Situations Manifesto

To cel­e­brate the launch of our new web­site, we are repub­lish­ing the Sit­u­a­tions Man­i­festo, which orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the first issue of “Sit­u­a­tions: Project of the Rad­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion” journal,Vol. 1, No.1 (2005)

Stan­ley Aronowitz and Peter Brat­sis, for the edi­to­r­i­al col­lec­tive

It does not mat­ter how long real­ism affords the mind the lux­u­ry of intel­lec­tu­al response; the strik­ing fact is that every fruit­ful sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion has forced a pro­found revi­sion of the cat­e­gories of the real. What is more, real­ism nev­er pre­cip­i­tates such crises on its own. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary impulse comes from else­where, from the realm of the abstract.

Gas­ton Bachelard, The New Sci­en­tif­ic Spir­it

THE CRISIS

WE ARE IN the midst of a polit­i­cal and con­cep­tu­al cri­sis. Deter­min­is­tic think­ing on the left has con­verged with a gen­er­al sense of pow­er­less­ness, with the view that social rela­tions today are, large­ly, immutable. The con­vic­tion that soci­ety can be changed for the bet­ter, which char­ac­ter­ized left pol­i­tics in ear­li­er decades, has great­ly dimin­ished. From today’s per­spec­tive, there is lit­tle room for social agency. Peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in anti-war march­es with lit­tle hope that they will actu­al­ly suc­ceed. Pol­i­tics increas­ing­ly seems to be fixed and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries flour­ish. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary projects of the past are seen as naïve, utopi­an, unre­al­is­tic. At best, pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics con­sists in defend­ing the rem­nants of Key­ne­sian poli­cies and civ­il lib­er­ties in the face of the lib­er­al-author­i­tar­i­an pro­grams of the cap­i­tal­ist state. In the Unit­ed States — in par­tial con­trast to West­ern Europe, where every step by the right to dis­man­tle ele­ments of the post-war com­pro­mise between labor and cap­i­tal is met by mass resis­tance — only the anti-war move­ment has mount­ed pop­u­lar protests on a large-scale, and then only spo­rad­i­cal­ly. Trade unions have become ver­i­ta­ble bystanders in their own destruc­tion; once vital social move­ments such as those of fem­i­nism and black free­dom are in dis­ar­ray.

As the right has under­tak­en a frontal assault on the remain­ing insti­tu­tions of the wel­fare state – destroy­ing pro­grams of income secu­ri­ty, threat­en­ing to dis­man­tle the nation­al pen­sion pro­gram, weak­en­ing bank­rupt­cy laws that offered some relief to both work­ing and mid­dle class peo­ple who suf­fer from exces­sive debt, and under­min­ing or fla­grant­ly refus­ing to enforce envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions – it has dis­played an alarm­ing ten­den­cy towards bar­barism in its atti­tude towards human rights. Abu Ghraib was by no means an aber­ra­tion; as recent rev­e­la­tions of at least 26 civil­ian mur­ders by US forces in Iraq indi­cate, bar­barism is now part of nation­al pol­i­cy. Per­haps the term “bar­barism” offends some sen­si­bil­i­ties who per­sist in the view that “it can’t hap­pen here”. Con­sid­er the government’s pro­gram of sur­veil­lance of the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion in the name of home­land secu­ri­ty; the brazen reg­i­men­ta­tion of chil­dren and teach­ers entailed by No Child Left Behind; and the fias­co of labor law which now pro­tects employ­ers against work­ers. Is the next step the for­ma­tion of a labor front in which “unions” are formed by the gov­ern­ment or by the employ­ers to keep work­ers from orga­niz­ing unions of their own choos­ing?

