We Live in a SocietyRoundup
tags: conservatism, social media, socialism, sociology, Donald Trump, 2020 Election, social theory
Gabriel Winant is Assistant Professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago.
THE NUMBERS FROM MIAMI-DADE COUNTY were the first sign that something was off. At first Joe Biden’s steep fall-off there seemed like an effect of that city’s Latin American oligarchies-in-exile, with all the usual talk of Cuban voters’ unswerving conservatism, but as the evening went on it became clear that a larger, inchoate phenomenon was taking shape. Biden was underperforming with Black and Latino voters in the cities, and Trump was running up the score in rural America significantly. The mood never turned as dark as it had four years earlier, but particularly on election night there was a pervading sense of disappointment just shy of disaster. Victories in Georgia and Arizona and a stark gap in the popular vote failed to displace the frantic questions asked by many: how could this happen after everything Trump had done; how did the Democrats blow it; who could possibly bear the suffering of 2020 and return for more; how could we relate to such people going forward?
Do we live in a society? Looking back on a brutal and miserable year, it’s easy to think not. In her excellent recent book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, Wendy Brown takes seriously as an agenda—if not an empirical description—Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Without the social, there is of course no need for social protection; this is the neoliberalism we know all too well. But, Brown observes, the social is also the primary realm in which hierarchy occurs, and where challenges to hierarchy are organized:
The social is where citizens of vastly unequal backgrounds and resources are potentially brought together and thought together. It is where we are politically enfranchised and gathered (not merely cared for) through provision of public goods and where historically produced inequalities are made manifest as differentiated political access, voice, and treatment, as well as where these inequalities may be partially redressed.
The social is a level of reality; it’s the fabric of human connection—glancing or lasting connection, institutionalized or habituated, hierarchical or egalitarian—that is not analytically reducible to the economic, though it is interwoven with it. To understand the social, think of schools, both sites of segregation and oppression, and also of social movement activity and demands for justice; or neighborhoods, where people both associate together and advocate for themselves and at the same time, dominate and exploit each other. Or think of your roommate or coworker—all the ways that you know each other, relate to each other, are bound together that are not reducible to sharing a landlord or an employer. If society does not exist, then to point out and resist injustice is to be hysterical—cry more, lib. “The neoliberal attack on the social,” writes Brown, “is key to generating an antidemocratic culture from below while building and legitimating antidemocratic forms of state power from above. The synergy between the two is profound.”
This certainly describes key aspects of the Trump phenomenon, and in particular the spitefulness that characterizes Trumpism from top to bottom, with its denial that we owe each other any recognition. But Brown’s formulation contains a paradox: on what substance does this “antidemocratic culture” grow, if not a social substance? A new participant must pick up the habits, tendencies of thought and speech, from older heads. How can a people so ostensibly atomized share a culture, something which propagates laterally? Aren’t a desocialized people too far apart for this to work? Aren’t their conditions too sterile?
Sterility, of course, is hardly the first word you’d come up with to describe our humid and infectious common habitat. If Americans are, per the famous study from the 1990s, “bowling alone,” are they not connected in other ways? Of course we know the answer—it’s practically the only thing we still know. Amid underfunded schools and neighborhoods scarred by gentrification, disinvestment, or both, vestiges of the social still exist—privatized, digitized, and politicized. Much as the tedium of Facebook and Twitter might persuade us otherwise, how can we understand social media except as the refuge of society?
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