Uncertainty

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Essay

October 28, 2021

Uncertainty

Reflections on the Pandemic, Global Warming, Democracy, and the Social Condition

  • Democracy
  • global warming
  • Liberal Democracy
  • pandemic
  • Social Condition
  • Socialism
  • uncertainty

On September 12, 2021, I delivered the keynote lecture at the Graduate School for Social Research Summer School, in Wierzba, Poland. The response to the lecture has convinced me that I should share it with my colleagues and the public in Democracy Seminar. J.C.G.

Question mark sculpture by Alexander Henning Drackmann in Esbjerg, Denmark (Source: WikiImages)

God is not dead. The specter of Communism, the thousand-year Reich, and the end of history have all passed. Secularization and urbanization clearly have their limits, and capitalism and liberal democracy have waxed and waned. Our certainties about long term, inevitable and permanent transformations, based on science and pseudo-science, have collapsed again and again. The grand historical narratives and grand macro-comparative historical, social-scientific theories have misled, in my judgement, more often than they have illuminated. 

I note this as uncertainty overwhelms us today, without the assurances provided by modernization theories of one sort or another, be they Marxist or Weberian, Parsonian or neo-Marxist, or neo-Weberian. The uncertainty is overwhelming, even revealed in the way I am joining you today. 

I accepted the invitation to join this summer school, fully intending to deliver this lecture in person, and to talk with you about your work. But the Delta variant of Covid-19 got in the way. 

I thought the vaccine and public health measures would ensure that I could return to normal, but I was wrong. Did I make the right decision in not joining you in person? I am far from certain.

I also had plans to give lectures in Lithuania and Hungary. The itinerary was like one I had as the pandemic exploded in March of 2020 to meet colleagues working on the Democracy Seminar, a worldwide committee of democratic correspondence that I chair. Then, as now, I felt it would be wise to stay closer to home. Then, my decision was questioned by some of my colleagues. I remember vividly that one in Budapest objected, pointing out that there were only a handful of cases in the first week of the month. But by the end of the month, I very well may have been stranded, as the world locked down, likely I would have been in Budapest. I don’t expect the same thing to happen, but exactly what will happen is not clear at all, and I think we should note that this is more a consequence of sociological factors than virological ones. 

In the past year and a half, we have observed good science and public health practices outfox the virus, but we have also observed the virus fighting back. In this battle, there have been sound responses and crazy ones. Consider the impact of the virus in East Asia versus in Europe and the Americas. 

I think it is clear we can get through this sooner rather than later with wise public decisions by officials and citizens. But we can’t count on such wisdom, with some authoritarian and demagogic leaders using pandemic lockdowns to tighten their controls and other such leaders, along with normal narrow-minded politicians, stigmatizing and politicizing science to enhance their power, often based on wild conspiracy theories. This has led to widespread refusals to vaccinate, mask and social distance. The virus has been politicized. People are lining up for and against the vaccine, for and against vaccine passports, for and against masking, for and against social distancing. 

This is madness, and it is unknown how decisive it will be. In much of the world, the virus devastates because of vaccine scarcity, but it is still devastating your part of the world, and, even more so in mine, in the United States, because of social, political, and cultural insanity. 

How long the insanity will prevail is unknown, though it is clear it has had a great immediate impact on the economy and society, and long-term effects.

And it is not only viruses that develop in this uncertain way. Uncertainty appears to be definitive of our times. As someone who has made a career for himself exploring the grounds for hope, I find myself struggling against despair, much more than usual.

Total environmental disaster is now our lived experience. I’ve been concerned about this for more than fifty years, since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. I vividly remember the date as I, a young new leftist, enjoyed the irony that it was the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin. It’s always amazed me that this irony has not been broadly noted. More seriously, also ignored for far too long, was the impending ecological disaster looming on the horizon. And now it seems as if we have reached that horizon, as fires rage, floods inundate, hurricanes devastate, and air and sea temperatures and sea levels reach record highs.

Yet major political leaders and parties and their followers deny these harsh realities, explain them away or fatalistically accept them as acts of God, and sometimes even explain this as consequences of sexual immorality, gender ideology and abortion. 

