Wednesday, 14 February 2018

After Bauman – What Next?

By Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer in Sociology

Although he was recognised as an enormously important figure in sociology, there was a sense in which the discipline had left Zygmunt Bauman behind in his later years. As it realised the importance of advanced quantitative methods, and vanished into what Alvin Gouldner had years earlier called ‘methodolatry’, Bauman became a kind of peripheral figure. Everybody knew of his great achievements (particularly his book Modernity and its Holocaust), but many saw him as a kind of spectre of a past marked by ideological conflict and old fashioned debate about social structure. Through the 1990s many sociologists came to more or less accept the basic structures of neoliberal capitalism, however violent and destructive these might be, and began to work within its coordinates seeking to make things slightly better by suggesting reform based upon evidence-based research. Bauman was, of course, a very different type of sociologist.

As a social theorist he focused upon the big picture, massive social-historical change, and the ethics of different models of society – socialist society, fascist society, capitalist society. Although many came to see neoliberal late capitalism as a kind of inevitability, and a good number still do even though it appears to me to be irretrievably broken and bankrupt (at least in the British context), Bauman was like every good theorist always looking further ahead. There was no inevitability about late capitalism in his view. There was always an alternative over the horizon. Despite this Bauman never predicted the collapse of neoliberal global capitalism, but he did realise that it would eventually produce an increasingly violent, inhuman, Hobbesian society, which would eventually lead to the end of this barely social model. This is more or less what we live with today, with all its corruption, bankruptcy, exhaustion, and bottomless cynicism.

On the basis of his profound humanity, and sense of ethics developed over the course of living through most of the 20th century, Bauman was deeply sensitive to the violent tendencies of capitalist society, which many of the rest of us simply normalise and live with. Against the cynicism of the present, where our elites speak of their opposition to sexism, racism, and all kinds of discrimination, yet continue to profit from the endless proliferation and repetition of systemic violence, which they feel able to ignore on the basis that it seems to come from the ‘no place of social structure’, Bauman knew that that there is no escape from responsibility, however hard one may try. Now it is precisely because of this refusal to turn a blind eye to systemic violence on the basis that this is simply ‘the way things work’ that I think Bauman became unfashionable in a discipline that came to accept the status quo in the name of its own survival (the state is king because it has all the money) and why I also think that his passing represents such a profound event for sociology and the social sciences. Bauman’s passing challenges us – what next?

That is to say that Bauman’s passing in the context of a marked swing to the right in Britain and America raises profound ethical questions about the role of sociology and the social sciences more widely. What are the social sciences for? Are they about facts and collecting data for the state and whatever government happens to find itself in power? Do they set the agenda and should academics simply follow? Or should sociology have a different mission, a mission concerned with values and the ethical defence of the poor, the miserable, and the abject in the face of a violent social system (global capitalism and all its institutions) that is happy to accept racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination, so long as it can continue to make a profit and present these violent conditions as somehow accidental by-products of a quasi-natural system that needs to keep going. Of course Bauman knew how objective violence works, and would never be fooled by ‘global capitalism with a human face’ (here violence and power are always simply neutral economic effects that we can’t avoid), and I think this is his continuing challenge to his successors – how long can we continue to support a system that accepts violence, misery, and poverty as a condition of economic efficiency? Is this acceptable?

Even though he was Polish by birth, only working in the UK at University of Leeds from the early 1970s onwards, I would argue that Bauman was in many ways the last great British social theorist, simply because he refused to accept the macroscopic coordinates of late capitalist British society as somehow given, and as the outer limits of a kind of natural order one must work within. He came from a different age, but it was precisely this difference that gave him perspective, and that made him great. Given the current state of the nation the challenge Bauman’s passing throws down to his successors is, therefore, to resist the present and particularly methodolatry, which in itself represents a form of systematisation and objectification that obscures real violence, precisely because of the way it translates humans into so much data, and think about the real humanity caught in the system. In this way Bauman challenges sociologists to theorise in the name of sketching the outline of the social system, understanding how it functions, and to never accept systemic violence on the basis that this is simply ‘the ways things work’. All of this in the name of real people who suffer.

