Kondratiev, Brundtland and everything between… #isaforum2016

The second day of the International Sociological Association Forum was just as good as the first, if even hotter; like a Finnish sauna. It had everything from protest camps to dead Russian economists, academic infighting to open source software for Saving the World.

I caught the end of a 0900-1030 session which was on climate policy networks. There was a discussion of the reasons for the differences between Swedish and Finnish climate policy (and emissions reduction performance, though the two can be different!), using the Advocacy Coalition Framework (see introductory video here ; which involves sending questionnaires out and hoping to get enough replies. The results were, in this instance, as best I can tell, inconclusive. There’s some good work on Swiss climate policy using ACF, btw eg Ingold, 2011.

From the presentation about Portugal I learnt that there is no climate denialism to speak of – they clearly haven’t been Rupert Murdoch-ed yet…

James Goodman of University of Technology, Sydney, talked about that laggard country Australia, the only OECD country to have repealed climate mitigation legislation… He pointed to the witches’ brew of the “resource curse”, export-led “development”, state capture, “competitiveness” discourses, neoliberal framing and our old friend techno-optimism. Goodman and colleagues sent out 100 surveys, got 60 back. According to those sixty the climate policy network barely contained the government at all, with NGOs at the centre. Though as Goodman was at pains to point out, that doesn’t mean they’re powerful… They found that 70% of respondents, including even the small c conservative respondents agreed that ‘social justice’ was an important goal. There was a great quote from one respondent ruefully saying “we are way past first best options” and Goodman implied that some businesses are realising adamant opposition to carbon pricing has created enormous uncertainty (a point made in a chapter of the Harrison and Mikler book “Climate Innovation i Liberal Capitalism and Climate Change.”

This session ended with NO time for questions or discussion. Not much of a “forum”, and not a conference (at which you confer– the clue is in the name, as The Wife says). It seems an odd way to run a gathering, for us all – to shuffle from room to room, basically watching flesh youtube videos?!

Labour struggles
Next up, in the session on Labour, Nature and Corporate Strategy: Resolving Core Contradictions, there were 7 papers (sensibly split into two tranches, with speakers kept rigidly to 6 and a half minutes, to allow discussion) on trade unions.

Nora Rathzel (Umea University, Sweden) gave an overview of different stances taken by trade unionists to the thorny nature-society question, including “the reluctant Leninist”, the “comprehensive activists” and so on. She approvingly quoted that bit of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme where he points out labour is not actually the source of all wealth, there’s the small matter of ‘nature’.

Next up a presentation on Just Transitions and the US, pointing out that the term goes back thirty years, and was devised to deal with the corporate and right-wing “jobs blackmail”. Nice distinction between environmental/ecological justice and injustice here. The final pre-break presentation was on a big steel plant in Italy and “working class ecology,” defined as “the “experience of nature, the environment at ecological problems as experienced by working class communities, i.e. from a subordinate, class-based position).”

David Peetz (Griffith University) asked (how) can unions and employees influence corporate behaviour, pointing to a wide range of ‘stakeholders’ in any business – other capitals (esp finance), employer associations, employees and unions, think tanks, consultants, consumers and third parties. Should have mentioned the “Triple Embeddedness Framework” to him, I suppose. Peetz then pointed out that stakeholders have different capacities and motivations to act (that can shift over time). He made the point that business associations perhaps should be regarded as players in their own right, and not merely as a PR fig-leaf for corporations (that’s certainly my reading of the situation, fwiw).

Next up Ray Markey (Macquarie University) gave details of a study using both data on Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (but only 2% have any environmental provisions, and even those tend to be minor) and a survey sent out to 700 firms. It turns out that green HRM is an emerging field and that climate change within that is very new indeed. Anyway, it turns out that education and public administration workplaces, with joint consultative committees, have done best on this, but there is a ‘long way to go’. Two papers on Austrian Trade Unions and environmentalism closed the session out.

In the Q and A I asked about the 1970s politicisation of the workplace (i.e. workers wanting to control the process an major decisions of production, not merely battle for an increased wage), and the parallel debates over the politics of technology. Are the lessons of the Green Bans, Lucas Aerospace and so on lost, do they have to be enacted all over again? According to Peetz, Green Bans are not totally forgotten, and have become part of the mythology. Markey said the peak actors were very aware of it, but it was unclear about the rank and file. One of the Austrian speakers said that here many of the battles of the 80s and 90s had been forgotten, and feared that yes, the wheel would have to be reinvented…

So, a lunch of pancakes and espresso followed (#healthyliving) before a corking session on “What’s Left of 2011.” After an interesting talk about social clinics (providing health care to people in Greece who were ineligible because they were immigrants or unemployed), it was on to a session by Paulo Gerbaudo (King’s College London)  on “The Mask and th Flag: Populism, Citizenship and Global Protest” (the book looks delicious, and is coming out later in the year).

Gerbaudo, a participant in the late 90s-early 2000s ‘alter-globalisation’ movdment is comparing and contrasting it with the post-2011 protests. He argues that there are continuities and discontinuities. The former happened at peak global integration, while the latter follows the 2008 financial crisis. He conducted 40 interviews, witnessed stuff, did document analysis etc. He sees a move from a more anarchist (opposed to the state) mentality and rhetoric in the first batch of protest to one that is based around reform/rejuvenation of the state, so-called “citizen-ism”, since 2011. He says this affects the discourse, with new movements moving away from the glorification of diversity to a sense that in moments of social emergency, the priority is unification. Secondly, it indicates a change in the relationship between social movements in the state. Gerbaudo reckons that the post’68ers were very anti-state (Pierre Clastres struggle of society versus the state [and perhaps Harbermas on the colonisation of the lifeworld?]) whereas this is largely absent from the documents and declarations that come from the squares. Contra Graeber, the new movement is not anti-state, but trying to make the state responsive to citizens (public education, public housing, citizens income). The state is no longer perceived as Leviathan, but a failed neoliberal entity, unable maintain legitimacy. In the q and a there was pushback on Gerbaudo’s (overly?) schematic distinction, and lack of geographical nuance. But me, I want to read that book!

The next paper, by Anastasia Kavada (University of Westminster) was on “From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Sandy: Socio-Technical Infrastructures as Social Movement Outcomes.” It was another corker. She has interviewed 75 activists in London, New York and so on. Twenty were involved in Occupy Sandy, a grass-roots relief effort in response to Superstorm Sandy of late October 2012, months after Zucotti Park had been evicted. She pointed out that social movement outcomes (notoriously hard to measure) focus often on policy or biography or perhaps cultural outcomes, all relatively easy to trace. Socio-technical infrastructures as outcomes is far less studied (she cited Joan Donovan, 2016, citing Star and Ruhleder as defining these as “linking technologies, concepts, procedures and people together so that a project can be accomplished”.

She pointed to interoccupy.net, set up after the evictions, and still going (and used by Black Lives Matter people) and an external website occupysandy.net, which uses “CiviCRM”. However, it wasn’t just open source software used. Googledocs were used to keep track of what was needed where etc, and Amazon’s wedding registry function also got kluged into action.

There was a huge influx of volunteers/members after Sandy (from 10k to 35k), and one of the key things was being able to involve people who had different skills and knowledge. For Kavada the pre-existing relationships of trust (built in physical occupations) were crucial to allow judgments about the skill, commitment and character to carry out crucial tasks. There was, for example, a round-the-clock rota to deal with incoming emails, overcoming the 10,000s unanswered emails that had happened during Occupy New York.

The people she interviewed saw this relief effort (and they ended up with more local knowledge than FEMA and the Red Cross) as part of the same political project of building infrastructure, solidarity and mutual aid, and practically resisting “Disaster Capitalism”.

