Tuesday, 15 September 2009

What is Sociology for? Part 1

By Dr Mark Featherstone

In the face of global recession academic disciplines, such as Sociology, are being called upon to justify the value of their research to government and wider society. This questioning of the value of academic work is not unusual in a period of crisis. Sociology itself was born in an age of crisis with the collapse of feudalism and the rise of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. The value of Sociology to this historical period was to enable people to understand the changes that were taking place in their world and to help them to orientate themselves within it. In this respect, Sociology began life as a reflexive practice: the first Sociologists, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, took the material conditions of their societies and tried to explain them through theoretical models in order to first understand them and second predict how they may evolve in the future.

The classical sociologists were not new in this regard. The history of abstract thought about the world and society began in Ancient Greece in order to cope with the harsh conditions of life. In this way, it is possible to say that the Greeks were the first utilitarians, since the original purpose of their thought was to find ways to cope with and improve their lives through understanding the world around them. Centrally, they were only able to do this because they lived in an environment that simultaneously offered them little shelter and great freedom. The central principle of life in Ancient Greece was, therefore, exposure. It was exposure that caused them to think about their world and enabled this thought to happen.

Later, as the Greek city began to evolve, political systems developed that attempted to stifle the free thought and enterprise that had led to the evolution of the original political cities in the first place. The most famous form of political system set on preventing free thought was, of course, tyranny. Ancient tyrants tended to want to limit free thought because it was considered threatening to their rule. On other occasions, the limitation of freedom of thought was not necessary because the people could not muster the energy to engage in politics and chose to live under some tyrant or other who would make decisions on their behalf. In this instance, the idea of tyranny loses the violent connotation it carries in the modern world, where it is assumed, I would say mistakenly, that people always want to be free. In the ancient world tyrants could be elected, or take power, over an apathetic mass that did not want to be free. This situation, that people did not always want to be free, was understood and accepted by Greek thinkers.
We should be thankful however that Greek culture never evolved into a culture of apathy and its people were willing to argue the toss, state their case, and not sit back and be told what to do by tyrants and aristocrats. The Greeks called this practice of argumentation, politics. They thought that politics was central to the expression of free thought, the development of a better society, and sharply differentiated it from economy, which they associated with basic survival, getting by, and the preservation of the status quo. Although their thought originated in this effort to survive, it soon became about improvement and progress in general and they resented the reduction of philosophy, politics, and debate to the level of base economics.

Centrally, in his book on politics Aristotle argued that tyrants often encourage obsession with economy because it deflects people’s attention from political questions about whether this, that, or the other way of living is better or worse and allows social, economic, and political inequalities and injustices to remain unquestioned. In this respect Aristotle saw that obsession with economy erodes critical thought by encouraging people to busy themselves with private matters concerned with the continuation of their way of life. The effect of this was, in his view, to leave the public sphere, the space of politics and debate about social issues, wide open for colonisation by those interested in preserving the status quo.

In many respects the original sociologist Karl Marx took the same view. In Marx’s view monetary economy is modeled on natural metabolism comprised of the simple circulation of food and other resources to sustain life. In the social world, this model is organised on a higher level to sustain a civilized way of life organised on a basis of a complex division of labour. Despite the differences however between the natural and social world the point of similarity that has been taken up by contemporary bio-economists remains the same: economy is simply an unthinking eating and shitting body on a sociological scale. However, much like the Greeks, Marx was aware that economy was cut across by power relations between the people, who either think for themselves or sink back in apathy and simply try to ‘get by’ by keeping the economic metabolism moving, and the aristocratic class, who know that encouraging easy apathy and an obsession with economy is good for keeping politics clear so that they can call the shots.
But we must be clear about this: like Aristotle’s tyrant, Marx’s capitalist aristocracy was never really interested in calling the shots for the sake of calling the shots. As Aristotle pointed out, the problem with tyrants is that they are not reasonable, but rather spend their time obsessing about money, wealth, possessions, and power in general. Marx’s ruling class is the same. The capitalist is not political for the sake of being political. He is not interested in making decisions about the way the social world is organised. Instead, what matters to him is lining his own pockets, maintaining the status quo, and generally promoting the view that economic metabolism is what matters in life because he believes this to be case.

In Marx’s view, the capitalist world is a thoughtless world. Capitalists exploit workers to make money. The capitalist obsesses over money simply because he has no sense of the difference between needs and wants and comes to consider the pursuit of money and later on luxury an end in itself that can somehow make his life better. Since this is not the case beyond the level of basic need, the capitalist’s desire for money that will somehow make life better knows no limits. His obsession with money is endless. The workers who live miserable lives making a profit for the capitalist and a living for themselves are similarly obsessed with money because it is necessary to sustain their lives and provide them with a distraction from the boredom of their lives.

