Since the second world war, our politics has become increasingly distant from people. Voter participation has declined, distrust in politicians has grown, and corruption perceptions have increased in many jurisdictions. Inequality has accelerated as those with the highest wealth and income acquire ever greater resources – far more than they can reasonably consume – while those at the other end of the economic spectrum see their lot diminish. The relationships between commerce and politics have deepened as free market policies have governed national policy in western liberal democracies across the range of services, from social welfare and healthcare to infrastructure and defence. These institutions, invested with authority and legitimacy by democratic processes, appear foreign to the people they claim to serve; their values – of costs, efficiencies, and performance – seem distant from their clients. These institutions often instil fear, driven as they are by objectives of enforcement, compliance, and law.
Iván Szelényi’s course on the Foundations of Modern Social Theory is a fascinating trip through some key thinkers, from political philosophers to economists, psychologists and more broadly based social scientists. If anything, perhaps, it shows how blurred the lines are between the disciplines; linking Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Weber to me at least was not clear: Marx was either a political scientist or an economist; Nietzsche was an existentialist philosopher; Freud was a psychologist; and Weber a sociologist. Where they coalesce, Szelényi suggests, is that they are all critical theorists. They are concerned with consciousness, with what is in the mind. Giving voice to their common purpose, he said they are suggesting that ‘[w]hat is in your mind is not necessarily what you think it is. Let’s subject your consciousness to critical scrutiny.’ His heavily accented presentation is both compelling and dramatic, and the course is to be recommended, as is the Open Yale program in general. A fabulous educational resource.
In an almost throwaway comment towards the end of his lecture on Freud, Szelényi suggests that Freud saw civilisation itself as a technology. To begin with, nature and the world is the source of our unhappiness – our discontent – and therefore we seek to assert control over it. This is something that reflects Lewis Mumford (our system that ‘…makes control over physical nature, ultimately control over man himself, the chief purpose of existence’), Murray Bookchin’s ecological worldview, and more recently the laments of Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost and the Object Oriented Ontologists – more on them later. This man versus nature battle, or subject versus object if you prefer, yielded for Freud the civilisation with which we are possessed, one bent on world domination, so to speak. Our system of social relations, our politics, is designed to extend more and more control over the world, and over mankind itself. Our civilisation is a technology, a machine, that is designed towards that end, designed to relieve us of the pain and frustration that nature inflicts upon us, up to and including mortality itself. Morton suggests that we are in fact already governed by what is effectively a primitive Artificial Intelligence, that of industrial capitalism.