Public Sociology as a Return to Political Economy

Wolfgang Streeck, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne

A few years ago, at some international social science conference around the time when Michael Burawoy issued his call for “public sociology,” I was struck by the thought that never before in the history of mankind had there been so many people as today so well trained in analyzing and explaining social life.[1] Still, the most powerful political leaders produced by that sociologically most sophisticated generation – my generation – were George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, reelected around the time of that conference and entrusted by popular will with governing the most democratic democracy in the world. In subsequent years I continued to be fascinated with the contrast between the progressive decay of the politics and economy of the United States and the star‐studded social science departments from Harvard to Stanford. What was all this obvious brilliance good for? Sometimes I asked some of my American colleagues, privately and after work over dinner, how they had made themselves heard on, say, the nation‐building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan – whether this was not something on which to bring social science to bear? The answer was always a resigned silence: why bother, nobody ever listens.

Sociology and its Public: A Problem of Demand?

Does sociology have a public audience on this side of the Atlantic, on less dramatic subjects? I have not done empirical research on the issue, but, from what I have seen as a participant observer over the years, my impression is this: a very limited one if any. Regularly skimming the science sections of our quality newspapers, for reasons unrelated to this paper, I find psychology, brain research and evolutionary biology far ahead of sociology in coverage. Economics also figures, especially its latest descendants, behavioral and neuro economics. Its real turf, of course, are the economics and politics sections, which are undoubtedly much more influential than the science sections, and here sociology is entirely absent, with very rare exceptions.

Why should this be so? Among the many reasons that come to mind is that sociology corresponds less than other disciplines to what is popularly considered science and what is found interesting about it. What fascinates a lay audience about psychology, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology and the like seems to be that they purport to identify latent causes of actions that we normally believe to be motivated by manifest reasons – causes that secretly control what we do without us knowing about them. Representative for the sort of research that has recently made waves in German science journalism are t‐shirt sniffing experiments, showing that women prefer the smell of men who best fit their genetic make‐up, in the sense of promising more healthy offspring. Another subject that comes back again and again is, I apologize to our American colleagues, adultery among monogamous birds; it turns out to be much more frequent than expected, with females secretly mating with males other than their lifelong partner, in particular if their own fathers had been more than others unfaithful to their mothers, for whatever complicated reasons having to do with, what else, the “fitness” of their offspring.

Not that there was no interest at all in sociological research. A survey on sexual practices would, I am sure, be widely received; but sociologists don’t seem to do sex any more. Instead they do gender, and news items on research findings having to do with the battle of the sexes in whatever of its many versions – unequal pay, the division of housework, the lives of unwed mothers – are eagerly printed and, I presume, as eagerly read by mass audiences. Something similar seems to apply to research on schools and educational success, on social mobility and elite formation, or on immigration and its discontents. Almost always, however, it is just the factual situation that is reported, not the theories explaining it.

Although theory as such is not always spurned. The bestselling German non‐fiction book of the past decade, if not of postwar Germany, is Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself), by Thilo Sarrazin. The book appeared in 2010, and it may be useful to spend a few words on it. Sarrazin was an SPD politician, finance minister of the Land of Berlin from 2002 to 2009, and then became a member of the Executive Board of the Bundesbank, until he was fired as an international liability to the Federal Republic of Germany. Sarrazin is known as a prominent so‐called “Islamkritiker.” The book claims, in short, that immigration from Islamic countries together with low birth rates among educated middle class women of German descent weakens the country’s genetic base, especially by lowering the average IQ, and this will in the long run damage the competitiveness of the German economy. While Sarrazin is a an academically trained economist, the book draws extensively on psychological and demographic research and frequently ventures onto sociological terrain, for example when discussing the relationship between intelligence and religion on the one hand and economic and social achievement on the other. It is probably no exaggeration to characterize the book as a neo‐eugenic manifesto based on a biologistic worldview with strong racist connotations (incest among Arab extended families lowers the intelligence of their children), embedded in an efficiency theory of politics and society in a global economy. While the SPD originally considered expelling Sarrazin from membership, it later changed its mind in light of the enormous public resonance of his book and allowed him to remain a Social Democrat in good standing.

