Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You wrote « After Postmodernism: An introduction to Critical Realism », and « The Bet, the: Truth in Science, Literature and Everyday Knowledges ». These two books lead to your concept of critical realism. Can you explain this concept to our readers?
Dr. Garry Potter: Critical realism emerged through the work of Roy Bhaskar around about the time of the emergence of postmodernism. Postmodernism, perhaps more than any other theoretical framework, encapsulated some of the incoherence of one of the long-standing poles of thought concerning social science: social constructivism. The other pole was/is, of course, positivism.
Science, natural science, the self-understanding of many natural scientists, is frequently positivist. Many social scientists thus thought that they could be most scientific by emulating the self-understanding and methodology of the natural sciences. There was thus a certain fetishization of mathematics, inappropriate demands for “rigour” and a misunderstanding of objectivity common in theorizing quantitative social science. This went along with a misguided opposition: quantitative versus qualitative research. The interpretivist tradition in sociology foregrounded a focus upon the meaning of social actions. Along with that often went an opposition to positivism, a belief not only that social science could not be scientific in the same fashion as natural science but that it should not even attempt it, that such attempts were intrinsically pernicious. Postmodernism, being a rather extreme form of social constructionism, added to the theoretical confusion common at the time. Critical realism did just the opposite. It added a clarity of perspective and a way of theoretical transcending the pre-existing boundaries of debate.
We had on the one hand, a naïve notion of facts being simply something to discover; positivism seemed to go along with this view. On the other hand, facts, perceptions, knowledges were all to be regarded as socially constructed. The critical realist perspective acknowledged the existence of an independently existing reality while aware that of necessity we always view this reality through a socially constructed lens. Knowledge production is socially, culturally, and above all historically, situated. We don’t simply “discover” facts but neither do we create or construct them ex nihilo from our own perceptions. There is an element of discovery and an element of construction involved. The term I like to use is “production”; we produce knowledges.
Critical realism, I believe, provides a strong philosophical foundation for both natural and social science. It provides clarity in the face of confusion and a transcendence of false dichotomies.
In studying your work, we note that one of the central ideas is the concept of critical realism. Is a major key to understand your research and do a proper analysis of the balances that govern the world?
Well, as I said in answer to your previous question, I believe critical realism provides a strong philosophical foundation for both natural and social science. It allows a properly balanced way of framing theoretical problems. There is a journal devoted to it – The Journal of Critical Realism – and regular conferences applying it across many disciplines. I used to be a regular attendee of these and even organized one back in the nineties. But it is actually, a very long time now since I have been to one. My attention these days has been turned elsewhere; my focus is more political than philosophical.
Don’t we need, more than ever in these troubled times in history, of Marxist dialectics?
There was a lot of debate in the early days of critical realism as to its relationship with Marxism. Many, perhaps even most critical realists, would have also called themselves Marxists. It was felt by many, including me, that critical realism provided a philosophical foundation for Marxism that had hitherto been under-theorized by Marxists, beginning with Marx himself. Be that as may be, critical realism as led by its founder Roy Bhaskar, went off in a different, spiritual direction, which I did not follow. Bhaskar developed his own distinctive understanding of dialectics, which I do not share.
But I believe a notion of dialectical contradiction is crucial to understanding history and politics. However, my understanding of dialectics bears little resemblance to Bhaskar’s and is far simpler. Dialectical logic does not undermine conventional logic; it retains the law of the excluded middle and so on. However, it facilitates the understanding and transcendence of what would otherwise be logical impasses. In analyzing many social phenomena we come across many apparent logical contradictions. I say apparent because they are not real logical contradictions. And I say this because I am a materialist. On the plane of pure ideas these contradictions appear to be logical contradictions because that is the most apt way to describe them; but on a material level they are in fact opposing forces or tendencies. Now my preceding, rather condensed explanation, is definitely not at all Hegelian and many Marxists would argue that Marxist dialectics is but a branch of the Hegelian dialectic. I disagree. Marx’s inversion of Hegel is crucial. We must apply dialectical analysis to a material world.