The Unit­ed States, the last super­pow­er, at least in mil­i­tary terms, is rapid­ly renew­ing its ver­sion of mil­i­tarism, extend­ing the pre­vail­ing poli­cies of mil­i­tary Key­ne­sian­ism, which has marked suc­ces­sive right­ist nation­al gov­ern­ments since 1981. The dif­fer­ence from the U.S. mil­i­tarism of the past is that while the post-war U.S. glob­al expan­sion cor­re­spond­ed to its eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal ascen­dan­cy – and made room for a ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing, improve­ments in the con­di­tions of blacks and Lati­nos and, dur­ing the Viet­nam war, tried to win the hearts and minds by pro­mot­ing a trun­cat­ed ver­sion of social jus­tice – the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is more dan­ger­ous because mil­i­tarism is a dis­place­ment of the decline of the nation­al econ­o­my and is accom­pa­nied by a Napoleon­ic mis­sion of world dom­i­na­tion in the name of spread­ing “democ­ra­cy”.

As lib­er­als and left­ists scram­ble to put their col­lec­tive fin­gers in the dike, but with­out the capac­i­ty to rethink the struc­ture itself, the right opens up new fronts of class and social war­fare. Most sig­nif­i­cant is that the right has offered a vision of a new life, one intend­ed to cap­ture the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. It has appro­pri­at­ed and trans­fig­ured the tra­di­tion­al rad­i­cal slo­gans of work­ers’ con­trol and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy with a pop­ulism that has con­found­ed its oppo­nents. The con­cept of the “own­er­ship soci­ety” cor­re­sponds to the eco­nom­ic-lib­er­al dis­dain for all forms of col­lec­tive action as well as its sub­ver­sion of the rad­i­cal idea of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. By ele­vat­ing indi­vid­ual “own­er­ship” to the lev­el of a cul­tur­al ide­al, it has found a pow­er­ful way to jus­ti­fy all forms of dis­man­tle­ment and sug­gest­ed a return to a social atom­ism sim­i­lar to that in clas­si­cal Eng­lish polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. Iron­i­cal­ly, this turn occurs pre­cise­ly at the moment when the con­cen­tra­tion and cen­tral­iza­tion of cap­i­tal, and its con­comi­tant con­cen­tra­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er, has reached new heights. For, we live in a time when to find a small gro­cery store, a shoe repair shop, or pharmacy—the every­day hall­marks of com­mu­ni­ty life—is as rare as an ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry bot­tle of wine. And, in place of sol­i­dar­i­ty with the work­ing poor, even the work­ing poor are encour­aged to view them­selves as con­sumers who shop at Wal-Mart because their pri­ma­ry val­ue is to seek and secure a bar­gain.

The cri­sis of imag­i­na­tion, which plagues many social move­ments as well as left the­o­ret­i­cal ten­den­cies, is both a symp­tom of and a con­tribut­ing cause of the cur­rent polit­i­cal malaise. The lega­cies of ortho­dox Marx­ism com­bined with the increas­ing­ly ubiq­ui­tous belief in the nat­u­ral­ness of the eco­nom­ic has led to a turn away from the ques­tions of pol­i­tics and of cul­ture, pre­fer­ring to assert some form of eco­nom­ic deter­min­ism. That Cap­i­tal pre­vails, in part, because it can cap­ture the hearts and minds of large seg­ments of the under­ly­ing population—and not only the mid­dle classes—is ignored or cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly denied. At least most of the recent work on glob­al­iza­tion presents itself in images creep­i­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the for­mu­la­tions of the 2nd and 3rd Inter­na­tion­als at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry. In short, it is a moment when the dialec­tic of defeat per­vades the space of social and polit­i­cal thought.