The episode is telling in several respects. One is that there is in fact a public audience in Germany, and not at all a small one, for scholarly books on social issues, even if peppered with statistics and with long, tedious discussions of articles in research journals. Academic sociologists, however, refrain from playing this field, perhaps because they expect that the conclusions they draw from their material will leave people unexcited. It could also be that they are not interested in talking to the Sarrazin readers, although these clearly constitute an important segment of the German middle class. Serious public debate on Sarrazin was conducted almost exclusively by journalists working for quality newspapers, like FAZ and Süddeutsche. A few developmental psychologists came forward to state that intelligence may not entirely be a matter of inheritance, and scholars working on religion in general and Islam in particular pointed out that there are actually many different Islams inside Islam. Little if anything was contributed by sociologists, and, as was to be expected, nothing by economists to whom the book’s rampant economism would naturally appeal.

Why is sociology absent in public debates of this kind? One could also ask: why do sociologists have so little confidence in their work that they talk about it only to each other, rather than to the world at large? One answer is this: they know they have bad cards. Economists, the social gurus of our time, with their machine models of economy and society, still have the boldness to offer exact predictions, with one digit behind the decimal point, and continue to pretend to be in possession of a technology of wealth creation that tells us which levers to pull in order to make everybody better off. Who could afford not to pay attention? Moreover, economics as a discipline perfectly aligns with the dominant scientistic understanding, or misunderstanding, of science. To most people, science is the discovery of general laws that yield parsimonious causal explanations translatable into technical know-how or moral justifications or both, as in the homo oeconomicus model, in evolutionary biology (even the birds do it, and for good reason), or neurological discussions of the “free will.” Sociology, by contrast, deals with historically unique situations in which more causal factors than one are at work, and if it dares to make predictions at all, these are typically highly hedged. Unlike psychology or the natural sciences, sociology can hardly promise to reveal secret material forces underlying and controlling the movements of the visible world. Typically, its findings come with extensive warnings against generalization, pointing to contextual conditions, social, economic or cultural, that interfere with and modify individual causal relations. Some of us consider this to be due to sociology being a young discipline that still has to become really “scientific,” whereas others regard it as reflecting the peculiar ontology of the social world. Be it as it may, what matters is that the sociology that is on offer generally fails to measure up to the scientistic standard model of science and is therefore bound to be found disappointing by a public that believes in that model and that sociologists have failed to educate about the model’s deficiencies.

Another problem faced by sociology, at least in Germany, is a public image that very much dates back to the 1970s. In short, sociology is still widely seen as “soft,” not just as a science, but also politically, and such softness is out of fashion in hard times. In the eyes of many, sociologists are suspect of excessive empathy with their subjects, who frequently are marginal groups like the long‐term unemployed, the criminals, and the “parallel societies” of immigrants and the surplus population sorted out by an ever more demanding Leistungsgesellschaft. Sociology often “explains” their way of life by explicating the meanings, the Sinn, they attribute to themselves and the world. In German, we speak, with Max Weber, of “verstehende Soziologie.” But verstehen is not always appreciated in a society in which a widely known proverb claims that “Alles verstehen heißt alles verzeihen.” Compassion is mostly out these days, and a sociology that dares to explain why people do what they do by pointing out why they think it makes sense for them to do it, is easily considered advocacy in scientific guise, or bleeding heart rhetoric, or Gutmenschentum, which is the enemy number one of the no‐nonsense common sense Sarrazin community.

