In these unsettled times: a brief case

1. An unsettled time is characterized by the transition from workable habits to new ideas.

Ann Swidler distinguishes between settled and unsettled periods. (“Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review 51 (1986): 273-86.)

A “settled culture,” she observes, is defined by “traditions and common sense.” The agent “refines and reinforces skills, habits, modes of experience” and relies on tried-and-true “strategies of action” (282). By “strategies of action,” Swidler means “persistent ways of ordering action through time” (273).

An “unsettled culture” is “ideology,” understood in the sense of ideas governing action. Not habits but ideas are the motor-force of life. The agent “creates new strategies for action, but long-term influence depends on structural opportunities for survival of competing ideologies” (282).

2. Thesis A: We are living through an unsettled time.

Anecdotal evidence:

  • Erosion of Expertise Culture. Modern industrial society is based on an increasing division of labor, the drive for greater technological innovation, and a growing body of specialists. In the early 21st C., however, citizens in the developed world are less willing to arrogate authority to economists, medical doctors, climate scientists, and government bureaucrats. See comments to “On Experts and Global Warming.” Here is one typical example:

Dave has it exactly right. [Throughout the 20th C.,] There are numerous examples of the “experts” being dead wrong. In the 60’s the experts were predicting an ice age, in the 70’s we were going to be out of oil by 2000, etc.

Or consider Mark Lilla’s argument about the libertarian populism exemplified most spectacularly in the Tea Party Movement.In “The Tea Party Jacobins,” New York Review of Books (May 2010), Lilla writes,

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

  • The Changing Face of Work Life. Where to begin? With 20 percent unemployment among 20-30 year-old American men? With the burgeoning freelancing class? With the paradoxical claim that work life is separate from home life yet also that technology is making that line more porous by the day? With the slow demise of labor unions? With… None of these quantitative measures indicate the qualitative change afoot. In any case, let me restrict my comments to the professional class.

In the new economy, creative industries are eating their own tails. Coeditors at Mother Jones report that companies are in the midst of a “greet speedup,” the idea being that each worker is being asked to be more productive and work longer hours so that the company won’t have to hire new employees. In addition, full-timers are now collaborating increasingly with freelancers and interns who are contracted to do short- or long-term projects. Paradoxically, during this period parenting has become more, not less demanding. According to a USC study summarized in The New York Times, from 1965 to 2007 “the amount of child care time spent by parents at all income levels–and especially those with a college education–has risen ‘dramatically’ since the mid-1990s.” Let us call this three-fold situation–the grind of too much work, the need to collaborate with freelancer colleagues/competitors, and the crushing demands of being good parents–“the work life crucible of the new economy.”

3. Thesis B: In this unsettled time, old institutions are failing to adapt to  mounting external pressures. (See “Institutional Decay.”) I list only a few failing institutions below.

  • The Decline of the Nuclear Family. Divorce at 50%. Outsourcing of child care. Both parents working. Increasing nomadism, with children and families relocating. Fewer ‘celebratory anchor points’ like birthdays, holidays, and so on. Increasing legitimacy of gay marriage, etc.
  • The Failure of Neoliberalism. See, e.g., Aaron Peters, “The Movement that Needs No Name,” Open Democracy.
  • The Debt Crisis Among Nation-States in the Developed World. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland in the Eurozone. Also the US.
  •  The Unworkability of Higher Education. See Malcolm Harris, e.g., “Bad Education.”
  • The Hollowing-out of Civil Society. Do you belong to any clubs? Any organizations apart from sports? Are social networks suitable replacements for Elks Lodge, church groups, knitting clubs, and so on?

5. Thesis C: Other forms of life–some new, others old (on the re-emergence of old tools in our time, see Dougald Hine, “Remember the Future?”), most some new configuration of new and old–are emerging. From among this set of possibilities, various experiments are being tested, many of which will fail in turn. A few experiments may survive; these will be reproduced as workable ways of life. Let me end with a quote from Ira Katznelson, “Periodization and Preferences: Reflections on Purposive Action in Comparative Historical Social Science”:

In such circumstances [i.e., unsettled times], many constraints on agency are broken or relaxed and opportunities expand so that purposive action may be especially consequential…. This plasticity and openness, moreover characterizes both preferences about goals, purposes, and values (ends) and preferences about strategies and tactics (means), as well as their relationship. Indeed, at such moments, familiar links between ends and means themselves may break down, promoting and deepening uncertainty. With outcomes unpredictable, actors experiment, test, learn, and explore divergent alternatives. Not surprisingly, such times often incubate remarkable advances in political theory (think of Locke on toleration or Constant on constitutionalism) and convene a process of institutional innovation, often the result of multifaceted and contradictory innovations. Often, actors who are most competent and successful when means-ends relations are predictable founder, and new actors, with distinctive preferences, skills, ideas, and visions of alternative futures, emerge to redefine situations, provide solutions, and create institutional results, some of which then endure for extended periods to reshape boundaries, naturalize outcomes, redistribute power, and provide new contexts for solving problems. (283)

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