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A future for critical politics?

November 25, 2007

Our society — both in the US and in the world — is changing fast and regressively. Inequalities are increasing, people’s sense of control over their lives is diminishing, and the power of large social institutions — government, private individual data aggregators, corporations, drug companies, lobbying firms — seems to be increasing much faster than citizen-based organizations can keep up. What is to be done?

The nineteenth century too posed a huge series of shocks to European people, at every end of society. Rapid urbanization, the creation of an industrial working class, transformation of traditional social institutions, the extension of European military and economic power into Africa, Asia, and South America — each of these processes was transforming, and together they were too large and rapid to comprehend immediately. This historical period was cognitively baffling — for participants and for philosophers and social theorists. New social theories emerged, the discipline of sociology was born, and new political theories of critique and social transformation were developed. New social visions emerged of how a society ought to be organized were invented — from anarchism and socialism to modernism and fascism.

Twenty-first century society is equally challenged, and we do not yet have the conceptual or theoretical tools necessary to direct our future towards a more just global society. The forces of globalization, mass media and internet communications, warfare ranging from high-tech weapons of centralized states to simple but lethal explosives wielded by non-state actors, rapid climate change, environmental degradation, rising inequalities between rich and poor nationally and internationally, and changing international relations among powerful state actors — each of these processes moves along a trajectory for which we have few tools of analysis or prediction. And the effects on ordinary human beings of many of these processes are terrible.

Political action requires analysis of the present and goals for the future. We need a better diagnosis of the deficiencies of the present — the ways in which current social institutions and structures create unjust and stunting situations of life for the majority of the world’s population. We need a clearer demonstration of the ways in which the mantras of progress, consumption, and liberalism are concealing rather than alleviating important social problems. And we need a better conception of a global human future that embodies sustainability, justice, and peace.

Where will these ideas and theories come from? It seems apparent that neither the social theories nor the social ideologies of the nineteenth century will do for the twenty-first century. And time is short.

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