THEORY AND IMAGINATION IN THE AGE OF REDUCTIONIST THOUGHT

When C. Wright Mills wrote The Soci­o­log­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion, the tenor of mod­ern soci­eties was such that he con­fi­dent­ly declared the impend­ing cul­tur­al and ana­lyt­i­cal dom­i­nance of the ‘soci­o­log­i­cal imag­i­na­tion.’ Just as the nat­ur­al sci­ences had once dis­placed spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy and reli­gious mys­ti­cism, so now social sci­ence was dis­plac­ing a spe­cial­ized, for­mal­is­tic and mech­a­nis­tic ‘sci­ence.’ This increas­ing­ly sus­pect tech­nol­o­gized sci­ence had cre­at­ed the means for world destruc­tion and was, accord­ing to Mills, alien­at­ing and inca­pable of address­ing the fun­da­men­tal con­cerns of human beings. Under this sce­nario, cat­e­gories derived from the nat­ur­al sci­ences which had been cen­tral to social analy­sis, the idea of ‘human nature’ for exam­ple, as well as the deter­min­is­tic under­tones of the nat­ur­al sci­ences, were in the process of being over­turned and replaced. More imag­i­na­tive and rig­or­ous under­stand­ings of human soci­eties would emerge as a result of this shift in the dom­i­nant mode of inquiry.

Look­ing back upon Mills’s argu­ments near­ly fifty years lat­er, one can­not but mar­vel at the stark rever­sal that has tak­en place. Micro­bi­ol­o­gy and the genome now reign supreme as the foun­da­tion for under­stand­ing human soci­eties. Every­thing from exces­sive cred­it-card debt to bulim­ia and sui­cide can pre­sum­ably be reduced to genet­ic caus­es. More­over, our lives are increas­ing­ly sat­u­rat­ed by and depen­dent upon tech­nolo­gies in ways that even Mills could not have antic­i­pat­ed. The virtues of per­son­al com­put­ers, satel­lites, mobile phones, CAT-scan machines, and so on, have large­ly erased any anx­i­eties and uncer­tain­ties that accom­pa­nied the dawn of the nuclear age. As far as science’s fail­ure to address the fun­da­men­tal con­cerns of humans, this still may be the case but, rather than turn­ing to socio-polit­i­cal thought, a resur­gence of reli­gios­i­ty and mys­ti­cism has marked con­tem­po­rary soci­eties. This turn has man­i­fest­ed itself in the increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ism, astrol­o­gy, Kab­bala, Bud­dhism, and a pletho­ra of oth­er mys­ti­cisms and new-age doc­trines.

In this con­text, where a great host of com­plex social and indi­vid­ual real­i­ties are reduced to bio­chem­istry on the one hand and/or the super­nat­ur­al on the oth­er, social sci­ence as a whole and rad­i­cal polit­i­cal thought in par­tic­u­lar has failed to pro­vide much of an alter­na­tive. The reduc­tion­is­tic think­ing that per­me­ates con­tem­po­rary soci­ety is more than reflect­ed in the cur­rent state of social thought. On the one hand, the­o­rists such as John Rawls and Michael Walz­er, among many oth­ers, attempt to reduce pol­i­tics to an exer­cise in applied phi­los­o­phy. Nor­ma­tive ques­tions revolv­ing around the issues of jus­tice and war, for exam­ple, are tech­ni­cal­ized and pre­sent­ed as belong­ing to the realm of experts. How should resources be dis­trib­uted? Should we go to war? Nor­ma­tive polit­i­cal the­o­rists have assert­ed that there are right and wrong answers and that they know what the cor­rect answers are. For­tu­nate­ly or unfor­tu­nate­ly, as these nor­ma­tive the­o­rists craft and recraft their schemas and proofs, real pol­i­tics con­tin­ues unfazed. This elit­ist and futile ten­den­cy with­in polit­i­cal and social thought harkens back to the Pla­ton­ic tra­di­tion and, in the last instance, posits some extra-social realm of truth, be it nature or god. For all the trees that have been sac­ri­ficed to the­o­ries of jus­tice, they have offered no alter­na­tive to the reduc­tion­ism that plagues mod­ern think­ing nor have they explained any social phe­nom­e­na or recast any social cat­e­go­ry.

