“There’s no money left in the kitty”: austerity politics and the deficit of sociological imagination (part 1)

“There’s no money left”

So in case you hadn’t heard, there’s no money left. A profligate Labour party frittered it all away and, just like any household that had done the same thing, we now have to ‘tighten our belts’. However my interest in this presentation isn’t the erroneousness of the household finance metaphor, the political uses to which it has been put or the degree to which people find it intuitively plausible. I’m taking all these things as a given, particularly the fact that many people do find it plausible. What I’m interested in is what this plausibility suggests about how individuals are making sense of the financial crisis, as well as what this reveals about the resources afforded by the political culture of late capitalism to make sense of the world around us. In doing so, I’m building on my PhD research (which looks at reflexivity, culture and biography) to try and sketch out an account of the mediation of crisis and political agency in late capitalism. It’s all very provisional so please be nice.

Reflexivity and Internal Conversation

Underlying my approach is a particular understanding of how a crisis is mediated. This rests on Margaret Archer’s approach to the question of how structure & agency relate. In it she contrasts what she terms the ‘two-stage model’ with what she terms the ‘three-stage’ model:

Two-stage model:

  1. Structural and/or cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily and exercise powers of constraint and enablement in relation to –
  2. Subjective properties imputed to agents and assumed to govern their actions:
  • promotion of vested interests (critical realism)
  • instrumental rationality (rational choice theory)
  • habitus/induced repertoires (Bourdieu / discourse theory)

Three-stage model:

  1. Structural and cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily, and inter alia, possess generative powers of constraint and enablement in relation to –
  2. Subjects’ own constellations of concerns, as subjectively defined in relation to the three orders of natural reality: nature, practice and the social.
  3. Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberations of subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective circumstances.

She argues that this third stage is crucial to the process of explaining social outcomes because the role which objective structural and cultural powers play in shaping social action is mediated by the the reflexive activity of the subject. As she writes:

“This final stage of mediation is indispensible because without it we can have no explanatory purchase upon what exactly agents do. Deprives of such explanations, sociology has to settle for empirical generalisation about ‘what most of the people do most of the time’. Indeed, without a real explanatory handle, sociologists often settle for much less: ‘under circumstances x, a statistically significant number of agents do y’. These, of course, are not real explanations at all.” (Archer 2003: p133)

Archer (2007) defines reflexivity as “the regular exercise of the mental ability, shared by all normal people, to consider themselves in relation to their social contexts and vice versa”. This ability manifests itself in what she terms the internal conversation i.e. the conversations we have with ourselves, silently and internally, rather than with external othersIt encompasses activities such as day dreaming, fantasising, reliving past events, rehearsing for future encounters, planning for future eventualities, clarifying where we stand, confirming our understandings of a situation, taking stock of our lives.

Archer speculates that at times individuals may have more internal conversations than external ones e.g. those living alone, the isolated elderly, those performing solitary occupations or only children without close friends Such conversations are a mundane part of our daily lives and, Archer suggests, this very ‘everyday’ quality may account for the process involved attracting such little theoretical or empirical scrutiny. Through internal conversation an individual subjectively determines their practical projects in relation to their objective circumstances. Through such inner deliberations an individual takes stock of the situation they confront, as well as their own desires and concerns, before deciding on a course of action. Structural phenomena (e.g. the credit crunch), are confronted by people through the situations they shape for agency (e.g. the unavailability of credit) and it is through the internal conversations of the individuals impacted that objective

Mediation, Culture and Crisis 
However the exercise of our reflexivity, such that we are able to determine practical projects in light of our objective circumstances and subjective concerns, presupposes that we construe our current circumstances in a sufficiently definitive way so as to make deliberation possible i.e. ‘working out what to do’ necessitates a certain degree of stability in our sense of the circumstances within which we will conducting our planned ‘doings’. This is not to deny the subjective significance or psychic ramifications of situations where we lack this definitiveness in outlook but rather to claim that such situations impede the exercise of our power to form practical projects in response to them.

Construing our situation in such a way requires two things which are the consequence of our cultural circumstances at that time, as well as the cultural circumstances we have encountered earlier in our lives:

  • Knowledge about the social world: how it works, the constraints and enablements we are subject to by virtue of our social placement, the feasibility (or otherwise) of our planned projects. Our knowledge is always fallible, as is its successful application in the formation of our plans. In short the claim is that our social action is unavoidably constrained and enabled by, among other things, our knowledge of the world we are acting upon
  • Knowledge about our selves, both as human beings and as individuals defined by the specificity of their biography. For sake of brevity I’m leaving this point aside because it’s not directly relevant to the argument I’m trying to make.

These three, necessary for reflexive deliberation, act as points of cultural mediation. Our cultural circumstances influence our social action through the effect they have on our reflexive deliberation: they shape how we construe our circumstances (what we take their objective properties to be) through both the tacit and explicit understandings brought to bear on our deliberations. The categories in terms of which we think about our circumstances shape our social action, often in quite indirect ways.

Part 2: how this relates to collective agency, crisis and austerity politics

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About Mark