When sociology becomes a source of legitimation rather than critique: the case of Anthony Giddens

My notes on Skeggs, B. (2019). The forces that shape us: The entangled vine of gender, race and classThe Sociological Review67(1), 28-35.

How do we make sense of the influence of Antony Giddens? The first page of his Google Scholar profile shows 149,243 citations with many more to be expected if one were inclined to dig into the long tale of his many publications. He defined the cannon for an entire generation of social theorists, offering an account of the ‘founding fathers’ which became a shared reference point. His structuration theory drew together diverse strands in a way which directly and indirectly exercised a great influence over the landscape of social theory for decades. He wrote the best selling textbook, now in its eighth edition, introducing sociology to successive cohorts of A Level students and novice undergraduates. He cofounded Policy Press which radically reshaped the terrain of social theory and introduced continental philosophy into the Anglophone theoretical mainstream. He was director of LSE, one of the leading research universities in the world. He was architect of the New Labour notion of the third way, exercising an enormous influence over the self-understanding of this government and its subsequent trajectory. However I find it hard to write this without thinking back to Tony Benn’s observation that “Anthony Giddens just hovers round trying to put an ideological cloak around whatever is being discussed”. This blistering critique from Bev Skeggs in a new paper made me think back to his comment:

I think sociology lost its critical edge when a nationalist, individualist, presentist analysis was offered by the likes of Giddens and Beck. Sociology became a source of legitimation, not a force of critique. We should never forget that Giddens was an architect of New Labour’s ‘third way’, an apologist for the institutional structures that enabled neoliberal policies to be implemented. Through his publishing enterprises Giddens has saturated sociology with this apologist perspective. Most sociologists encounter Giddens from A-level, often throughout their degrees. Giddens and Beck both proposed the denigration of class as a key unit of analysis for sociologists; yet, analysis of class can only be wilfully ignored by those with enough privilege to do so. The occlusion of attention to the processes, structures and forces that produce class (and gender, race, sexuality), i.e. those of capital, capitalism and colonialism, I would argue, was not a conspiracy but a complacency of the comfortable, a perspective of privilege.

Even if it’s a matter of political gossip, I feel we should take Benn’s remark seriously. To what extend did Giddens move across sectors in pursuit of political influence and what did this mean for the work he produced? The discursive armoury fashioned in his early 1990s work on late modernity surely provided all the instruments he needed to “put an ideological cloak” around whatever was being discussed in New Labour circles: an epochal, justificatory, exciting framing which lifted discussion out of the quagmire of politics and policy, making it seems as if history was whispering in the ear of those present.

Skeggs supports the call of Satnam Virdee, to which this essay was originally a response at the Undisciplining conference, for an end to this complacency and a return to the critique of ‘progress’, the question of ‘in whose interests?’, the reclamation of an historical frame of reference, the recognition of over-determination and the “the contradictions between race, class and gender”. If we reclaim the past in this way, rejecting what Mike Savage has elsewhere characterised as epochal sociology, it becomes easier to see how it continues on in the present. As Skeggs writes of financialisation and digital capitalism:

Rent seeking is a major form and force of capital value. Just think of digital companies who extract billions per year through rent, e.g. for cloud computing (Amazon), extracting rent through monetizing your personal data (Facebook), extracting rent though monetizing your search data (Google). Rent as profit is now a major force, existing alongside surplus value production from labour. Interest from debt (rent from money lending) is another source of expropriation that continues to expand as capital is reorganized through financialization (Lapavitsas, 2013). And technology labour platforms such as Deliveroo extract rent whilst also exploiting labour, and Uber extracts rent, exploits through labour and also generates interest on debt through car purchase. Connecting expropriation to exploitation is now more easily identified and absolutely necessary to understanding contemporary capitalism, and how it shapes our daily lives.

Classifications ossify and they circulate and undergo institutionalisation, becoming part of the order of things as “they are used by capitalists and their managers over time” and enforced through the actions of the state. As Skeggs cautions, “Never underestimate the power of managers and state officials to enforce difference”. In the absence of a historical understand, our conceptual apparatus will be ill-equipped to understand either the present or the future. We lapse into complacency because we lack the tools to see what is urgent, even if it is right in front of our face. Skeggs over evocative description of the analytical and political challenge our present conjuncture poses:

Devices beyond our control or even understanding are giving money and trade a life of their own. The world of finance is heavily invested in high frequency trading, which only algorithms that machine learn understand. Huge investments are made in block chain technology which even fewer people understand. These are the instruments that shape our daily lives, determine whether we can pay our bills, rent, mortgages, whether our national currency stays afloat and whether trading between nations can occur. Alongside deregulated political manipulation of the Brexit kind, there is a huge distribution of wealth upwards enabled by investment vehicles (and for the conspiracy theorists amongst you – Robert Mercer is key to both worlds). Repeating historical legacies, a huge amount of violence is lived by vulnerable populations, designated as disposable and deportable. People struggle to stay alive against militarization, against structural adjustment policies in the Global South and austerity in the Global North.

Recognising how historical conditions “enabled our existence as particular types of potential value, as property, as rent, as the lubricant of social reproduction that enables capital to continue its travels” is crucial if we wish to avoid remaining “entrenched in privileged provincial perspectives”. She ends with by asking how did sociology get so side-tracked and reflects on what it is for when so many crucial turnings have been missed:

How did we get so distracted? Why did sociology refuse to engage with the crucial anti-racist analysis of Cultural Studies, from Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Les Back, Erol Lawrence, Hazel Carby? Or the wonderful feminists from history: Catherine Hall, Anna Davin, Carole Dyhouse, Ann McClintock, Vron Ware and many more from History Workshop Journal? What happened to the resistance detailed by the historical studies of power? Do we know about the motley crew? The pirates, the many-headed hydra? The many refusals against becoming surplus and disposable? Or the struggles together as the working class recognizes that divide and rule only benefits those with power, that Satnam identifies. When sociology turned its back on the state, away from education and social policy into the world of legitimation, it lost its traction. All those battles between anti-racism and multiculturalism were overlooked.

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