Friday, 18 December 2015

Boltanski's On Critique

Having just finished Luc Boltanski's On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (2011, Pollity Press), I just want to jot down two things I found interesting. So this post is going to be brief!

First point: the bodiless being of the institution. Having always been fascinated by the stubborn persistence of quasi-transcendental forms in social life, I was quite happy to read Boltanski's explanation of the role of institutions. His starting point is that “no individual possesses the requisite authority to say to others, all the others, the whatness of what is” (Boltanski 2011:74). Whatever is claimed by a mere individual can always be dismissed as a mere "private" standpoint or opinion.

Hence follows the necessity of installing what Boltanski (following Olivier Cayla) calls “the device of a third party", namely an institution "to whom is accorded, ‘by agreement’, the prerogative of ‘having the last word’” (ibid.). We can observe that there is a certain Hobbesian flavour to this argument - the institution fulfilling the function of what could perhaps be called semantic sovereignty, defining reality in a way that would be out of reach for any single individual. He takes the example of a constitutional judge, who in impersonating the institution is no longer viewed as a flesh-and-blood individual. “To hear him it is necessary to ignore his body. The only conceivable solution is therefore to delegate the task of saying the whatness of what is to a bodiless being” (ibid.). The institution, Boltanski states, “is a bodiless being to which is delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is” (ibid. 75). 

The fact that institutions have a certain form of independent existence over and against the individuals that make them up has important implications for critique. Just exposing them as fictions is not enough to weaken them, since they fulfill their function even though “everyone knows full well that these institutions are mere fictions and that the only real things are the human beings who make them up” (ibid 85). Boltanski refers here to Octave Mannoni’s "je sais bien, mais quand même...” ("I know very well, but all the same..."). The problem he brings up is the peculiar impotence of critique against quasi-transcendental forms that seem to be inscribed in reality itself, upholding it and thus acquiring their own stability and inertia regardless of the extent to which people believe in them (another example would of course be that of commodity fetishism). However, unlike many other theoreticians who have focused on this problem, Boltanski chooses not to dramatize this difficulty. Instead he identifies a number of points where he believes institutions are still vulnerable to critique. Although I won't have time to enter into the intricacies of the argument here, these possibilities are grounded in the distinction he makes between the "reality" upheld by institutions and the "world" outside this reality, which consists of everything that is the case and which has the potential of upsetting reality since reality can never map it completely. To mention but a simple form of critique, the very fact that institutions are bodiless means that they always depend on flesh-and-blood spokespersons who can always be suspected of using their position for private motives or who can simply make mistakes, thus disrupting the order they seek to stabilize (ibid. 84).

Second point: Boltanski's description of today's dominant classes. The first remark on these classes comes early in the book. In connection with a discussion about ideology where he makes the interesting (although perhaps not wholly water-tight) argument that ideologies are mostly meant to convince the dominant classes themselves of their right to lead.
While not challenging the idea that something like dominant ideologies does indeed exist, seeking both to underestimate and justify inequalities, we can nevertheless show that these constructs are directed in the first instance to disciplining the dominant classes themselves, whose members, especially when they reach the threshold separating the status of child from that of autonomous, responsible adult, also encounter the tension between an egalitarian ideal and a massively unequal reality. The social function of dominant ideologies is therefore above all to maintain a relative cohesion between the different factions that make up these classes and to reinforce [...] their members’ confidence in the validity of their privileges. (ibid. 41)
The bulk of his discussion of the dominant class comes in the two last chapters (ibid. 143-149, 151f). He begins by criticizing Bourdieu since the new global elite no longer shares a habitus based on classical culture. What then do they share? Apart from sharing a new “international culture that is rooted in economics and, above all, in disciplines of management” and having the power to affect the lives of many other people, their distinguishing characteristic is a certain moral double standard. Let me just throw out a few forceful quotes where Boltanski makes this point: 
What members of the dominant class implicitly share... is, on the one hand, that it is indispensable that there should be rules – law, procedures, norms, standards, regulations and so forth; and, on the other, that one can do nothing really profitable... that one simply cannot act, in an uncertain world, if one follows these rules. (ibid. 146).

