Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Meaning of Donald Trump

By Mark Featherstone

Like many people I have spent the last four or five days trying to make sense of the result of the American election. In thinking through the fantastical result I found myself asking two inter-related questions. My first question was, how could Trump win, when Clinton appeared a racing certainty up to the very day of the election. My second question concerned what a Trump presidency would mean for America, but also the global consensus that had existed around the neoliberal capitalist orthodoxy since at least the late 1980s. In answering these two inter-connected questions, I would suggest that first, too many pollsters and experts were caught under the spell of history, where what normally happens will continue to happen, and under-estimated the deep disconnect between vast numbers of people and the social, political, and economic system which has governed their lives for so long. In short, and I would suggest the same problem was behind the Brexit decision, the election result reflected the fact that people no longer believe in the model of capitalism that has governed from Thatcher and Reagan, through Clinton, Bush, and Blair, up to Obama and Cameron. In this way the problem with Clinton was that she came to represent the death of the system, the figure who emerged to defend what was no longer really defensible, and has in a way already passed over into history.

But if this lack of belief, or what the French writer Bernard Stiegler calls dis-belief, explains the how of Trump, what about the what of Trump? What does Trump mean for the future? I think that the answer to this (related) question of the what of Trump is that he will probably accelerate the revolutionary change taking place across the western world. Under conditions where the neoliberal consensus no longer holds, I think the answer to this second question is, therefore, that Trump will effectively mean the end of the kind of globalisation we have lived with certainly since the end of the Cold War. From my point of view, Trump can only signal further division, the end of consensus, and the end of coherence, even if the kind of coherence which has ruled since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been one characterised by inequality and division. In this respect, we might wonder whether it is possible to say that Trump will be a force for good? Anything is possible (herein resides the utopian potential of Trump articulated by Slavoj Zizek), but my sense is that the problem with the vision of change he articulated throughout his campaign is that it was quite clearly premised on escape from the neoliberal consensus through violence against and destruction of others. Against the global capitalist system, then, Trump imagines a state of war, whether this is inter- or intra-state, which is precisely the opposite of what needs to occur. Inequalities, divisions, and exploitation need to decrease in a coordinated manner, rather than increase in the name of some radical nationalist attempt to escape from the violence of globalisation. The danger of the latter approach is that it will lead to ever more violence, ever more war, and that the only way out of this will be through some kind of apocalyptic event that will result in the emergence of a more just society based on the imperative to survive. This apocalyptic scenario is, in a sense, where Zizek’s view leads.

In light of this reading of the hopelessness of Trump’s vision of the future, which is clearly self-evident to those who have criticised him for his racism, sexism, and violent bullying of everybody who opposes him, it is surprising that the question of the what of Trump has become the question of the last few days. But it seems to me that the powerful attraction of this question comes from a general dis-belief that Trump could ever follow through on his violent promises. Surely he could not really build a wall between America and Mexico or ban Muslims from entering the land of the free? Surely this vision of America, which resembles something Philip K. Dick might have imagined in his paranoid science fiction, could never really happen? Of course, the problem with taking this line – he could never really follow through on what he said – is that it runs counter to Trump’s very appeal. Why vote Trump? Vote for Trump because he says exactly what he thinks, regardless of how violent or exclusionary. Trump says whatever is on his mind. Even though analysis of the presidential debates found that a good deal of what he said was untrue, there is a sense in which Trump’s appeal resides in his willingness to tell people straight. Against the post-politics of Clinton, which were clearly based upon the Blair / Bush model of political communication, where one says one thing (we want equality blah blah blah), does something completely different, and the spins the difference so that nothing effectively means anything, what is new about Trump’s model of politics is that it appears absolutely naïve. There is no cynicism, where there is a hidden disconnect between words, thoughts, and behaviour - which is, I think, what made Clinton appear so absolutely untrustworthy - because nobody could cynically calculate to win an election on the basis of so much racism, sexism, and general abuse.

