Tag Archives: sociology.

Francesco Giacomantonio, Sociologia dell’agire politico (Rome: Studium, 2014)

 

In his recently published Sociologia dell’agire politico (Sociology of Political Action) Francesco Giacomantonio focuses on the material and cultural conditions that are adversely affecting the possibility for effective political action, where the latter is broadly understood as “the set of all the activities that influence politics or have political repercussions” (16). Notwithstanding the book’s title, in fact, its main concern does not appear to be the study of political action itself, but rather a reflection on the nature and causes of its current crisis.

Giacomantonio understands the analysis undertaken in the book as an exercise in “theoretical sociology”, meaning by this that he does not engage directly with the sociological facts at stake, but tries instead to reconstruct the conceptual coordinates through which such phenomena can be understood and analysed. The central part of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of three leading paradigms that have had an enormous influence on the debate about the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies, as they are expounded in the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek.

 

Bauman’s account is presented by Giacomantonio as the most “apocalyptic” of the three; its dismal description of the “liquid society” cannot be redeemed by the counter-measures Bauman advocates, such as the appeal to personal responsibility and the re-establishment of a public agora, which appear to be vacuous and unfeasible. A more optimistic outlook, Giacomantonio points out, is the one proposed by Habermas. Even if Habermas insists on the depoliticization of the public sphere brought about by late capitalism and on the technocratic turn of the liberal state, his theory of democracy also points to the communicative resources that can still be mobilized in our societies. Giacomantonio also pauses to consider how Habermas tackles the challenge of multiculturalism and the role of religion in the public sphere. Žižek’s position, finally, is presented as a bold call for radical social change and the re-thinking of the very conceptual landscape on which our politics is taking place. Giacomantonio stresses the importance of Zizek’s reflection on the subject, his appeal to the re-politicization of the economic sphere, and his critique of the neo-liberal order.

 

In the final part of the book the author draws from the works of the authors discussed in the previous chapters in order to summarize the major sources of the crisis of political action in our societies. The main focus, here, is on the erosion of a shared social space, and of the common meanings and practices that are needed for individual action to have content and purpose, thus creating a world of “freedom without autonomy” (89). The erosion of a shared social space is connected to the privatization of the public sphere, which leaves individuals isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless, as public intellectuals are relinquishing their role and the leading cultural trends promote what Marcuse would have called a “closing of the universe of discourse” (94). Giacomantonio does not seem to have any ready solutions to this predicament; however, he suggests that a good starting point might consist in the rejection of radical individualism, by “freeing ourselves from egocentrism and utilitarianism” and learning “to be better rather than to have the best” (102). The closing pages of the book also remind us of the importance of imagination in politics, because only through imagination we can open the door to moral, cultural and social progress.

 

Giacomantonio’s reconstruction of the thought of Bauman’s, Hayek’s and Žižek is clear and accurate (only a couple of reservations might be raised, about the idea that Žižek can be taken as “last true heir” of the tradition of the Frankfurt School (84), and what I believe to be an overstatement of the role of religion in Habermas’s account of cohesion in contemporary societies (61-2)). Moreover, Giacomantonio’s choice of Habermas, Žižek and Bauman as guiding references for the critical analysis developed in the book is considered and fruitful; there is no doubt that these three authors deserve attention by whoever wants to reflect on the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies.

 

Still, Giacomantonio’s way of tackling the issue of political agency seems to be somehow off-target. His analysis throughout the book focuses on the social processes that are depriving members of contemporary societies of the psychological and social resources that are needed for individual action to be meaningful, effective and genuinely free. There is no doubt that the erosion of these preconditions for successful individual action is also affecting the chances for constructive political engagement. However, in democratic politics – and indeed, we might argue with Arendt and other eminent thinkers of our tradition, in any kind of politics – political action is always and essentially the product of joint or collective action, rather than individual action. The crisis of politics in our time concerns above all the constitution and the operation of collective political subjects, and focusing on the sociology of individual action, like Giacomantonio does, tends to obscure this important fact about the ontology and the sociology of politics.

 

Giacomantonio’s discussion, then, should be taken as a useful – indeed, necessary – preliminary analysis of the sociological conditions that we need to consider when thinking on the possibility of political action. The study of the modes and sources of present and future political action needs to come next, and should have in view collective action as an essential element of politics.

Joseph Femia (ed.), Vilfredo Pareto (London: Ashgate, 2009)

However, apart from Pareto’s posthumous peak of fame in the 1930s and 1940s, when his work inspired a generation of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, genuine engagement with his studies has been actually quite rare over recent decades. To most contemporary researchers, Pareto is primarily little else but a name in the “rosary” of great dead white men encountered during one’s undergraduate studies, and then a label for two mathematical notions that young academics must familiarise themselves with. Even Pareto’s crucial contribution to political science, namely his theory about the circulation of the elites, seems to be poorly known these days.

Perhaps, as Joseph Femia—editor of the volume hereby reviewed—suggests in his concise yet comprehensive introduction to the life and work of “the hermit of Céligny”, it is true that Pareto’s cynical notion of social equilibrium, his lack of faith in human progress and collective enlightenment, his elusion of the comfortable categories of normal science, and the overwhelming theoretical as well as historical analyses in which he indulged for the sake of scientific completeness, scholarly precision, intellectual integrity, and academic pedantry make of Pareto one of the least inspiring authors that ever reached the status of “classic” in any discipline.

Yet, several scholars of the 20th century did read his work, no matter how uninspiring, depressing, tedious and taxing it could be. And they did not only read it, but also recognised its remarkable character and its profound insightfulness. In particular, many seemed to find Pareto’s work extremely appealing in connection with the general decline in individual liberty, social wellbeing and collective hope informing the aftermath of the First World War and of the ensuing boom-bust financial cycle of the 1920s, which unleashed the Great Depression and the affirmation of fascist regimes all over Continental Europe.

