Collaborationist Sociology?

By | April 20, 2016

I have been reading Patrick Baert’s excellent study, The Existential Moment, which charts Sartre’s rise to intellectual status and fame in mid-1940s France and concludes with a more general sociological account of intellectuals. In Chapter Three Baert rehearses Sartre’s analysis of ‘collaborationist intellectuals’ in the aftermath of WW2. What was it to collaborate under German rule and surveillance, particular for publishers and writers? It struck me that some of the concepts adduced by Sartre have a broader reach. My question for this blog: is there such a thing as collaborationist sociology in peacetime?

‘Qu’est-ce qu’un collaborateur?’ Writing in 1945, Sartre was positioning himself as he wrote. The principal point of his essay was to arrive at a socio-psychological theory of collaborators, although his substantive focus throughout was on wartime France. He examined: (a) the social causes of collaboration, and (b) the psychological traits of collaborators.

In relation to (a), Sartre argued that collaboration is a normal phenomenon to be found in and across all societies. Collaborative attitudes are likewise ubiquitous, but only surface under certain – more or less extreme – circumstances. There is nothing distinctively French about collaboration! ‘Collaboration, so he argued, is the product of social disintegration, and in that sense he likened collaboration to crime and suicide’ (Baert, p.84). There is more than a hint of Durkheim here. Sartre thought drifting intellectuals, especially those who are disaffiliated or disassociated from mainstream political parties, were especially vulnerable, as were others of society’s ‘outsiders’.

A lack of social integration leads people to hanker after ‘a strong external force’, hence the fascination with fascism. ‘Right wing anarchists’, for example, tend to seek the kind of ‘radical integration’ that only a foreign authoritarian order can provide. Baert counters that Sartre neglected those (French) collaborators who were well integrated during the interbellum.

And (b)? Well, the un-integrated ‘genuinely hate’ the society in which they are misfits. Collaboration for them is an act of revenge. Loyalty is given only to specific entities – strong leaders, parties and nations. They lack core principles and are opportunistic. Moreover they are fugitives from the present, exhibit bad faith and are unwilling to confront ‘real’ options available to them.

‘For Sartre, the collaborator conflates what is with what ought to be by submitting himself to the ‘reality’ of the present. He promotes an ‘ethics of virility’, attributing a moral dimension to the contemporary constellation simply by virtue that it managed to force itself upon us. The collaborator embraces a fallacious ‘historicism’ in which history is portrayed as a tale of progress, with the present as a necessary improvement on the past. He projects himself into the future and claims that, from the point of a distant future, the then-present state of affairs – with its collaboration – would make perfect sense and would be justified because by then the criteria by which we judge political events and decisions will be substantially different. Armed with this perverse logic of historicism and ‘realism’, the collaborator evades the responsibilities of the present. By looking at the present from the perspective of a distant future, the present is portrayed as the (future) past and stripped of its intolerable features. Once portrayed as a past, the present becomes abstract and no longer something to be lived through’ (Baert, p.86).

On the face of it, it seems ludicrous to draw parallels between a France occupied through WW2 and any kind of sociological status/role in the UK in the 21st century. Sartre’s observations are at once time-specific, contextual, poignant, emotionally charged and performative. But there are concepts to redeploy and lessons to be relearned.

It may be best at this juncture to state an obvious qualification: the UK’s sociologists are not being persecuted after the manner of the French population, nor are its more obstinate, unruly and dissenting practitioners being rounded up, tortured and executed as soldiers of resistance.

But there are parallels. What matters, I have always maintained, is not that each sociologist excels in each of my ‘six sociologies’ – that is, as scholar, reformer, radical, democrat, visionary and activist (see companion blogs) – but that the sociological community as a whole, inside and outside of the formal institutions of higher education, covers each of these bases. It is possible, however, for any sociologist working in any of these sociologies to become ‘collaborationist’ in ways consonant with Sartre’s thesis (and even with his altogether vague, non-empirical and hence proto-sociological model).

Several types of collaboration strike me as evident and salient. I present them here as ideal types, so the usual rider applies: life is messier in practice … The type most apparent is probably careerism. I am not thinking here of the strategies of survival that most neophyte sociologists (and others) must increasingly deploy in neoliberal times, but of the sacrifice of integrity that is often seen in those who set most store by seniority, recognition, baubles and other accoutrements of ‘success’. Careerism best epitomises collaborationism and poses the greatest risk to the sociological project. A second type is normalisation, indicating a wilful attempt to ‘pass’ (or to ‘cover’), but this in neoliberal times. A third might be termed avoidance. This exposes the wilful but contrived tactic of swerving around the debunking of myths and challenging of ideologies that should, indeed must, be the very bread and butter of sociological practice (otherwise, why bother?). This might be accomplished by choosing or consenting to engage only with ‘uncontroversial’ issues.

As far as action sociology is concerned, I have argued elsewhere (so many blogs reflective of thoughts in process!) that the sociological activist foregoes her or his innocence when stepping from civil society’s ‘enabling’ into its ‘protest sector’. Some are ‘co-opted’, transmuted into pro-neoliberal ideologists. Others are, or appear to be, content with the ‘status quo’: they are bystanders. It is the lot of the very and too few – the subversives – to face down the prevailing ideology of neoliberalism. Too few subversives and those of us who comprise the sociological community have adjusted to collaborationism.

Am I overstating all this? I think not. In general terms in the UK we find ourselves subject to a class-driven oligarchy or plutocracy committed to enriching itself and its allies via a son (not daughter) of neoliberal ideology named ‘austerity’. This has occasioned levels of (gender and ethnic and well as class-based) material and companion inequalities unseen in the UK since the interwar years. Policy-based evidence has not only been manufactured to rationalise these inequalities but to underwrite the privatisation of the NHS and, via the device of ‘academisation’, our schools; and of course much else. Class-funded regimes of politicians born millionaires are committed to eliminating the ‘something for nothing’ society of less fortunate ‘skivers’.

Ok, it is not like being invaded. But it is of profound seriousness. When people favour gradual reform, ‘piecemeal social engineering’, I always ask: would you be content for your descendants to wait a generation or six to get a fairer deal? Moreover it is far from impossible that the UK could slip down the track towards fascism. A referendum win for ‘Brexit’, the displacement of Cameron by a far-right little Englander, yet more and more ‘total’ surveillance, further crackdowns on dissent … Elias gave us a telling account of Germany’s vulnerability to fascist takeover; but no sociologist should rule out fascism in the UK.

As I write this (in the TCR), the Tories have had to climb down on an attempt to prevent academic beneficiaries of ‘public’ grants reporting findings critical of regime policy. Well! Sociology is nothing without the scholars of its professional enterprise, but it could become pointless, or worse collaborationist, without its subversives.









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