In this respect Trump appears entirely naïve and attractive to those who have grown weary of the same old story, but it is also, I would suggest, this radical naivety, where he says exactly what he thinks, that has led to the absolute uncertainty around his programme of action. The very fact of his naivety, what we might call the terror of Trump, means that he is entirely unbearable and has to become unbelievable. There must be something else? The question of Trump that emerged very quickly after the election was, therefore, whether the Trump who won the election would be replaced by a new, more moderate, Trump who will govern and effectively tow the party line. In this vision the old order, where we rubbed along in our inequality, division, and barely sublimated hatred will continue into the future.

Why the sudden uncertainty about the identity of Trump, then? The answer to the question of the emergence of the radical undecideability of the new president, which effectively suggests that there is more to Trump than meets the eye, is that it has very quickly become necessary to fall back on the fiction of a moderate Trump in the name of finding a way to absorb the terrible absurdity of the election result. This conservative vision of Trump, where the absolute transparency of The Donald gives way to the idea of the schizoid political manipulator, the ultimate Machiavellian player, found its ultimate form in the comments of the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel who explained that the mainstream’s problem with Trump is that it took him literally, but not seriously. In other words, the mainstream believed everything he said and therefore imagined he was an idiot who could not be taken seriously.

Against this, Thiel suggests that what we needed to do was take Trump seriously, but not literally. In this way, we needed to recognise his broad message concerning the anger, disenchantment, and general hopelessness of America, but discount the specifics of his message – build walls, ban Muslims and so on. There is, however, a serious problem with this view, which casts Trump as perhaps the ultimate post-modern politician, which is that it begs the question of exactly what Americans were voting for when they voted from him, if they could not believe the content of the words that came out of his mouth? If what mattered was the form of his language – violence, anger, hopelessness and so on – then what was everything else? Grandstanding? Babbling? In light of this, we would have to conclude that Trump has no real programme, beyond a negative reaction to the system collapse of the global social and economic order. What he does have, however, is what Freudian psychoanalysts call drive, which is the nasty, violent, energy that keeps us alive, and prepares us for the struggle to survive the state of nature, but which we must sublimate (channel through reason) in order to live in social groups where we have to recognise the humanity of other people in order to avoid the descent into a state of open warfare where nobody wins. It seems to me that it is this very basic code, which social and political theorists would understand in terms of the Hobbesian social contract that has underpinned the way we think about society since the birth of the modern age, that Trump undermines in his violent rhetoric that pits Nixon’s silent majority (white America) against all others.

If this is the case, then, the problem of Thiel’s position, which seeks to soften Trump, to rehabilitate him by suggesting that he’s not really so bad, is that it distracts from the gravity of the threat Trump poses. For Thiel Trump is a deeply ironic, we might say Derridean, figure. In his view Trump’s absolutely transparency – he says exactly what he thinks and what he wants – is a symbol of his infinite depths – which means that we have no idea about his real programme. But I think that this is an illusion, the illusion of depth, generated by the absolute self-identical nature of the president elect. This is the real horror. The horror of a lack of depth. There really is nothing more to see and if the programme set out in his presidential campaign was violent, racist, sexist, abusive and ultimately unrealistic there is no need to look for some deeper significance. As Doug Kellner explains in his account of the rise of Trump, where he reads him through the Frankfurt School’s critique of the Nazi personality, the president elect is probably unpsychoanalysable, since his unconscious is already out there, unmediated by social norms that modify normal behaviour. Reading Trump from a slightly different perspective, Henry Giroux explains that we should not be surprised by the result of the election. On the contrary, he tells us that America has the president that it deserves, that Trump is a kind of symptom of a society addicted to violence, that has hidden behind a liberal façade for too long, but can no longer maintain the pretence. In this respect Trump is representative of the American warfare state unleashed, free of the cynical liberal fantasy that conditioned Obama’s America, but also, I would argue, the minimal belief in the value of social norms and values that hold every society together.

