In the latest Adam Curtis documentary, or journalistic piece like he calls it, “HyperNormalisation“, there are a great amount of contemporary sociological theories implied. I would like to go over some of that theory and how we can apply it to better describe the world that we live in.
The Concept of Class
Most of the central point of the documentary is that we live in dangerous and frightening world, in which it’s hard to make any sense out of. With this, Curtis follows the new challenges of contemporary sociological theory – both the Weberian and Marxist methodological tools are losing their grasp in explaining social reality. In the case of Marx, the concept of class seems quite lacking in the ability to explain the transformations of the late 20th century – post industrial capitalism. With this I mean that, nowadays, people don’t necessarily identify with their material class position, but by their own perception that they have of class and social mobility. Their perception doesn’t have to necessarily fit reality, it’s more shaped in relation by their ability to consume and the lifestyles that they express in their everyday life.
That is also the challenge that Ulrich Beck (1944-2015) faces in his sociological work and one of the main topics in the documentary. In his main work “Risk Society” he argues that “second modernity” marked the end of the politicians and social class. Instead of talking about the dominant class, Beck talks about the subpolitical. For him, in our society, politicians are losing all of their political power. They are meaningless things that create the appearance that everything is the same as it was during industrial capitalism. But, little by little, we were engulfed by these new post industrial capitalism social forms. First, by the financial capitalism, which now determines our national budgets, and then by technological utopians, embodied in the”social networks”, which define how we interact with each other. And little room is left for the politician to act, we are mostly governed by these subpolitical forces.
On the case of social class, for Beck it’s a “zombie category”, since people in our highly individualized society don’t care anymore about those kinds of materialistic social movements, even though we live in a society increasingly unequal. And we don’t care about class because we don’t see the social problems based on inequality as social, but as our own fault, as a consequence of our own actions. The social was individualized. That is particularly common in the speeches of neoliberal politicians that we have internalized. In sum, social problems rooted in the increasingly accumulation of capital by the ruling class are your fault or of your neighbor which you despise for some identitarian motif.
The Cultural side of Class
To understand this new complex way in which class is embedded in cultural aspects we have to call on Pierre Bourdieu’s (1930-2002) work “Distinction”. Bourdieu tries to answer the question of how class operates in a individualized society. For him, consumption and lifestyles are at the core of our identities, affiliations and the communities in which we belong. We may think at first that mass consumption, by including entire populations in its cycle, disrupted the social affiliations people had to social classes. But it actually increased the ways in which the ruling class differentiates itself from the masses.
The basis of this “cultural class analysis” is that the production and reproduction of inequality are routinized by both economic and cultural practices. Consumption is one of the main aspects because that’s how we tend to judge other people today. And that process of distinction, based on what we consume, is done by the kinds and the quantity of “capital” we have. For Bourdieu the economic capital (material resources) and cultural capital (academic credentials and legitimate cultural knowledge) are the main kinds of capital. For example, someone who was born in a family with high economic capital will be in a good position to acquire cultural capital. And that is a core element for the understanding of some artistic symbolical value which creates a distinction between fine art and popular art. It’s not just an artistic distinction, we use innumerable codes that mark our class position in our everyday life’s. From the way we talk to the way we dress and where we hangout with our friends.
The Social Network
The section on the role of social media is very similar to the critic posed by Zygmunt Bauman (1925-). For Bauman, “social media” create the effect of an echo chamber. Their complex algorithms look at what individuals like in order to make assumptions about what they will like next, which follows the same logic as the financial derivative (Arvidsson, 2016). Since the users of Facebook are only fed with like-minded views they become isolated from outside information. That means that they won’t get information about others and it will be less likely to have their world view confronted. The problem with that is that not being confronted by others will be a fertile ground for the irrational ideology to fester. Which in turn can be a hard blow for radical socialist movements to organize, since we foster on mass movements and street organization. Which leaves us with the question: How can we fight each particular illusions of every single atomized echo chambers made by algorithms?
Arvidsson, Adam (2016) Facebook and Finance: On the Social Logic of the Derivative Theory, Culture & Society 2016, Vol. 33(6) 3–23.
Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.