For Marx, both parties are lost and neither are really in charge of their own lives. In his language they are alienated from (a) their true nature, which is not simply about metabolism and economy because humanity is capable of more than survival, (b) each other, because they become enemies who vie for a larger share of the pie, and (c) the world around them, which is seen as little more than a resource to plunder in the name of profitability. On top of this situation, which causes people to live our emotionally miserable lives, the economic system, the stupid eating and shitting machine that cannot think but simply consumes in order to produce in order to consume and so on ad nauseam, seems like a monster to both of groups because neither bosses nor workers really control it. Both parties fear the monstrous economic machine because, as various capitalist Gods have discovered over the last year or so, it is completely inhuman in its judgement of success and failure. Capitalism is a fickle master. All that matters is the bottom line. It can, and will, chew anybody up. Nobody is safe. Life is precarious.

The Marxist response to this situation was to return to the Greek model of politics and to think about finding ways to put people back in charge of their own lives. In this way Marx sought to resolve the original paradox of philosophical thought, which is that it evolved in order to try to combat problems of exposure and solve concrete problems leading to the eventual dominance of economy and the creation of a new man-made state of nature that reduced people to the level of beasts, by creating a new revolution in thought on the basis of state managed socialism or communism. I do not think it is necessary to tell the story of the rise and fall of socialism in the limited space available here. Instead we should note that the rise of the new version of laissez faire capitalism and collapse of socialism as a viable model of government in the 1980s coincided with a profound crisis in Sociology itself.

In the face of neo-liberalism, or the total ideology of the new capitalism, everything was subsumed under the economic model and the kind of critical thought advanced by Sociology, and thinkers such as Marx, was seen to be irrelevant. Elements of the subject considered to have utilitarian value in the new economic world were hived off and became new disciplines. But even these new disciplines, which have become especially popular in the New Labour years where personal freedom has been undermined by both an economic system that is completely out of human control and an enormous socialistic state machinery set on managing every aspect of life in order to control the masses who are hammered on a daily basis by said economic machine, are under threat today because the mindless economic system has finally crashed. This has left everybody wondering how the state is going to not only save the collapsing financial system, but also continue to bank roll its own massive bureaucratic machine, which is meant to absorb the social problems caused by the monstrous economy that continues to lay waste to individuals, families, cities, and on a global scale, entire nations.

The answer to this question is probably that the state will not continue to fund the entirety of its bureaucratic machine, but that it will instead cut, slash, and burn many of its public service functions in the name of trying to maintain its primary commitment to the mindless economic machine which has plunged us into our current predicament, simply because the ideology of laissez faire capitalism advises that (1) economy is everything and (2) everything is economy and should be judged on the basis of its ability to measure up to economic criteria of profitability and competitive advantage. One would imagine that in the wake of our recent economic crash the thinking person, the descendent of Aristotle or Marx, who is also incidentally the descendant of the Greek hoplites who fought for the city and therefore felt that they were owed a say in the way the city was run, would have reached the conclusion that it is probably better to stop thinking about the world in economic terms, because these principles have proven to be more or less stupid in their support of an economic machine that is essentially little more that an enormous eating and shitting body.

One would have thought that the thinking person, the descendant of Aristotle, Marx, and the hoplites, would have made the link between (a) the obsession with economy, (b) the economic crash, (c) the immorality of the financial sector, which has been run to line the pockets of the banking class for the best part of three decades, and (d) the petty corruption of the political class, which has recently been exposed as being more, or at least as, interested in lining its own pockets as it is serving the public good, and stopped talking about value. Yet in the face of all of this academic disciplines, such as Sociology, which, since its break from more so-called useful disciplines, has become purely about critical reflection on society, are expected to justify themselves in terms of value, where value is a thinly veiled reference to economic worth. The truth is that the value of disciplines, such as sociology, is that they enable people and, as a consequence, society to think reflexively.

This thinking takes place through teaching and learning and critical research that contributes to societies knowledge of itself. That this cannot be made subordinate to concerns with economic value is evidenced by the fact that in the wake of three decades of economic tyranny that have resulted in the emergence of a fragmented anomic society characterised by monstrous levels of inequality and the most serious economic crash since the 1930s we continue to listen to renewed calls to justify the value of social research. If this fact, which testifies to the scarcity of even the most basic levels of thought in our society, does not teach us that we have to stop thinking of the economic system in religious terms, then I do not know what will.

Perhaps now is the time to reject the tyranny of economy and return to the critical thought of Aristotle and Marx, accepting that although we may not be able to think in world historical terms, we have the right, like the modest Greek hoplites, to engage in critical debate on the basis that we are our society, not simply beasts of burden meant to supply some unthinking over-blown eating and shitting body that simply consumes in order to produce in order to consume ad nauseam.

1 comment:

culture vulture said...

Whoa...! feels like i just swallowed Nichomachean Ethics, Capital and Keynes General Theory in 5 mins flat. Feels good but now i have the bloody hiccups