The precise problem with the brand of dark utopianism we find in Trump, which was also present in the vote to Brexit, is that it revolves around an aggressive desire for change which ultimately has no positive objective or narrative arc. Instead, the dynamism of the revolution is purely negative and feeds off rage, and the hatred of this, that, and the other out group who are perceived to have taken what we need. But what next? What happens after the destruction of the old system? In the case of Brexit we know that there was no positive vision, no plan, and that Farage, Johnson, and Gove quickly faded into the background. While there is no doubt that the Leave campaign was, like Trump’s election, successful because it spoke to people struggling in a destroyed society that needs to be reformed, the problem of the politics of negativity, the politics of escape from the failure of neoliberal globalisation to meet human needs, is that they similarly have no positive vision for the future. In this respect, they remain trapped within the negativity of the moment and the dystopic atmosphere of the present, where we fear social, economic, and ecological collapse and essentially realise the terrible future through the political choices we make today. In my view Trump is, therefore, a symbol of the triumph of a kind of childish politics, a politics of acting out and acting up, when acting out and acting up are not really an option. On the contrary, we need to come up with something more positive, more constructive, more inclusive and ultimately more workable in terms of building a sustainable future for everybody, because today’s problems are global problems and they cannot be solved by nationalist, protectionist, and unilateral solutions based in a politics of confrontation and conflict. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

What is Social Inequality?: Theresa May Thinking Social Relations

By

Mark Featherstone

In the past I think it was more or less straightforward to discuss social inequality and debate the pros and cons of inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and position in society. While there were those who believed in the absolute value of equality of wealth, opportunity, and treatment of individuals, others would defend versions of inequality. So, for example, one might suggest that it is unjust to insist upon (absolute or relative) equality of wealth on the grounds that some people are more able than others and should be rewarded on the basis of their talents. However, on the back of this defence of inequality on the basis of ability, most would tend to agree, particularly in a liberal democracy, that equality of opportunity is not only just, but also necessary in a society that needs to allocate role by ability, rather than inherited position. Although everybody would recognise the existence of class, which effectively means historically produced advantage or disadvantage, the aim of a just society should surely be to work towards equality of opportunity.

Regarding inequality of treatment, most would agree that people should be treated fairly, but understand the complications involved in achieving this in a society where historically defined norms and values might mean that some need to be treated more than equally in order to achieve some sense of fairness in an otherwise unfair society. Of course, the rub here is that by treating some more than equally in order to address historical unfairness others might feel marginalised and poorly treated in comparison. The history of class, race, and gender politics in Britain provides evidence of the complications involved in these debates. Yet my sense is that in the past we generally understood what we meant when we spoke of and wrote about social inequalities. I think that this has now changed.

Consider Theresa May’s keynote speech at the Conservative Conference in Birmingham this week, where she spoke of addressing social inequality. While I can understand May’s attempt to appeal to the working classes from the point of view of political strategy, because Conservatives through the 1980s were very effective in finding ways to entice the working classes to vote them, what I find more difficult to understand is the way the new Prime Minister employs the idea of society, and beyond this social inequality. Let me explain why?

When Margaret Thatcher dissolved the idea of society in the 1980s – insisting that there is no such thing as society, but only families and individuals – what she achieved was the individualization of society. The idea here was that the individual would no longer be held back by social forces or historical forms of social identification and could make their own way in the world. On the basis of her appeal to the working classes, through policies such as ‘Right to Buy’ (where social housing tenants could buy their property at a reduced price), Thatcher and the Conservatives of the 1980s supported inequality of wealth on the basis of a vision of democratic equality of opportunity. So, everybody could make it. Regardless of whether or not this was true, and most sociologists would probably dispute that this was ever the case because of the history of class, patriarchy, and ethnic society, I think that British society from Thatcher through Blair up to Cameron was sustained by this idea. For example, consider the expansion of Higher Education. What was this about if not equality of opportunity and life chances? While there is no sense that the British people from the late 1970s onwards believed or believe in equality of wealth (either absolute or also, I would suggest, relative), it is possible to argue that they remain committed to the value of equality of opportunity or what we call meritocracy.

