What is Sociology For? Doom, Gloom And Despair

Apparently, as beautifully demonstrated by Edgar Morin and William I. Robinson in separate publications. Both sociologists have a very bleak outlook as the current global state of affairs.

First Edgar Morin in Le Monde. To paraphrase, the op-ed and roughly translate the gist of it, 2010 continued disturbing trends that show no sign of abating. What are these trends, according to Morin? First and foremost the continuing unregulated financial globalization, which he sees are related to ethnic, nationalist and religious “closures” (something reminiscent of McWorld versus Jihad). Both are major sources of social dislocations and conflicts. Both lead to reduced freedoms (economic, social and political) and fanaticism (both economic and political). They have replaced the totalitarian forms of the 20th century. And both lead to increased inequalities, themselves sources of conflict. So, far from creating a harmonious global village (do people believe it might / would / could?) or planetary humanism, globalization has led to financial and neoliberal cosmopolitanism (without the global social covenant called for by David Held, I might add) and a return to particularism.

And so, everywhere, capital is the decision-maker, and speculation and financial capitalism have triumphed (despite their obvious massive failure). Banks have been saved and preserved, as governing ideologies have integrated the notion of global financial capital as inevitable and uncontrollable force (all the while taking very real action to save it, ironically). In this state of ideological hegemony, there is no room for alternative thinking, dismissed as non-serious discourse by media elites. And the trends in education, where encompassing critical thinking should be taught, are on segmented bits of knowledge supposed to be of immediate use to get disappearing jobs.

No wonder, according to Morin, political thinking is so poor and unable to deal with fundamental global issues. I would add that this is all by design. It is the same categories of people in power who have no interest in dealing with such global issues, who also want to transform education into McDonaldized job training. Morin notes, as I have noted before, that the knowledge society is actually an ignorance society. The more segmented the forms of knowledge, the more atomized the masses will be.

Morin sees some optimistic signs in forms of resistance that have recently emerged, such as libertarian developments such as Wikileaks. These forms of resistance are decentered, dispersed, yet loosely connected. It is no wonder that these forms of resistance are the targets of state repression. State have no interests in reining in the excesses of capital and financial speculation but they sure work hard to control protests forms and movements through dismantling of civil liberties apparatus. Most likely, they will fail, for Morin.

I have made no secret that William I. Robinson is one of the most interesting sociologists on globalization. I wish he joined the socblogging crowd. In this interview, he examines what is happening in Mexico to identify some general trends as well. Now, you must click on the link and read the whole thing over there because Robinson is hard to quote, as he tends to pack a lot of stuff in a few words.

So, what is going on in Mexico (this is based on a phone conversation)?

“One level of course is in an age of global capitalism, and unbridled inequalities, and massive polarization between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have nots, the social fabric breaks down and the state can no longer try and juggle multiple interests, it can’t even attempt to do so.

“So you have a breakdown of social order, and the breakdown of social order is more general, worldwide we’re seeing that, whole pockets and whole countries where social order and the ability of political authorities to manage these contradictions generated by massive inequalities and by global capitalism is breaking down. And so in part that’s what’s going on in Mexico, the central state really can’t hold the system together.

“Another part of the story is that the drug trafficking is wildly profitable, but in Mexico what’s also happened is that increasingly, a portion of the population has become dependent on drug trafficking.

“There’s massive unemployment in Mexico, there’s what we call los sin sin, those without work, and without school. So there’s a whole generation of youth that are not studying, they don’t have the opportunity to because the economy is in total crisis and because of massive inequality, and they have no work, because there is massive unemployment and underemployment.

“Drug trafficking has become a source of income, including petty income. It used to be you know the top level there were drug traffickers which were, if they weren’t interfered with they only fought against each other, you know, cartels for control of the drug trade. Now right down to each neighborhood people who are unemployed and young people who are unemployed have been swept up into drug trafficking, and they’re fighting each other literally, in some cities, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, for control over the pettiest level of making some money off of drug trafficking.”

And the state’s response has been to militarize the Mexican society by deploying roughly half of the Mexican military already, and the rest come be deployed later. And this seems to be the uniform response to social issues: militarization, repression, and curtailment of civil liberties all in the name of security, as defined as under threat by either, criminals and traffickers or terrorists, depending on the social context. Again, nothing gets done on the social issues, poverty and social inequalities because the states have divested themselves of the will and ability to deal with those. Repression is all that is left as major state function, and protection of capital.

What this leads to, for Robinson, is 21st century fascism:

““I don’t want to fall into too much cynicism and pessimism, I haven’t lost my optimism, but I want to be realistic, and what I see taking place is in the face of this global crisis, which is a deep structural crisis, very close to a systemic crisis, and so I see that there are different responses to the crisis and a very quick polarization between a response on the one side, which is resistance, from poor people, from below, from poor peoples’ movements and the resurgence of the left, and attempts to create 21st century socialism in South America, and these mass protests and you know general strike in France and in Greece, and all around the world, we can follow the rise of progressive resistance, radical resistance, leftist resistance, and a new awakening of masses of people.

“But then this polarization around this response to the crisis, the other side of that is the rise of what I call 21st century fascism, these different, it doesn’t look like 20th century fascism because everything has changed, but the force which is most insurgent right now in the United States is the right. The rise of the fascist right.

“They’re organized in the Tea Party, and the right wing of the Republican party, the Minute Men, White power movements, and so forth. And so you see the rise of a fascist movement in the United States.

“But a rise of the fascist right we see it all around the world as well. We see it in Europe, all of the European countries, we see it in the Latin American countries, there was just a meeting, Uno América, these bring together the fascist Latin American right, the Latin American right that used to be happy when there were military dictatorships, and authoritarian regimes.

“Colombia is really a model of 21st century fascism: a democratic façade, a polyarchic political system, and beneath that there’s total social control, total domination by elites and by capital, and if you resist you’re massacred, and four million people have been displaced from the countryside.

“Yes, there’s major cracks and that opens up space for both the fascist right and the resurgence of the left. And I don’t know what the outcome of that is… We’re entering into a very dangerous period of uncertainty.”

So, is sociology the depressing science? I would say yes. And I would add that this is a good thing. In the context of a popular culture where “positive thinking” is not the antidote to negative thinking but the antidote to critical thinking, there is a need for negative (that is, critically-based and grounded in reality) thinking. Moreover, positive thinking is not the bearer of all sorts of benefits as popular psychology would have you believe. Actually, we could use more negative thinking. When all is said and done, positive thinking is an ideological construct to ban some topics and ways of discussing issues, from polite discussion (hence, these equally exclusionary calls to civility).

So, yes, let sociology be the bearer of bad news. We have been clamoring for decades that increasing social inequalities were bad for society as a whole and we were right.

Let sociology especially be the bearer of bad new when it comes to questioning previously unquestioned mechanisms of power and dominance.

I would only disagree with the despair part. What was that Gramsci quote? Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I would argue that sociologists have done well on the first part, but not nearly enough on the second part.

2 thoughts on “What is Sociology For? Doom, Gloom And Despair

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What is Sociology For? Doom, Gloom And Despair | The Global Sociology Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Even if positive is the antidote to critical, i have to point out that the opposition between positive vs. negative is itself a part of the ideology. Enthusiasm and more deeper, desire, can be both positive and negative, as is doing what has to be done : thinking has not to be either positive or negative, and making “depressing science” is being trapped. Paths outside that kind of false alternative exists, and one example for me is the recent work of your “Sociologist of The Semester” aka Richard Sennett, or more recently to take a french example the book “L’engagement dans le travail” by Alexandra Bidet.

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