Damn Sociology I: Social Science as Means of Control, Research Time, 23/03/2015

One of the fascinating parts of modern right-wing politics is its hatred for sociology. I’ve discussed how my Prime Minister here in Canada, Stephen Harper, holds the discipline in contempt. Donald Gutstein’s book Harperism identified many elements of Conservative party policy that’s hostile to knowledge that the general practice of sociology produces. 

Stephen Harper is probably the most pure new liberal
political leader since Margaret Thatcher. Whether you
consider that a glowing compliment or a powerful
insult is an excellent political compass.
Two examples are gutting the long-form census, and referring to the widespread deaths of missing and murdered aboriginal women as not a true social problem because each event is an individual crime. Destroying the power of the census to collect anonymized data about the overall situation of the Canadian population undercuts the government’s ability to make any kind of well-informed large-scale action or new regulation to help remedy social iniquities. 

The hostility of the modern (new liberal) conservative to the vulnerability of aboriginal women to violent crime seems to have a more complex philosophical basis, and how I conceive of its underlying concept will become clear in time. This is a multi-part post. 

How did sociology, one of the major innovations in the last 200 years of human knowledge, come to be something you commit, like a crime? A philosophical answer lies in Friedrich Hayek. 

Sociology as a discipline actually does suffer a vulnerability, in its history, to those critics who would accuse the discipline of being anti-democratic. One of the founding intellectuals of the science, Auguste Comte, did conceive of sociological research as ultimately uncovering the laws by which human communities and groups interacted. 

These laws were conceived as roughly analogous to the laws of physics, relations among bodies that were regular, deterministic, and accurately represented mathematically. Knowledge of these laws would ultimately be applied to reorganize society into optimal forms. Comte’s first major work was called Plan for the Scientific Work Necessary to Reorganize Society

Road to Serfdom is a superficial
book with a remarkably complex
set of ideas running underneath.
I am vastly oversimplifying here. Actual scholars of Comte would call my conception of his philosophy ridiculously too simple. But right now, I’m not interested in the details of Comte’s actual detailed set of ideas about what sociology was for, but how his general message was received popularly. Hayek has a lot to do with this popular reception because of the curious nature of Road to Serfdom.

Road to Serfdom doesn’t develop any detailed or nuanced philosophical concepts, though it does employ them. Quite obviously, Hayek uses concepts of liberalism, the individualist person, and freedom that should be familiar to any reader of John Stuart Mill (who Hayek frequently cites) or John Rawls (who Hayek never cites because Road to Serfdom was written decades before A Theory of Justice and this isn’t the kind of work that uses retroactive causality). He also uses concepts of force, dynamism, and affectivity that should be familiar to any reader of Gilles Deleuze. 

I’m not going to be one of those many critics of Hayek from the left who leans on unfortunate ad hominem attacks. I am genuinely impressed by the complexity of the conceptual machinery running under Hayek’s most popular and influential books. 

But Road to Serfdom also cuts some interesting corners that undermine his core messages. The most obvious such flaw is that it’s filled with misquotations of well-known intellectuals of the time. Many of those who advocated state economic planning have key words in their quotes slightly skewed to make them sound more extreme than they were. Many opponents of state planning similarly have key words misquoted to make them sound more extreme in their opposition.

Hayek depicts the world in the easy terms of black and white, good and evil. When global politics were dominated by a clear war of genocidal, militaristic, totalitarian regimes with liberal, democratic countries. It’s easy to tell good from evil when your exemplar of evil is Adolf Hitler and the Nationalsozialismus movement. 

State planning finds its purest form in National Socialism and Bolshevik Communism. And Hayek described the social democratic politicians of his day, who all advocated state controls over economic production to keep people employed at good-paying jobs, as leading us down a path to totalitarian government control over all aspects of human life. 

My former friends spoke this way, and I thought they were extreme and ill-informed until I read Road to Serfdom. Now I understand that everyone who takes Hayek’s word as gospel – a lot of people – sincerely believe that Jack Layton is no better than Vladimir Lenin.

Hayek interpreted the original political vision of the first sociologists, particularly Comte, as advocating the bureaucratic control of all society through a government that used sociological laws to organize humanity. But such a blunt idea isn’t the only source of the new liberalism’s hostility (and sometimes outright hatred) of sociology. To be continued . . .

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