A new dark age seems to be upon us, more likely than not. I think it is safe to say that the solution to the ecological crisis, if there is one, is political. It requires marshalling human capacity, technical, but particularly political, to recognize the full dimensions of the problem and then act to address them. Thus, I turn to political uncertainty. 

For a long time, there has been a consensus that the long arc of history points to democracy, what Alexis de Tocqueville characterized as a providential force. In the 20th century, this providence came in different and competing varieties, from the constitutional liberal democracy, in the former “free world,” to the people’s democracies of the former socialist bloc. And then after the fall of the Soviet Empire, many thought liberal, capitalist democracy was inevitable. Francis Fukuyama penned the title, article and then the book that named this perspective, “the end of history,” but it was in fact a conclusion suggested by a long line of social and political thought. 

As an American sociologist trained at the tail end of the hegemony of the theory of Talcott Parsons, this was the prevailing view, made most explicit in his final book, The System of Modern Society. But the kind of evolutionary progressive position that Parsons developed, and that his radical critics shared along with him, is no longer. We know that liberal democracy is far from inevitable, and we know, as well, that socialism as the systemic alternative to capitalism also is not. Further, as we face environmental disaster and the pandemic, it is not at all sure that liberal democracy is up to the task of effectively addressing the crises of our times nor is it clear, especially to those of us who have some experience in your part of the world, that socialism provides the simple solution to our problems. There, I think socialism requires a brief word, while democracy requires a more deliberate consideration.

I’m perpetually puzzled by the notion that capitalism is the cause of the major problems we now face. That it, or so-called “neoliberalism,” is the fundamental problem. I remember when I thought it was so, when during a student demonstration in the Spring of 1970, I denounced an environmental studies professor for not recognizing that the answer to the problems of climate change was the destruction of capitalism. I remember foolishly shouting at him, half inspired by Karl Marx, half inspired by Emile Durkheim, that there are no piecemeal solutions. 

But now I am pretty sure that piecemeal solutions are all there is, or more precisely direct solutions. The problems of global warming require targeted solutions to address the pressing problems. Develop ways to wean the most and the least developed economies off fossil fuels. Develop clean energy. Regulate carbon emissions. Share new technologies. Plan to mitigate the inevitable upcoming disasters: flooding, drought, hurricanes, fires, extreme heat. Support the poor regions of the world to avoid escalating humanitarian disasters. I see no reason to believe that there exists a systemic alternative to capitalism, called socialism, that will provide a singular solution to these problems. Indeed, the evidence is that all attempts to create a systemic alternative to capitalism, around the Soviet bloc and far beyond, in the Americas, Africa and Asia, as well as Europe, have been just as bad, if not worse than capitalism, concerning the environment and much else. I will be happy to talk further on this matter in discussion if need be.

Liberal democracy is another matter. In 1989, I didn’t think that it had become inevitable or that it was in some way the end of history. Existing democracies, I saw quite clearly, left a lot to be desired and enacting desire would constitute a real and contentious history. Nonetheless, I was quite impressed by democracy’s global appeal. I was pretty sure that the attraction of ideological alternatives to actual existing democracy were things of the past. I was mistaken. I was too sure. I should have been less certain. Uncertainty would have been wise.

Socialism has made a surprising comeback, as have, more perniciously, various forms of fundamentalism and populism. Ok, another word about socialism to be sure I am not misunderstood. It all depends on how the notion is defined. If socialism is understood as a complete systemic alternative to capitalism, its comeback would be unfortunate, to say the least. But it is another matter if socialism is understood as a political project to qualify and control the excesses of the market and the hegemony of private property, to insure social and economic justice, and decency. This is just what we need, in my political, but not scientific, judgment, but it is far from certain that it will happen.

It is also far from certain that the normative practices that define the liberal and the democratic in liberal democracy will flourish: the rule of law, representative democracy, multi-party elections, the peaceful transfer of power, minority rights, and freedom of the press, and of universities and the arts and sciences. I make the list because I want to emphasize that I believe liberal democracy is not a system, with one model. What we call liberal democracy is not one thing, but a combination of enacted, correlated normative elements, never fully realized and differently enacted. The term “liberal democracy,” is a shorthand for naming these elements and for justifying them. So, as I raise the issue of the future of liberal democracy and note that it is uncertain, I am indicating a concern about the future of specific principles and practices that can be empirically appraised. I repeat to emphasize: the rule of law, free media, academic freedom, representative democracy, minority rights and pluralism. 