Of course, critical readers might point out that theory itself is often violent, burying the student under mountains of concepts and big words that have no obvious relation to real life (what’s the point?), but I don’t think this is the kind of theorist Bauman ever was or ever became. I never experienced reading him in this way when I was a student. He was never a punishing writer. On the contrary Bauman wrote to be read because he was ultimately a humanist and taught his reader to think. His theory never lost of sight of humanity and the ethical compulsion to take care of the poor and the defeated was always at the heart of his project. Having spent many hours reading Bauman’s work in my own undergraduate days, I think my own basic, fundamental understanding of the discipline of sociology was formed by his thinking, and the influence of his ethical approach has never left me. Alongside my own teacher John O’Neill, who introduced me to phenomenology without telling me and taught me that my own experiences were worth something, Bauman taught me all about ‘being sociological’, ‘thinking sociologically’, and trying to understand the bigger picture and at the same time keep hold of the real situation of those being destroyed, ruined, and wasted by the social system.

Essentially, this is the view of Bauman I contributed to the special section of Cultural Politics devoted to his work and legacy. It was a great honour to be part of this section because it was edited by one of Bauman’s former students (Professor John Armitage) and included contributions from many of the key commentators on Bauman’s work over the years. Taken together these articles explain Bauman’s profound impact upon sociology, the social sciences, cultural studies, and cultural theory and, I think, raise important questions about what happens to critical thinking and the testing of the limits of what it is possible to think in a given social context after Bauman.


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Monday, 29 January 2018

Accountabilities and Accountings: some notes on the IMF and the ‘Greek Debt Truth Commission’

Picture by Global Justice
Over the last 40 years the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has played a leading role in both the development of neoliberal economic knowledges and their global spread as social and economic policy. Through various kinds of conditional loan agreements that provide financial assistance to nation-states in return for their adoption of “market-friendly” policies, including privatisation, deregulation and integration into the global market, the IMF has tethered us all to a mode of accounting that makes us accountable to the market in absolute and existential terms. Its approach has led sociologists such as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval to call it one of the “disciplinary institutions” of neoliberal globalisation (i), remaking social relations in the image of the market through a mixture of incentives and punishments. 

The latest iteration of the organisation’s disciplinary power emerged in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash, particularly in its interventions in Greece which have required successive governments to undertake austerity programmes designed to make the economy ‘sustainable’ in return for financial support. The reality is that ‘sustainability’ was a euphemism for implementing what were figured as critically or existentially necessary economic policies that would enable Greece to repay its debts, whilst simultaneously externalising and ignoring the social costs of doing so. Even if we put the questionable economic assumptions that motivated these decisions aside for now, it remains clear that the IMF’s abandonment of its accountability to ‘the social’ led to severe poverty, deprivation, and social unrest. For example, between 2009-2014 severe material deprivation in Greece rose from 11% to 21.5% of the population, and the poorest 10% of the populations lost 56.5% of their income (ii). 

That all said, anyone who has been keeping an eye on the IMF’s activities might have noticed that this bastion of neoliberalism appears to be undergoing an identity crisis. There has been a curious and not insignificant renunciation of neoliberalism at the level of optics at least. In 2013, the IMF admitted it had failed to understand the social and economic costs of its interventions in Greece (iii). If austerity measures were first understood to be necessary to keep the Greek economy and, more broadly, the Eurozone from collapse, then this was something of an admission that these measures completely failed the Greek economy with terrible social costs. Then, perhaps more significantly, in July 2016 the IMF published a report titled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?”(iv)  that rebuked the very neoliberal economic policies which had been central to the IMF’s policy interventions across the globe. Indeed, it argued that ideas which had become all but “common sense” had not resulted in the predicted glut of economic growth and only served to make very few people better off. 

Nevertheless, we should be extremely dubious about any claims that these admissions signal a departure from the ways of thinking and acting which have defined the organisation for so long. After all, in the 3 years between its first mea culpa and the second, there was a determined (and ultimately successful) attempt to force Greece to cut more spending for the sake of ‘sustainability’. And it was only a few weeks ago that the Times reported that the IMF believes the cost of Brexit may require the wholesale privatisation of the NHS in order to balance the books (v).  It’s difficult to see how this latest intervention constitutes anything but the re-summoning of the very forms of accounting and accountability that the organisation rebuked itself for earlier.

