The Weapon of Criticism
By Dennis Loo (3/31/14)
All systems of governance require doctrines of legitimation to stay in power. These doctrines are not, contrary to some commentators’ views, the only thing keeping states in power; governments also require the use of coercion. The use of coercion is directly tied into and justified, however, by those legitimation doctrines.
Governments could not govern without the ability to get those who refuse to accept governmental policies to go along. Your ability to exercise political power would be rendered null and void if you could not compel those who resist to cooperate, albeit reluctantly. This use of coercion is not something that is unique to governments nor is it something that governments as long as they exist could do without. Even parenting involves doing things that involve force, albeit force of a loving kind: you force children to go to bed at a certain time and make them eat their vegetables. If you let them do what they wanted then they would stay up too late and they would eat ice cream and candies all of the time. We call that use of compulsion parenting. Coercion exists on a spectrum, ranging from parental guidance and rules for their kids to friends ribbing their friends for certain behaviors and attitudes all the way up to state violence. All group life involves and will always involve some level of compulsion because group life requires group norms and cooperation and unanimity is almost always impossible.
While the muzzle of a rifle against someone’s temple is an argument that is immediately settled in favor of the one holding the rifle, no states can stay in power indefinitely without maintaining an air of legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of the population. If a government had to rely for its survival solely on its use of state violence, it would be in deep trouble and would be toppled sooner rather than later.
I see it as a key part of my role as a revolutionary intellectual to lay bare the rationales, both the public rationales of, and the logic inherent and therefore implicit to, systems of governance.
I don’t come to that role, by the way, because my childhood dream was to be a revolutionary. On the contrary, when I went to Harvard as an undergraduate back a few decades ago, my intention was to become a high-ranking member of the US State Department, preferably Secretary of State.
But events intervened and my considerable political naiveté was replaced by a rude awakening to the truth of US power. Intellectual honesty and consistency requires that I do what I can to alert people to reality.
The downsides to being a revolutionary in today’s world are far greater than the upside. If I could in good conscience look the other way in the face of reality, then adopting another political posture would certainly be preferable for my comfort. As former British Ambassador to Afghanistan Craig Murray has written, if he had not gone public in his criticisms of British use of torture in the “war on terror,” he could have continued his very cushy lifestyle of fine food and daily pleasures such as the provision of beautiful young women as company. When he violated the conventions that would have kept him in such privileged circumstances, all of this was withdrawn and replaced by trumped up charges against him and efforts to ruin his reputation.
Seeing reality for what it is, however, is not without its benefits: it is incredibly liberating to be able to see the world as it truly is and to be able to think clearly, free of the chilling confines of conventional logic. This extends to everything you do, observe, and experience.
Because intellectuals have the time and training to pursue ideas that undergird systems which the rest of society doesn’t in any analogous way have training or opportunity to do, we exercise a disproportionately important role in either the maintenance or the toppling of systems.
I got a taste when I was an undergraduate of how ruling doctrines and their major exponents can be subjected to unsparing dismantling when engaged directly by critics who know what they’re talking about. One of the virtues of going to a place like Harvard is that you get to engage up close and personal with many of the society’s highest authorities. I was also lucky enough to go there during the 1960s when there was a high tide of insurgent struggle so the status quo and the status quo’s defenders were under fire from those who had come to recognize that the governing doctrines were bankrupt.
There’s a tremendous amount of mystification and lack of deep understanding about the legitimation doctrines that keep systems in control. This is true of both the ruling doctrine and of insurgent doctrines.
It is because others stepped forward before me and in my times to expose, analyze, and fight against the system producing such awful outcomes that I am who I am.
Let me now turn to a specific case study of the impact of revolutionary theory and revolutionary movements – my pedagogy. I want to make very clear that my approach to my pedagogy is not that I am trying to turn all my students into revolutionaries. It would be wrong for me to use my platform as a professor as a political organizer. Teaching and politically organizing are two different activities and conflating them is a bad practice. While it is impossible for any of us to conceal our politics because everything we say and do is infused with our politics and ideology, and I certainly do make announcements about political events in my classes and don't attempt to conceal my views, my role as a professor is to help students to become truly critical thinkers. It is something that I attempt to do in my writing and speaking engagements as well. Critical thinkers know how to use evidence and how to examine the strengths and weaknesses of arguments.
