Sociology, Capitalism, Critique

Reviewed by Peter

Klaus Dorre, Stephan Lessenich, and Hartmut Rosa, Sociology, Capitalism, Critique (New York: Verso Press, 2015), 342 pp., $24.95.

As sociology became further embedded in the academy, the production of knowledge became increasingly bureaucratized and professionalized. In The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills argued that the field was in danger of losing its critical edge and abandoning its prophetic role. Today sociologists seem content to produce research which is reformist but doesn’t challenge the core of capitalism. The volume under review was published in German in 2009, in the midst of the economic crisis, and has now been issued in English by Verso Press.

Dorre, Lessenich, and Rosa ask a fundamental question: Where has the tradition of social critique in German sociology gone? This book fills an important gap in light of the relative paucity of work in the social sciences on the crisis of capitalism. Of course, the authors’ critique of German sociology could also be extended to social science in English. Neo-Marxist sociology and critical theory have been marginalized in American sociology partially because their proponents find it a difficult way to advance an academic career and to produce a track record of continuing grant support.

The authors find fault with German sociology in that it has lost its critical impulses and no longer addresses the big questions. They cite, approvingly, C. Wright Mills’ plea to return sociological thought to the classics and to cultivate the sociological imagination. They note the influence that Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, had in stimulating debate in economics, and they wonder why a book with a similar impact has not been published in sociology. They urge a return to critique in sociology, and to thinking which challenges hegemonic knowledge.

To stimulate debate in sociology about the nature of contemporary capitalism, Dorre, Lesseich, and Rosa offer their own analysis in three opening essays written by each author separately. Each author then subjects his work to criticism by his fellow authors, and then finishes with a rejoinder to his critics and a final thoughts section. While organizing the book in this fashion is somewhat cumbersome and repetitive, it does serve to thoroughly immerse the reader in the substance of the debate. To this end it does a good job of highlighting new ways of comprehending late capitalism, while also providing a model for thoughtful critique and constructive criticism by colleagues. This is a courageous effort which potentially can help to reinvigorate sociology and Marxism.

One of the authors, Hartmut Rosa, clearly explains what a new critical sociology should be about--namely, “the question of the good life or more precisely: the analysis of the social conditions under which a successful life is possible” (67). While this would seem to be a fairly general way of framing the question, it does help to put into perspective the changes in the political economy of capitalism which thwart attempts to promote social justice, human rights, and equality.

As the authors suggest, one can only understand what is preventing people from attaining a good life by analyzing the capitalist system as a totality and imagining a completely different social formation. By combining Marx with Foucault, as well as other critical theorists like Marcuse, Habermas, and Offe, and integrating classic sociologists like Weber, the authors provide an analysis of the changing dynamics of the current social formation. In so doing, they seek to forge common ground and suggest an approach where the critique of capitalism will be at the center of future work in sociology. They criticize mainstream German sociology for surrendering its capacity to think outside the system and to imagine alternative social arrangements.

In the first chapter Dorre focuses on Landnahme (conquest), or the dynamics of the new primitive accumulation, which is characterized by accumulation by dispossession. In the second chapter Rosa examines acceleration, or the quickening of social change in an era marked by intra-generational change rather than inter-generational change. In the third chapter Lessenich considers activation, or the adaptive self transformation of the welfare state.

Each of these chapters highlights important changes in contemporary capitalism. By focusing on issues such as the creation of the precariat (Dorre), the quickening pace of change and how it corrodes character (Rosa), and on how changes in the welfare state that seek to stabilize capitalism unwittingly destabilize it (Lessenich), the authors advance an engaged critique of late capitalism.

The analysis focuses on neo-liberalism, and especially on the impact of finance-dominated regimes of accumulation. To explore these topics, the authors concentrate on what has changed about the accumulation process, how it has affected the pace of change and the social construction of character, and how the state has responded to new challenges and sought to be proactive in addressing legitimation crises.

The authors strive to create a sociological understanding of capitalism as a moving target which is constantly changing and adapting and which is prone to systemic crises. They bring into focus new structures of accumulation and their impact on workers, growing alienation among younger people as they see their life chances negatively affected by changing definitions of success, and the struggles of the state to restore legitimacy and aid the accumulation of capital.

These are important topics and provide the foundation for further research. In recent years sociologists have often assumed that economic growth and neoliberalism are the natural order of things. A sociology which uncritically accepts growth in all circumstances and glorifies the market plays a key role in reproducing capitalist ideology. In a previous era social science disciplines such as sociology had a critical edge. Unfortunately, this has changed, and the field has become largely irrelevant to the project of imagining and guiding social change. This is due to the failure of sociologists to embrace their role as social critics and to develop a public sociology as opposed to an academic sociology. The authors’ critique of German sociology and their own critical theory of late capitalism stand as important examples of the role sociology could play in advancing theory and praxis.

These authors suggest that the task of creating a social science literature which is critical of the current social formation requires a critical understanding of the dynamics of capitalism. To develop this perspective would necessarily involve a challenge to academic orthodoxy, which in the present era exalts the gradual aggregation of small and middle range quantitative studies divorced from a critical view of society as a whole. This book provides a model for how the field of sociology can take a different path and become relevant again. Surely no single book can cover all aspects of this path, but the authors break new ground by integrating Marxist analysis, critical theory, and classical sociology.

The authors’ focus on the precariat is particularly important to understanding how the dynamics of accumulation have shifted and, in turn, have affected the social psychology of workers and their definition of what is realistic and/or possible. Their proposed theoretical framework could also lead to an updated account of alienation and political consciousness in post-industrial society and a deeper understanding of the potential for provoking a legitimation crisis.

To their credit, Dorre, Lessenich, and Rosa ask important questions and concentrate on critical issues in understanding capitalism in its current iteration. While their work will undoubtedly stimulate debate in sociology, critical theory, and Marxism which is sorely needed, their theoretical framework could be better developed. They seem torn between critical theory, Marxism, and classical sociology, and undecided about which offers the most promise to spark critique. To be sure, there are benefits to be derived from connecting these different theoretical approaches, but there are also significant problems in trying to be true to perspectives that are sometimes at odds and offer very different starting points for comprehending capitalism.

An analysis more grounded in political economy would seem to provide a more fruitful path. For instance, it might be better to adopt a more straightforward Marxist approach and discuss monopoly finance capitalism. It also might be useful to integrate a more global view of capitalism, one rooted in the accumulation process.

These relatively minor criticisms of the authors’ approach focus mainly on what might have been included in this volume. Their primary motivation, to revive critique in German sociology, is laudable, and they have succeeded in making their case. In sum, this is a noble effort which seeks to awaken German sociology from its slumber. We should applaud the authors for confronting the status quo in academe and advocating for an engaged public sociology.

Reviewed by Peter Seybold Department of Sociology Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI)