Event: “The Resilience of Unsustainability: Cultural Backlash, Authoritarian Reflex and the Great Regression” #TransitionImpossible

After last night’s keynote, tonight it was the turn of Professor Ingolfur Blühdorn, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, WU Vienna to deliver a talk. His title was “The Resilience of Unsustainability: Cultural Backlash, Authoritarian Reflex and the Great Regression,” which is academic-speak for “Dudes, lemme say, we’re, like, totes fubarred”

This blog post gives an account of what he said, what the panel, made up of

said, and then a precis of the questions and answers that followed. There’s even a bonus snarky summation from me. I aim to make the whole blog post somewhat shorter than last one (#oldpeople #decreasingstamina), but again, [my snark is in square brackets and red…]

Speech, speech!

Bluhdorn was introduced by the chair Margaret Haderer, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, WU Vienna, who pointed to his prolific output (the word ‘frantic’ was in there…)

If you really want the low-down, defo watch this totally amazing, professionally made video – post-ecological thinking

[So, I’m going to bullet point lots of the speech]

The talk is part of an international research workshop – key question is whether societal transition – at which a declatory level is accepted – might be impossible to achieve, and if so why? What kinds of transformations are going on instead?

Three issues for tonight

  1. Change in social value preferences, shift in political culture we are witnessing in contemporary consumer societies
  2.  Rise of right wing movements and parties, which are conducting a head on attack on eco-agendas
  3. Thirdly, talk about Robert Inglehart, the founding father of academic study of values. His 1977 book The Silent Revolution says our societies should be becoming evermore eco and socially progressive. Has a new book saying this (Cultural Evolution).

So, the speech is a response to Backstrand’s speech which was on the supply-side, of what (Swedish) state can provide, while this is looking at demand side- what citizens want..

Argument

  • modernisation/emancipation-induced change in social value preferences helps to explain the resilience of unsustainability
  • Rise of right-wing populism is NOT a “reversal” of the emancipatory agency, but its dialectically transformed and politically outsourced continuation.
  • The change in political culture in the wake of the populist revolution is part of modern consumer societies’ adaptation to sustained unsustainability.

Resilience has become popular in parts of the eco-political literature. Normally has positive connotations. Not often used alongside unsustainability… Donna Nelson et al 2007 –‘the amount of change a system can undergo and still retain the same function and structure while maintaining options to develop.’

still retain the same function and structure’ is an interesting phrase, which shows a shift in perspective. Modern socieities adamantly defending their unsustainability [Bush Snr declaring at Rio that the American way of life was non-negotiable]

Social Values and Political |Culture

Shift in values and culture in liberal consumer democracies are centrally important to this resilience. (Of course, there are drawbacks to this way of looking at things). But, useful. Prevailing norm specification and legitimation are crucially importance for the resilience, inertia…. [Did I mention my PhD thesis is called Enacted Inertia?]

Robert Inglehart work is well known and much debated, The Silent Revolution introduced “material to post-material values, and  “security to self-expression”. In most recent work, though, the “post-material values”  argument does not play major role, but democratic values and self-expression are still there (see pages 114 and 124)

  • Self expression values emerge when a large share of the population grows up taking survival for granted (124)
  • Since democratic institutions provide greater free choice than authoritarian institutions, people with self-expression values generally want democracy (121)
  • Cognitive self-mobilisation makes [middle class people]more skilled at organising in order to get them (119)

Inglehart reassures us democracy has not reached its high-water mark, there is  no long-term retreat, ad no need to panic. A curious story. Post-materialist/eco-values no longer prominent We might be tempted to dismiss Inglehart’s argument wholesale and call it academic path dependency. But that would be throwing out baby with bathwater…. There are strengths in Inglehart’s analysis

  • significant parts of society are rebelling against the iron cage of consumerism
  • emphasis on the individual, its subjectivity, its identity and its value preferences
  • particular focus on well-educated middle class as pioneer of change (the cultural creators).
  • Theory of modernisation—induced value and culture change and rise of self-determination and self-expression values are being articulated ever more vociferously
  • ever increasing demand for choice IS a driver of societal change.

And also ‘end of democracy thesis’ is indeed mistaken: Inglehart can give us good guidance there. However, there are also weaknesses.