In sociology this means concretely that students get to the last stage of Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy - Evaluation - where they can consciously identify the parameters of different paradigms and compare and contrast them to each other. If you don’t get to Bloom’s final stage of evaluation, you will always have to accept other people’s conclusions as your own because unless you can identify explicitly the unstated value judgments in different paradigms, you cannot truly become an independent thinker.
Why is that? All conclusions rest upon interpretation and interpretations in turn rest upon value judgments. Most value judgments are not explicitly stated within paradigms. Most people don’t receive training in how to identify those unstated assumptions. Yet it is these usually unstated assumptions about values that pre-determine the outcome of the chain of reasoning that goes on.
In my role as an educator, it is becoming an independent and critical thinker that I seek to train people in, regardless of what ideological and political position someone ends up adopting. I just want students to be able to consciously adopt their positions, rather than unconsciously and unknowingly, and to recognize the need for evidence and rigor of argument and to be able to tell when those are present and when they are not.
Another major and overlapping component here comprises sociology's heart and soul: the fact that systems and social structures are overall more important than individuals. Even though sociology students have heard this via, for example, C. Wright Mills’ famous sociological imagination, and even though sociology professors know the difference between structure and agency, chapter and verse, consistently analyzing phenomena from this perspective, both social and otherwise, is fairly rare.
Systems have systems-logic and if you want to change the outcomes of systems, you have to fully grasp that understanding and apply it or else you’ve not really come to grips with and you have not learned the essence of sociology.
One of the courses I teach is Classical Sociological Theory. I have students primarily reading the words of the major figures in theory directly – Durkheim, Weber, Marx and Engels – rather than secondary sources. My students are virtually all from working class backgrounds and have had limited to no exposure to theory before that point. So you can imagine the consternation this produces in most of them to be reading these theorists’ works in their original English translations. To many of them it’s like reading a foreign language and they struggle a great deal with it. Because the NCLB generation has been trained to memorize rather than to think holistically, their difficulties are all the greater. I counsel them to be patient and that it will come but they have to persist through the difficulty.
One of the keys to this besides my repeated and varied ways of approaching the structure vs. agency question is my delving deeply into the logic of the major theorists. Durkheim’s functionalism, for example, is premised on the division of labor and social hierarchies being the most functional for society. As part of this functionalists believe that material rewards are necessarily unequally distributed with the most going to those in leadership positions.
While training them in Durkheim’s social facts and the primacy of structure over individuals, pivotal contributions that Durkheim made to sociology, I also draw out the implications of his view that social inequality and differential material and psychic rewards are inevitable and desirable and the hidden contradictions between his celebration of the necessity and suitability of social hierarchies and his condescension towards the working class. Specifically, we spend significant amounts of time parsing out this statement of his:
If one acquires the habit of contemplating vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations, one can no longer without impatience allow oneself to be confined within the narrow limits of a special task. Such a remedy would therefore only make specialization [the division of labor and existence of classes] inoffensive by making it intolerable and in consequence more or less impossible.
In this passage Durkheim is tacitly admitting that the working class can actually appreciate the significance of those “vast horizons and … fine generalizations” which is why it is something that must be avoided: expose workers as a whole to that kind of an education and they will be unwilling to accept their constrained role in the working class as “cogs in the machine.” If workers were in fact too stupid to grasp the meaning of those vast horizons, then it would be harmless to expose them to it and it would not pose a problem for the stability of the existing order of capitalism to teach them these things.
When students learn this about Durkheim, especially when working class students come to see this, their eyes widen. I had a student this past quarter, for example, who is used to getting high grades, come to me at around the fourth week of our ten week term very anxious and worried that she was going to fail the class. A week and a half later she wrote to me that the pieces were at last starting to fall into place and that she had no idea that she could function at such a high cognitive level as she was then experiencing.
To be continued
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)