Some scholars, albeit fewer than in the inter-war grim interlude, have kept finding Pareto congenial after that time. Amongst them, Femia has proved himself to be one of today’s main experts on Pareto within Anglophone academia. In addition to the volume reviewed hereby, to him we owe two further recent books on Pareto: Pareto and Political Theory (New York: Routledge, 2006) and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (London: Ashgate, 2012). Whereas the former, as the title indicates, focuses upon the work of Pareto as a political thinker, the latter, co-edited with Alasdair Marshall, explores the ramifications of Pareto’s contribution for contemporary areas of inquiry, whether sociological (e.g. stratification research), economic (e.g. monetary issues) or humanistic (e.g. rhetorical reasoning).

The 2009 volume that Femia edits comprises three parts, each containing essays on Pareto by variously influential scholars of the 20th century. Specifically, Part I focuses upon methodological aspects of Pareto’s contribution to the social sciences, most notably sociology rather than economics, written in the 1930s and 1960s. Part II explores broader aspects of his social theory and includes studies written between the 1960s and 1990s. Two of them deserve a special mention, i.e. “Vilfredo Pareto’s Sociology in his Letters to Maffeo Pantaleoni” and “Introduction to Pareto’s Sociology” (pp. 67—87 and 89—112), for they were authored by Italy’s leading liberal thinker Norberto Bobbio and constitute a sort of “classics” in Italian Pareto studies. Noteworthy is also “Pareto, Vilfredo: Contributions to Sociology” (pp. 171—80), written by US action theorist Talcott Parsons, who is probably the most famous heir of Pareto’s in the Anglophone world. Part III discusses Pareto’s politics, especially with regard to English-speaking countries, and offers reflections over the last three decades of the 20th century by, inter alia, Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen (“The Impossibility of a Paretan Liberal”, pp. 267—72) as well as Joseph Femia himself (“Pareto and the Critique of Justice”, pp. 317—29). All together, these essays represent the most articulate introduction to Pareto’s social and political thought, as well as its reception over the past 70 years, currently available in the English language.

What is more, given the high quality of the scholarly work selected by the editor, such an introduction avoids the unfortunate yet widespread oversimplifications and blatantly erroneous depictions of Pareto’s thought, which is often “pigeon-holed” into science-worshipping positivism, psychological reductionism and proto-fascist authoritarianism.

Certainly, Pareto did attempt to apply the induction- and experiment-based scientific methods of physics and chemistry to the study of social phenomena. He did so in order to stress and charter the uniformities of human behaviour due to fundamental instincts and mental dispositions characteristic of our species, as well as to criticise much-venerated democratic regimes qua demagogic plutocracies. Nevertheless, he never denied the limitations intrinsic to the observation-constrained, abstraction-prone, descriptive, probabilistic hypotheses of the natural sciences. Indeed, even the field of economics, which he himself had contributed to formalise by adopting elements of the mathematics used in physics, had been abandoned by Pareto because of its inability to grasp the non-rational elements of the human psyche, which caused rationality-based economic models to fail regularly and inevitably in their predictions about the future. As Pareto had come to realise, the actual social man was not much of an homo economicus. C.B. Macpherson’s 1937 essay “Pareto’s ‘General Sociology'” (pp. 3—16) in Part I of Femia’s book is most relevant in this respect, as it accuses Pareto of adhering too much to the allegedly value-free methods of empirical science, yet revealing as well Pareto’s awaraness of the profound differences existing between the study of inanimate or animal phenomena and the study of value-driven human beings.

Analogously, Pareto researched and categorised the fundamental instincts or sentiments (“residues”) determining human action within societies and commonly rationalised post-factum into fallacious arguments (“derivations”) and doctrines (“derivatives”) in order to please yet another sentiment of ours, that is, our desire for explanations that sound logical to us. However, he never denied the ever-changing creative power of the human being as a semiotic animal, who is capable of activating and intensifying certain instincts and dispositions by engaging in symbolic activities. The tension between the fundamentally non-rational universal constant of “residues” and the possibility for self-reflective, cunning minds to manipulate them intelligently is discussed in Bobbio’s work as well as in the 1972 essay by Vincent Tarascio chosen for this collection (“Marx and Pareto on Science and History: A Comparative Analysis”, pp. 145—58), which also belongs to Part II.

Even less did Pareto deny the dangers to social order and public wellbeing stemming from political doctrines fostering despotism, censorship, nationalism and racism. Indeed, Pareto was very much an old-fashioned 19th-century liberal, who certainly disapproved of universal suffrage and other socially “dangerous” socialist aims, but commended the peaceful, direct male democracy of small Swiss cantons as the best example of political life in his age and regarded the liberty of the individual as paramount. In nuce, Mussolini’s deification of the State and his charismatic leadership of the masses did not belong to Pareto and their common association is, as S.E. Finer called it, “a misfortune” (“Pareto and Pluto-Democracy: The Retreat to Galapagos”, pp. 305—15; 305).

A scientist but not a devotee of scientism, a pessimist about human reason but not an irrationalist, and a conservative liberal but not a fascist: Pareto was a complex man and a complex thinker. He tried to mirror in his work the complexities of human phenomena themselves, thus avoiding explanatory shortcuts and ideological simplifications that would have probably granted him a much wider audience and a much broader appreciation. Femia’s book, which contains selected essays by some of the most eminent intellectuals who have written about Pareto over the last seven decades, bears witness to such complexities. It is therefore no easy book to read; yet no more candid depiction of Pareto’s approach and investigations would be possible.