Practitioners of social philosophy regard what they do as valuable, imbuing it with a sense of importance which is reflected in the often scholastic way in which readers cite and engage with such work. How seriously should we take this judgement? Does social philosophy have intrinsic worth? Or could it be considered a peculiar form of speculative journalism?
Reading a recent book by Matt Taibbi led me to reflect on this question for the first time in a while. After enjoying his account of the Trump election campaign, I’ve been working my way through his previous books. In The Divide he explores how rampant income inequality in America has reshaped the criminal justice system, creating a two-tier system which complicates traditional notions of equality before the rule of law. From pg 207:
In other words, there’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.
What struck me about this argument was how easily I could imagine it being advanced by someone like Zygmunt Bauman. The terminology would be different, the tone would be different and the context would be different. But the argument Taibbi develops in this book is one which converges with the thesis Bauman developed in books like Globalisation and Wasted Lives. In fact I’m pretty sure I could restate the core argument of Taibbi’s book in persuasively Bauman-esque language.
This is a period of Bauman’s work I really like, something I observe to make clear that this isn’t just another dismissal of the Liquid Modernity cottage industry. But reading Taibbi’s entertaining and informative book, I was left reflecting on whether social philosophy of this sort has intrinsic value over-and-above journalism of the kind Taibbi engages in. What does the abstraction actually contribute? We can easily delude ourselves into thinking that abstraction inevitably brings us closer to the truth beyond appearances, the way things really are. But it can also simply obfuscate, rendering partial judgements with an unclear empirical basis as authoritative statements about epochal change.
This isn’t an argument against social philosophy. It’s an attack on the implicit hierarchies expressed in how we compare it to other ways of telling about society. There’s much we can learn from exploratory investigative journalism that leads to social critique. But doing this requires we have the confidence to laugh in the face of those who might accuse of us of seeking to become “a mere journalist”:
In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.
C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218