These futures are, to be sure, connected, but they also have some relative independence and tensions. And these futures clearly are uncertain. To understand this, we should not formulate grand theories, but we should closely examine details and consider their broad significance. 

Democracy, like God, is in the details. And when we examine the details, I think it becomes clear that there are ongoing contests, and the results are far from certain. And there is no inevitable historical or social structure which tells us how things will work out. 

Is there a future for democracy in America, Poland, and the rest of the world? When will the negative effects of the pandemic ever end? And even if it ends in the foreseeable future, will the human species survive climatic catastrophe? 

Now, to my primary social scientific point: as unique as these questions seem to be, I would like to suggest that it may be wise for us to consider their normality, rather than their uniqueness, and then address them in these terms. Grand historical narratives and comparative historical narratives, Marxist, anti-Marxist, and much in between, are predicated on causal chains. Committing to these narratives works against a sense of uncertainty, even as the narratives are tweaked to account for the unexpected.

The development of the mode of production and class relations move history from feudalism to capitalism, to socialism. The role of the party is to move this development forward. As meaningful action is based more and more on rational orientation, the institutions of the economy and society are transformed, producing the modern world, with distinctive and relatively independent spheres of state, religion, culture as the arts and sciences, and form of authority, even a distinctive approach to sexuality. As solidarity is based more and more on difference and mutual interdependence, and not identity, a new type of society develops. Thus spoke Marx, Weber, and Durkheim as they gave account of the development of the modern social order. But so much was not anticipated by these accounts: world wars, totalitarianism (which Hannah Arendt succinctly described as modern barbarism), religious revivals and fundamentalism, and the centrality of media in the constituting social order and social change. 

With this in mind, I often imagine what would have happened if Gabriele Tarde won in the debate he had with Durkheim over the primary subject matter of sociology, and how social science might have been better prepared to account for the experiences of the 20th century and anticipate the problems of the 21st. What if what are often taken to be social structures would be understood as interactive patterns, that are sustained and are often quite durable, but also are changed dynamically through anticipated and unanticipated interactions? This imaginative experiment, I have come to realize, is similar to Bruno Latour’s reimagination of sociology. 

What if we recognized the uncertain consequences of social interaction as a core feature of social life as we experience it; their contingency, as Richard Rorty philosophically reflected on this? What if we recognized that the profound uncertainty we are now experiencing is characteristic of social life, and that the task of sociological, political, economic, and historical inquiry is not to maintain that these can be explained and resolved with set formulas and models, but seek instead to illuminate the uncertainties? I propose such a program, understanding that it has often been followed in practice, but has not been broadly recognized.

Social scientists have studied how the social order must be worked on to be sustained (think Harold Garfinkel), with a constant struggle of maintaining a working definition of the social situation, with redefinition a persistent possibility. This has been classically examined in the sociology of Erving Goffman and the tradition of inquiry that preceded and followed him. The focus of such investigations has been on face-to-face interactions of quotidian sort. But, as I have argued in The Politics of Small Things, big political and social topics can be illuminated using insights coming out of this theoretical tradition. Totalitarianism and its alternatives, and democracy and its enemies can be studied in this way, as can the other topics I am discussing here, the sociology of the environment and medical sociology. 

What we do will determine whether Covid 19 will continue to fester and spread. It depends on what we do whether the modern economy, technology, instrumental rationality, and capitalism leads to human extinction. It depends on what we do whether liberal democracy has reached its end point. And we social scientists should provide an account of this “doing.” We need to bring agency back into our reflections on the long durée, as well as the immediate future.

But as we bring agency back in, we should do so with care. Obviously, agency is constricted by circumstance, much of it inherited. Regularized patterns of social interaction, aka social structures, and institutions, both facilitate and constrain our ability to act. The power of defining the situation is a key dimension of social life, but we enter situations that have been pre-defined. They point us in directions that are hard to turn or reverse, but they are nonetheless turned and reversed, intentionally and unintentionally. I think we must pay attention to how the turning and reversal happen.