  • Firstly, he does not explore what kind of self, and how prevalent understandings of this Self may change. These are changing/have changed
  • Secondly no attempt to spell out what the notions of freedom and autonomy may imply and how prevalent notions of freedom and autonomy may change, or may have changed.
  • Thirdly, no differentiation between different forms of democracy. Occasionally very simplistic.

If we iron out the weaknesses in his views, we will get closer to understanding/explaining resilience of unsustainability.

As regards the understanding of ‘the self’ there is a rich body of literature. In the well-educated middle classes where Inglehart identifies the Silent Revolution) they are ever less predetermined, and ever more a project the individual can/must pursue. This self, this identity is ever less unitary, homogeneous. In reality, it’s more dynamic, fractured…

[See also Gergen, 1991 The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life . And for that matter Erich fricking Fromm]

Ever more this self-actualisation project is done via the consumer market.

If all this is the case, the rise of expression values can be seen as the rise of ‘the unsustainable self’ [need to consume at a frantic rate]  With ever-increasing pressure to mobilise all resources for realisation of the Self Project, and choices in the consumer market ever more important, and the expansion of lifeworlds, lifestyles, arenas of self-experience, ever more planned obsolescence in self-experience, unsustainabilty is no longer an unintended and potentially amendable side effect, but a constitutive principle of modern identity, lifestyles and society. [as the young people used to say, ‘it’s not a bug, it’s a feature]
The subjective is and patterns of self-realisation of the most innovative and progressive parts of society, in particular are unsustainable by intention and design.

[Michel Houellebecq nails this.]

The analysis of this value and culture shift goes along way in explaining the resilience of unsustainbility.

Second major Inglehart deficit – failure to spell out what exactly ideals of freedom and autonomy are supposed to look like.

Inglehart is right to say in era of neoliberalism, freedom and autonomy seen as about ‘free choice’, but this ISN’T how we used to think, and isn’t compatible with eco-politics sense of 1970s. There was an different understanding of autonomy then.
Wasn’t about free choice, but accepted limitations and boundaries that had to be kept.  [see also the concept of eudaimonia?]

In line with Kantian tradition, post-Marxist,these saw freedom and autonomy primarily as inner, moral and intellectual freedom. Around dignity and integrity, rather than fulfillment in/through the market. Freedom and autonomy implied the ability and duty to recognize, follow and appreciate the guidance and imperatives of reason versus animalistic impulses).

Freedom and autonomy understood in collective sens, limited by the principles of inclusion, equality and reciprocity. They were conceptualised as ecologically inclusive. (dignity for other species etc). Within these boundaries, precisely, freedom and self-determination were the normative base of eco—democratic, eco-political project. Only within these boundaries are rise of individualism conducive (to human flourishing).

But the logic of emancipation is not known for respecting boundaries. Quite the contrary, transgression of boundaries is its thing. [Erich Fromm knew this.]

The dynamics hollowed out the norms of the eco-democratic project and also incrementally depleted normative resources of the project Emancipatory movements metamorphosed from agents of project into its grave-digger.  [“From emancipation to emaciation”?]

The dialectic of emancipation explains how and why the most emancipated and progressive parts of contemporary consumer societies are a key parameter for the explaining the resilience of unsustainability.

These parts of society have embraced and are defending patterns of self-realisation which have moved beyond Kantian boundaries and emancipated themselves from restrictions from which Inglehart thought would mean eco-improvement.

The most of us in the room belong to this well-educated section of society, with the uncompromising defense of their lifestyles

[Prof Kevin Anderson- if you want to see a high emitter, look in the mirror]

This may well be why in Inglehart’s new work post-materialism no longer prevalent.

So, it is mistaken to see what is happening as reverse, backlash or regression. Rather, it’s the playing out of the internal logic

Such conceptualisations (if Inglehart et al)  are the socially and politically sedative performance, the simulative maintenance of norms and values which have factually long been abandoned because they are incompatible with contemporary understandings of freedom, self—realisation and a good life. Current developments are not a deviation from the trajectory of modernisation and emancipation but its continuation.
Any return to a supposedly normal course or status quo ante is not to be expected.

The attempt to portray the projected socio-ecological transformation in terms of than emancipatory promise and gain has lost its sociological foundation.

[Lyrics: “Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn”… Gil Scott Heron, song ‘South Carolina’ 1980.

Whatever happened to the revolution (Skyhooks, 1974).]

