Towards the Sociology of the Universe, part 4
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4. Outstanding questions
30 March – 30 August 2011
We have had a frank debate, but not yet reached any firm conclusions, which both sides can agree upon, as to the causes of disagreement.
At this stage I can only highlight some key facts and the outstanding questions which they pose for future sociological research.
Fact: the book Cosmic Society discusses mankind’s relationship with the extraterrestrial cosmos in the broadest terms, from aboriginal societies onwards. Yet its treatment of modern civilisation and the cosmos rests entirely upon criticising one of the two major powers of the first 50 years of the Space Age (the USA and its allies in the democratic capitalist world) in terms of the highly specific, not to say clichéd, political language which the other major power (the USSR and its allies in the authoritarian communist world) tried, however ineffectively, to put into practice. Meanwhile, they avoid any critical word directed towards that other major power – indeed, the book links the Soviet Union with socialism on p.6 through a reference to “socialist space programmes” and then uses the term “socialism” approvingly elsewhere (p.12, 159, 190).
In this situation, is it really reasonable for the authors to express surprise and dismay when their book comes across to a sociological outsider as a blatant apology for Soviet-style socialism?
And I am a sociological outsider. While I may be criticised for being “unfamiliar with the vast empirical and theoretical literature critiquing the apparent successes of capitalism”, that is in fact precisely the value of my contribution: I am not immersed in the culture and presuppositions of modern sociology, but on the contrary am immersed in the very different culture and presuppositions of the space exploration movement which the book attempts to address. I am both an outsider, and yet at the same time a member of the book’s target audience – the authors’ evening lecture at the BIS, based on their book, removes any doubt on that score.
We therefore have at least one provisional conclusion: that two conflicting cultures are at work here. In one culture, Karl Marx is like the Newton or Einstein of social thought: the founding genius whose work can be built upon but never overturned. Phrases such as “the contradictions of capitalism” and “the crises of imperialism” are the fundamental concepts which penetrate most deeply to reveal underlying social realities.
In the other culture, by contrast, Karl Marx is like Ptolemy: originator of a system which was somewhat plausible in its day, but which later developments have shown to be hopelessly inaccurate. The phrases mentioned above then come across as ridiculous clichés which no sensible person would use except in jest, and the whole theoretical structure of Marxism is of only historical interest.
Unfortunately for the analogy with physicists of the past, social science is not so clear-cut as physics. In one culture, the experiences of the Soviet Union, North Korea, China and other countries claiming inspiration from Marx are merely a tragic diversion from the true path of socialism. In the other, they are a set of real-world experiments which conclusively demonstrate that, whatever its theoretical attractions, Marxism in practice has little to contribute to the happiness or prosperity of mankind.
Thus for example, in his comprehensive world history of communism, Comrades, historian Robert Service asks whether the communist or socialist experience of the 20th century has been potentially liberating or inherently despotic. He agrees with the latter conclusion: that if a state founded on Marxist principles is to survive, mass repression is unavoidable, leading to the kind of Soviet-style tyranny developed by Lenin and Stalin (Macmillan, 2007; see p.xi, 478, 479).
The choice of which view to take I leave in the reader’s hands.
What about the nature of sociology as an academic discipline?
Fact: the definition of “sociology” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (7th edn, 1982) is: “science of the development and nature and laws of human (esp. civilized) society; study of social problems”. It can hardly be wildly different in other dictionaries, as it matches what a lay person would expect, namely a reasoned, balanced and non-partisan investigation into social realities.
Against this, we have the contrasting fact that Cosmic Society, and apparently also the discipline in general, addresses its subject matter from a viewpoint alien to a large fraction of the members of that society, particularly those in positions of political and economic power, and is thus clearly partisan.
Is an objective “science of the development and nature and laws of human society” possible? As evidence that it is, I offer David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Abacus, 1998). Landes is not a sociologist but again a historian. He has a passionate interest in the problems of human development, but is acutely aware that there are no easy answers, and that the problems of society are multifaceted, depending on accidents of geography, culture, politics and history.
Again, the reader should consult this book and make his or her own judgement as to who is telling the human story as it is as best they can, and who is deliberately skewing their account in pursuit of a personal political agenda.
But might it be argued that Landes is twisting his story to suit his own agenda? It might indeed, if he was promoting one or another political outcome. But he is not; he is interested in promoting understanding of what is going on in human society, on the basis that social problems can only be resolved by facing reality as it is rather than interpreting it through a preconceived political theory: “As for me, I prefer truth to goodthink. I feel surer of my ground” (p.xxi).
Cosmic Society explicitly identifies itself with a political goal, namely the removal of capitalism and its replacement by “any of the multitude of socialisms, anarchisms or communisms that have been imagined or historically realised” (letter from James Ormrod, previous page); The Wealth and Poverty of Nations explicitly identifies itself with the search for unbiased understanding of social problems: “No one has a simple answer, and all proposals of panaceas are in a class with millenarian dreams” (p.xx). I am obliged to conclude that Landes’s book contains a more scientific account of society and its problems, while Dickens and Ormrod’s book contains a more political account, and that while the former matches the dictionary definition of sociology, the latter does not.
This would of course imply that the entire culture of modern sociology has been diverted from its original or nominal function of a science into a partisan think-tank allied to left-wing politics. Since Dickens claims that modern consumer-based capitalist society is “damaging our mental well-being” (Spaceflight, April 2011, p.152), the authors are clearly familiar with the concept of a large social group which becomes captured by an illusory belief or a damaging pattern of behaviour.
As before, the reader is invited to draw their own conclusions on this question.
The difference between Dickens and Ormrod on the one hand, and myself on the other, boils down, I think, to this.
