In his rather-disappointing artifact of late 20th century Anglo academic hegemony, Alex Callinicos concludes his section Talcott Parsons, “Where Weber had surveyed the formation of modernity with deep forebodings, Parsons now suggested we sit back and enjoy the ride” (245).
Sure, that’s true. It’s also not too significant without much hint as to why, and part of a decontextualizing, fetishizing approach to “illuminating” social theory that divorces theory from sociological craft.
What’s interesting, and what helps illuminate the meaning of theory and its translatability into a larger process of collectivist scientific knowledge building, is how the difference between the problems 19th c. Germany needed to solve–to reorganize to overcome British economic repression, and the problems 20th c. US was addressing–to maintain subordinated working class cooperation in the years after WWII, are reflected in social theory. Weber was gloomy about modernity because his classic, idealist German education (structured to supply generations of German princes as managers to European kingdoms) had focused him on an elite’s state problem–organizing society in rivalry, while also repressing state employees’ collective action capacity, as that might hijack the state. Specifically, when Weber was working, it was unclear and an anxiety, whether Germany would grab the horns of capitalism and ride it to the top. Like almost all products of educated German idealism, Weber was anxious that middle class bureaucrats would seize too much power, and in his era, an interruption to top-down steering would specifically mean that capitalist dominance would elude his society. Continental German-speaking peoples could become exposed to Anglo Atlantic domination.
That was not a US concern after WWII. By contrast, Talcott Parsons was working to help the newly-dominant US state secure internal cooperation for smooth global management. This is why Parsons was comparatively blithe in his read of modernity. It’s important to understand this difference, to determine the extent of these theories’ and their concepts’ generalizability.
I should hope that Sociology and social theory is not defined by a blindness to the specific interests dominating the historical region in which each component of theory is developed. Otherwise we naturalize and over-extend rather specific, historical, regional problems as abstract-universal “Problems of Man.” We fail to see the limits of the concepts these problems produce.
Fainting away from robust comparative methodology is not an Enlightenment problem. It is a problem with the diminishment of Enlightenment approach, as it has been watered down and reoriented over centuries of concerted, voluminous conservative attack. When we pick up and toss about Weberian theory and Parsonian theory without contextualizing them historically, regionally, and socially, we make bad, antiscientific interpretations of their theory, and of the theories’ significance and applicability.
Theory is not philosophy. It’s not about perfecting logic derived from mostly-elite positionality and interest (even as that is thought, dubiously, to patronize other marginal positions and interests). Theory is about recording and feeding the scientific community’s ongoing empirical research into–in the case of social science– the range of human capacities and limitations, and the comparative conditions and varieties of human relations. It is likely that social theory will be informed by elite positionality and interests, and we handle that by identifying and specifying that in historical and spatial context. That’s the metaphysics of science, a collectivist, transnational, transhistorical knowledge.
For example, Callinicos buys whole-hog the postmodern-inspired postcolonial critique of Enlightenment. That makes sense, because he’s English, and the postcolonial critique is Indian. That’s an important, but still-parochial relation unto itself. The English-language postcolonial critique, as we are increasingly admitting, is overextended. Ultimately, to support postcolonial anti-Enlightenment, the Enlightenment in Callinicos’ Social Theory account is reduced to one English guy, James Mill, who was part of the colonial apparatus. Those philosophers crassly tying together commercial power and post-monarchical governance are elevated to the totality. We lose sight of the fact that England was never the entirety or even at the center of Enlightenment, was always a wing. England’s relationship to Enlightenment has always been as a tensely-tolerant, temporary cosmopolitan refuge from the Continental political persecution of major Enlightenment thinkers. England has been influenced by the Enlightenment–It informed and lent conviction to home-grown abolitionism, and Anglo culture developed its own often-commercial variants. But the culture of England, as the primary center of capitalism, has also been generally incompatible with democratic Enlightenment. Its interpretations of Enlightenment ideas have been moderated with conservatism. We need to start recognizing the conservative contribution to and reorientation of our ideas. The Enlightenment is a large democratic and revolutionary community of philosophers and their public–only a coddled smattering of whom believed that commerce could negate tyranny, science is reducible to math and rape, and conflict aversion alone makes social change. England, as the primary core of capitalism, has always mostly rejected all that democracy and revolution.
