Towards the Sociology of the Universe, part 3
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3. A Reply from Dr James S. Ormrod, University of Brighton
Received 7 March 2011
The following reply to Stephen Ashworth’s letter, which appeared in the latest edition of Spaceflight [March 2011, p.111], is based on the lengthier review of Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe, which appears on his website in two parts (http://www.astronist.demon.co.uk/space-age/essays/Sociology1.html).
The first thing I would say is that I find it difficult to write a response to your review because – and there is no way to say this without sounding rather blunt – I found the logic of your criticisms difficult to follow and also felt they were based on access to a rather limited breadth of social thinking. Much of the time I found you imputing beliefs to us based on large and unfounded leaps of logic, and often based on very incomplete understandings of what we are saying. To give an example:
‘Judging from the book’s approving references to Marx, Engels and Lenin... the intended beneficiary is apparently the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.’
Such an assumption is quite bizarre. As two contemporary British sociologists, the idea that we would write a book intended to benefit the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is nonsensical, and nowhere implied in our writing. This example and others seem to reflect a very limited horizon of imagination when it comes to anything remotely anti-capitalist. I wonder if you are aware that you are living in a world that contains a number of ‘socialist’ governments (broadly-defined) and in which anti-capitalist struggles, from Seattle to Delhi, make the papers on an almost daily basis? Those engaged in these struggles, like ourselves, do not support the totalitarian dictatorships, secret police, forced labour camps, shortages of consumer products or compulsory political meetings, which you clearly associate with them.
There is a great deal here that represents a basic discussion of the nature and merits of capitalism, much of which would be interesting in an introductory undergraduate seminar on economics or sociology, but which it does not seem fruitful to engage with in the abstract when we have written a book about outer space and society. Fact and (rigorously debunked) fiction are intermingled in your account in a manner that would take some quite laborious unpicking. It seems that you are unfamiliar with the vast empirical and theoretical literature critiquing the apparent successes of capitalism. Such literature does not deny the increased per capita income that the majority of those in the West have experienced in recent decades, nor the advances in medicine and technology in these societies (as perhaps you fear it might?). It is important to remember that Marx’s account of history was a progressive one. Capitalism represented progress over feudalism and developed the means of production that would eventually benefit communist societies once achieved. Like Marx, contemporary anti-capitalist literature identifies the ways in which people suffer under capitalism, and does not see ‘the relentless criticism of all existing social conditions’ called for by Marx as incompatible with an analysis of capitalism’s progressive nature.
Beyond this, you appear to be using key concepts in rather idiosyncratic ways, which makes it hard to engage with your ideas. Most fundamentally this includes your implied questioning of the value of our work as ‘university-level sociology’, written by sociologists ‘in the dictionary sense of the term’. It is clear that you have your own understanding of what sociology should be, and it is a subject of which people have historically demanded very different things. I would, however, like to reassure the potential reader by pointing out that Chapter 1 of the book is based on an article that appeared in Sociology, the journal of the British Sociological Association, one of the cover reviews comes from Bryan Turner editor of the Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology, we both hold university posts in sociology, and Peter Dickens is an American Sociological Association prize-winning author. Our work is therefore very much accepted within the discipline itself. Those more familiar with the subject will be aware that, for example, the possibility of producing an ‘objective’ account (as you seem to have expected) is highly contested, and unpopular, in contemporary sociology. They will also be aware that sociology does not normally see its aim as establishing ‘how different cultural attitudes affect the survival and growth prospects of a civilization’, as you have asserted. Most sociologists are concerned with what the structures of a society mean for the lives of the individuals within them – not with how to maintain those structures regardless of their nature.
You misunderstand a number of our key points, as, for example, when you criticise our argument that war ‘is no longer an occasional disturbance to an otherwise peaceful society. Rather it has been made a permanent feature of the social order’. You argue that ‘Wars have continued throughout history.... Obviously wars have continued, but since 1945 they have been marginalised in the poorer regions of the world’. Our point is not the increased frequency or duration of wars, but that the distinction between war and peace has broken down. This very notion is testified to by your argument that war has decreased in the richer regions of the world, and this at a time when the US is actively engaged in a number of conflicts, has soldiers stationed all round the world, and uses the threat of military power to control global politics. Casualties may be inflicted in the poorer regions, but this reflects the increasing inequality of war, not its disappearance (from anywhere). There are points like this scattered throughout the review which are based on lack of appreciation for what we are arguing.