This leads me to the question of the public to which a renewed public sociology could address itself. If anything, sociologists know that the public sphere is a social and institutional structure, not just a crowd. Is there, then, still an enlightened citizenry out there, a Bildungsbürgertum willing and able to shape a society‐wide “public opinion?” Are there political parties interested in seriously learning about the world, or trade unions looking for insights and arguments that could help their cause? Even without a lot of research, we are all reasonably certain that all of these are much less present today than they were a few decades ago, and clearly they are less interested than they used to be in sociology in particular. And what about the media through which sociology would have to make itself public? Print is declining while television and, recently, the internet are on the rise – less so perhaps than in the United States, but still. The “pictorial turn” that is far from ended is not good for sociology, which mostly deals with subjects that cannot really be photographed; neurology and astronomy are incomparably better in delivering colorful images to newspaper editors and television stations. Moreover, the media seem to be becoming more specialized, making “the public” more segmented than ever. If there was a Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit in the past three or four decades, it was one in the direction of modern niche markets. Today’s consumers of commercialized information can pick what they expect to like, and avoid what they believe they will find boring, without ever taking notice. Of course, users of the newest, internet‐based media are free to compose their news entirely by themselves, with no intervention whatsoever from anyone with authority to decide what a good citizen has to take notice of – which was what public broadcasting was able to do and did only a few years ago. Contemporary information consumers learn only what they want to learn, and nothing else. In a world of increasingly fragmented publics and communities, will public sociology be limited to speaking to those who, for whatever idiosyncratic reasons, happen to be interested in public sociology?

Sociology without Capitalism: A Problem of Supply?

That there are problems, and quite serious ones, on the demand side of a possible public sociology does not by itself mean that everything is in good shape on the supply side – that sociology as a social science actually does have insights to offer that are worth being assigned as required reading to citizens and their political representatives. I am afraid I am not and will never be an elder statesman of the discipline who can claim to overlook its full breadth and confidently point it into new directions. For this my substantive interests are too eclectic and my disciplinary identity is too tenuous – my only excuse being, perhaps, that sociology is as such too diverse to invite identification tout court. Also, like many others, I tend to be obsessed with whatever I happen to be currently working on, which easily makes me overestimate its importance. Still, with all due qualifications, I think a case can be made – and I will in the following make it – that the political‐economic crisis that has for several years now held the world in its grip represents a historical turning point – one that, among many other things, offers a unique opportunity for making sociology once again a truly publicly relevant social science, provided it refocuses itself on what are shaping up to be the crucial issues of our time, all of which have to do with a rapidly changing relationship between economy and society.

At the time, immediately after the crisis erupted, economists were widely reproached for not having seen it coming, not least by sociologists. Up to this day, public confidence in mainstream economics’ ability to explain and help govern the economy is at a low – at a time when there is a widespread realization that, in the words of the German industrialist and liberal politician, Walther Rathenau, “Die Wirtschaft ist unser Schicksal” (our fate depends on the economy). Remarkably, however, the crisis found sociologists by and large as unprepared as mainstream economists. While the latter apparently cannot but cling to their tautological models of self‐stabilizing free markets, superficial modifications notwithstanding, sociologists had for decades more or less eliminated the economy from their agenda, ceding it to the discipline of economics, under a historical peace treaty concluded by Talcott Parsons in the 1950s. If the crisis of 2008 gave rise to a renewed sense of the centrality of the economy for modern society, modern sociology was in a bad position to respond since it has over the years essentially conceived its subject as a society devoid of an economy. In this process, important disciplinary traditions were marginalized or altogether externalized, like political economy which fell into the hands of efficiency‐theoretical economics, whose dominance over the subject is today contested only by a few institutionalist political scientists. Recent attempts to bring the economy back in, by establishing “economic sociology” as a new subdiscipline, all too often limit themselves to suggesting alternative recipes for making economic transactions more efficient, for example by complementing markets with “networks.”