In the first session of this research stream, yesterday morning, Saskia Sassen had wondered allowed about the sorts of technologies poor people could use to build social capital, social capacity. Well, here they are. This project has the potential to be a more directly useful book than Rebecca Solnit’s excellent “A Paradise Built in Hell.

(See also my recent blog post on finding out what skills and knowledge are in a room, what single points of failure exist etc.)

The final paper, on the Romanian protests from 2011 onwards was interesting, especially on the importance of collective emotions (Dohatur, 2012, p. 232) and the awareness of participants that overloading “newbies” with ideology is possibly not helpful (Bennett, 2003, p. 31). It experienced quite a lot of dissent on empirical and theoretical grounds, and a robust and lengthy discussion ensued.

Not waving, drowning
I am a big fan of World Systems Theory, but remain unconvinced by Kondratiev waves. Kondratiev was a Russian economist who postulated waves of technological change/disruption, on roughly 50 year cycles. So far so okay, but two of the papers in the session on “Sociocultural Evolution in the Long Run” very confidently asserted that a sixth wave, based initially around medical technologies (I shall spare you the acronym) will kick off in the 2030s and be complete by the 2070s, at which point Kondratiev Waves will cease to be (something something Hegelian dialectic something).

There were other potentially interesting presentations in this (one on China and the World System, another giving a several thousand year overview), but my flabber was well-and-truly gasted by what had gone before. My question was along these lines;

“The previous five Kondratiev waves happened in an ’empty world’ – there was space for the population to expand, and – crucially – atmospheric space for us to dump waste carbon dioxide. I am amused or horrified (or perhaps both) to see your confident predictions stretching out to the 2070s. My question is what impact you think climate change might have – specifically how sea-level rise might affect the productivity of cities like London, New York and Shanghai, how food production might affect these waves, and most of all the psychological impact on young people of coming into a world that looks like it might be fucked.”

Several people were nodding and smiling (I hope with not at). And the answer was, I must say, fundamentally unconvincing and unre-assuring. Any other Kondatrievians want to take a shot at convincing me?

So, the final feature of the day was a made up of some “common sessions”. I went for “The Futures we want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World.”

There were five speakers, and I stuck around for the first three.

First up, Jeffrey Broadbent (University of Minnesota) on “Comparing Climate Chane Policy Networks: Improving Global Transparency”.

He pointed out that environmental sociology’s key insight is society/ecology feedback loops, and that there is a shrinking space for our waste products, with increasing mutual disruption of human and ecological systems. This has enormous implications for future society, the biosphere and sociology (whatever the Kondatrievites think). It’s all an enormous (global even) collective action problem, with the discounting of responsibility encouraging defection, free-riding etc. While there are unpredictabilities in social systems, there are, thanks to science, lots of things we can predict with high levels of confidence, and none of them good – droughts, floods, heat, storms, fires, dustbowls etc, likely to overwhelming national and local coping strategies

[at this point I started humming Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” “the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost… everybody knows the boat is sinking, everybody knows the captain lied etc etc]

Still and all, there’s an opportunity for new social institutions to overcome the dilemmas, around climate justice (zero carbon, zero poverty), gender equality and population stabilisation, taming neoliberal [and other?!] capitalism, overcoming political corruption, progress without growth, sharing economies etc. Sure, it’s a good (if dated) shopping list, but as the Marxists would say “who is the historical agent”?  Broadbent closed with an invitation for scholars (including PhD students) to get involved in the Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks project, which has a website www.compon.org.

Stewart Lockie of James Cook University (Cairns) started with some pungent comments on how this was not the first All Male Panel at the 2016 ISA Forum, and that his heart had sunk a bit. The world is changing rapidly, but are sociologists, with their sword of critique and their shield of obtuse language, changing with it. Lockie seems to think not. He decided to offer some “wildly sweeping generalisations” that wouldn’t cost him too many friendships”, and named his dread about what is at risk (a dread shared by many others, he said. On this see also Glenn Albrecht’s solastalgia). One example he gave was of the unprecedented coral bleaching of the last months, and the recently reported mangrove die-offs.