I call such study the examination of the social condition. The task of such inquiry is to illuminate the tensions in social life and the dilemmas they pose, life’s questions, not to pretend that there are answers that lead to predetermined social structures and history. There is an understanding that how the dilemmas that are addressed add up with consequences that change the patterns of social interaction, i.e., structures and institutions. 

As far as the adding up, I would point to the writings of Tarde as the thinker who thought of social persistence and social change in this fashion. As far as the tensions and dilemmas: the classical social theorist who explored this was Georg Simmel. Simmel understood that the metropolis, the modern city, is both a setting for loneliness and freedom, that money allows for individuation and domination, that social conflict both strengthens and weakens social order and change, presenting dilemmas, problems, and creative possibilities, beautifully rendered in his accounts of the conflicts and tragedies of modern culture.

More contemporary investigations get at this problem. In an unfortunately neglected volume, Injustice, Barrington Moore Jr., the author of the classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, addresses the neglected problematic of when suffering and inequality come to be understood and acted upon as injustice, and the consequence for contemporary social arrangements and history. When do people accept and even justify their suffering, and when do they declare it to be unjust and act upon this declaration? Moore comes to my mind because these days I find myself focused on the problem of the difficult relationship between democracy and social justice. 

But in fact a great deal of normal social science inquiry proceeds with the social condition and uncertainty in mind. What I am proposing is a more explicit recognition of uncertainty, and a close examination of the way people deal with it.

My dear friend and colleague, Robin Wagner-Pacifici’s approach to “contingency in action” in Theorizing the Stand Off is what I have in mind, as well as her earlier and later works. She has analyzed how participants in acute moments of conflict work through it with uncertain results and consequences: “events,” concerning terrorism and the responses to it, surrender, radical urban politics and much more. Less dramatic, but also pressing: Nina Eliasoph in examining “the politics of volunteering” shows how built into the project of civil society activism are numerous tensions between norms and ideals, and self-interests, and attempts to monitor the interaction between interests and ideals. Such tensions cannot be resolved, she suggests, but only worked through. And how they are worked is uncertain, but consequential. And Elżbieta Matynia, in her study of performative democracy, focuses on how people work to redefine the political situation and then puncture the apparent solidity of social structures and institutions through their dramaturgical performances. As they develop new scripts in their performances, the outcomes are unknown, but new possibilities are constituted.

I also would like to highlight that this perspective animates much of the research of many of my students, including, to name just a few: Nancy Hanrahan on music, Yifat Gutman on memory activism, Zachary Metz on “peace writ small” in areas of intractable conflict, Lindsey Freeman on nuclear politics, Irit Dekel on mediation at the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, and Patrick Gilger on the public life in post-secular societies. I didn’t realize it at the time I was directing these dissertations, but they all followed the project of illuminating the uncertainties of the social condition and accounting for how people deal with them. I was always careful to let students follow their own paths, but I think unintentionally I was fostering a group of young scholars with a common concern of exploring how people confront the uncertainties of social life.

And, indeed, almost all my study of culture and politics in Europe and America follow this logic as well. In fact, I admit, when I think of this general approach, I am reflecting on my work over the years, from Polish Student Theater to the project of Reinventing Political Culture. These studies are predicated on the ambiguities and ambivalences of modern social life. The uncertainties for better or worse. Donald Levine, my dissertation supervisor, and Robert Merton, as it happens the man who chaired my tenure review, opened the door for investigations along these lines. I think, bearing in mind our present circumstances, ambiguity and ambivalence should be investigated more fully. The acute nature of our present situation highlights the more general implication, both sociological and political.

Our present uncertainties are unsettling. Obviously, we can no longer count on the powers of science and medicine to save us when so many now are ignoring their genuine gifts. The pandemic continues to rage, and environmental disaster has become a normal aspect of daily life. But I do see grounds for hope when thinking about democracy. Uncertainty challenges resignation. By embracing uncertainty, we are empowered to act, and we social scientists should illuminate this. 

I am uncertain; therefore, I act, and appreciate others who act wisely.