What appears to upset you the most about the book is that we do not state clearly what kind of society we would like to see take the place of capitalism (on Earth or in space), and you assume that this undermines our critique of it. I think we would hope that this much is implicit in the book, but it is worth perhaps spelling out: We would like to see a society emerge that was characterised by some form of collective ownership of the means of production. This could be represented in any of the multitude of socialisms, anarchisms or communisms that have been imagined or historically realised. These could, furthermore, be brought about through a variety of different means. It makes no difference to our critique of capitalism (and its relationship to the humanization of outer space) which form of socialism is advocated. The book is not a political manifesto – and most anti-capitalist sociology does not feel obliged to provide such a thing. I accept that if you really believe (in Thatcher’s words) ‘there is no alternative’, then our book loses much of its political value (whilst not necessarily making any of its analysis less true). If, however, you take seriously the viability of any form of alternative or improved society then a critique of the existing structures driving space exploration, development and settlement seems highly desirable – and no less so to those within the pro-space ranks who have supported, and still support, alternative modes of humanizing outer space. We have no personal commitments to any particular utopian form of socialism and, as your review very importantly suggests, any future spacefaring society will have to adapt its mode of production to the challenges and benefits of the means of production at its disposal and will necessarily need to emerge and be continually modified from the bottom up by those working in such a society.
A major issue for you appears to be that you feel slighted by our relating pro-space activism to the narcissistic personality. You say ‘Dickens and Ormrod... are saying in effect: you disagree with us, therefore you must be suffering from a “personality disorder”! This charge inevitably links them with the abuses of the Soviet system’. The obsessive theme in linking our work to the historical events in the former Soviet Union appears again here, but to make it clear: We are not saying that you must be suffering from a personality order because you disagree with us. We do, of course, accept that people will disagree with our analysis and politics on all sorts of grounds – including some within sociology, psychoanalysis and/or Marxism. Nor are we denigrating our opponents as ‘psychiatric nutcases’. Freud acknowledged the psychopathology in everyone, but this does not mean everyone is psychotic. We have made it very clear in the book that writers such as Lasch are talking about a world in which the boundaries between the ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ are blurring. Narcissism is becoming a relatively common (and even socially adaptive) way of relating our environment – and is not limited to pro-space activism. There is no suggestion that pro-space activists and advocates are ‘psychiatric nutcases’. Indeed, my own work has emphasised the deficiencies of theories that cast activists in these terms, emphasising instead how unconscious processes combine with ideological and political ones in activism. But it also provides a critique of those that assume activism is based on a purely rational assessment of social life – a critique which some activists will recognise whilst others find distressing. We do not see those who relate to outer space in a narcissistic fashion as being our opponents. Our target is the capitalist social structure, not individuals within it, and certainly not those who, by virtue of the unhappy nature of narcissism, may even suffer themselves (albeit manifest in ways that are not immediately apparent). As you provocatively urge, attempts have indeed been made to characterise Marxists in psychoanalytic terms – some more convincing than others. You might particularly enjoy Gustave LeBon’s (1899) ‘The Psychology of Socialism’, for example. As my forthcoming work on outer space protection activists (whom I support) demonstrates, I am more than happy to turn the psychoanalytic lens closer to home.
To end more positively, I felt more able to engage with the latter parts of your second essay. Here you argue not for the ultimate victory of capitalism over limits to growth (as many pro-space advocates have argued), but that ‘the society which will one day face the need to change from a capitalist society to a zero-growth society will be quite different from our own’. If you are arguing that capitalism is needed to open up space resources that will then provide a more stable economic base for a future non-capitalist society to flourish, then I think this is an argument that might have some appeal even to those within Marxist circles. My personal belief is that the resources of outer space are not necessary to a future ‘socialist’ society, and that the economic, social and psychological hardships that will be exacerbated in the process of capitalist imperialist expansion into outer space make doing so undesirable – even if the contradictions of the capitalist system would ultimately meet their limits at the edge of the solar system. But such a discussion is at least framed in such a way as to make an exchange of views with those outside of the pro-space community possible, which was the aim of our talk at the BIS.