In last week’s meeting of the social condition class, we reviewed classical sociological studies, considering how they reveal or conceal the dilemmas and tensions built into the social fabric, how they illuminate or obfuscate the social condition. We looked closely at the closing pages of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism,  and we discussed a paper by William Julius Wilson Jr., revisiting the controversies surrounding his Declining Significance of Race. I also promised the class I would summarize here a critique of Durkheim from the point of view of the social condition that we didn’t have time to consider. And now, as I am writing about the session, I also realize how Marx fits in, i.e. via Marshal Berman.

I wanted to show how Durkheim develops in his study of the function of division of labor an approach which strategically overlooks the tensions in social life. He argues that the division of labor is a social fact that supports social solidarity: not, as is commonly presumed, primary an economic imperative, as for example Adam Smith demonstrated in The Wealth of Nations. He uses what he calls repressive and restitutive law to demonstrate his argument. Each supports solidarity, the former through the enforcement of identity, the latter through the facilitation of difference and mutual interdependence. The theory and the research that he uses to support his position are reported The Division of Labor in Society. He empirically shows a generally unrecognized consequence of social differentiation. It binds, doesn’t divide, he maintains. He demonstrates the social determinants of solidarity. But as he highlights how the division of labor supports solidarity based on difference, he downplays how difference also leads to many conflicts, for example those that are key to Marx’s account of class conflict. But then empiricist that Durkheim is, he sees conflict, but declares it to be abnormal. The struggle to deal with this tension individually and collectively, as a condition of the social, is not confronted. The tension is presented as a passing problem, an exception to the general rule of social development.

Contrary to Durkheim, the division of labor as a manifestation of the social condition: individuals and groups may recognize their mutual dependence upon people different from themselves, or conflict with them. Politics is based on the recognition; they may support one political project or another: liberal, social democratic or revolutionary. How people act, yields different sorts of social orders and different sorts of lives, for better and for worse. The matter is determined by existential choice and political commitment, not by social scientific laws.

Although he doesn’t frame it as a question of the social condition, Weber’s concluding pages of The Protestant Ethic is more open to the tensions built into social development. His thesis is subtle, and often misunderstood. He doesn’t argue that Protestantism causes Capitalism. Rather, his position is that the emergence of capitalism was facilitated by a particular form of Protestantism, linked to the ideas of predestination and calling. He is interested in the effects of a religious ethnic on an economic one, the Protestant on the Capitalist, which has passed into the vernacular as the work ethic: work of all sorts as an end in itself – capital formation, labor, science, art and so forth. Weber is trying to answer the question: why in the west? Why the accomplishments of modernity have appeared in the west? He lays the groundwork for the theories of modernization. Yet, he reveals ambivalence, most vividly in the pages of our class assignment for this week:

“Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history…For the last stage of this development it might well be truly said: ’Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.’”

This is Weber’s warning of “the iron cage” that capitalism and its ethic yield. In his foreboding prediction there is an appreciation of the social condition which has not been adequately recognized. His work has had a huge impact, which has often ignored its subtlety. We discussed an even more subtle dimension, addressing the controversies between what might be called the right and the left Weberians, between Parsons and Horkheimer and Adorno, between those who emphasize the slow evolutionary modernization process, which Weber clearly appreciated, and those who build a theory around his fear of the iron cage. Recognizing the social condition, we can understand that between the happy ending of the modernization, and the tragedy of the iron cage, individual and collective actors stand, with the potential to act.

Now that I think of this, I am reminded of the way Marx depicts capitalism, most vividly with Engels in the Communist Manifesto. As Marx celebrates capitalism’s amazing cultural accomplishments, he denounces the way it totally exploits workers. Fit into a teleological vision where socialism will follow capitalism, the clear project is to overthrow the capitalist system. Yet, given the failure of political projects to construct a systemic alternative to capitalism, and the notable successes of social democratic politics that work to control capitalist excesses, suggests that capitalism is a kind of social arrangement where the social condition presents itself. Social actors best work in between exploitation and modern accomplishments, and push forward. Marshal Berman in All That’s Solid Melts into Air  elegantly described this, from my point of view, combining the social condition as depicted both by Marx and Weber.

We also discussed race this week, starting off with a discussion of Wilson’s thesis concerning the declining significance of race. Our conclusions: Wilson posits a causal relationship between the interaction of race and class on the life chances of Black Americans, seeing that race and racism was the deciding factor in the post Civil War era, and in much of the twentieth century. But the successes of the civil rights movement, and the positive impact of affirmative action, have made it so that class position, rather than racism, has a more telling effect upon the variation of life chances among blacks. Our discussion focused then on what class and race are. We agreed that race is a social construction with very real consequences. I suggested that we might consider class in the same way. Some had doubts. Nonetheless, we explored the proposition that between social construction and social effects of race and class, there is the ongoing struggle to confront a tragic dimension of the social condition in the U.S. and beyond. We will focus on this more as we proceed.

In our next readings, we will consider the work of two sociologist who directly addressed the social condition, Robert Merton in his study of ambivalence and Donald Levine in his work on ambiguity. I also asked the class to send me a sentence or two describing an instance of the social condition. It would be interesting if the readers of this report would weigh in.