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How capitalism went too far
French academics are not known for their brevity. But sociologist Alain Touraine was wit's soul, titling last week's talk, "In or Out."
Tall, bespectacled and quietly elegant in a peach button-down shirt and black corduroy jacket, Touraine's droll humour made for a nice change from the black turtleneck set.
He started his career in the '50s, studying the sociology of the working class in Latin America. He later cast his keen eye on social movements (predicting the student uprising of '68, which led some to wonder if he somehow incited it), and now he looks at agents of social change. These make up the three parts of his work, concerning "sociology of action."
First, with a smile, Touraine apologized for the title, saying it was good to create a little suspense. Then he explained himself.
In the past, our social measures ran up and down. "Rich people, poor people, lower classes, upper classes-this vertical classification was accepted by everybody." This "high degree of polarization" was maintained through the invention of "children as inferior, workers as inferior but, most of all, women as inferior."
After WW II, the axis of up and down was minimized in North America and Europe by the state enacting integrated social, economic and national development programs. This promoted the development of citizens, and there was a "trend in the world to create integrated societies."
Fast forward to now, where instead of being on a vertical scale, people are being rejected from groups entirely. "We are entering a period where we have to think of people as In or Out."
Little did we realize, Touraine says, "we were writing one of the final chapters of history of the Western world."
Touraine makes short shrift of the notion of globalization. "International trade has not changed much in the last few decades," he claims, but local interests have been suppressed. Economic and financial actors were given autonomy; social, cultural and political actors were left aside. Plain and simple: this was capitalism running its course, leading to American hegemony after 1989.
For "between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, we've been living in the most extreme form of capitalism," the likes of which haven't been seen since the heady days of 1848 onwards in post-revolutionary Europe.
From 1989 until now, unions lost strength, intellectuals lost influence, labour has lost largely what it had conquered. "Everything that is social and political has disappeared. Social norms have disappeared."
As evidence, Touraine asked, these days "who uses the word normal?" We have gone from being social actors to being autonomous actors. Our capacity to integrate people into society has declined, rather than increased. How are new citizens to be created?
A polarization has occurred,"between the Koran and Wall Street, everything has vanished." Since we no longer think in terms of up and down, but of in or out, Touraine notes, "you are always someone's out.
"After 12 years of the illusion of an open and free world, we discover our society is weak and we've no control over the situation. A few people can create panic in the most powerful country in the world."
After one month of war, Touraine wonders, "Is it possible to recreate a civil society?" To do so, we need "concrete, immediate answers to limit the consequences of the war situation."
He suggests we urgently need a Palestinian national state. If that were to happen, "parts of the Islamic world will have no reason to associate with extremist groups."
Further, our decaying welfare state no longer works. Touraine believes that for the 21st century, the transformation of our educational system is as important as the creation of a welfare state was in the 20th century. A better, more inclusive system would increase opportunities for everybody.
Touraine is optimistic, in that he cheerfully feels the future couldn't possibly get worse. He urges we "recognize the strange nature of the past decade," and strive to create a new space for democratic life. This means less inequality, less injustice and, ultimately, less catastrophe.