Lockie pointed out that climate change is not going to start in 2050, it’s already here… he listed four major themes

Ecologising sociology – (we have enough theory, we should stop beating up on the founders, and learn to take other disciplines more seriously. The time for “stunningly naïve statements” is over.

Sociologising ecology – He got the boot stuck into both resilience and sustainability (words I hate). “If we’re not doing justice, we’re not doing sustainability”. Apparently the UN has the word “indivisibility” to cover this. So that’s alright then.

Point three (apprehending time) whizzed by (oh the irony) and he closed out with “Democratising Futures” – who is the ‘we’ in the title of the forum? Who do sociologists speak to, and for? His final thought? The need to introduce/defend civility and evidence into/within public discourse

Before a brief overview of the third speaker, I want to say this; all these debates about justice, corruption, the “indivisibility” of social and ecological processes, were had by the Brundtland Commission between its inception in 1983 and the release of “Our Common Future” in 1987. In exactly 30 years we seem to have achieved… nothing (actually, it’s worse than that – we’ve tipped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and built the infrastructure to tip ever more. We’ve been worse than useless).

Timothy Luke (Virginia Tech) talked of “The Grounding Sociologies of the Future: Anthropocene Futures Emerging from the Present Burning Up of the Past.” He started by pointing out he’s an interloper, a political scientist. For him, there’s a “certain amount of useless abstraction” and headless chickening around the concept of the anthropocene. Along with ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ it can help support an eco-conservatism that supports the status quo. He then quoted those lines from Weber’s Protestant Ethic about machine production dominating “until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt”

For Luke the concept of the anthropocene is the “ultimate power predicate”, providing a rationale for both a policy and research agenda. Scientists, humanists and writers all use it differently [as a boundary object?] for their own ends, and it can be used as a grant-grubbing buzzword and instant invocation of ‘transdisciplinarity. Luke fears a form of neo-Victorian imperialism where the world is “saved” -but by whom, how and for who? He closed out by saying if the term didn’t exist, the geoengineers and planetary managers would have to invent it. Truly, it’s Doctor Strangelove all over again…

Swimming against the tide
So, at this point, I had an appointment for swimming. Two teutonically-efficient underground journeys and a ten minute walk with new friends, and I was swimming in the Danube and getting into a staring contest with a hungry swan (I will confess that I had stood on a bridge and watched white birds flying towards me and thought “those are massive seagulls”…. Vienna doesn’t yet have a coastline…. We see what we think we should see, eh?

So, tomorrow is the Big Day, I have my 12 or 15 minutes of infamy. Wednesday may be a day “off”. Does anyone have any suggestions for day trips from Vienna? I’ve been advised Bratislava is not a good choice…

Things to look up (thesis friendly)

Stuff on issue attention cycles – Joseph Gusfield, Howard Becker
Book – Capitalism, media and climate change by Jean-Baptiste Comby
Peetz, D. and Murray, G. 2015. Chapter on Climate and Finance Capital in a 2015 Routledge collection
Ray Markey et al in first 2016 issue of International Journal of Human Resources Management, on Australia and climate

Things for After The Thesis
Blee/Taylor 2002, p93 ff on interviewing activists
Crowther 2004 on the scarcity of Eastern European civil society, thanks to the one party states, soi-disant communist.


One thought on “Kondratiev, Brundtland and everything between… #isaforum2016”

  1. No time for questions??? I’m amazed they weren’t running a triage carrying out concussed conferees. Jeesus – intellectual assault and battery. That’s week’s worth of thinking on it’s own.

    Seems there aren’t enough of these things. Hopefully well see some sort of networked discussion emerging of these sweeping vital urgent matters. It’ll take me at least a week to chew all this over.

    Many thanks.

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