Of course, what happened through the Cameron years is that it became more and more difficult to believe in the myth of the individual which essentially says that you make your own future in society on the basis of your ability, attitude to work and so on. Social forces have impacted upon people’s lives in such a way that makes it more or less impossible to sustain the Thatcherite fantasy that there is no such thing as society. It is clear that events taking place outside of an individual’s immediate environment impact upon their situation. Alongside this, it seems equally clear that these events do not impact upon everybody equally, so some seem to benefit from particular events, while others suffer. In recent years, and particularly since the global economic crash, it is apparent that inequality has increased and that the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. Despite what Cameron and Osborne told people, there is a sense in which ‘we were not all in it together’.

In recent social and economic history, then, we can say that the advantage of the advantaged has increased and the disadvantage of the disadvantaged has been reinforced. In other words, social mobility – how one moves through society – and social opportunity – the chance one has to improve one’s situation – have taken a hit and what we call social structure has become more rigid. Against the social theorist, Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote of the liquid society in the late 1990s, we might say that we now live in a society that is far more structured and tightly defined than at any time since the 1980s when the credit based consumer society really took off. Enter May’s stunning recognition of social inequality, which sounds like it might have come straight out of the mouth of a Labour leader, and proclamations about the Conservative Party being the party of the people. Strategically and cynically there is no doubt that it makes sense for May to take this turn, simply because she can no longer easily deny the reality of vast social inequalities in Britain, but on the other hand I was shocked that a Conservative Prime Minister would not seek to uphold the tradition of liberal individualism, insist upon the importance of hard work and self-responsibility, and essentially explain social inequality in terms of the individual problems of the lazy, the scroungers, and those who apparently want something for nothing. From a Conservative point of view, when you’re in trouble there’s only one way out - pull your socks up and get on your bike.

After listening to May’s speech, which was no doubt written with one eye on taking the ground of Corbyn and stealing the thunder of his socialism for the 21st century, I think we have now entered a bizarre, surreal, world where the new political consensus in British politics appears to be somewhere to the left of the centre. Here, the kinds of social conditions sociologists write about critically, and usually attack politicians for their failure to recognise and address, are now mainstream truths. Of course, we would expect this of Corbyn, who has lived on the fringes of the Labour Party for many years, but it is hard to understand how a Conservative Prime Minister can speak of social inequalities. But is this real? Does May know what she’s talking about when she talks about social inequalities?

Since she’s on the ground of the sociologist here, I think this is good place to point out what she’s actually saying, which is not simply that there are some rich people and some poor people and that we think the gap between the rich and poor people might be a little too big, but rather that the wealth, privilege, and position of the rich people has come about because of the poverty, lack of opportunity, and abandonment of the poor and the disadvantaged. Or alternatively, the reason things are the way they are for the majority, who are struggling to make ends meet, is because we have an over-blown, exorbitant, super rich class who have everything and refuse to pay their way to support the less fortunate. This is what social inequality really means. It means that wealth, poverty, advantage, and disadvantage are not simply individual attributes, but rather that they are social effects produced in interactions between people. While I would hazard a guess that this is nothing new to Corbyn, and the socialists of the 21st century, I would take a risk on the claim that May and the Conservative government would not understand social inequality in this way or really want to follow through on the implications of this understanding. Why?

The answer to this question is very simple. When we understand individuals in terms of social relations, and recognise that their fates are co-dependent, improvement in the condition of one person or one group of people cannot be achieved without modification of the position of others who they are bound to by virtue of their common social situation. In other words, if we want to address poverty, reduce disadvantage, and increase opportunity, we have to address the privilege of the few, the rich, the advantaged, and those who David Graeber called the 1%. In other words, tackling social inequality must come down to redistribution in some form or other.

Although I would like to believe that Theresa May will turn out to be the first socialist Conservative Prime Minister, I doubt this will be case and would imagine that she has instead appropriated the idea of social inequality in a post-Thatcherite sense where the individual is the alpha and omega of life. Coming at inequalities between rich and poor from this point of view is politically less explosive, and certainly less surrealistic for a Conservative leader, because what it effectively says is that it is a problem that some have so much and others have very little and that we should try to do something about this. What this view does not do though – and this is the key point – is invoke the sociological truth that some have everything because others have nothing and vice versa. This is the essential power relation that is immediately intelligible to sociologists, but that no Conservative Prime Minister or politician could easily recognise on pain of abandonment of the recent history of Conservative political ideology.