On the oth­er hand, more ana­lyt­i­cal­ly focused social sci­en­tif­ic thought, although cer­tain­ly more use­ful than its nor­ma­tive coun­ter­part, has also been very sus­cep­ti­ble to reduc­tion­is­tic think­ing. Ratio­nal choice the­o­ry, struc­tur­al-func­tion­al­ism, behav­ior­ism; a mul­ti­tude of social and polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­na are reduced to a few stan­dard caus­es. Even, if not espe­cial­ly, in left the­o­ry this is the case. In spite of the attempts with­in Marx­ist and allied thought in the 1930’s and 1960’s to come to a the­o­ry of pol­i­tics, to an under­stand­ing of the polit­i­cal that did not reduce it to a sim­ple reflec­tion of the econ­o­my or the will of some cap­i­tal­ists, rad­i­cal thought today has again slipped towards reduc­tion­ism. The con­tri­bu­tions of Lenin, Lux­em­burg, Gram­sci, Mao, Sartre, Ben­jamin, Lefeb­vre, Althuss­er, Cas­to­ri­adis, and so on, are not for­got­ten but their over­lap­ping projects remain derailed. Look­ing to the con­tri­bu­tions with­in the left today, we see that sig­nif­i­cant and pop­u­lar authors such as Immanuel Waller­stein, Noam Chom­sky, and Anto­nio Negri take pol­i­tics to large­ly be reflec­tions of eco­nom­ic process­es and inter­ests. For Waller­stein and world-sys­tems the­o­ry, the forms of pol­i­tics, polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties, and polit­i­cal con­flicts can all be explained by way of the world-sys­tem and the work­ings of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion and its divi­sion of labor. With­in world-sys­tems the­o­ry, even hyper-deter­min­is­tic and qua­si-astro­log­i­cal con­cepts like Kon­drati­eff waves retain valid­i­ty. For Negri and Michael Hardt, cap­i­tal­ist glob­al­iza­tion brings about the reter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion of polit­i­cal space, the polit­i­cal log­ic of empire, and cre­ates its own gravedig­ger in the form of the ‘mul­ti­tude’. Even in the very pop­u­lar and great­ly respect­ed work of Karl Polanyi, the polit­i­cal move­ments and shifts that allow for the emer­gence of the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket­place are often pre­sent­ed as lit­tle more than pol­i­tics con­form­ing to the needs of the econ­o­my. One is hard pressed to find a neg­a­tive word regard­ing Polanyi’s work and it is usu­al­ly pre­sent­ed as a key in the shift to under­stand­ing the agency of pol­i­tics with­in cap­i­tal­ism but, despite its many virtues, his argu­ment on the polit­i­cal often reduces it to a reflec­tion of the base. Pol­i­tics may help con­sti­tute the econ­o­my but, as Polanyi presents it, it is respond­ing to the func­tion­al needs of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my as it does so. Whether dis­cussing the enclo­sures or the Corn Laws, the impres­sion giv­en is that these were nec­es­sary and unavoid­able from the point of view of the econ­o­my.

This reduc­tion­ism is also char­ac­ter­is­tic of the work by Chom­sky. In book after book, Chom­sky presents the eco­nom­ic inter­ests and inter­per­son­al net­works that under­pin the actions of the state and its allied insti­tu­tions. Politi­cians togeth­er with oil com­pa­ny exec­u­tives and media moguls bam­boo­zle the mass­es. Chom­sky sees his task as uncov­er­ing this process and pro­vid­ing us with the ‘real sto­ry’. The prob­lem with such a project is that, even if they do not know the specifics, the dom­i­nat­ed class­es already know that they have lit­tle pow­er. They know that wealthy cor­po­rate elites have an inor­di­nate amount of con­trol in pol­i­tics. They know that, here and around the world, the sub­al­tern class­es suf­fer at the hands of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal elites. As Leonard Cohen puts it, ‘every­body knows that the dice are loaded’. Retired steel­work­ers who lose their health ben­e­fits do not need to read Chom­sky in order to under­stand the polit­i­cal reper­cus­sions of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty nor do dis­placed Chi­nese farm­ers or Brazil­ian house­maids.