I see the current crisis as a strong signal for our discipline that a theoretical program focused on a society cleansed of its economy is unsustainable, unless we are content with remaining as speechless on the leading social issues of our time as we were before, during and after the events of 2008. Many today feel that the current financial and fiscal crisis is not just an economic but fundamentally a social matter important enough to demand a revised interpretation of modern society – one that takes systematic notice of its being continuously revolutionized by expanding markets; of the fragility of social structures and political institutions that results from this; the growing uncertainty faced by governments and citizens as markets increasingly escape social control; the inherent limits of the market as a site of social integration and a basis of social order, and the like. In principle, sociology with its history as a critical theory of modernity should be able to fill this need and offer “the public” insights that it could reject only at its peril. For this, however, sociology must restore the economy as a central subject of any theory of society worth its name – and not just as a neutral mechanism of wealth creation ruled by esoteric natural laws and governable by scientifically informed technicians. This will not be possible unless, as a discipline, we dispense with our interdisciplinary peace agreement with economics and rediscover the political economy sociology pursued when it was young, which it abandoned in order to specialize on “the society.” There cannot be a more auspicious moment for this than now, when the reputation of standard economics with the public has reached a well‐deserved long‐time low.

Why in the first place was it that sociology conceded the economy to the economists? How did we come to believe that a society without an economy could be a worthwhile subject of study, and that a macrosociology without a macroeconomics could be a viable approach to modern society? Is there enough left for sociology if the social is separated from the economic – and often from the political as well? It may be interesting that in Germany, the exclusion of the economy from the domain of sociology apparently took place earlier than in the United States, and if I am not mistaken, not only or primarily for academic but to a large extent also for obvious political reasons. The story is more than just a little twisted. Max Weber, as we may remember, had a chair in economics (Volkswirtschaftslehre) and originally was a member of the professional association of economists, the Verein für Sozialpolitik. That he left it and founded the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie (DGS; German Sociological Association) was a political act as Weber strongly disapproved of contemporary economics’ public advocacy of a reformist social policy. The DGS was to spare him from having to deal with the hated Kathedersozialisten, which was why it had to pledge itself to Wertfreiheit (value‐free inquiry).[2] But this turned out to be unenforceable, and when the soziale Frage kept reappearing at DGS meetings, Weber, having tried but failed to quell the subject, resigned from organized sociology as well. A few years later he died.

It is remarkable that German sociology after Weber never took up the grand themes of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft that we today associate with Max Weber. They were essentially left to the institutional economists of the Historische Schule, like Werner Sombart, who played no role in Weimar sociology at all. Their demise after the Nazi takeover, not least their attempt at a rapprochement with German nationalism, cleared the ground for the postwar growth of “theoretical” as opposed to historical economics. Sociologists, for their part, in their effort to establish themselves at the German university in the 1920s, took great care not to be taken for socialists or, what was still almost the same then, Marxists. Indeed Horkheimer and the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt never considered themselves sociologists, and never thought of joining the DGS. Theoretical sociology in Weimar seems to have basically pursued some kind of formalistic theory of social relations of which nothing is left (von Wiese’s Beziehungslehre). Empirical sociology was preoccupied with demographic research, in particular settlement patterns in Germany and, increasingly, Central and Eastern Europe, under the label of Siedlungsforschung. Unlike what the discipline’s postwar mythology suggested, empirical sociology blossomed in the Third Reich and was respected by state and party, in particular in connection with urban and rural planning for the soon‐to‐be‐annexed territories in the East. Capitalism, of course, never figured in what one might with some justification call a particular form of organic public sociology.[3]

