How Useful Is Theory In Moments of Crisis?

How Useful Is Theory In Moments of Crisis?

How Useful Is Theory In Moments of Crisis?

A conversation with sociologist Dylan Riley about the state of left politics, defending social theory as a political tool, and his new book Microverses.


Crisis tends to connote destruction and disorder. But moments of crisis are also productive, though the political impact and orientation of this is always contingent. That is, a crisis could just as easily produce reactionary outcomes—such as the opportunities for lucrative government contracts and the privatization of public goods that we have come to know as “disaster capitalism”—as emancipatory ones, such as the new forms of mutual aid that emerged to deal with the particular dangers of the Covid-19 crisis.

For Dylan Riley, the social theorist and scholar of European fascism, twin crises—in this case, the Covid pandemic and the earth-shattering diagnosis of a loved one’s illness—proved simultaneously destabilizing and generative. In the wake of such “hammer blows,” the tools of social theory—critique, methodical analysis, attentiveness to the everyday structures obscured by power and ideology—took on renewed luster, and writing, in turn, became a balm.

The collection of 110 notes, or “pieces of thought,” in Riley’s new book Microverses covers a dizzyingly broad range of themes, including capitalism, the discipline of sociology (and its discontents), the structural significance of musical ensembles, and even the apparent bipartisan fascination with UFOs. Taken as a whole, however, these fragments cohere into an impassioned defense of social theory as a method and activity premised upon the “fundamental connectedness of human experience” and tasked, therefore, with mapping a path to a future free of alienation.

I spoke with Riley about the relation between sociology and Marxism, contemporary socialist politics, and the promise of social theoretical critique. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Ishan Desai-Geller

Ishan Desai-Geller: You argue that social theory’s essential contribution to critique and political action alike stems from its capacity to denaturalize the structures and systems around us. In other words, social theory challenges us to scrutinize all that we take to be given—the social and political status quo—and, in so doing, to understand that the world as it is represents only one possibility among many. Crisis, it seems, can work in a similar, though certainly less salutary and more unpredictable, way. For example, in a note on the Covid pandemic, you show how the crisis of Covid didn’t necessarily produce, so much as reveal, additional ongoing crises—logistical, financial, political, and so on. Could you talk about what role social theory can play in times of crisis and what relation, if any, you see between the two?

Dylan Riley: It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that every great flowering of social theory has occurred at some moment of crisis for precisely the reason that you point out above. Crises strip away what’s inessential and reveal what is essential. In a crisis, you get a focusing of the debate, a focusing of intellectual energy. By contrast, in periods where things are running along on their normal track, the social sciences meander, lose focus, and lose relevance. They begin to fetishize the complexity of the world. Crises are stimuli to the kinds of reflections that the collection hopefully embodies. As to seeking to resolve or overcome the crises: In a sense, that’s what social theory is about. It’s about trying to understand the bases of the predicaments that we face and what some possible paths out might be.

IDG: While the book’s fragmentary structure was partly a response to the conditions under which you wrote it, it also serves as both a methodological intervention and an attempt to recover a specific social theoretical tradition perhaps best represented by Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Du Bois’s Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil. What drew you to this method, and what called you to recover this particular theoretical tradition?

DR: I found that the distancing and the analytic language of social theory is a comforting way of dealing with painful experiences, whether those be personal or collective. One of the things that drew me to this particular style is its therapeutic quality, the way it allows one a sense of control over a reality that can feel uncontrollable.

The politics of the notes are fairly obvious, but they are also written in a very cool idiom—”cool” meaning somewhat analytical and distant. Contemporary culture tends to value the idea of commitment and engagement, which is important. But it tends to undervalue the importance of analytic detachment—the looking from the outside at things and the ways in which that intellectual move can be really powerful when one reengages with the world. There’s got to be a back-and-forth between engagement and distancing. That’s what drew me to this form of writing: This tradition of thought has something of value to offer people even at a personal level, and it does so precisely in its analytic power—its precision, coolness, and detachment.

IDG: You tackle the vexed relationship between the field of sociology and Marxist thought throughout the book. Though Marx is often taught as one of a holy trinity of canonical social theorists along with Durkheim and Weber, you describe Marxism as “sociology’s ur-antagonist.” Could you elaborate on this and describe what, if anything, this tells us about sociology’s relationship to the projects of the left today?

DR: What I’m really talking about is the relationship between Marxism and classical sociology, which for me refers to people like Durkheim and Weber, but also [Vilfredo] Pareto and [Gaetano] Mosca, who are less known but are part of this tradition and generation. That tradition—of classical sociology, and classical social theory in particular—is a reaction to the intellectual and political challenge of Marxism.

One of the most interesting things about the history of sociology and classical social theory is that this kind of intellectual formation never really developed in the oldest capitalist country. The United Kingdom never produced a Weber or a Durkheim. The reason for that is fairly clear: There was nothing like the German Social Democratic Party or the French Socialist Party in the UK. The kind of political and intellectual tension that produced classical social theory didn’t exist there. So, sociology is this field of combat: Its great texts are polemical texts.

To the question of sociology’s relation to the left today: In my reading, there’s a real resurgence of interest in something like Marxism. But sometimes it seems that the term “Marxism” refers to a commitment to progressive policies and has some elements of a lifestyle brand, rather than a commitment to the idea itself. There is a real basis upon which to build something lasting. But there are some interesting features of the contemporary resurgence that make it quite different from the previous ones in the 1930s and ’60s. One of the really distinctive things, at least from what I can see, is that the tradition of classical social theory doesn’t really exist as a point of reference for this particular milieu.

I think it’s important, as the intellectual left reemerges in the United States and elsewhere in the Anglophone world, that people engage with this tradition. Every young aspiring leftist should read Weber’s Economy and Society. It’s an unbelievably rich set of analyses. It’s not in the Marxist tradition, even though it’s related to it, but it’s absolutely necessary to understand the society in which we live today.

IDG: I’m interested in the critique of contemporary socialist politics that you outline in the book’s preface. What do you think today’s left is missing in its application of Marxist thought?

DR: It’s really important that people in their 20s and 30s are interested in Marxist and socialist ideas, and are interested in the creative fusion of that with broader progressive culture in the US. But there is a difficulty in fusing the Marxist tradition with the framework of what you could think of as the radical democratic tradition of American politics. The difficulty derives from the fact that the US left—and American culture in general, in my opinion—is highly moralistic. It’s very concerned with the idea of the condemnation of society as unfair. I connect this with what I call a kind of legalism: the envisioning of progressive transformation as a set of decisive [legal] decisions that will right the moral balance.

For me, the thing that Marxism offers that no other political tradition does is a devastating critique of contemporary society that is fundamentally not reliant on moral denunciation. That’s a huge advantage, in my opinion. It also creates a certain difficulty in translating that culture to the culture of US progressivism.

There are many folks who are drawn to the left—understandably so—through a sense that society is fundamentally unfair. But the contribution of Marxism is to say that, to understand contemporary society, one must understand its internal contradictions. We’re not talking about a society that, as it were, is just unfair, because every society that has existed historically is very unfair and unjust. The power of Marxism is that it demands that one’s critique become historically specific and rooted in an analysis of the dynamics of society and its internal contradictions. And that requires a difficult combination of commitment to clear-eyed, cool-headed analysis and political engagement. It has to be both hot and cold.

IDG: This question of legalism reminds me that when Marx shifts his analysis to the “hidden abode of production” in Capital, he critiques the notion of formal legal equality—that individual workers “are constrained only by their own free will” in deciding when and with whom to exchange their labor power. The rub is that the fact of formal legal equality obfuscates the intrinsically exploitative and coercive nature of the relation between workers and capitalists. In other words, the Marxist tradition shows that our political projects can’t take recourse exclusively to legal solutions because the law can obscure just as much as it reveals. I wonder if your coinage, the “juridification of the imagination,” in the note on legalism applies here.

DR: I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying, but there’s a further level of specificity, which is the institutional centrality of the Supreme Court in the United States. This shapes very profoundly the structure of social movements, so that they tend to be oriented toward the court. That’s what I was trying to think about with this idea of the “juridification of the imagination.” History becomes imagined as a series of struggles to rectify the Constitution.

I feel that the progressive left doesn’t really escape this. It’s not a criticism; it’s a reflection of reality. But it is a problem precisely because, if you are imagining history in that way, you are trapped within the context of formal equality and the bourgeois state. It’s a general feature of bourgeois society that formal equality actually reinforces substantive inequality, but it’s also a specific feature of the US that we have this particular cult of the Constitution, and that the centrality of the Supreme Court shapes the sorts of protest politics that emerge.

IDG: I was struck by your description of critique in its purest or most basic form as “at once generous and devastating.” Why is this the case, and what does it tell us about the function of social theoretical critique?

DR: We need to make a distinction between critique and criticism to understand what I’m trying to say here. The point of critique is that it starts by expounding the intellectual position in its own terms and its strongest form. A critique is based, in the first instance, on a deep appreciation of whatever is being subjected to critique. So, critique is generous by definition. Then it takes a further step and says, “If that’s the position, what are the historical conditions that produce this position?” It’s generous, but then it historicizes the position, and that’s the devastating move. Think of the subtitle to Capital: “A Critique of Political Economy.” Marx recognizes the extraordinary brilliance of classical political economists like Smith and Ricardo. But he insists that their insights are dependent only on a certain setup of society. The validity of their thought is itself a historical expression, and it’s also the limit of their thought. For Marx, the fundamental issue with political economy is that it cannot historicize itself. It can’t identify the historical conditions that make it relatively valid. That’s the double move of a critique.

IDG: Architects of emancipatory projects have always faced a dual challenge. As you put it, the task of the left is not only to incisively critique society as it is, but also to “insist that a new sort of political order is possible.” Part of the challenge of this insistence, and one that inspires ardent debate within and outside of the Marxist tradition to this day, is the question of how best to cultivate solidarity across difference. How might we deploy the tools of social theory to contravene the forces that prevent us from working toward common political projects?

DR: This is the million-dollar question. I do think that social theory offers something distinctive here. The way out of the class-versus-whatever-else trap—this is going to sound paradoxical—is to let go of the politics of group-ness: to let go of the idea of creating political solidarities on the basis of preconstituted group interests.

We can think about interests as “negative.” The easiest way is to think about the ambiguous nature of the working class in Marxism. In one sense, you can say that the working class appears to be the agent that will transform capitalism into socialism because it has an interest in doing so. But the deepest thing about the working class for Marx is that it has an interest in self-overcoming—in no longer being the working class. The project at its deepest level is a negative one: It’s a project of giving up an identity that can exist only in a certain setup of society. And it strikes me that solidarities are most effectively created when people can identify their interests not as, for example, X-race or Y-gender, but as an interest in no longer having races or no longer having genders. Their interests are in the self-negation of the group or the class to which they are ascribed in capitalist society.

We need to think about negativity as a very powerful way of constructing solidarities. The tension is that we need to articulate a politics that responds to people’s interests as they positively exist, but that also appeals to this deeper idea of a universal interest in no longer being trapped in these categories.

IDG: Authoritarian and ethnonationalist politics are resurgent globally, and so is, as you point out, the commentariat’s “fascism industry.” There’s certainly no shortage of terminological debate around these political movements. To what extent should these debates preoccupy leftists?

DR: Sometimes I fear that I have been drawn into this typologizing debate. I understand people’s frustration with that as making politically irrelevant distinctions. But we need to understand what it is we are fighting against. I’m critical of people who call it “fascism,” but not from the perspective of saying there’s nothing to worry about. We’re in a very dark place with politics, but I believe that the fundamental problem in the contemporary moment is still the problem of apathy. More participation in the political process would go a long way toward rectifying our current political crisis. I believe we have a politics that has been produced by a vacuum of political engagement. What we’re getting is a highly organized, fanatical minority that is able to shape an agenda in a context of widespread apathy. That’s not at all what was going on in the 1930s. Classical fascism was a reaction to extremely engaged, very powerful, very radical left-wing movements. That’s not what’s happening today.

How do we fight mass apathy? How do we think about it? The issue of contemporary politics is that the liberal democratic political system is simply failing to deliver sufficient goods to keep the population politically engaged. We need to make our politics matter to people in a real way. That’s going to be the challenge of the coming period. If that doesn’t happen, you get this situation of very antidemocratic, highly engaged minorities able to hijack the political system. You also get a symbolization of voting, because people don’t feel that the political system is offering them much of anything materially. That’s the situation today, and I think it’s important to recognize that reality.

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