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Reconstructive Social Theory: Ontology of the Present

Photo of Frederic Vandenberghe

This is a guest blog post by Professor Frederic Vandenberghe of Sociology in the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Frederic is a leading expert in the field of Critical Realism. He has been working on CR and the social sciences since 1994 when he completed his doctorate in Sociology from Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales. His work operates at the intersection of philosophy and sociology with a special interest in hermeneutics, phenomenology, and critical realism. He recently published a series of essays in a book titled, “What’s Critical about Critical Realism? Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory”. 

This is Part 4 of 4 in a blog post series by Professor Frederic Vandenberghe on Reconstructive Sociology. To read Part 3 on Agency, Culture, and the Social, click here.

Ontology of the Present

Social theory is interdisciplinary and concerns itself with an investigation of the central problems of the social sciences. Sociological theory is more directly tied to the discipline of sociology and can be considered a scientific attempt to “grasp one’s time in concepts” (Hegel). As a diagnostic ontology of the present, sociological theory is a kind of psychoanalysis on a grand scale. Is asks questions like, “who are we?”, “what´s wrong with us?” and “what can we do?” When one feels sick, depressed and finds it hard to cope, one goes to see a shrink. When societies are in transition, insecure and full of pathologies, the sociologist is called in for a diagnosis (Zeitdiagnosis) of their morbid symptoms. We are going once again through dark times. The planet is dying; humanity is sick of itself; the world-system is overcomplex and close to collapse; economics and politics are reaching the end of a cycle; global legitimation and motivation crises are affecting the life-world. Precisely when catastrophe looms and the horizon seems blocked for another decade, it is important to revert the perspective and explore possibilities of reconstruction from the bottom up.

The sociologist offers not only critique and diagnosis. S/he also proposes a therapy, a propaedeutic, and a pedagogy to eudemonia. S/he not only analyses the social pathologies (alienation and reification; rationalisation and disenchantment; anomie and loneliness) and psychopathologies (depression, panic attack, suicide) of over-complex post-industrial, hyper-technological and super-capitalist societies, but also needs to indicate what is functioning and what can be changed. Once again, Marcel Mauss indicates the right perspective: “The day when some sociologists, together with some political theorists, smitten by the future, will arrive at firmness in the diagnosis, fortitude in the therapeutics, the propaedeutic and, above all, in the pedagogy, the cause of sociology will be won” (Mauss, 1969:78).

The only thing we can change right here and right now is ourselves, as Bhaskar (2002: xxxvi) said. So, as we cannot change the social structures overnight, however, hard we try, let’s see if we can change our reaction to them and let’s work on ourselves. That is not easy either. We’re all too often stuck in repetitions, idiosyncratic habits, and inertias. Sometimes it takes an existential crisis to change. Nothing guarantees that the crisis, which may be caused by relational break ups, conflicts at work, death among friends and family, will be overcome. “Situations at the limit” (Jaspers, 1971:18) that we cannot change or transcend without transcending ourselves are existential threats. Persons may fail and fracture, others will rigidify and mortify themselves; others still may attempt suicide, wreak havoc through violence or disappear in a haze of alcohol of drugs. The fracturing of the self may also be the moment of no return and reconstruction. The existential question: “Who am I?”, “What do I really care about?”  and “What do I want to do with my life?” may trigger a process of intense “metareflexivity” (Archer, 2003). This is the case when the persons reevaluates all her former life choices and tries desperately to live the life she dreams of: resigning form work, going back to university, coming out of the closet, opening an eco-lodge in the countryside, go on a humanitarian mission, doing whatever allows her to do what she thinks she ought to do to live in accordance with her ultimate beliefs and values. We’ve all met metareflexive idealists who are not afraid of losing their comfort. Whether they are looking for the truth or living in the truth, they are engaged in an authentic struggle for self-realization with and for, if necessary also against the others.

Those people who are driven by ideas and ideals, principles and beliefs do not necessarily drop out of society. What they do with their life has implications for social life. Even when they don´t join social movements, create NGO’s or work as volunteers with the homeless, by changing themselves, they potentially change society too. With a sense of finitude and vocation, they may bring a new spirit to their family life, to their friendships and, let’s emphasize it, also to the work sphere. By working conscientiously –“being good by doing good” (Aristotle)- they can become an active source of transformation. It’s all good and well to join social movements, but, as I have learned from Habermas, the best place to change the system is from within the system. By becoming a “normative professional” – a good teacher, policewoman, fireman, nurse, lawyer or whatever- and upholding in practice the beliefs and values one cherishes, refusing to do what goes against one´s conscience, speaking out if necessary against corruption, combating institutional pathologies, etc., but always with a focus on truth, one can actually be in the system, without being of the system. By doing what one has to do –“working well with and for the others in responsible organizations” (Kunneman, 2010: 334) – one is already reconstructing society. It’s not just by smashing windows and thrashing the police that one is a revolutionary. By working metareflexively at oneself and with the others, by being decent and by working well, one is already setting an example and contributing to the humanization of the world.

Whether they work in public or in private organizations, social professionals who consider work as a service, money as a means and power as a medium for the realization of common values and the common good are at the forefront of social change. When the ethics of professional communities will be joined to the politics of civil society, we can expect that social, cultural and personal change will ensue in genuine morphogenesis. A lot of pro-social projects exist. They are not for the profit of some, but for the benefit of all. They are scattered and lack visibility. Singly, they may not add up to much, but together they are harbingers of the convivial society. This society is not a utopia. It exists. It is not only a possible world. It is actual and real. Their ideologies vary, usually from the ecological to the radical left. They are the successors of the kibbutzim, the ashrams and the Wohngemeinschaften of the 1970´s. Sometimes they are physical settlements in situ, sometimes they are more global; sometimes they only exist on the internet. In comparison with their predecessors, they are intensively interconnected. They share similar visions of the world. Commonism, convivialism, solidarity economics, economics of the common good, P2P, etc. They are all covered in the new experimental journal Inter pares (forthcoming). Whatever the movements and ideologies they associate with, they are metareflexive and post-capitalist, local and global, idealist and materialist, spiritual and realist, non-hierarchical and participatory, collaborative and inclusive. They are present on the internet. But the revolution is not necessarily happening there. It may not even be a revolution. It’s evolution without violence. To get a glimpse of these myriads of interconnected local initiatives that are constructing a new society, you need access to the internet. Not because the internet is transforming society and culture as we know it, but because the screens of our computers are the windows through which we can observe in real time the joyous, subterranean communities that are working together to reconstruct society as we know it and bring a new convivial, post-capitalist society into existence.

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