In postwar Germany, sociology continued to stay away from the economy, regardless of the fact that economics was simultaneously becoming ever more modellplatonistisch, radically breaking with the tradition of the Historische Schule. Institutional economics disappeared until it came back much later under “modern,” efficiency‐theoretical auspices. Historical economics was marginalized, even in the form of historical econometrics, or “cliometrics.” What was and what was not sociology was increasingly decided in the United States, from where the discipline was reimported as the Weimar and Nazi generations died off or retired. In the 1960s when postwar growth was at its height, the economy seemed no longer of sociological or, for that matter, political concern. Many believed, like Keynes had anticipated in one of his more optimistic moments, that economics had become like dentistry: a skilled trade to be called upon if there was a problem, with a toolkit of proven techniques to painlessly repair whatever there was to be repaired. At Frankfurt, where I was a student in the late 1960s, capitalism had been renamed Tauschgesellschaft (catallactic society) by Adorno, and nobody except for a few Soviet‐Communist sectarians among the students expected “the system” ever again to be vulnerable to economic crisis. (The crisis of the time, of course, being one of legitimation.) The view that the economy had become essentially a technical matter, and had finally and forever been tamed, was by no means limited to Frankfurt, but shared widely, by sociologists no less than by economists. One example among many is the 1968 book by Amitai Etzioni, The Active Society, which was easily the most ambitious attempt ever to spell out the conditions of modern democratic societies determining the direction of their development and governing their own fate. On its 666 pages, it mentions the economy just once, and then only to remark that “Western nations have gained confidence in their capacity to control societal processes with the wide use of Keynesian and other controls for preventing wild inflations and deep depressions and for spurring economic growth” (p.10).

As indicated, it is my view that sociology’s splendid isolation from the economic world is no longer tenable unless our discipline was prepared to render itself irrelevant for the big issues of our time. In view of the crisis, it would seem to be time to concede that sociology’s bet on the non‐economic in society has not paid off. The good news is that it may still be possible to reverse course. Since sociology is not (yet) as completely sold on rational choice as standard economics, we can more easily break away from an image of the world in which the rational pursuit of individual interests is capable of producing a stable order. Nor are we forever married to functionalist models of social equilibrium – which should in principle enable us to understand the inherent restlessness, the permanent imbalance and the continuing crisis‐proneness of the modern society‐cum‐economy, aka contemporary capitalism. Most importantly, we still have access to older concepts of capitalism as a historical social formation, as a really existing, dynamically moving social structure, rather than an ideal type of economy, or a synonym for market economy, as in economics or in the economistic branch of the “varieties of capitalism” literature. Just remember that as late as the 1970s, someone like Daniel Bell was acutely aware of and represented a tradition of sociological theories of capitalism that reached back to the likes of Marx, Weber, Sombart, Schumpeter and, why not, Keynes, even offering the occasional handshake across the ideological divide to a neo‐Marxist like James O’Connor.

Public Sociology as a Return to Political Economy

What might sociology, aware of its political economy tradition, have to say to a contemporary public that is more worried than it has been for a long time about where contemporary capitalism is going? At a minimum, we should be able to impress on the public consciousness that the present crisis is not an accident – not the unfortunate result result of accidental mismanagement of the American mortgage market – but arises from very basic tensions and contradictions inside the regime of democratic capitalism as we have known it in the Western world since the end of the Second World War. Inflation in the 1970s, rising public debt in the 1980s, the deregulation of private credit in the 1990s in compensation for a first wave of fiscal consolidation, and today’s attempts to restore “sound money” under the pressure of a newly global haute finance are all expressions of a clash between a popular moral economy of social rights of citizenship and a capitalist economic economy insisting on allocation according to market justice and in line with the requirements of “business confidence” (Kalecki). Over the decades, the site of the battle changed, from collective bargaining and the labor market to electoral politics to markets for consumer credit to, as of now, international financial markets for the servicing and refinancing of public debt. While the issue was always the same – in David Lockwood’s terms, how to deal with the conflicting requirements of system integration and social integration in a capitalist society – one cannot but note that the market‐correcting capacity of popular democracy and its collective organizations, like trade unions and political parties, has continuously diminished from crisis to crisis. Today it is international financial diplomacy where the contradictions of democratic capitalism are being negotiated between states and investment banks – an arena almost entirely insulated from popular pressure whose logic is unintelligible to people, apart, perhaps, from a few specialists in the employ of economic and political elites.

