Monday, July 07, 2014

For a Post-Sociological Analysis of Political Life

Alain Touraine, EHESS Paris, June 2014
1. We usually call historical rather than modern societies whose systems of social organization are mainly defined by the resources they use and by their social institutions, which shape these resources in line with key cultural orientations which are first of all social representations and modes of construction of human creation and freedom. Our societies are defined not only by their activities but, even more deeply, by their creations and value-oriented interpretations of their productions, included their own limits. These interpretations are both economically and organizationally situated and universalistic in their meaning: they are cultural constructions of human creativity and of its limits, in materially defined social situations. In the western world - and in other societies – we usually define material situation and the cultural pattern in which we have lived during the two past centuries as the industrial society, in which human creativity and freedom are represented by their capacity to increase the productivity of economic activities.

2. These cultural constructions almost always have an evolutionary dimension. They are first of all theories both of Modernity (singular) and of processes of modernizations (plural).

Many cultural historians have accepted the idea of secularization, because universalistic, defined as the progressive elimination, in these cultural constructions, of all kinds of non-human, sacred principles of creation and creativity (but most of them criticize the general tendency of power-holders to impose on the people they dominate the idea that their own power is sacred). Other interprets of modernity and modernizations defend an opposite view, as I do myself. Instead of announcing and supporting the triumph of utilitarian rationalist and of functionally defined social norms, they describe the progressive interiorization, which is the humanization, of the representation of creativity. Among them it is common to call humanism the substitution of “human rights” or analogous notions for all “sacred” principles, from God to common good, Republican institutions Progress. These moral – or rather ethical – views of human creativity and freedom are opposed both to individualism and to all forms of social integration. To put it in different words, they reject all kinds of reciprocity or complementarity between social systems and individual or collective actors.

3. Over the XXth century our type of historical society has experienced two major transformations.

a/ The first one is that our capacity of self-transformation which was to a large extent limited to the awareness that industrial production had extended to all sectors of activity. Not only to information and communication, which have been identified by prominent sociologists, like Manuel Castells, with “post-industrial society”, but to all kinds of productions and consumptions and, in particular, to human opinions, representations and other attitudes. One of the most important consequences of this “production” of social behavior is the decline – not necessarily negative – of the traditional idea of a representative democracy which supposed that collective choices correspond to “objective” interests.

b/ The second one is quite different but has even more visible historical consequences.

The destruction of the western hegemony over the whole world – which was associated with a painful and often bloody liberation of dependent social categories in western countries has opened the way to the take-over of the universalistic components of the Enlightenment by leaders of all kinds of revolutionary - class, national or religious – movements, who have imposed their authoritarian or totalitarian power on the populations they had freed from the western and capitalist domination, creating new dictatorships over populations which are defined by identities and no longer by internal social relations.

c/ We are now in an extreme situation: the universalistic principles of the Enlightenment appear to be destroyed – more or less completely – in most parts of the world.

In the so-called first world a new kind of finance capitalism which has no economic function-investment or credit – is so global that no political institution can control it. In the second world Leninist regimes impose the absolute power of a communist party which is identified with an authoritarian state. In what we used to call the third world military dictatorships and sometimes religious political leaders impose an anti-democratic regime or try to do so.

The victory of all these non-democratic forces is not complete and even less stable. But there is a deep rupture between the advances of democracy and human rights in countries which refer themselves to universalistic values and the majority of the world population, which is governed by economic or political forces, which do not refer themselves to these values.

Modernity and traditions or identities can be equally destroyed by the absolute power of authoritarian and anti-democratic leaders of modernization processes from which the reference to a universalistic definition of modernity is increasingly eliminated.

4. There is no reason to think that sociology can go on with its previous concepts in spite of the fact we no longer live in societies which build a social image of themselves, which speak of themselves with social categories.

It is a fact, it seems to many observers, that what we call social problems, social conflicts, and even social movements are more and more difficult to analyze with social categories and more precisely with socio-economic categories. In industrialized countries unions are much weaker than a generation and political parties are no longer representative of social classes and of labor conflicts and during the last 5 years Western Europe was socially relatively quiet (compared with the’ 30 s).

In more radical terms, concepts like society, social system, integration and control appear to have lost most of their analytical usefulness. Sociological analysis appears to be an empty territory, surrounded by at least two very busy fields of study:

On one side cultural studies, and multiculturalist theories, to explain or to solve even social problems which are formulated by the actors themselves in cultural terms, especially in non-western countries, while in western countries problems and actors are more often defined in psychological terms.

