[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Understanding the present

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John Gray: Understanding the present
The Times Literary Supplement, 1996.12.13

    CONTEMPORARY SOCIAL THOUGHT By Anthony Giddens 304pp. Oxford: Polity.
    £45 (paperback, £13.95). - 0 7456 1539 2

    As Anthony Giddens aptly observes, in a penetrating introduction to
    his valuable collection of papers, "All disciplines have their fictive
    histories, all are imagined communities which invoke myths of the past
    as a means of both charting their own internal development and unity,
    and also drawing boundaries between themselves and other neighbouring
    disciplines." Politics, Sociology and Social Theory may be read as an
    exercise in revisionist intellectual history.

    The critical perspectives that Giddens advances here on sociology's
    "classics" - the writings of Marx, Weber and Durkheim - are further
    developments of the arguments presented in his Capitalism and Social
    Theory. This book proposes new contexts of use for the re-affirmation
    (against the excesses of structuralist and post-structuralist
    theorists) of the indispensable role of the human subject in social
    and historical explanation. In these respects, this volume is clearly
    continuous with Giddens's earlier work. But it is also a vehicle for
    new reflections on capitalism, avowedly occasioned by the historical
    transformations of the past decade. Giddens comments on the anomalous
    fact that "capitalism" as a theoretical category has all but vanished
    from social-scientific discourse at the precise historic moment at
    which capitalist institutions have extended their reach so as to
    remove any functioning alternative to themselves. In our present
    historical context, in which systemic alternatives to "capitalism"
    have disappeared, the Marxian talk of antagonistic economic systems
    has been largely replaced by a vague terminology of "industrial (or
    post-industrial) society".

    What explains this anomaly, he suggests, is "either that it
    (capitalism) is so ubiquitous that it barely needs mentioning, or that
    it was mainly applied in the past as part of a critical discourse of
    socialists". This explanation seems to me a little over-generous.
    After all, what distinguished social theory over the past generation
    was not so much its use of "capitalism" as a critical category but the
    remoteness from any historical reality of its accounts of actually
    existing capitalisms - or indeed, of socialisms. One would never have
    suspected, reading Habermas, say, that our century's crisis of
    legitimation would occur not in any advanced capitalist society but in
    the centrally planned economies of the former Soviet bloc. This is not
    to say that evidence for the legitimation crisis of Soviet
    institutions was lacking. Such evidence was plentiful; but it was
    found in the writings of obscure and doomed dissidents, without
    academic credentials, such as Andrei Amalrik, whose contributions -
    such as his Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? published in
    1970 - figure in the fictive history of no academic discipline (least
    of all in mainstream Sovietology). Nor could one have guessed that the
    most apocalyptic forms of environmental degradation in our time have
    arisen as side-effects of central planning institutions. Recent social
    theory was predicated on the supposition that systemic alternatives to
    capitalism were real historical options for advanced capitalist
    societies. Once this premiss was defeated on the terrain of history,
    social theorists found themselves with next to nothing to say about
    how the varieties of capitalism that we are left with work in
    practice, or how they might be modified so that the threats which
    globalized market forces undoubtedly pose to human wellbeing might be
    moderated. Neither the explanatory nor the meliorist interest of
    "classical" social theory has been prominent in its most recent

    Giddens's own work is a striking exception to the sterility of
    post-socialist social thought. The present volume shows Giddens at his
    refreshingly iconoclastic best, interpreting Herbert Marcuse as a
    latter-day exponent of the archaic political philosophy of
    Saint-Simon, showing the many similarities between Karl Popper's
    philosophy and the positivism of the Vienna School, tracing the
    ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel's debts to Alfred Schutz and the
    hermeneutic tradition, and producing many other illuminating examples
    of revisionist intellectual history as applied to social thought.
    Giddens is especially, and happily, sharp in his criticisms of the
    Foucaldian inflation of the category of "power", citing Michael
    Ignatieff's work on the origins of prisons as an antidote to
    Foucault's wilder theorizings about "disciplinary regimes", and
    commenting on the frivolity of Foucault's dismissal of "bourgeois
    freedoms". These are all profoundly instructive contributions, which
    confirm Giddens's standing as the pre-eminent social theorist of his
    generation. Yet, one is still left with the uncomfortable suspicion
    that current social theory has little to offer us in our attempt to
    understand the present.

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