Indeed, as Michael Moore’s Fahren­heit 9/11 made its way across the Unit­ed States lead­ing up to the 2004 elec­tion, we saw that ‘the facts’ did lit­tle to trans­form the real­i­ties of Amer­i­can soci­ety. As the epi­graph from Gas­ton Bachelard argues, real­ism and ‘the facts’ do not in them­selves bring about a trans­for­ma­tion of the real. Although Chom­sky and his ‘real sto­ries’ are impor­tant and have a use­ful role as a kind of left reportage, they are insuf­fi­cient as trans­for­ma­tive knowl­edge. More gen­er­al­ly, the eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism of much of rad­i­cal thought today cor­re­sponds very well with the type of under­stand­ing that many with­in the dom­i­nat­ed class­es already have of soci­ety. Eco­nom­ic deter­min­ism pos­es no chal­lenge to the reduc­tion­is­tic notions of causal­i­ty that dom­i­nate pop­u­lar thought; there is no room for pop­u­lar agency and the rad­i­cal imag­i­na­tion.

THE PROJECT

The project of Sit­u­a­tions is to address this lapse of the rad­i­cal imag­i­na­tion in both left the­o­ry and in pop­u­lar con­scious­ness. It aims to explore the social con­di­tions and lived expe­ri­ences that have led to this malaise and to sup­port expla­na­tions that do not reduce polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­na to a reflec­tion. Sit­u­a­tions will exam­ine the fields of aca­d­e­m­ic and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion in order to iden­ti­fy the sys­temic caus­es of this inabil­i­ty to break with lived expe­ri­ence. Sit­u­a­tions will pub­lish crit­i­cal assess­ments of rad­i­cal polit­i­cal thought with an eye towards iden­ti­fy­ing that which is still use­ful and that which is insuf­fi­cient for under­stand­ing what is new and dif­fer­ent in pol­i­tics and cul­ture today. Sit­u­a­tions will pub­lish crit­i­cal exam­i­na­tions of social move­ments and pop­u­lar attempts to guide polit­i­cal change. Sit­u­a­tions will fos­ter modes of think­ing that rec­og­nize the cre­ative role that soci­ety plays in its own pro­duc­tion. In oppo­si­tion to sim­ple deter­minisms, Sit­u­a­tions will attempt to show the con­tin­gen­cies and pecu­liar­i­ties, the over/undetermined nature, of polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­na. This is not viewed as sim­ply a method­olog­i­cal pre­cept but as a prag­mat­ic and polit­i­cal neces­si­ty in the attempt to over­come reduc­tion­ist thought. Our under­stand­ing of pol­i­tics is so her­met­i­cal­ly sealed, so free of con­tin­gen­cies, that very few of us, if any, have any real hope for sub­stan­tive change or a rev­o­lu­tion­ary break. Sit­u­a­tions will attempt to bring the the­o­ry of pol­i­tics and ques­tions of strat­e­gy back into the fore of left think­ing.

Mind­ful of its role as a jour­nal, Sit­u­a­tions will attempt to actu­al­ize its agency through cre­ativ­i­ty in ideas and con­cepts. Sit­u­a­tions con­sid­ers the lim­it to agency today to be self-imposed, an out­come of our own paral­y­sis and lack of orig­i­nal­i­ty in the face of a rapid­ly chang­ing and seem­ing­ly auto­mat­ed world. We will search out the rev­o­lu­tion­ary impulse that comes from the abstract, from break­ing with lived expe­ri­ence and seek­ing new ways of under­stand­ing and sit­u­at­ing our­selves with­in soci­ety.