Although it may be the case that we can no longer count on liberal democracy as the end of history as Fukuyama declared and modernization theory predicted, we also cannot count on its decline and fall. We should confront the complexities of the moment that both point in the direction of the clear and present dangers, and the possibilities of overcoming these dangers, or at the very least creating zones of activity that resist them.

That’s my political conclusion. But as a kind of postscript, I’ll make two additional moves. First focusing on my experiences in Poland from the 70s and 80s. Second, focusing on some very recent experiences I have been having with colleagues at the American University of Afghanistan. I will try to show how examination of possibility and focusing on zones of possibility, make what happened in Poland more understandable and suggest a richer range of possible outcomes in Afghanistan than is usually recognized. 

I learned about the importance of zones of resistance in Poland, many years ago. Back then, in the 1970s and ‘80s, previously existing socialism appeared to be an alternative form of modernity. It appeared to be permanent, even though there was a developing opposition movement on the margins of public life, some of it embedded within official institutions, such as the student theater movement I researched. The prospects that the opposition would overturn the prevailing order seemed to be dim at best. Even when Adam Michnik developed the strategy of nurturing and growing them as “The New Evolutionist” strategy of transformation, a strategy that was confirmed with the emergence of Solidarność. 

But this dramatic outcome, as notable and admirable as it is, I don’t think, is the primary theoretical and political lesson to be drawn from this experience. I don’t believe it is a model for social change in the future, certainly not from the theoretical position I am trying to develop here. Rather the significance of such resistance is that they created uncertainties. The expansion of free public life from an oppositional development within official institutions, to the opposition apart from the official order, to a force for radical transformation was far from inevitable, in my judgment. Rather each development was significant in and of itself, opening alternative possibilities and therefore changing the prevailing order. And illuminating how this works is a primary task for social scientific inquiry.

A Communist system that did not include the development of officially tolerated resistance was very different from a Communist system where no such resistance existed. A Communist system that tolerated resistant forces embedded within the system is very different from one in which resistant forces are independent of official structures. And when these independent forces combine and develop, as was the case in Poland, from isolated corners of the world of intellectuals and isolated corners of the world of workers to a broad social movement, such a system was fundamentally challenged, and given the international military, political and economic contexts, transformed. This was unexpected. People were pretty certain about the long-term future of the Soviet Union and its bloc. As uncertainty about this increased, the real possibility of fundamental change presented itself.

And I believe the same is true now, as we observe the trend of weakening liberal democracies worldwide: there in Poland, and among its neighbors, and here in the United States and among much of the so-called free world that it was said America led: in Latin America, Turkey, the Philippines, to name a few. What seemed like a certainty, that consolidated existing democracies would last, is no longer, as we have observed. But it is also uncertain that they won’t persist. Accounts that suggest otherwise are baseless and dangerous, guided by pre-packaged theories that explain too much.

The trends are unmistakable and they’re not good concerning independent judiciaries, free and fair elections, academic freedom and free speech, free media, the rule of law, deep political polarization and atomization, and more. But these are not inevitable structures, and they have no teleology. Responses to the trends can turn and transform them, even if this seems to be unlikely. But even without such success, the situation is different, the quality of public life changes when people resist trends.

I’ll conclude by trying to demonstrate what I am getting at by sharing with you some experiences I have been having with colleagues at the American University of Afghanistan. 

I was introduced to them by Jonathan Fanton, a former President of the New School for Social Research and participant and supporter of the Democracy Seminar. He suggested I work with the American University about four months ago. I was skeptical. I knew nothing about the university and thought that it very well might be merely a façade for the very problematic American nation-building exercise in that beleaguered country. Things seemed dismal there and the idea of working with AUAF seemed to be foolish. But I agreed to talk.

I spoke first to the president of the University, Ian Bickford, then we arranged a Democracy Seminar Zoom meeting between him, the university’s chief academic officer and two professors, on the one hand, and members of the Democracy Seminar, from the U.S., Poland, Argentina, and Turkey on the other. Later I had further one-on-one discussions with the Afghan group, both before the victory of the Taliban and after.