On the other side it appears that a large part of what was we used to consider as sociological theory is now presented and analyzed in political terms. The analysis of social systems is transformed into an analysis of processes of change, which gives a central importance to a concept of justice which eliminates the substantive background of the traditional concept of common good or general interest. This evolution seems to correspond to the rapid wearing out of social democratic policies, especially since the victory of British New Labour and Schroder’s reforms in Germany. No social scientist has won a wider influence than J.Rawls.

Especially in European countries, but in the US as well, we feel the absence of basic political debates provided that socialist parties no longer propose the socialization of capital and that capitalist countries devote a large part of their resources to basic services, education, health, pensions and family allowances, which are controlled and financed by the state. We live in a world without conviction, to use M.Weber’s word.

5. In our situation, which is defined by the generalized process of market economy and by the predominant role of power – holders which eliminate or control social and political movements, that I have mentioned at the beginning of this short paper, is it possible to discover new conflicts and new narratives which play the same central role that class struggle did in industrial society or the conflict between monarchy and republican state in societies dominated by political categories? What seems clear is that central problems and actors can no longer be defined in social terms. Actors tend to be defined by a cultural identity, while social situations are mainly defined as political and economic processes of social change.

But why should we not accept this absence of correspondence between systems and actors as the new central conflict in our post-social collective life?

In front of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and of world-wide networks of speculation or of communication, we know, by our own historical experience, that it is not enough to assert and defend specific rights, political, social or cultural. The only force which is strong enough to win over uncontrolled political domination is the democratic spirit itself, if we define it by the subordination of all powers, rules and even laws, to universal human rights. This idea, which seemed so weak and often so corrupt in a recent past, is the only one which can prevail over absolute power, because it is defined in universalistic terms. Social and political movements leave the way to ethical protest which fights against scandals, violence and destructive power. These new ethical and democratic movements and these convictions are deeply different from revolutionary actions, which aim first of all at seizing state power by a violent action. Many dramatic experiences have made clear to us that revolution and democracy are contradictory processes of social change. At least if we define democracy not by its institutions but by the priority of universal human rights over all social and political rules.

In every major conflict today the defense of basic human rights is directly involved; interests are not strong enough to win battles against Big Brother. And expressions like the “masses” or the “people” are part of the vocabulary of the power-holders, not of democratic actors.

Democracy is based on the subordination of all rules and even laws to the universal rights of all human beings to consider their own freedom and creativity as paramount values. Democracy is a voluntary activity. Acts of resistance or dissidence against authoritarism regimes are considered as symbolically important because they manifest and strengthen the democratic spirit. To put it in slightly different terms, democracy is the substitution of universal human rights for all “sacred” ideas, forces or sovereignties, including popular.

“ The active defense of universalistic values is basically the same everywhere; but it takes different forms and uses different processes to adapt itself to different historical and cultural heritages, to different processes of modernization. Britain, France, Germany, The United States have followed very different processes of modernization and have created different kinds of social movements and of political action. This elementary observation gives us the only acceptable meaning of tolerance.

We must tolerate the differences among patterns of modernization and different democratic experiences.

But we must be radically intolerant of non-democratic regimes and policies and recognize, that in all political regimes, even in the democratic ones, non-democratic practices and even anti-democratic laws survive and even grow. Reforms are permanently necessary”.

The general approach I have just introduced can be defined by its opposition to two others.

The first one is influential mostly in post-colonial or dependent countries : it considers as the central world-wide conflict the opposition between global capitalism and identities; natural religious or linguistic. Such an interpretation leaves us as a unique choice the preference given to an economic or to a political and cultural absolute undemocratic power.

The second one redefines democracy by its capacity to incorporate basic conflicts into integrative tolerant and flexible political countries. It corresponds to the middle of the round parties or governments which are gaining ground in most European States, where both extreme nationalist right wing and revolutionary leftist parties are losing ground. But could very well increase their influence on a continent where xenophobia is the most powerful stream of opinion, especially in Northern countries.

The approach I have submitted to your attention has the advantage to be the only one which is formulated in general terms but the disadvantage not to correspond in most countries to organized political forces and, even less, to programs of government and ideologies. If I selected it, it is above all because I consider as the core of the democratic spirit the reference to universalist human rights and to rational thinking in agreement with the basic texts in which they were first formulated in particular in England, Holland, United States, France and in the former Spanish colonies from the 17th to the beginnings of the 19th and later for the United Nation and by modern scientists and logicians.

The weaknesses of the governments and societies which adopted these democratic states are not a strong enough argument against their central theoretical importance.

Let’s define them with more conviction than ever.  

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