Göran Therborn: After Emancipation, What?

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After Emancipation, What?

Staying True in Hard Times


Göran Therborn

University of Cambridge, UK and Linnaeus University, Sweden



Once upon a time most people who wanted a new future knew what they wanted. They wanted to be emancipated and liberated. Enlightenment intellectuals wanted to be emancipated from the tutelage of ecclesiastical authority and monarchical censorship. Nations wanted emancipation from monarchical and aristocratic rule and privilege. Slaves demanded emancipation from slavery, the working classes from capitalist exploitation. Women struggled for emancipation from patriarchy and from male supremacy and discrimination. Movements for universal suffrage and democracy were movements for political emancipation. Colonized peoples rose for national liberation from colonialism. Indigenous peoples have become focused on emancipation from settler lordship and infringement. Women’s liberation came increasingly to mean liberation from male sexual double standards. Gay Liberation Fronts, once modeled after Vietnamese and Algerian movements of national liberation, struggled for sexual equality among heteros and homos.

Generally, these movements of emancipation and liberation were concentrated on demanding (equal) rights of entrance into existing or easily imaginable societies, of citizenship, of (developed) nation-states, of sexuality. So were, of course, also such movements for a new future, like civil rights and human rights movements. These movements grew and, more or less, succeeded due to their developing strength in periods of favourable macro-social shifts.

There was one major exceptional movement which was driven by a vision of a different future, the socialist labour movement. It was the emancipation of the workingclass not as entrance into some less exploitative capitalism, but as entry into a completely different society, socialism. For more than a century , from mid-l9th century to late 20th century, socialism was a powerful social dream, comparable in global attraction and in capability of enticing personal sacrifice (martyrdom) for the cause only to the world religions at the height of their dynamism.

Today’s world has an overabundant supply of social problems, evils, and ills – we sociologists are good at detecting them -, so in one sense it is easy to say what future we want, say one without oppression, deadly inequalities, poverty, humiliations, discriminations, pollution, human-made natural disasters etc., etc.

Punctual criticism and politics are not incapable of achieving something. Centre-left governments and new popular movements, of indigenous peoples, trade unions and others, for instance, have brought substantial reductions of Andean-high inequalities in South America. However, such efforts are quite prone, and sooner rather than later, to become bogged down in and thwarted by systemic constraints and intrinsic forces. Women’s emancipation is still operating in male-dominated societies, racial/ethnic emancipation has not escaped systemic police discrimination and violence. Workingclass rights and movements in most of the world have been pushed back by capitalist forces since around 1980.

This, I think, is the problem for the non-oppressive, non-privileged part of humankind today: Emancipation and Liberation have lost their lights as showing the way to (the entrance to) the future, and socialism is no longer a visible city upon a hill. Successes together with unfulfilled expectations and/or blatant failures may explain it. The progressive world is in urgent need of new visions of the future. As a sociologist of, among other things, inequality, I have been struck by the widespread, even mainstream indignation at economic inequality in 2008-10, worrying even the Financial Times and the World Economic Forum in Davis, not leading into any even attempt at inequality reduction in the North Atlantic area, and instead soon pushing the caravan of the top 1% even further ahead of the rest of humanity. Among the radical critics, outside Greece and Spain, there was no political strategy, and in the angry mainstream there was not a hint of any alternative to getting capital accumulation running again.

Now, constructing a beacon for the future is hardly a task for which social science and social scholars are well suited. Above all, it is the vocation of prophets and visionary politicians. There is no reason not to expect that some such will emerge in the foreseeable future. But their character or direction is, of course, open-ended. It is a chilling thought that currently the main mobilizing ideology in the world is Islamism. But like any citizen of the world, a sociologist might have and express some pious wishes.