So, contra Indo-Anglo theory, England’s treatment of India was not caused by that one English Enlightenment guy, but by England’s capitalist imperialism–just as, contra the Frankfurt School, the Holocaust was not a product of a distant Enlightenment’s concern with knowing the world democratically (reinterpreted in princely-managerial German idealism as terrifying rationalism). It was a product of the capitalist tendency for the core (England) to suppress the development of rival regions (Germany). That’s right. That’s the driving relation, even though England has ever been a friend to the Jewish people and Israel, and English elites did not plan or execute that genocide. Their rivals the Germans did. Both of these imperial, capitalist (as developed from feudal and slavery roots) societies are far more complex than the heroic moments of Enlightenment. To blame the Enlightenment for all the bads is a sulky, petty excuse for theory. It simply, childishly asserts that Europe has nothing to show the world, and no capacity for solidarity with the world, beyond elite cosmopolitanism. That’s not true, and it is little more than a contribution to reactionary conservatism.
It’s all well and good that Callinicos eruditely, airily dismisses the reduction of Enlightenment in his theory textbook. But that doesn’t illuminate anything for students, and he’s too glib–He doesn’t recognize when that reduction is at play in received wisdom about theory, and how we understand it relative to its function in scientific method. Whether the Frankfurt School’s inflation and grafting of one terrible case, of a persistent problem of human susceptibility to extreme estrangement, onto a world-epic narrative (This is Pagden’s critique.), or whether the parochial Indo-Anglo reduction of Enlightenment to the particular Anglo-Indian colonial relationship, the whole lazy overextension of blame upon the Enlightenment for all 19th-20th century problems has to rely for its logic on a conservative campaign to reduce the Enlightenment to cold rationalism. That anti-Enlightenment reduction is invalid, and exists only to advance inegalitarianism.
The logical relations between prolific Anti-enlightenment revision and Brahmin expat postcolonialism are difficult for Callinicos, as a product of second-half 20th century England, to intuitively keep track of. That’s disappointing, given Callinicos’ commitment to critical realism and science.
Notes on the British Culture,
from observations on the London Review of Books
- An intense, often-undisciplined pleasure in crafting stories recording human monstrosity, often starring individual men–celebrities, preferably of derivative, inherited fame and fortune, whose work achieved some recognized goal.
- For example, while his life was a product of the social and financial capital his grandfather produced, within a permissive-commercial society, Lucien Freud produced and sold art.
- As fuel for the stories, an associated, “broad-minded” toleration for monstrous behaviour. This is the opposite of Jantelagen.
- Also opposite of Jantelagen in that, unlike in Scandinavian case where Jantelagen is a myth thats function is to moderate egalitarianism, to open cultural space for imperial, capitalist disruption, there doesn’t seem to be a British myth that imposes reflection toward moderating the British cultural norm of tolerance for undisciplined Genius Boys.
- You can imagine how this unreflexive Anglo variant of broad-mindedness corresponds with a World-class imperial culture.
- The cosmopolitan performance of toleration for the Genius Boys who not only accomplish some work, but also, and more importantly, supply scintillating stories of human monstrosity, comes at the expense of the people who do assert boundaries on those Genius Boys’ behaviour: older women. These women’s boundary-setting behaviour is imagined in the stories to reflect base and narrow motivations, such as “Anti-semitism” (per Colm Toibin & William Feaver’s accounts, per “Falling in Love with Lucian,” LRB 10-10-19).