Sociologists are not expected to furnish advice as to how to restore sound money and make the economy grow again, and rightly so. But they can help the public understand that this is not the only issue at stake, and that restoring the social compact of democratic capitalism, on which the legitimacy of our social order depends, exceeds the powers of even the most expert economic management. The expectations of capital givers are not the only ones in the game, and certainly not the only legitimate ones. Unlike most economists, sociologists understand that the job of politics is more complex than enforcing on a reluctant society the market justice of distribution by marginal productivity. Some sort of balance must be struck between the needs of people and the needs of capital. If providing for business confidence results in erosion of citizen confidence, nothing will in the end be gained for social stability. While political and economic elites may be tempted to use the crisis as an opportunity to insulate capitalism from democracy once and for all, sociologists are well‐placed and well‐advised to draw public attention to the risks that such a strategy inevitably involves.

That we are in fact facing a severe crisis of democracy and not just of the economy should be obvious by now. In Europe, under the pressure of financial markets, national leaders are systematically transferring decision‐making power to international organizations, taking authority away from national parliaments and, by extension, electorates. Debtor countries have no choice but to accept the dictates of their creditors, with national elections rendered meaningless for decades to come. Creditor countries, for their part, are driven by “the markets” to respond rapidly and flexibly to the latter’s fluctuating needs and capricious demands, which leaves little time for their parliaments to exercise their democratic prerogatives. Firmly institutionalized austerity policies radically narrow the range of political alternatives in all countries, rendering political participation increasingly inconsequential. Remarkably turnout in elections, at all levels, from local communities to Europe as a whole, has been steadily declining everywhere since the 1990s, and most steeply in areas with high rates of poverty, immigration, broken families and the like, where political mobilization would be most needed. As sociologists we know, and are competent to let others know that, where legitimate outlets of political expression are shut down, illegitimate ones may take their place, at potentially very high social and economic cost.

To add one more point, it has now become almost commonplace that the present crisis is to a large extent a crisis of trust – in the value of money, the willingness and ability of debtors to pay back their debt, the capacity of political leaders to resist the pressures of “the market,” and the capacity of markets to provide for an efficient, not to speak of fair, allocation of resources. Not only is there not much confidence that our governments and international organizations will be capable of preventing another crisis. There is also a rapid decline in trust among market actors themselves, in particular among banks dependent upon borrowing from one another. The result is that states and central banks may once again have to come in as trustees of last resort, which may force them to take over bad debt and extend guarantees of a dimension that may finally bring them to their knees. It is not so long ago that transaction cost economics has maintained that institutions are best built by market actors “from below,” looking after their own interests in efficient trading relations. Rational choice institutionalism in political science and sociology was eager to absorb the message and followed suit by replacing public government controlled by the state by private governance constructed by market participants. The crisis has shown that private ordering can go only so far and is easily overburdened with the task of providing for social order. When it breaks down, public authority needs to be brought back for repair work. There is no reason not to draw public attention to what is an obvious bankruptcy of liberal theories of institutions and, at the same time, a resounding confirmation of the Durkheimian sociological legacy.

Drawing on the sociological tradition, we are able to see that what is at the bottom of our current predicament is the well‐known tendency inherent in the capitalist social formation for markets to expand dynamically into other spheres of social life, typically disrupting them and often leaving them in disarray. That tendency today meets with a secular weakness of social countermovements against marketization, of the protective‐conservationist as well as the progressive‐reconstructionist kind, in a historical period when global capital is about to superimpose itself on local, regional, national social structures and ways of life. Unlike contemporary economists, sociologists, informed not least by some of the great economists of the past, like Sombart and Schumpeter, possess in principle the conceptual tools to understand that the capitalist system is one that grows from within, in a way that continuously tends to turn social relations upside down. Rather than proceeding in harmony with the rest of society, capitalist development continuously causes frictions and contractions that demand and call forth ever new collective efforts at social stabilization, aimed at establishing some kind of – ever precarious – balance between economy and society.

