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October 28, 2006


David Lee

Very interesting post - perhaps highly pertinent to the pressing question of how sociology can engage with politics (or rather, why it largely fails to do so). For example, thinking about this for the Young Foundation seminar later on this week, I've been wondering why it was that theories of reflexive modernization (Giddens, Beck etc) were taken up with such vigour by New Labour in the early days, but not for example theories of identity politics and governmentalization as developed by say Nikolas Rose. Isn't it because in the end Giddens et al told government what they wanted to hear (huge changes, the need for new kind of politics, globalization, etc etc) in what was essentially a positive rhetorical framing, whereas foucauldian inspired analyses for example are just too depressing (and therefore oldfashioned... see also marxist/neomarxist analyses). Government/business wants to hear a narrative of change, but one that however alarmingly told is presented within a rhetorical framework of mastery (in short saying 'we can understand this, and we can do something about it').

OK so now the inevitable question; what sort of narrative are you going to feed back to your client?! And can you have this kind of reflexive dialogue with them at your first research meeting? ;-)

Will Davies

I think there is a far more simple reason why the governmentality school made no impact on policy thinking: it explicitly offers no normative programme (unless you dig slightly deeper, and locate some Nietzschean celebration of self-invention). Isn't the idea of a Foucaultian policy agenda something of any oxymoron?

The answer to your final question is available for the usual fee.

David Lee

Sure, you're right of course. But then, surveying the literature that has proved most influential to New Labour (arguably) over its lifespan, one could hardly say that there isn't any sociological analysis lurking behind it. It's just that often it's watered down and jazzed up in new management speak; and often presented in a largely journalistic 'case study' fashion. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it does rather leave out a lot of the depth from the academic work. I suppose Giddens, and to an extent Castells (and Sennett) have been willing to engage with the policy agenda, but often the debate takes place within a rather dumbed down public arena.

But in short I suppose what you mean is that there is no desire to sociologically critique the actual foundations of capitalism itself - critique is called for, but always within an acceptance of the structural status quo, and how it can be maintained...

Kate Oakley

Didn't Fredric Jameson say it was easier to imagine the end of the earth and the end of nature than the end of capitalism? And that always seem to me to be be of the major problems - having successfully presented your critique; some smart arse would say, and what do you suggest is the alternative? And you'd say (or at least, I would), 'Dunno. But there must be something better.'

I don't think that is why businesses can't cope with a structural critque, but it makes it harder to develop one. Hence there is a whole series of smaller problematics that can be discussed and for which there is an active 'market'(The 'digital divide'. Food deserts. Some aspects of climate change); but the 'answer' always has to be something contained within capitalism; it can't go outside it - there is no outside.
Or maybe I've just got the winter blues.

Will Davies

There can scarcely be a better demonstration of what that Jameson remark is getting at, than yesterday's Stern Report. To all intents and purposes, the message appeared to be - "be careful with your CO2 emissions, because the apocalypse will be bad news for house prices!"

Kate Oakley

Absolutely. It was fascinating example of "let's not talk about the environment, or the politics of the environment, but about economics, because that will make it 'real'."


"...can capitalism survive indefinitely without ever confronting sociological truths..."

What's a sociological truth? For example?


I'm not sure it's that curious. Progress in the business world is about growth. There has to be a reason to always seek more when, as you point out elsewhere, people are often happier not to do that.

The future cannot be reassuring because, if it were, why would we work hard to shape it? The future cannot be depressing because, if it were, why would we bother working so hard for a goal that isn't worth it?

It's all a big motivational scam - we cannot rest on our laurels because everything must change if we are to remain safe and secure in the future.

I have a bigger (perhaps ignorant) question. Where would a structural critique of capitalism take business if business were prepared to accept it?

Will Davies

In answer to Oli's question, it is a sociological fact (ok, I may have used the word 'truth' rather oddly there) that average job tenure in the UK has been rising for the past decade, primarily due to sustained economic growth giving people greater job security. However, capitalism's contemporary self-image (partly fuelled by some sociologists themselves) is of an employment culture that has never been more short-termist or precarious, because that conforms to its predominant mood.

And in answer to Simon, I never suggested that business may be able to use a structural critique of capitalism (I can't imagine that would be very welcome, other than via the kitsch nonsense of Funky Business or something). By referencing Castells and Sassen, I was suggesting that there might be a place for a depiction of capitalism as a socio-political system, rather than simply the parts of that system that most please or benefit it. But where that might take business, I don't know.

But then again, if you do read Marxist economic history, the ease with which theorists explain where crises came from and what they led to, makes one wonder if some of them could get jobs as analysts.

David Lee

Just some thoughts on this (and they also relate to your earlier community post). I'm reading Arlie Hochsdchild's 'The Commercialization of Intimate Life', which essentially argues that in order to understand contemporary capitalism we need to see how it has intruded into what were (arguably) previously sacrosanct spaces, such as the family, home, and most importantly into our very emotional lives themselves. How it commodifies feeling, and how there are 'feeling rules'. I came across a great quote (from Harvey Cox) that suggests that capitalism has become akin to a religion:

"Just as a truly global market has emerged for the first time in human history, that market is functioning without moral guideposts and restraints, and it has become the most powerful institution of our agel. Even nation-states can do little to restrain or regulate it. More and more, the idea of 'the market' is construed, not as a creation of culture ('made by human hands', as the Bible says about idols) , but as the 'natural' way things happen. For this reason, the 'religion' the market generates often escapes criticism and evaluation or even notice. It becomes as invisible to those who live by it as was the religion of the preliterate Australians whom Durkheim studied, who described it as just 'the way things are'."

This made me think of the Jameson quote Kate referred to earlier, about how hard it is to imagine (to 'feel') a world outside of capitalism. As a religion, capitalism has its myth of the fall, its myth of origin, doctrine of sin and redemption, its notion of sacrifice (state belt-tightening...), and of course its hope of salvation through the free market.

'The cathedrals of capitalism dominate our cities. Its ideology dominate our airwaves. It calls for sacrifice, through long hours of work, and offers its blessings through commodities' (Hochschild, 2003: 144-5)

Like a religion, the market ethos poses the answer to its own anxieties... so the poor or unemployed are 'unworthy slackers', with work as a form of salvation.

'Capitalism is not, then, simply a system in the service of family and community; it competes with the family. When we seperate our fantasy of family life, our ideas of being a 'good mother and father' from our daily expressions of parenthood, our ideals live timelessly on while we worship at the biggest altar in town, with ten-hour days and long trips to the mall.' (ibid. 145)

Perhaps this connects more to your community posting... but I feel it also connects to capitalism's self-image - in that as a structure of feeling, capitalism can only deal with critique which affirms its common-sense hegemonic status.

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