Mine may be summed up as a humane global community. “Society” to 21st century sociologists has to be the world, not the social universe and its presumed laws, and not the nation-state society, but the finite populated planet, with its connections and variations. A humane community is one that sees its prime task as to provide possibilities for every human being to develop her/his capabilities, and her/his life-course. This presupposes an egalitarian world, very focused on providing all children with more or less equal opportunities, which in turn requires a substantial equality of parental outcomes plus major public interventions from early child development and on. It presupposes a global community capacity to deal with global challenges, such as climate change. Markets, for labour and for consumer goods/services, would be included, but neither capital accumulation, nor stock exchanges. Nation-states will not disappear anytime soon, and primary redistribution will remain national for a long time ahead, but a humane global community would be able to address seriously global issues, such as climate change and the world environment, migration, and substantial human rights. If any such named future would emerge as a significant political force, it is much more likely to emerge from the South than from the entrenched privileges of USA or the decaying ones of Europe.

However, a sociologist’s contribution to a different future cannot possibly be confined to pious wishes. While not answering the crucial question of the proper name and banner of the still anonymous future after capitalism and the well-known oppressive inequalities of the present, there are two significant contributions to social change we can make. One is investigating the potentialities of emancipatory, liberating social change. That is , to analyze , as conscientious and perceptive scholars rather than as cheering sympathizers, the contradictions and the cracks of the carapace of the present, the reshuffling of the set of actors, the emergence of new social forces and the parameters of their options. The second is empirically grounded relentless critiques of prevailing silences, hypocrisies, and lies about the dismal state we are in.

Both are in the classical Marxian tradition of “critique of political economy” and of class analysis, but they now require a much wider critical range, a far deeper depth, and they had better not a priori expecting finding Marxist answers. After all, social science as well as the world have developed in the last 150 years.

For my own tiny part in this vast collective endeavour, I have recently focused on two issues. One has been attempts at mapping the new 21st century social landscape of social conflicts and social forces, succeeding the workingclass 20th century, which ended as such around l980, highlighting the potential and the options – reactionary as well as progressive – of new emerging middle classes, as well as of other forces of potential rebellion. The mapping has spotted an increasingly important spatial dimension, big cities, with the return of urban insurrections (socio-politically ambivalent, though) as well as of trail-blazing urban social reform.

Secondly, my main critical energy is being spent on inequality, in particularly in demonstrating the widening gaps of life expectancy among adults, and the cumulatively deteriorating health consequences of being born in the underclass of the rich countries. Even in Scandinavia, already the uterus of a low-educated mother gives you an enduring (probabilistic) handicap from your lower birth-weight than babies of middleclass mothers. In your adult life, unemployment increases your risk of premature death by between 45 and 65%. The current EU mass unemployment, an increase of around ten million since 2008, triggered by a little group of reckless Anglo-American bankers and financial sharks, is likely to cause a premature death of hundreds of thousands of Europeans.

However, while remaining to the end of my life a committed egalitarian and anti-imperialist, I don’t want to give the impression of advocating sociology and social science only as weapons of change. Many of us, and quite rightly, choose this vocation for fun, for the fun of satisfying our social curiosities. Currently I am writing a concluding book to many years of studying cities as representations and manifestations of power. True, I am a critic of all existing powers, but that is not why I am writing. I am simply curious of how capital cities around the whole world have represented and manifested power in their nation-states, in their layout, architecture, and iconography, and how these urban forms have changed over time, with the rhythm of power changes. Radical, critical sociologists do not have to be warrior-monks. They may, alongside their critical commitments, also be fun-loving curious scholars, all the time interested in broadening and deepening their knowledge, and enthusiastic teachers eager to spread their knowledge.



Goeran_Therborn - portrait_editedpostGöran Therborn is Professor Emeritus at the University of Cambridge, UK, and still teaches there part time. He is also Affiliated Professor at Linnaeus University, Sweden. Among his many books are: Science, Class and Society (1976), What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? (1978), The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology (1980), European Modernity and Beyond (1995), Modernities and Globalizations (1999), Between Sex and Power: Family in the World 1900-2000 (2004), Inequalities of the World (2006), From Marxism to Post-Marxism (2008), The World: A Beginner’s Guide (2011), and most recently, The Killing Fields of Inequality (2013). Web: http://www.therborn.com/


Banner image:  The Industrial Worker (IWW) featured this “Pyramid of Capitalist System” in 1911, attributed to “Nedeljkovich, Brashich, & Kuharich”, and adopted from a flyer of the “Union of Russian Socialists” that circulated around 1900/1901. The words “The Future Not Wanted” was added for this article.

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