I take the social system as I find it and ask: what is this system doing?, where is it going? The answer seems clear after a little thought over the few decades of my life so far: industrial civilisation is not a state of society, but rather a transitionary phase of growth from one state to another. The original state was of course that of the nomadic tribal bands of our Ice Age ancestors. That a destination should exist at all is not a logical necessity, yet an appropriate destination can be clearly imagined: a civilisation in which biological beings have become symbiotic with technological artefacts. This is the clear trend of our current society, dominated as it is by developments in transport technologies, computers, genetics and so on.
Note that I have not yet said anything about politics. When technologies such as printing, transport, consumer electronics and so on become available to a mass market, they change society in ways which are more profound than political action. Politicians can regulate and tax, but they cannot effectively frustrate such large-scale social trends.
And then of course one notes that a species which has successfully married its ancestral biology with its technology has access to a far vaster resource base than before, because it is no longer restricted to its planet of origin. Thus the growth of civilisation has every appearance of being an evolutionary mechanism whose effect – from whatever underlying cause remains a mystery – is to spread multicellular life from one planet to many, ultimately throughout the Galaxy, provided that it can survive and prosper through the inevitable stresses and strains of growth in the course of evolving a new order of life which did not exist before – a process analogous to the evolution of multicellular life from its bacterial antecedents.
I am not saying that I personally approve of this system, or that I want us to go to the stars – obviously I do, but that’s just my own personal view which has nothing to do with the logic of the human situation.
This is an evolutionary process, i.e. it is not controlled or guided by any intelligent forethought. It arises spontaneously from the system-level dynamics when the external conditions are favourable to growth. It ceases when those conditions become unfavourable, in the same way as, for example, the various species of dinosaur which could have evolved high intelligence and hence civilisation 100 million years ago did not in fact do so because the evolutionary pressure towards large brains was not there at that time.
Over against this, we have the point of view represented by Marxism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism and (so it seems) modern academic sociology. This starts (so far as I can see) from the premise that society needs to be controlled by a political party for that party’s chosen ends, its definition of social justice. Never mind that Marx himself wrote of an impersonal historical logic: “It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed, the image of its own future.” (From the preface to Das Kapital; quoted in Landes, p.236.) Never mind that history demonstrates that society has developed in its own way in disregard of the intentions of governments, as illustrated for example by the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the collapse of empires, the attempts to insulate society against change made by Tokugawa Japan and Imperial China, or indeed the attempt to institute social justice made by Soviet Russia. None of the outcomes in these cases were planned or controlled by the respective governments.
Imagine a giant wave thundering towards the shore. I am looking to see where the wave is going, trying to ride it as best I can, maybe help others to ride it with me and save them from drowning. The Marxist sociologists and their allies are standing waist-deep in the water and splashing at the wave with their hands, trying to divert it into a different direction.
But we do not control the wave. We are ourselves the product of the wave, and it controls us.
Environmental degradation and social injustice are the flip side of industrialisation: the good and the bad come together. Certainly, industrialisation and capitalism have created a great deal of harmful side-effects, up to and including genocide and species extinctions. The question for future research is what works best to resolve such problems: a pragmatic, case by case approach which works hand in glove with existing large-scale trends towards development and wealth-creation, or an ideological approach which requires changing the social system at root in the face of evidence that in practice politically enforced radical change is counterproductive.
So to me, social change over the past 10,000 years has a logic to it, a consistency, even though the origin of that logic is unknown. It is a happy accident for me that my own personal hopes for the human future fit that pattern (many people, who take a more pessimistic view of where we are going, do not experience such a happy marriage of hope with rational expectation).
To me, human progress is a broad concept which includes both technological and social change. A more highly developed society is on average a nicer place to live: the greater dependence on technologies and markets demands a population which enjoys more lifestyle options, political freedom, education and personal wealth. Consider two major historical events: the rise of steam-powered industry, and the abolition of slavery: is it really pure coincidence that the second followed quickly upon the wheels of the first?
To our sociologist friends, however, there is no such linkage between technological, economic and social progress. They see the growth of the economy and of technological capabilities as not necessarily benefiting the broad majority of people, and indeed as very likely to be harming them.
Someone with a broad view of human history and international diversity might well find fault with this view: are the downtrodden masses with their state schooling, welfare handouts and iPhones really worse off than the subsistence farmers of the less developed world or of their own not so distant ancestry? But at least one thing is clear: sociologists are not the same as historians.
I, therefore, see a broad trend of progress through many vicissitudes and setbacks, and am happy to endorse that trend. While I, too, distinguish desirable from undesirable outcomes, I have no simple formula for managing human society and recognise the complexity and diversity of social systems. But in general, development is good, and its ultimate destination is the Galaxy. I do not control this trend (nobody can), but I can observe it, live as best I can within it, and maybe even contribute towards smoothing a small portion of its inevitably rocky path. Societies which achieve interstellar growth will come to dominate the life of the Galaxy; those which do not will stagnate and quickly become extinct.
The sociologists see a more confused picture with no clear overall trend and developments in economics and technology conflicting with desirable outcomes in social justice and the environment. They have chosen to describe this situation from a partisan point of view (as opposed to a scientific one, which they argue does not exist). Social justice is good, the Galaxy is an irrelevance, and the workers of the world must unite to control the planned growth of society, or even to legislate a limit to growth beyond which human civilisation may not dare to tread. If a capitalist-industrial human or alien society colonises the Solar System, the concern would be to isolate a socialist society on Earth, perhaps on the model of Tokugawa Japan resisting European expansionism.
Again, the reader will draw his or her own conclusions. My concern on this page is simply to state the conflict of opinions with as great a clarity as possible.