The theme of the Democracy Seminar Zoom meeting was: “What the media are not telling us about the prospects for peace and democracy in Afghanistan.” The Afghan colleagues were very impressive, and I thought I learned a lot. A video recording of the meeting can be found on the Democracy Seminar website.

Although it was clear that all the participants recognized the looming dangers, there was a more optimistic quality to the discussions than has been being portrayed in the media. They pointed to facts on the ground that were being missed: the extensive networks of civil society activities, the developing volunteer armed resistance to the Taliban that could supplement the Afghan army, and the transformation of primary, secondary, and higher education for woman and girls, boys and men that has changed experiences and expectations of broad swaths of the Afghan population. 

But as they spoke of their hopes, they also expressed their fears, explicitly and implicitly. The most moving moment of the encounter was when Muska Dastageer, a young, brave instructor, very visible in her public activities critical of official corruption, and a lecturer on peace and conflict resolution, political theory, and gender studies, expressed her deep concern for the future of her students. Her commitment was that of a dedicated teacher, but one that included a fear for their safety. She fought back tears while expressing her concern.

Dastageer’s fear was well placed. A busload of students and staff from the American University was turned back as the evacuations from Kabul airport were terminated. They were already processed, with their names sent to the Taliban to be let through, but the American authorities decided at the last moment that they were not a priority. They are now especially vulnerable. 

When the Taliban fighters took over the campus, they graffitied its walls declaring it as the enemy, and its students, staff, and faculty as infidels. Hundreds now anxiously await escape, but it is far from guaranteed.

Hours before these tragic events unfolded, I had a discussion with Victoria Fontan, the chief academic officer of the university—she in Kabul, I in New York. She was focused on immediate next steps, concerning the safety of professors, students and staff, as well as her own, but also on the immediate and long-term future, keeping the university’s programs running and developing. This included the possibility that I might lead a virtual seminar-workshop with colleagues at the university and other universities in Afghanistan and among its neighbors on the topic of democracy and social justice.

Our discussion of practical matters led to some shared general reflections. With the university facing imminent physical liquidation, what purpose has it served, and will it serve in the future? Were the students in the end harmed or helped by the education they received at the American University? And what about the faculty, committed as it is to the same ideals of academic freedom and excellence that animates fine scholars and teachers around the globe? And what is to be done now, for and by them? Victoria and I spoke about these questions, but I want to emphasize that here I am presenting my thoughts. They relate to my initial hesitation to get involved in a collaboration with the project.

After my conversations with the people at the American University of Afghanistan, I realized that they are my colleagues. To be sure, their institution has been supported by the American government and certainly served American and Western strategic purposes, as did much of the American support for civil society development and the empowerment of women and girls and a defense of their fundamental rights. All this was not simply altruistic, it was a part of “the war on terrorism,” a war that frightened me as soon as it was declared. 

Nonetheless, I saw clearly that these people I met were not motivated by geo-politics and they were working to accomplish very different ends: independent higher education, the liberal arts, academic freedom, and excellence. They have been pursuing these ends in a political, cultural, and religiously hostile context even before the Taliban victory. And my expectation is that they will continue to do so after. Their optimism in our Zoom meeting was an expression of their commitment, something that has not been liquidated.

My colleagues at the American University of Afghanistan are now dispersed. They are taking steps to teach virtual classes and to form a university in exile, such as the Belarusian European Humanities University in Vilnius and such as the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research formed in 1933, my home base. 

They very well may not prevail, but the very existence of their work has changed Afghan society in significant ways. Fundamentally, I believe this was the basis of their optimism at our Zoom meeting. It’s far from certain that their commitments will define the future of Afghanistan, that they will prevail, but they have to a limited degree made all the difference in the world.

It is uncertain to what degree work such as theirs, in higher education, media, women’s activism, place real limits on what the new authorities can do, just as it limited what the old authorities could do. But it is a realistic ground of uncertainty that is the basis of hope. It helps me fight against the despair I referred to at the opening of this lecture.

I am, thus, arguing that for scholarly reasons we should illuminate the uncertainties and possibilities of our times and circumstances as we investigate the social condition more generally. And for political reasons, we should embrace the uncertainty, as we act and think.


Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Emeritus at The New School for Social Research.

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