Karl Polanyi, whose work a growing number of sociologists find inspiring, did not seek membership in the sociological profession of the 1950s and 1960s. He was content to be an economist, an economic historian, and a social anthropologist. It says something about our discipline, and something not very complimentary, that he was discovered by sociology only in the 1990s when neoliberalism was rampant and financialization was ushering in yet another revolutionary transformation of the capitalist economy. I believe there is no better summary account of our current predicaments than one drawing on the Polanyian notion of the three fictitious commodities, money, nature, and labor, and the inherent limits to their commodification. Many believe that these limits may now be about to be reached, and with them the limits of further capitalist growth, at least of the sort that can still be made more or less compatible with existential human needs. The private‐industrial manufacturing of money in the wake of the deregulation of the “financial industry” has imposed unprecedented uncertainty on entire societies, exacerbating distributional conflict within and between them and raising as yet utterly unresolved problems of global re‐regulation. As to nature, or land, we have slowly been learning that the fundamental characteristic of a fictitious commodity – that its supply is not and cannot be governed by the demand for it – applies to nature with full force. Indeed indications are that unless we find ways to protect our global commons from further commodification, the very basis of life on earth as we know it may soon be consumed in the service of unbridled progress of capital accumulation. Finally, ever‐increasing flexibility of labor markets and work organization has subjected individuals and families to relentless pressures to organize their lives in line with the unpredictable demands of increasingly competitive markets. Among other things, the result is growing polarization between an impoverished surplus population of losers; overworked middle‐class families living an absurdly busy life and putting in ever more, and ever more intense, working hours in spite of unprecedented prosperity; and a small elite of winner‐take‐all superrich whose greed knows no limits while their bonuses and dividends have long ceased to serve any useful function for society as a whole.

What, if not the political economy of contemporary capitalism, as anticipated in Polanyi’s conception of critical limits to commodification, could be the subject of a renewed public sociology? A lot of work, of course, awaits. Sociologists have contributed little if anything to money and finance, pace Georg Simmel and apart from a few entertaining but politically irrelevant ethnographic accounts of life at Wall Street trading desks, written before disaster struck. On the natural environment, sociologists have produced an endless number of studies on when and why people are willing to separate their garbage or make other low‐cost sacrifices. But the question what it is that makes our societies so dependent on capitalist growth, even at the risk of destruction of their economic, natural and human foundations, we have left, strangely enough, to heterodox economists. The same applies to reflections on how a society compelled to grow might possibly be turned into one at peace with nature and itself. That economists turn to psychologists for advice on alternative, non‐economic sources of human happiness cannot really be held against them, given that sociology has so carefully avoided the subject – although it could have reasonably insisted that the issue is a social and political one rather than a psychological one. Relatively well, finally, are we doing on labor markets, family structures, and the conflicts between participation in the intensifying rat race for income and advanced consumption on the one hand and social life, including the raising of children, on the other, as described by, well, public sociologists such as Arlie Hochschild and Richard Sennett.

The Demand Side Again

This brings me back to the old question: would anyone listen? Of course one should not be optimistic these days. But it seems that these are not normal times, or that normal times may well be coming to an end. Clearly a sense of crisis is building among elites as well as citizens, and not least in the academy, that goes far beyond what we have seen in decades. Perhaps we are approaching another Sattelzeit (Reinhard Koselleck): a period of accelerated change with uncertain event that will be of formative importance for a long time. An interesting symptom is how clueless standard economics presents itself when it comes to handling the post‐2007 global economic disaster. Never were the world’s leading economists as divided as today over what is to be done – something that even the trade press, like the Economist and the Financial Times, cannot but notice. Perhaps the explanation is simply that capitalist democracy has run out of technical fixes, as a result of which economic theory as we know it is losing its grip on the public discourse. Political leaders seem already to have lost faith, on both sides of the Atlantic. It is interesting that even inside economics itself doubts are emerging about, for example, the way we measure growth and prosperity, or the prospects for continued maximization of material prosperity in general.

