Remedies for ism-itis

Critique of Modernity
June 23, 1995

I think that Alain Touraine, a learned and famous Freudian French social theorist, believes something like the following. Things in the modern world are pretty bad. Societies oppress their members. The world is an uneasy mixture of totalitarian tendencies, nationalisms, fundamentalisms, and mindless consumerism. Liberalism is poised to turn into neo-conservative authoritarianism. There are also corporatism, militarism, colonialism and imperialism to worry about. But there is hope. Individuals can resist the pressures to conform to whichever of these "isms" is afflicting them. When they do so social movements become possible, and things may get better.

This is, as it were, the English way of putting it. In the more portly Freudian and French version the message is presented in terms of a dialectic between the rationalisation of society, and the Subject. Rationalisation is the kind of story that emerged in the Enlightenment, about what societies are, and what counts as them doing well: its leading ideas are those of utilitarianism, and its faiths are education, liberalism, and economic progress through free markets and democratic political institutions. The Subject - well, the Subject is a bit mysterious. For instance, "The Subject is not the consciousness of the Ego, and still less is it the recognition of a social Self. On the contrary, it means freedom from the image of the individual created by the roles, norms and values of the social order". Or "The Subject is both body and soul, a memory as well as a project". Or "The Subject rejects social roles by appealing to both life, sexuality and community". Referring approvingly to Denis Poulot, Touraine at one point seems to describe him or her as "troublesome and heavy drinking, violent, revolutionary and delinquent", but this may be merely for rhetorical effect. At least, I do not suppose he really thinks that the future lies in a confrontation between the ideas of the Enlightenment, and an unspecified number of heavy drinking delinquents.

Rather, we seem to be in the happily dotty world of the 1960s. The Subject is identified with the "individual's autonomous thought and action, against enforced orders, inherited taboos and conformism of all kinds". Now enforced orders (No entry. Drive on the left), inherited taboos (No killing. No eating dirt) and conformism (Speak the language of those around you. Try to wash more than once a week) have something to be said for them. The Subject who throws them over wholesale is certainly going to be a nuisance both to himself and others. Last time round, Woodstock Man and Woman did not make a very big change in the social order, and I am not sure I see signs that they ever will. Apart from anything else their inability to distinguish good from bad orders, taboos, and conformities disqualifies them from effective political association. It says much for the sheer range of Touraine's vision that such details are incidental or even invisible.

Philosophically his message could, I think, be reconstructed. The Subject need not be an especially tiresome free and creative character, but an aspect of each of us. It bears some relation to self-consciousness, and to the Kantian freedom of the critical agent. In other words, although we are consumers and nationals, and bourgeois citizens who have to work for a living in often unrewarding jobs, we are also capable of other aspirations and other visions of what a good life would be, and we can criticise our society in the light of those aspirations and visions. If one of the aims of totalitarianism was that other possibilities should become entirely invisible to its citizens, then perhaps it underestimated the levels of consciousness that even the best brain-washing fails to destroy. But this is no reason for complacency, for even if it is difficult to destroy all capacity for critical thought in everyone, it is certainly possible to leave only a vestigial sign of it in only some people, as the current dumbing-down of America and Britain so vividly shows.

For this reason it is a great mistake to use the Kantian rhetoric of autonomy as Touraine does, and to think that the critical, self-conscious side of us is somehow a birthright, guaranteed to us because of our "rationality" and hence immune from the "roles, norms, and values" that we inherit from biology, evolution, and our surrounding social order. Even a capacity for critical rejection of a social order must itself arise from thoughts and values that have some social origin, and, if it is to be successful, it must also gain some social recognition in the corresponding thoughts and values of others.

Of course, when we deliberate we feel free, but this is not because our deliberations are the doings of a Subject that is miraculously free of all influence and all historically situated circumstances, but for the more mundane reason that while we are thinking about what to do we are not at the same time thinking about what causes us to think as we are doing. It is not that causation does not exist, but that we are not looking where it is to be found; although invisible to the agent, it might well be visible to the neurophysiologist, the biologist, or the sociologist. To the philosopher, Touraine's book is a cheering reminder that we need our thoughts about freedom and responsibility to be in order, for even such very abstract ideas have a way of breaking loose, and causing havoc.

Simon Blackburn is a professor of philosophy, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Critique of Modernity

Author - Alain Touraine
ISBN - 1 55786 530 2 and 531 0
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 398

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