- In this ritualistic discursive sacrifice of older women and egalitarian boundaries, Feaver and Toibin feel comfortable finding fault in a mother objecting to Freud’s relationship with her daughter. Freud never washed his own clothes, and he seeded some eight fatherless children and many more abortions. Yet according to our contemporary British authorities, the true problem was, the mother must have been prejudiced against Jews and poor people. Never mind how little sense this “critical analysis” makes. Freud was not even poor. He did enjoy gambling away the money he inherited. Gratuitously manufacturing a shitload of reproductive work for (“traumatized”) women is taken, at the Genius Boy’s word, to be our definition of freedom. This equivalence would seem natural to a people subscribing to the conservative theory holding that (exclusive elite) liberty must be based upon a vast base of slavery. Obviously, these reveries upon the Genius and the Work require tastefully abandoning the inconvenient thought that any Great Man could have accomplished anything of note without creating a shitload of reproductive work for women and trauma for the next generation. The British mind must imagine that the unfree societies in which women do set boundaries, and women have constructive relationships across generations, are uninteresting, mud-dwelling, and witch-plagued.
In the same October LRB issue, Jacqueline Rose recounts the horror of the contemporary British treatment of refugee women. They are dehumanized and abused within the private prison system and policing bulwark funded by Anglo countries’ taxpayers.
I think there can be only two drivers of this sort of systematized antihuman abomination, and they are: 1) All this bullshit is done primarily to give a handful of international Anglo capitalists and managers fat income and power over other people, while diverting workers into jobs policing each other, as inequality and productivity grow. 2) The Anglo countries are creating a global reputation for state terror, with which to manipulate the millions of people disrupted and displaced by capitalist-military resource and territory expropriation.
Or maybe it’s Enlightenment wot done it?
In the 5 December 2019 LRB, Mousab Younis authored a list of French public affronts to French Muslims. In particular, it listed all the times last fall that some French public official or persona rejected either veiled Muslim women or the practice of veiling women. The really dehumanizing statements issued from the French Right, but, per British postcolonial taste, inegalitarian and egalitarian objections to veiled women v. veiling women are not distinguished. They are all packaged together as “racism.”
Belligerently, no acknowledgement is made in the Anglo postcolonial tradition of the historical context which might propel objections to veiling women–for example, a Catholic country that had a long, globally-influential civil war over whether it is possible or desirable to build a more egalitarian society, and where in particular, women’s substantive citizenship is a very recent, hard-won achievement.
Similarly, nor is there any specification for why many Muslim immigrants insist that Muslim women be veiled today–They have not always been. If that causal context were to be specified, then we would get dangerously close to shining a light on the shaky foundation of contextless “antiracism”: The economistic myth that migration is the result of preferences–in particular, the presumed, autonomous, contextless preference attributed to all migrants, to leave home for better economic opportunities abroad. It is shameful that this ridiculous myth is treated in Anglo culture like a sacred cow, guarantor of morality, hidden from view and not subject to debate.
(Let us not obfuscate: Most Muslim migrants to Western Europe are there because Anglo countries, for example, bombed out their home. The migrations are not simple economic preference. It is trauma, and any immigrant First Generation typically has much difficulty seeing how or why it would contribute to the development of the receiving society. They need help with that, connecting them with the encompassing receiving society; and such help does not get done where the economistic perspective refuses to recognize that people are motivated by social reasons, rather than only reasons of petty individual optimization. This conceptual problem and institutional deficit is particularly glaring where individual optimization has been systematically thwarted, as in crisis-driven migration.)
What could be (from an egalitarian perspective) politically-useful alienation, between a Muslim tradition of gender inegalitarianism and a Catholic tradition of gender inegalitarianism, is converted via the race-essentialist (both conservative racist and liberal anti-racist) reduction into a more commercially-useful antagonism between native and naturalized citizens.
Postcolonial public intellectuals assist in this political herding because it seems plausible that as migrants they would ignore the context, what is at stake, and thus the meanings of politics. In terms of their own motivating interests, they are also elites, requiring broken, pliable servants.