BASIC TASKS

  1. Iden­ti­fy­ing what it is about con­tem­po­rary soci­ety that leads to the per­cep­tion of hope­less­ness and deter­min­ism.
  2. Exam­in­ing the field of acad­e­mia and intel­lec­tu­al pro­duc­tion and iden­ti­fy­ing the sys­temic caus­es of its inabil­i­ty to break with reduc­tion­ism and their own scholas­tic ten­den­cies
  3. Cri­tiquing the dom­i­nant trends with­in Left the­o­ry towards economism and scholas­ti­cism.
  4. Start­ing an open dis­cus­sion toward build­ing a new the­o­ry of pol­i­tics to address the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. Actu­al­iz­ing a crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of key con­cepts and pre­cepts of Left the­o­ry, and ask­ing what con­cepts are still ana­lyt­i­cal­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly use­ful and what areas need new ideas and dis­cus­sion.
  5. Explo­ration of core ques­tions regard­ing the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, polit­i­cal strat­e­gy and political/social move­ments. Specif­i­cal­ly, an analy­sis of the post 9/11 prac­tice of the anti-glob­al­iza­tion move­ment. We need to ask the ques­tion about a new “his­tor­i­cal bloc” and we need a search­ing dis­cus­sion of the fate of the “new” social move­ments at the turn of the 21st cen­tu­ry. How to address the enor­mous suc­cess of social con­ser­vatism in putting fem­i­nists on the defen­sive? What are the influ­ences that have led to the vir­tu­al silence on the widen­ing eco­nom­ic and social gap between the black mid­dle class and the black work­ing class? Why has there been so lit­tle out­cry against the bur­geon­ing unem­ploy­ment and unem­ploy­ment afflict­ing wider and wider social lay­ers?
  6. The decline of the labor move­ment. Why? And is there a new labor move­ment in process? This ques­tion address­es the new forms of labor strug­gle in the Unit­ed States and abroad, and the prospects for glob­al labor sol­i­dar­i­ty to deal with cap­i­tal mobil­i­ty, state repres­sion of work­ers’ strug­gles and declin­ing liv­ing stan­dards.
  7. Defin­ing “Class” “the peo­ple” “mul­ti­tude” how are they dif­fer­ent? How are they sim­i­lar? Here we will explore the ques­tion of the “new” anar­chism.
  8. Fac­ing of the most severe eco­log­i­cal cri­sis in human his­to­ry, why is there no seri­ous dis­cus­sion in left cir­cles con­cern­ing its cen­tral­i­ty? Why is the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment unable to mobi­lize protest and resis­tance against the life-threat­en­ing poli­cies of West­ern gov­ern­ments, and espe­cial­ly the Bush admin­is­tra­tion?
  9. How is it that the right has effec­tive­ly (in the advanced coun­tries) been able to mobi­lize “the peo­ple” for its own pur­pos­es. We want to once again raise the Reichi­an ques­tion of libid­i­nal econ­o­my in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. Why has the right cap­tured the pol­i­tics of hope? Why is the left con­fined to debunk­ing cap­i­tal­ist iconog­ra­phy
  10. Read­ing the cur­rent tem­per through exam­i­na­tion of pop­u­lar cul­ture (music, film, tele­vi­sion and lit­er­a­ture).
  11. Explor­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the new media, e.g. the inter­net as a means of orga­niz­ing and a means to cre­ate a new pub­lic-sphere; the ques­tion of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy as a new sen­si­bil­i­ty that has impli­ca­tions for pol­i­tics.
  12. Attempt­ing to dis­cov­er a pos­si­bil­i­ty in the dynam­ics of inter­na­tion­al law to sig­nif­i­cant­ly con­front the move­ments of empire or is this just anoth­er left/liberal fan­ta­sy.
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Stanley Aronowitz

Posted by Stanley Aronowitz

Stanley Aronowitz is Distinguished Professor in Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is "The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers' Movement"(Verso, 2015). He is the co-managing editor of Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination, and a Board member of the Institute for the Radical Imagination. He is author or editor of twenty-five books and is founding editor of the journal Social Text.

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