim isn’t to leave the grand theorists of modernity entirely stranded, but to weaken their stranglehold on the future.





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