» Interview with Alain Caillé: 'The world and the social sciences have become fragmented.'
28.02.2007 - SHSviews 15

Interview with Alain Caillé: 'The world and the social sciences have become fragmented.'

in SHSviews 15

The fact that several thousand community activists, researchers and decision-makers will be gathering in Nairobi, Kenya, from 20 to 25 January 2007, to take part in the seventh World Social Forum (WSF) to reaffirm that ‘another world is possible’, led SHSviews to interview French economist and sociologist, Alain Caillé, on whether he thought the present state of the world was conducive to such a possibility.

Since 2001, when it was first held in Brazil, the WSF has opened up a space for global dialogue on the concept: ‘another world is possible’, but no specific views seem to emerge. Are you under the same impression?

I think, in fact, that the whole concept is slipping and gradually losing its impact. The WSF is a space that tries to build common ground. It has reopened spheres of possibility and helped ideas and experiences to become globalized such as participatory economy, micro-credit, solidarity economy, fair trade, etc. But the coexistence of several ‘other worlds’ does not of itself produce anything really new in the field of thought or even of action.

We are still just placing separate ideas alongside each other. Everyone goes to the Forum armed with scraps of great discourses of the past – Marxist, Christian, humanist, and so on – or experiences of an alternative economy that do not offer a global economic alternative. Paradoxically, it is very difficult to get all that across and to combine it into a coherent whole because of the overriding concern to reach consensus. That kind of objective is an untenable position as all the elements of ideological discourse refer to final values that are very different and as such cannot be added together. And so it becomes difficult to describe the world as we would like it to be other than by turning back to the old ideals.

That overriding concern to reach consensus, as was the case with political systems in the past, ends in declarations of principle which are mere pious hopes and tend to put a stop to constructive thinking.

How would you suggest we move away from the endless declarations of principle that are never applied, and merely add to a feeling of ineffectiveness and inevitability?

It seems to me we need to invent a formula that would keep structured dissensus alive rather than weak consensus. It is simply not realistic to fight the present state of the world by replicating its basic features, and particularly not with the kind of networking structures that disclaim all power issues, endorse fragmentation of the world and then reproduce it.

Those in search of “another world” do not have the critical tools to come to terms with the current social trend towards fragmentation as a general social form. Indeed, apart from the capitalist takeover of our societies, there is a general tendency to reduce everything to fragments – fragments of knowledge, fragments of groups, fragments of topics, etc. – that is what seems to me to be the problem.

Among the “consensus” terms is the very revealing example of “governance”. It is a remarkable kind of verbal noun that suggests that everyone and no one governs at the same time. This entails an aspiration to a form of power that denies itself as power, and where everything is permanently dismissible. Then there is the area of decision-making, which is also fragmented at several different levels: local, regional, federal, national, etc. Surely it is not necessary to have quite so many.

Our societies are all tending towards fragmentation. If we accept that, then we say goodbye to any possibility of a social bond and, hence, of building a collective structure. In the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, the aim was to make everything communal. Individualism was reviled and to be stamped out at all costs. Now today, we have the opposite situation: it is collectivism that is reviled. We are under an obligation to disconnect. That is dangerous.

How can we move from a culture of fragmentation to one of renewed connection without seeking consensus, and from a culture of war to one of peace?

There is no magic formula. As soon as we realize there is fragmentation, there are but two possible attitudes to take. One, we shout out “Unite! Unite!” – in my view that seems pretty pointless; or two, we could recognize and accept that a degree of conflict is inevitable and deliberately stage conflict by creating a space where all viewpoints can be debated.

How can we hope to move from war to peace apart from the total destruction of the warring factions? By combining two elements: first of all, the emergence of a situation that makes it possible to gamble on mutual trust. Next, the existence and the intervention of one or several figures sufficiently endowed with historical weight and symbolic power to interpret and driven forward the gamble on trust. And that is where UNESCO could have a role to play: by modifying the terms and conditions of thinking and by providing a space where such personalities might emerge.

Would promoting the interface between social science research and policy development help prepare the ground for the climate of trust you mention?

On the face of it, a better understanding between the social sciences and political decision-making is indeed desirable but that in itself is not enough to move forward. We have to face facts. There is a lack of a common language, and the contemporary social sciences are no exception. They too take the form of fragmented knowledge. We are in precisely the same position as the totalitarian regimes were when everything was over-encoded. But nowadays, each of the many different practices is self-referential, mute, incapable of explaining itself and under-encoded. It is exactly the same with the social sciences which should be explaining things clearly. Everything is becoming “technicized” – words and action – rather in the way that general medical practice is being superseded by specialists.

The paradox is that we are far cleverer and more intelligent than before. When it comes to economics, ethnology, or any of the social science fields, we have made great analytical and empirical advances. And yet in the established world of academia there is a steep decline in general intelligence, a growing incapacity to bring out true interdisciplinarity and to think globally. The same goes for the new forms of mobilization we were talking about earlier. They have adapted to the current state of the world. They mobilize elementary particles without ever managing to magnetize them. And since we can no longer manage to create that common ground, we have political decay.

How can the gift experience, as studied by Marcel Mauss, be beneficial for today’s world?

It can often be difficult to find the right words to express an idea. This is particularly true of giving, which is frequently associated with charity, absence of payment, and incongruous idealism. The study of giving in primitive societies provides a totally different picture. The whole essence of the gift lies in the search for an alliance that remains conflictual because giving is a process that does not remove conflict but, on the contrary, contains it – in all senses of the word. It is a social bonding mechanism. Giving and politics share the same logic. The modern form of the gift principle is simple the spirit of democracy. If we share the human experience of “giving-receiving-giving back”, then we strengthen positive mutual indebtedness and, hence, trust. It is a positive cycle: more cooperation equals more production.

Interview by Cathy Bruno-Capvert

Alain Caillé
is Professor of Sociology at the University of Paris-X-Nanterre where he co-heads the Political Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology Department (SOPHIAPOL). He is editor of Revue du MAUSS (anti-utilitarian movement in the social sciences, www.revuedumauss.com). As a specialist in the field, he took part in the discussions in Byblos, Lebanon, held as follow-up to the work of the International Panel on Democracy and Development. UNESCO set up the Panel, chaired by former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in 1998. Following the meetings in Byblos, Alain Caillé edited Paix et démocratie: une prise de repères which was published by UNESCO in 2004. He has recently published Anthropologie du don (Desclée de Brouwer, 2000) and Dé-penser l’économique – contre le fatalisme (La Découverte/MAUSS, 2005), and Quelle démocratie voulons-nous ? Pièces pour un débat, (Éditions La Découverte, 2006).

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