By contrast, what I think May actually means is that some have a lot, others have very little, this is bad, particularly for those who have very little, and that we must try to find ways to increase the wealth and advantage of everybody. In other words, we must become a richer, better off, society across the board. Who could argue with that idea? Nobody. Unfortunately, the problem with this vision is that it relies on a fantasy of limitless growth – a fantasy of an ever-expanding pie similar to something one might read about in a Roald Dahl story – that it was possible to believe back in the 19th century and the industrial age, but that it has become impossible to take seriously since the 1970s when we first became aware of the ecological limits of global economic growth. Moreover, it was this recognition of the limits of economy based in the finitude of the planet – there is only so much you can take from the earth, which is finite – that in many respects led to what we might call the neoliberal financial revolution and consequently the history of the Thatcher period, through Blair, to Cameron up to the present. What did Thatcher do if not dismantle British industry, unleash the City, and make finance the engine of the British economy?

The advantage of this financial turn in a period haunted by the spectre of low growth was, of course, that we could paradoxically have growth without growth based in finance (credit that would eventually become the dead weight of debt) and that equality of opportunity, some sense of equality of wealth, and most centrally some degree of equality of ability to consume could bought on the basis of finance. But what happened under Brown was that the system of global financialisation collapsed, because credit  / debt was so far out of sync with productivity in the real economy, and Cameron was left to pick up the pieces. The result was the turn to austerity, the rolling back of the social state which was considered unaffordable in the wake of the bank bail outs, and the widening of the gap between rich and poor on the basis that conventional economic wisdom suggested that it would be a grave mistake to tax the rich to pay for the upkeep of the poor because it is the rich who are the motor of the economy. As a result, the poor, the disadvantaged, become a burden, and the Coalition was very effective in demonising the weakest members of society.

It is this situation that produced the Brexit ‘protest’ vote in June, where the have nots of British society sought to blame their situation on the European super state without recognising that the Conservative government they had elected a matter of months before was equally committed to punishing the poor for the failure of the global financial system, and eventually propelled May into power. While the architects of Brexit - Johnson, Gove, and Farage - vanished from the scene when it became clear that they had engineered a radical break with the neoliberal consensus without a real plan for what would happen next, the problem for May became how to move on. What comes next? While she seems keen to evade making everything about Brexit, the impact of the June vote is, in a sense, impossible to escape. What people voted for when they voted out of Europe is a different kind of Britain, where the divisions between distant elites and everybody else is less stark, and I think that it is this situation that May wants to respond to through her talk about reducing social inequality and so on.

However, I cannot believe that the Conservatives will actually be able to deliver on her talk, because this would effectively make her the first socialist Conservative leader, unless the plan is to return to the Blair years where easy credit was the order of the day. But while this will allow May to address the situation of the poor in the present, it will do nothing to tackle real social inequality, which remains a relation based in the power of those who have everything over those who really have nothing: simply increasing the debt burden of the poor in order to project their situation into the future is no real solution to the problem of inequality. The only other alternative I can foresee is that the power relation between the haves and have nots – and in this respect the matrix of social inequality – will become about insiders and outsiders, where this is understood in ethnic terms. Under these conditions, the problem of tackling social inequality will not become about the division between rich and poor, which would require thinking about routes to redistribution, but rather a politics of race where the white British majority attack others who have apparently condemned them to live precarious lives characterised by poverty, debt, and an inability to imagine a better future. This is, of course, a complete mis-understanding of the situation – inequality is first and foremost a problem of capitalism and only ever an ethnic problem for those who cannot see, or absolutely do not want to see, the naked truth of class division.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Black women in the academy: ‘inclusion’ or erasure from the social sciences?: A BSA regional postgraduate event



Date: Tuesday, 20th September 2016, Ballroom, Keele Hall, Keele University

Keynote speakers: Professor Claire Alexander (The University of Manchester) and Professor Kalwant Bhopal (The University of Southampton)
 
Event Outline

“Much of the Eurocentric masculinist worldview fosters Black women's subordination. But placing Black women's experiences at the center of analysis offers fresh insights on the prevailing concepts, paradigms, and epistemologies of this worldview” – Patricia Hill Collins, 1990.