Middle class not ANTI democratic, ANTI environmental, but reconfigures what these terms mean.

Third major Inglehart deficit is his failure to explore different styles of democracy.
Authoritarian reflex/populist reflex.  e.g. the following quotes

Decades of declining real income and rising inequality, together with unprecedented massive immigration, have produced a long-term period effect supporting the populist vote (186)

still, income factors such as income and unemployment rates are surprisingly weak predictors of the populist authoritarian vote. (181)

He concedes however that age-linked cultural voters are STILL the best predictors for who votes right/against social change

[Karl Mannheim and cohort effect!]

Older people freaked out by large scale immigration. But these effects are temporary (old people die).

So Inglehart thinks Right-wing populism therefore a passing tide, says democratic values will recover… Thus ‘no need to panic’.

Bluhdorn – Whole range of respects you’d want to take issue. Academically and politically irresponsible. But, on focus on the resilience of unsustainabilty… see it as a continuation rather than reversal of middle-class emancipatory project.
With simplistic notion of modernisation and equally simplistic “democracy versus authoritarians”, Inglehart fails to see at the possibility is a reconfiguration of democracy.

He’s right it hasn’t reached its end, but fails to recognise possibility of transformation, but he fails to see the following

  • There’s a multiple dysfunction of democracy, a legitimation crisis.
  • Economic growth is actually unlikely to recover, and the most progressive parts of society are seeing de-limited views of freedom are seen as non-negotiable.
  • The emancipatory agenda pushes the necessity to reconfigure democracy to accommodate contemporary understandings of self-realisation and self-expression.
  • Rather than being a short term antidemocratic tide, the populist revolution lastingly reconfigures democracy so as to enable it to manage ever higher levels of social inequality, indeed ot politically organise and legitimate a politics of ever-increasing exclusion.
  • By remodeling democracy into a tool for a majoritiarian politics of exclusion, the populist revolution substantially increases modern societies’ resilience to social and ecological unsustainbility.

Bluhdon says he is NOT doing this analysis with any kind of moralising intentions, but from the perspective of a reflexive, critical sociology. Aware of the problems – one methodological problem is that BOTH sides are at pains to express their incompatibility with each other. Everyone claims that ‘they are the people, drain the swamp etc.
Meanwhile, civilised civil society is saying we’re not the mob, we’re reasonable.

From a sociological perspective, looking beyond the self-description of the actors, it is possible, even constructive, to bridge the abyss to think about symbiosis (not conscious!) between the non—negotiable freedoms whose self-descriptions do not allow them to self-organise this exclusion, and those to whom they outsource this class.

This has always been the case. Comparable to outsourcing of sourcing of consumer goods, and outsourcing waste disposal of problematic stuff to the Global South.

Panel Discussion

Karin Bäckstrand: Three critiques

  1. Too deterministic about this value shift
  2. Too speculative, no empirical foundation around a) rise of populism and b) resilience of unsustainability
  3. Underestimate resilience of political institutions to the changes

re 1. YES, we’re in a dark place right now, but if longer perspective, and look at same-sex marriage, gender equality, there IS change.. RW populist parties won’t be able to reverse this. 82 percent of Swedes do NOT support Swedish Democrats.

2. I know this paper doesn’t have empirics, but as political scientist, there is a lot of research, we need numbers. Could draw on public opinion work. e.g. Dennis Everberg this morning, (who looked at “Resisting Transition: An Empirical Investigation into the Social Forces of Business as usual”)  in Germany. We need more than anecdota, look across levels, countries…

Also, if unsustainabiility is constitutive, why have these conferences?!

3. Political institutions actually stick. E.g. in US, Trump is not able to dismantle the lot. Some standing up for the rule of law etc.

Arias-Ladonaldo

Stimulating lecture. The right questions, but have disagreements about your seductive almost apocalyptic arguments.. You approve of Inglehart emphasis on autonomy. Are all these subjectivities alike? Aren’t populists appealing to notion of community that has been eroded by the market etc.

