Which way is Left? (3) - Thinking otherwise

In previous notes, I've discussed the ideas of Ulrich Beck (Roots & Wings, 9/30) and, last Friday, Vidal-Beneyto (The Spanish Exception). In our recent visit to Paris I picked up the latest book of another sociologist, Alain Touraine, whose work has interested me since his publications 40+ years ago on workers' consciousness in São Paulo.

In the course of his long career, Touraine (Hermanville-sur-Mer, France, 1925) has not only explored consciousness and social change among the oppressed, but has also worked to facilitate both. With workers in Latin America and Poland, or more recently with Muslim women in France, his research design has been a guided dialogue (guided by sociologists) among activists, with the objective of helping those activists understand their situation better so as to act to change it. Since 1992, he has been summing up these experiences for the rest of us in a series of books, of which this is the latest:

Touraine, Alain. Penser autrement. Paris: Fayard, 2007.*

He begins with a critique of what he calls the "dominant interpretive discourse" (discours interprétatif dominant) or DID of the past 60 years. The 19th century had effectively killed God (i.e., an eternal and unchanging moral arbiter beyond our reach), and then the horrors of the 20th century (world wars, genocide, etc.) destroyed our faith in God's replacement, Progress (better and juster society through the advance of science and technology). Then, before the world's thinkers could recover from the shock of World War II, they were split by an Iron Curtain that almost completely blocked new social thought on either side. The sudden and unexpected collapse of that curtain left intellectuals on both sides without any clear idea of where to go next and deepened their pessimism that human beings could even affect the course of our history. From such pessimism arose what Touraine calls the "dominant interpretive discourse", that our lives are shaped by forces beyond our control, and any contrary idea is an illusion or "false consciousness." According to the DID, our individual lives are ruled by material and sexual instincts that we barely understand and can't change, our social lives by the market, especially the mechanisms of global capitalism. This is a view of a society without "actors" (acteurs), that is, human beings capable of acting upon and changing their situation. Such a desperate view of our possibilities encourages people to behave completely narcissistically, with no sense of any larger social purpose or moral control. For those with power, it's all about money and how to get more of it, with no reason to regard the poor. For those without, it's also sometimes about money and survival, but also about something more precarious, personal identity, the precariousness of trying to be recognized as a human being with rights. Among the social consequences of such desperation among the poor are delinquency and "identity politics," including the many forms of fascism or extreme, exclusionary nationalism we see all over the globe, even in places thought to be as staid and stolid as Belgium and Switzerland (not to mention ex-Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Sudan, Guatemala, etc.) Among the social consequences of the irresponsible behavior of the powerful, eager to exploit and profit from the turbulence of the less powerful, are wars and global warming.

The second half of Touraine's new book is his proposal to "think differently" -- penser autrement. It is a continuation of an argument he has been developing in a series of books since 1992: that we don't need faith in either God or Progress, but in ourselves. And the self that you or I or Touraine needs to look to is what he calls "el double", the better self or ideal self that I or you imagine and constantly compare with our practical, here-and now selves: a self with rights, affirming its "right to have rights." Most importantly, this must be a self that recognizes equal "rights to have rights" in all the other selves we encounter.

Touraine insists that this is not just wishful thinking, but a description of something that is already happening all around us. In myriad groups, organized around concerns ranging from global warming to neighborhood deterioration or, what he takes to be the most significant change-agent today, women's rights, people are coming together, discovering their differences and how to accept and even profit from them in terms of personal growth. In the end, Touraine's proposed solution, or path to a solution, to the world's problems is parallel to and quite compatible with Ulrich Beck's: we liberate ourselves and one another through social movements, by which he means self-conscious organizations (conscious of our aims and of the conditions in which we struggle) to confront whatever form of oppression we experience.

Like Vidal-Beneyto, Touraine thinks that the "Left" is exhausted and has nothing more to offer us, but that is because both thinkers think of the Left the way the Left thought of itself in recent decades -- the decades of the "dominant interpretive discourse" where individuals counted for nothing, and only a mass organization led by an enlightened elite had a chance of effecting change. And since the forces of global capitalism were so strong and pervasive, the only change worth struggling for was a total, violent rupture with the present order, that is, revolution.

But the Left (at least in my mind) is and always has been something much more valuable and more permanent, since long before the French Communist Party (Touraine's bête noire) and similar outfits tried to congeal it. That something was never better expressed than in 1789, exactly 200 years before the collapse of Soviet communism: liberté, égalité, fraternité. And those are the values that Touraine is working to recover.

My earliest contact with this thinker, research still worth reading:

Touraine, Alain. "Industrialisation et conscience ouvrière à São Paulo." Sociologie du Travail Octobre-décembre.4 (1961).

* The English translation, Thinking Differently, came out two years after I wrote this review.