The category ‘Black’ during the 1980s homogenised the struggles of Caribbean and Asian communities in racist Britain. However, the applicability of this categorisation towards British Asians has been contested (Modood, 1994) and even its use towards African diasporic communities (Kwesi, 2015). Despite these contestations, the UK welcomes a Black Studies degree to Britain at Birmingham City University in September 2017, signalling the importance of disrupting historically White spaces and decolonising knowledge. This conference day will bring together academic scholars who identify as black, to provide an intellectual space to discuss about the impact of ‘race’ and gender on their academic work. This day is unique in also providing a reflective space for scholars’ experiences of survival at the margins (hooks, 1990). Women of colour working within the social sciences in the UK are often still marginalised and face other, intersectional challenges not illuminated under traditional inequalities’ discourse. We invite scholars, intellectuals and activist women of colour to contest Eurocentric, male and heterosexual epistemologies. The margins should not solely be seen as a site of disadvantage; rather, this event is shaped by an understanding that black women academics’ liminal position in historically White spaces offers the “opportunity/obligation to transcend their either/or way of knowing” (Dunbar, 2008:86).


Confirmed established academics' panelists: Professor Farzana Shain (University of Keele), Dr Denise Noble (Birmingham City University), Dr Lorna Roberts (Manchester Metropolitan University), Dr Shirin Housee (University of Wolverhampton), Dr Lisa Palmer (Birmingham City University, TBC)


Call for papers

We invite paper contributions from doctoral, early career, to established academics writing in the following thematic areas:

-Black academics or students in Higher Education;

-Black cultures in Britain;

-‘Race’, ethnicity and (black) girl/boyhood;

-Black communities in popular culture;

-Migration and narrative stories from black communities

-Queer studies or trans studies related to black communities


Please email abstracts (up to 250 words) to Nadena Doharty (n.doharty@keele.ac.uk) by Friday, 26th August 2016 indicating any special technological requirements. Each panelist will have a maximum of 15 minutes to present.


Registration

Click HERE to register: BSA Member registration £10, Non-Member Registration £25  


Caribbean lunch provided, though please make sure you indicate any special dietary requirements. Places limited so please book quickly.


Any queries about the event to be sent to Nadena Doharty, n.doharty@keele.ac.uk

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Student Post: Studying Sociology and Making a Difference

This post is written by Verostina Antwi who recently graduated from Keele. Verostina was awarded the Sociology undergraduate dissertation prize as her dissertation received the highest mark in her year group. Her dissertation was titled, 'Black Skin, 'Carved' Mask: Sense of belonging and identity amongst second generation West African immigrants in the UK'.
Verostina celebrating her graduation from Keele
  
My three years at Keele have been a fantastic time where I have seen my studies come to life through the continuous opportunities that I have been presented with. While studying my degree in Sociology and International Relations I actively participated in the University community to make a difference. During my time at Keele I served as a Keele University Ambassador, Kube Radio Presenter, and a Residential Support Assistant. I also spent a semester studying abroad in Sweden.
The unique opportunities presented at Keele gave me an opportunity to develop as well as well as engage with social issues. I am dedicated to helping others and have worked on projects at local, national and international levels including my role as Chair of the Economics and Finance committee in the 2015 Model UN in Sweden.

Additionally, for the last three years I have worked in the field of broadcast journalism where I have advocated for humanitarian and ethical issues engaging in major debates on issues such as human trafficking and child poverty. As a result of my role I had an opportunity to interview many representatives of government and non-governmental organisations discussing solutions to many of these issues.

Keele has certainly had an impact in my life. I have left knowing that I have had the best experience in a lifetime.