  • Are we not talking about two kinds of unsustainable selves?
  • Children of the 60s looking for shelter in identity politics.
  • Compelling aspect of lecture in ‘unsustainable self.
  • Was the bounded self an illusion? Mostly embraced by a very few. Mostly captured by capitalists
  • Maybe the 60s moment was always just going to be a moment? And 60s were rebellion against boring conformist 50s etc.
  • Eco-democratic project was individualistic
  • Fourth – rise of unsustainable self thesis – but ecomodernism is a narrative on offer. Can it seduce the unsustainable selves?
  • Fifth- interpretation of populist wave. Not the whole story. Populism is also protest against globalisation and psychological impact of GFC.

Christoph Gorg

Not easy to comment on paper/speech.

Share some of the pessimism, but not the conceptual foundations. Also missed the empirics.

  • Good to emphasise current industrial societies are unsustainable.
  • Not possible to use Inglehart ot explain all this.
  • Read Silent Revolution when it came out and then decided to read better books….
  • Preferences are not fixed, they develop!
  • Second, the term resilience. Even in ecology it’s highly contested. Resilience Alliance did a power grab on this!
  • Last point – yes, need to act as scientists not activists. But can we do that from ‘neutral’ perspective?! If you speak of unsustainablity, this includes a normative judgement.
  • Need to think ‘how to change it’?

Bluhdorn Answers brief because I don’t disagree with much of the panellists

  • We as interpreters of ongoing or not-ongoing changes, are caught up in narratives, conceptualisations which we have re-iterated for decades. My agenda not to be optimistic or pessimistic, but how can we – if at all – break out of these self-description narratives.
  • How can we get out of the repeat cycle?!
  • Inglehart’s book is indeed terrible. Am not defending it. Am trying to tease out whether anything useful in his approach that can take us somewhere.
  • Not defending the term resilience – just saying is there any mileage in it, around reading against the grain.
  • And yes, need to check if Dennis’s data can be read through my perspective…
  • Not trying to offer theory of populism. Looking at phenomenon and seeing how it might be connected to the resilience of unsustainability.
  • Yes eco-democratic project was an illusion! But a significant enough illusion that Inglehart wrote a book.

Thanks to everyone! Clarifications will go into paper

Questions from floor

Meadowcroft – certainly stirred things. Could you explain what IS the curious resilience of unsustainability. I don’t see why there is anything to explain. Why SHOULD society evolve towards sustainability. All sorts of forces that reproduce current set ups?!

Bluhdorn – one could say ‘nothing’ if don’t expect societal transformation and assumes a certain trajectory. We need an explanation for universal commitment but no action, and also why you’re now allowed to say ‘I don’t care’ (Drill Baby Drill)

Luigi- Following Gorg point – concept of resilience. Foucault said ‘look, often/always in history we are stuck into problematisations. Frameworks of thinking that can be totally opposite but share conceptual foundations and be in hidden agreement.

Dorothea – DO we need new questions? Are we asking wrong questions? Might it simply be that other social forces stronger than our analysis?

Eric – remark on middle-class. To what point in Europe does this work? In USA ‘crisis of middle-class’. In US self-identification of working class has gone up…

Ingolfur – same old stories. Post-growth folks – nothing new. I read these stories 30 years ago….

Andrea – evolving self of middle-class and rise of right-wing populism. Two remarks. 1. outsourcing – its not the progressives outsourced, they lost it, if they ever had it in the first place

2 sectors of middleclass not progressive!

James – your feeling that nothing is changing. I sympathise, especially over some of the debates (e.g. post-growth etc). While doing my PhD  on the topic of British State conceptualisations battles in the 1880s, I saw same debates, decided same underlying structures

Margarete – once pushed it, got to go normative or empirical, you have to go somewhere/can’t stay where you are.. Risk of sweeping generalisations

My take

Ingolfur’s work is always invigorating. I remember reading his take on non-violent direct action subcultures as a Theme Park and punching the air – “finally, an academic looks at social movements and refused to suspend his critical faculties in exchange for access to these people”  And I totally buy post-ecological thinking (see amazing video above).  And I never liked Inglehart, so this is catnip to me.  It’s good to call bullshit on the soft-green middle classes who think that they’re doing their bit by buying organic yoghurt while cranking out the airmiles.  And it’s good to see what is happening now as part of  an unfolding logic.

I think the word resilience was a hostage to fortune. We’d possibly have had a different, more fruitful discussion if the terms persistence or tenacity had been used.

And, as with the entire conference, the ‘what is to be done’ question has gone largely unasked, and even more largely unanswered.  Truly, we are living it large….

 

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