The observance of rules therefore presents itself as a handicap for them... Conversely, they are inclined to think that rules are necessary and sufficient to constrain and order the actions of underlings. (ibid. 146)

[T]his kind of wisdom cannot be made public; or shared with those who are not leaders. (ibid. 147)
Does this mean that leaders have no morality? Certainly not, but they have a ‘higher’ morality... [T]he ‘great ones’ believe that they can be assessed only in the light of the ultimate success of failure of their enterprises. They therefore lay claim to a time-scale which can far exceed that of human existence (‘history will judge’). (ibid. 151)
I'd just like to make two remarks concerning this description of today's dominant class. Firstly, I am not sure that this double standard is so very new. It sounds remarkably much like the capitalist class portrayed by Braudel in Civilization and Capitalism: The 15th to the 18th Century, where Braudel makes his famous distinction between the sunlit and transparent world of the market and the shadowy realm of capitalism "where the great predators roam". The market, one might say, is the world of the small people, those referred to by Boltanski as the dominated ones, who believe in following the rules or standards of fairness which govern human interchange and which are grounded in their own experience and knowledge of the small-scale economy in which they are active. Capitalism, on the other hand, is where the great profits are made, and they are made by breaking the rules, circumventing them or by creating new ones, in collusion with political rulers and through the support and mobilization of political, diplomatic and military power.

Secondly, I sense that this description of the dominant class betrays - just like his description of institutions - a certain fascination with the problem of sovereignty. In connection with institutions, Boltanski explicitly refers to Kantorowicz' discussion of the politico-theological dimensions of medieval monarchy. Like the medieval monarch, the constitutional judge possesses two bodies - being a frail human being with private interests and weaknesses, but also, at the same time, impersonating the institution in all its glory. As regards dominant classes and their relation to rules, it is easy to spot similarities to Schmitt's discussion of sovereignty. Isn't Boltanski's description possible to understand as an account of how sovereignty ("sovereign is he who decides on the exception") has become dispersed and exists as a form of cynic elitism within each member of this class, who believe themselves to be standing above their own rules and who are always ready to grant themselves an exception?

These were just two points I found particularly interesting. There won't be time for me to do justice to the other major points Boltanski tries to make - e.g. the relation between his own sociology of critique to Bourdieu’s critical sociology, the world-reality distinction, contemporary forms of managerial domination or the possibility of emancipation. For anyone interested in those points, please read the book!




Thursday, 10 December 2015

Sadness as COP15 ends

This is not a report from the COP or the activism here in Paris, so much as a report on my feelings. An undeniable feeling of sadness is gripping me. Sadness for the earth and the climate. But also sadness for this movement, parts of which I’ve been able to observe at rather close range over the last week and a half. For the activists who are trying so hard to keep up hope. Who struggle, in almost every conceivable way, to find ways of being effective – either by influencing the text or, despairing of that, by groping for ways to stave off catastrophe or at least healing some wounds without having to rely on the politicians colluding with business that make up the elite dominating the climate summit. They do so by discussing strategies for how to show their displeasure despite the repression legitimized by the state of emergency. They call for support for frontline communities, for blockadia, for real solutions, for an end to colonialism and racism, for system change, for a stop to the madness and the injustice done to nature and to so many people. They have learnt from Copenhagen not to place too much hope in the politicians. They know that a long struggle awaits them, us. But despite this, there is this sadness in the air, at the palpable feeling that the system is moving, unstoppably, in the wrong direction.

Can sadness go along with action? Yes, I believe it can. Sadness is not resignation. There are people – people who are like angels or boddhisattvas – for whom action and sadness go well together. But for most activists, I suspect that sadness is not an 'appropriate' or at least not a very effective feeling. Anger is perhaps better, or rather: a particular mixture of anger, hope and confidence. To all activists, therefore, I want to end by quoting the end of a speech I heard last Sunday at La Parole Errante in Montreuil, at the People’s Summit. The speaker is Kumi Naidoo. I can’t quote it verbatim, but here is, more or less, what he said. I leave the word to him:
The planet does not need saving. We will be gone, but the planet will still be here. It will be greener without us. Make no mistake about about it!

Whatever happens here, please don’t be sad. Remember Copenhagen! What we got there was not a fair deal, but a flab deal – full of loopholes and bullshit. We were devastated. But the struggle will continue.

When I was 20 years old I fled South Africa into exile. That was a time when there were many burials. My friend said: “Kumi, what is the biggest contribution you can make to justice?”. Then she said: “No, it’s not giving your life. It’s giving the rest of the your life!”.

Two years later she was brutally murdered by the regime.

Struggles for justice – climate justice, gender justice, economic justice, social justice – are marathons. They are long-term struggles.

Do not give up hope!

If you are courageous, victory is certain!
What we can note here is that substantive issues are only briefly alluded to in the vaguest and most general of gestures. Instead, the speech plays almost entirely on an emotional register. Clearly Kumi Naidoo's aim is to intervene in the emotions of the listeners. He wants to raise spirits and inspire courage and confidence. But at the same time, his speech bears testimony to the sadness, the anxieties and the fatigue that he senses already exists in the audience, or at least will exist once the summit is concluded, and which function like a dark, inescapable fond against which his own forceful words shine forth like stars.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.