Hauling the economy back into society, and indeed into sociology, may be a program for which one could find allies today. It may resonate even among political elites, in a world in which states are about to be turned into something like public corporations having to earn the confidence of capital givers; in which international organizations function as deposit insurance or debt collection agencies on behalf of private investors; and governments begin to resemble corporate managements pressed to extract “creditor value” from citizens turned effectively into workforces disciplined by capital markets. Perhaps there may also be demand for a renewed critical theory of political economy among the young who no longer join the political parties, avoid trade unions, and refuse to vote in elections. Of course we cannot know who may in the end pick up on a renewed sociological critique of capitalism, one that refuses to share the assumptions of an obsolete model of political economy which less and less people can trust. But as with all “basic research,” the fact that we initially cannot say who will use it and how can be no reason for not doing it.

For sociology to become truly public sociology, I believe it must get ready for the moment in which the foundations of modern society will again have to be rethought, like they were in the New Deal and after the Second World War. That moment, I am convinced, is approaching, and when it is here sociologists should have the intellectual tools at hand for society to understand what is at stake. Even if our only audience was, at first, in the academy, this would not necessarily render our efforts futile. In the final chapter of the General Theory, Keynes expounded on the power of “ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong.” The world, he claimed, “is ruled by little else,” even though new ideas do not take hold immediately:

[F]or in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty‐five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil (Keynes 1967 [1936], Ch. 24).

There is no way of knowing, and perhaps good reason to doubt, if there will be enough time for the general trickle‐down model of ideational change to come to our relief – the “gradual encroachment of ideas,” as Keynes calls it, which has worked so well for himself. Our need for a less suicidal political economy may be more urgent. But this can only mean that we cannot begin early enough to challenge the intellectual hegemony of contemporary economics over contemporary understandings of economy and society. The first public for public sociology, I suggest, is the academy, with its unprecedented numbers of students in economics and business administration where they are being taught, in essence, that society exists only as a grandiose opportunity for utility maximization by those capable of making the most rational choices. If we can’t sow the seeds of doubt here, where then? The Parsonian peace treaty between sociology and economics has silenced the Kantian “contest of faculties” (Streit der Fakultäten) where we would most need it today. Sociologists and political scientists, in alliance with heterodox economists of different stripes, have begun working on a new political economy of a new sort, a socio‐economics that would again make the economic subservient to the social rather than vice versa, first as a theoretical and then, hopefully, as a political project. It is high time for the mainstream of the discipline to remember its roots and join the battle, even though we know that the capitalist reorganization of the university that is under way, in particular in England but by far not only there, is not least designed precisely to eliminate critical reflection, of course for no other purpose than economic efficiency. But then, if public sociology cannot make itself heard in this public, how can it hope ever to be noticed in the world of YouTube, Facebook, Fox TV and the BILD‐Zeitung?

Initiative on Academia & the Public Sphere

1.  First draft. Paper presented at a conference organized by the SSRC and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, The Public Mission of the Social Sciences and Humanities: Transformation and Renewal, September 16‐17, 2011.
2.  Weber’s own social science was anything but wertfrei. His passionate rejection of the social policy advocacy of the economists of his time was that of a liberal nationalist for whom – what he thought were – the coming struggles for national survival and international supremacy, in particular with Britain, were of paramount importance. Social policy, just as democracy, was not for making people happy, but to help the newly formed German Reich to brace itself for an anarchic, conflict‐ridden international world. That Weber could consider his position to be wertfrei was due to his conviction that Realpolitik was an objective fact and not something one was free to choose.
3.  With a little bad luck, sociology as it had developed by the end of the Weimar Republic might have become a publicly recognized pillar of the regime. In 1934 the DGS met for the first time after the Nazi takeover. The issue on the agenda was whether to continue under new pro‐Nazi leadership or dissolve in protest against it. A number of those present suggested electing as president Reinhard Höhn, to succeed Ferdinand Tönnies. Höhn, a lawyer who worked as an assistant to the sociologist Franz Wilhelm Jerusalem in Jena, later became a professor of public law and a leading figure at the SS headquarters, where he headed a department at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt. While Höhn did not get enough votes, the members, in order not to antagonize the new government, decided to suspend the association for the time being rather than dissolving it. It was revived only after 1945. In the 1950s, Höhn reemerged to set up and run, well into the 1970s, the leading management school of the Federal Republic.

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