Even as the IMF’s pays lip service to the growing discreditation of neoliberalism whose promise of ever-lasting growth and increasing standards of living appears more and more mythological, it also seems very capable of avoiding a reckoning with itself that would necessitate a penetrative transformation of its knowledge and practices. What to make of this? What does it mean if the IMF is able to occupy discourses against neoliberalism whilst simultaneously spreading and intensifying its social order? 

By framing the problem in this way, what I hope to point to is the fundamental lack of accountability that both neoliberal institutions and the knowledges they wield have to the social worlds they act upon. From this perspective, a key issue is thus to identify resources that might be drawn from, or indeed, developing new tools, that can hold neoliberalism to account. In other words, how might we develop a different form of (social) accounting that holds neoliberal knowledges accountable to the societies they transform? 


Picture by Nagarjun Kandukuru
In thinking about this question, I have become increasingly interested in what has been called the Greek Debt Truth Commission (GDTC). The GDTC was set up by the Greece’s left-wing SYRIZA government during the crisis of 2015 as the Troika (made up of the IMF, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank) were forcing Greece make further public spending cuts to repay its debts and become economically ‘sustainable’. The Commission was tasked with developing legal arguments regarding the cancellation of Greece’s debts as part of the SYRIZA government’s strategy of avoiding making further cuts to Greek social spending. It involved analysing official documents including contracts, memoranda, and annual reports as well as extracting witness testimonies in order to challenge the legal standing of both the debt and the immiserating conditions attached to it. 

Although the work of the GDTC was cut short for political reasons, in its short life it managed to release a preliminary report (vi) which argued from a legal standpoint that Greece could not and should not cave to the demands of the Troika. It shed light on the dubious foundations upon which Greek debts were accumulated, and, crucially, argued that the conditions attached to many of them (social spending cuts) resulted in the violation of the civil, political, social, and economic rights of Greek citizens. On this basis the report concluded that the debt was illegal, illegitimate, and odious under international law.

There are some important things about this process that I think could be learnt from. Most of all, I am interested in the GDTC as an exercise in knowledge-making that attempts to reinsert the ‘social’ which the IMF had externalised from its own economic accounting. There is a distinct attempt to produce knowledges which articulate the social costs of making states and their citizens accountable to nothing but an economic balance sheet. On this front, an important aspect of what the GDTC tried to do lies in its appropriation of legal mechanisms and arguments which allowed it to develop its own form social accounting. Through legal discourses it could constitute something of a balance sheet in which specific debts were set against their damaging and ultimately illegal social effects. In doing so, the GDTC constructed a discourse of accounting that enabled what were, in the end, political arguments about the social consequences of austerity to be grounded in the legitimacy and, in theory at least, force of the law. 

Of course, the potential of practices like the GDTC is limited by the critical mass of support that enables them to be wielded effectively. They need to be part of broader social movements and must help them to achieve their goals. But at a time when neoliberalism is failing to deliver the goods it has promised us perhaps now signals a time when tools like the GDTC can be useful. 

Notes

(i) Dardot & Laval (2013) The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society. London and New York: Verso 
(ii) GDTC (2015) Preliminary Report. Retrieved August 2015, 1, from http://cadtm.org/Preliminary-Report-of-the-Truth, p. 40
(iii) https://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jun/05/imf-underestimated-damage-austerity-would-do-to-greece 
(iv) http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2016/06/ostry.htm 
(v) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/privatised-nhs-and-tax-rises-forecast-by-imf-h969qgjmb
(vi) GDTC, Preliminary Report.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Just out: The cosmology of economy: West African witchcraft, finance and the futures market

Dr Jane Parish, Senior Lecturer in Sociology has a new article published in Culture and Religion...

The Frankfurt Skyline where fetish priests manipulate the commodity markets (photo by Thomas Wolf "Der Wolf im Wald")
In a world where bitcoin represent the wild west of finance and the manipulating of prices of stocks destroys communities and pension schemes overnight, this article explores the relationship between cosmology and financial transactions via the sacred and deeply secret discourses of West African traditional priests in Europe. If you thought that supernatural spirits have no role in the modern economy next to JP Morgan and Standard Charter, the volatile movement of industrial commodity indexes is distorted by different networks of stakeholders, including Ghanaian fetish priests, such that the  pricing and purchase of unstable commodities, tin, sugar and coffee, are shaped and magnified through a thick Akan cosmology.

Read the article for free here.