Framing Interventions

By | July 16, 2014

There is widespread unease at the sharpening divisions between the haves and the have-nots within the UK and within and between countries worldwide since the onset of financial capitalism in the mid-1970s. At different times and in different places and contexts this unease has fed into serious rebellions and uprisings in the early 21st century. Violence, symbolic and general as well as barbarous and particular, has become the norm. This blog contains some thoughts on how salient political opposition and intervention might be optimally ‘framed’.


One of Piketty’s achievements has been to show that escalating inequality is capitalism working normally, not a passing and deviant phase. If anything it was the (Atlee) postwar settlement that was the aberration. Adam Smith, who started out a moral philosopher not an economist, was clear that the invisible hand would dispense unfairly unless checked; such is its ‘logic’. Marx added a theory of exploitation allied to a labour theory of value. Capitalism can only be subject to strictly circumscribed reforms without its logic being called into question.


The ubiquitous have-nots cannot be asked to hold their breaths for a few more generations in the vain hope that Popper’s piecemeal social engineering will do the trick. Capitalism must be displaced by a more rational, just and accountable way of ordering our collective affairs. This will require a revolutionary shift. The revolution versus reform exchanges from the 1960s have limited purchase given the downgrading of (universal, grand) narratives of opposition and resistance to (relativised, petit) narratives. If the financial crash of 2008-9 exposed neo-liberal ideology for what it is, the class of global, nomadic plutocrats have nevertheless emerged almost unscathed. Revolutionary change is not on the agenda.


It is one thing to explore options and alternatives, for education or health systems for example, but quite another to construct a blueprint for a post-capitalist society. Maybe utopian blueprints should remain petit narratives since they can too easily appeal to totalitarian casts of mind and become ideologies in their own right. Marx was acutely conscious of this.


I neither have nor aspire to or covet a blueprint. What I have argued for instead is a strategy of permanent reform. This is not to substitute Bernstein for Marx. Rather, it commends the pursuit of a series of ‘obvious’, ‘appealing’ and cumulative interventions (see previous blog). Like: phasing out the monarchy and the honours system; stemming the generational transmission of capital via inheritance; capping the performance-unrelated rewards accruing to those Piketty calls ‘super-managers’; abolishing the subsystem of private education that exists solely to underwrite privilege; and so on. Most notably at times of concentrated uncertainty, like 2008-9, reforms like these might appeal despite the mainstream media. Those comprising what I call the ‘governing oligarchy’ rarely need to conspire, despite their mocking dismissal of ‘conspiracy theory’, because they remain the beneficiaries of what C W Mills called the ‘tacit understanding’ that binds elite memberships. So let’s put obvious reforms ‘out there’. Contingent on triggers like 2008-9, permanent reform is the most likely precursor of what Habermas in the mid-1970s termed a crisis of legitimation. A crisis of legitimation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for revolutionary change.


Hegel made a neglected but compelling distinction between serious and unserious thinking. What marks the former is the commitment of the thinker to follow up. Serious input demands requisite, consistent commitment. Those who act in a manner inconsonant with their avowals betray and undo their thinking and are unserious. Revolutions require serious revolutionaries.


I have insisted in another blog on the classic distinction between sociology and ideology. In today’s postmodern or relativised culture, ‘knowledges’ and ‘ideologies’ are often used as synonyms, petit narratives all. But this only means that scientists – natural, life or social – are on the defensive (they/we not even allowed to wipe the floor with the creationists)! It is vital that knowledge – always searching, fallible and incomplete – retains sufficient credibility to discern and expose ideology, the latter referring to ways of seeing and interpreting the world that reflect the interests of particular assemblages (e.g. neo-liberalism).


Utopianism carries totalitarian connotations and risks, but alternative social institutions need ‘imagining’. Eric Ohlin Wright is the pioneer here, alongside Urry and others who have published singular fact-based speculations on the likes of ecologically sustainable, post-oil, post-car worlds. A post-capitalist society has need of specialized and grounded research on policy options. Here’s a challenge for sociology.


Class is still the most likely driver of revolutionary transformation, be it some 21st century version of a post-industrial working class or Standing’s ‘precariat’. But while class remains a potent objective force, its subjective presence and appeal has diminished with the new circulation of identities (a blog to come). Sartre: a class in-itself is not a class for-itself. Social movements might yet trigger class action, but they too have a chameleon’s hide. Castells’ analysis of networks may provide a key. Occupy and other initiatives are non-hierarchical, flexible, spontaneous and network-based. The push should now be for heterogeneous movements to combine under a banner of permanent reform, Effective co-action would bring a crisis of legitimation closer. There being no consensual utopian blueprint would initially be strength, but soon Berlin’s ‘freedom to’ would kick-in.


Permanent reform sits comfortably with ongoing, dialectical deliberation about possible futures, hopefully evidence-informed (never based). But mechanisms of deliberation would require companion mechanisms of transformation. It would be contradictory to anticipate them. However, Hegelian seriousness (pace Lenin) would need to be tempered by novel technologies of accountability and input, a virtual public sphere.

NB            All this smacks of the nation-state. In a later blog I will attempt to adjust my frame for an appropriately global context. But I’m tired. And I’ve probably used enough words already.

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