I believe it is important that we bear in mind that these troubled times are also times of opportunity. I am not a Maoist but I do think this quote of Mao’s, particularly in the time of Trump is very apt: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”
Marx survived time, capitalism saves time. Reformers and other theorists of capitalism have failed to reform it. Are not they giving aspirin to a cancer patient?
That’s a very good way to put it. Slavoj Zizek has asserted that “today the utmost radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face . . . we make it a little more human, a little more tolerant, a little bit more welfare and so on and so on.” I think he is correct insofar as that is the best a very large number of people can imagine; and also that that limitation of political consciousness, is a powerful force which must be overcome because your aspirin cancer patient analogy is fundamentally accurate. But Zizek is wrong as well. Increasing numbers of people are realizing this. The challenge will be to direct a mass resistance to Trump in the US, for example, away from the would-be leadership of the Democratic Party.
It is not that reformers have altogether failed; the welfare state, now everywhere under attack, was a significant reform to the system; but capitalism’s temporal logic ensures that our crucial problems of ecology, social justice and disaster aversion cannot be solved within it. Corporations must first of all refer all decisions to profit maximization potential; and secondly, they must do so within a relatively short time frame, say ten years at the outside limit. Anything beyond this dramatically lessens in priority as it extends into the future; ergo, problems such as climate change cannot be properly addressed; and this is in spite of widespread knowledge of the gravity of the situation.
It is an old revolutionary saying: the choice is either socialism or barbarism. Barbarism can take many diverse forms, from destruction of the species through nuclear annihilation, to torture, incarceration and global totalitarianism; or it could create an uninhabitable planet achieved through environmental degradation and global climate changes . . . the possibilities are sadly too many to enumerate. But revolution is our only hope of salvation.
Before being a forceful documentary, Dystopia is a powerful and far-seeing book like most of your work. This flagship book describes capitalist chaos in a purely Marxist dialectic while proposing alternatives. How did we come to this lucid observation that is yours? Will not this chaos that you describe be fatal to humanity?
My “dystopia thesis” argues that in one sense at least we are doomed. The problems faced by humanity are multi-various and serious to the point of human species extinction. The intrinsic features of capitalism are such that they do not permit effective solutions. The only possibility of salvation from such is what seems at present, in-spite of some hopeful signs, to be somewhat unlikely: a socialist revolution. So, there is an interesting contradiction in my work. On the one-hand I apply the “curse of Cassandra” myth to it. Cassandra’s gift was that she could accurately predict the future but her curse was that she would never be believed. Now my work is not exactly that. There are large numbers of people who would subscribe to the major arguments of my dystopia thesis. Many of these are people who in fact have never heard of it but rather came to such conclusions themselves quite independently. Rather it is that part of the dystopia thesis argues that because of capitalism’s features to do with knowledge and ideology, sufficient numbers of people will not come to believe it and act to make a difference with regards to its other dire predictions. Ergo, I am predicting doom. However, if I was absolutely certain of this, I should not have bothered writing a book about it. Nothing is inevitable. History is not always made behind our backs; humans can . . . potentially anyway . . . change the world. The only inevitability is in fact a choice; that is because it is the purely logical boundary of the realm of possibilities: socialism or barbarism.
There is a time frame with respect to my predictions. I tell my students that because of my age I probably will neither live in or nor die in dystopia. But, our dystopian future is already emerging. Many, many millions of people are already living in a variety of scenarios of hell on earth: their child has just died because they could not afford to buy the prescription drug that would have saved her; they are incarcerated in one of the world’s many nasty prisons; they are homeless on the streets of a big city; their jobs are unbearable; and, as Zizek would say, and so on and so on. But that’s not me. My life is good. The world I live in now could end tomorrow, through nuclear holocaust or world pandemic . . . but it probably won’t. I think it likely that I will live out my life in a world that is recognizably similar to this one. But I tell my students that I don’t think that is true for them. Most of them are in their early twenties; I tell them that unless there is dramatic change soon; they will be living in a very different world in their forties; they will be living in dystopia.
In your methodology which is modernist, you have opted for the cinematographic support, in this case the documentaries, in addition to the writing. Do you think that image is a powerful tool in our technological era? Is the impact more important than the writing?
Most of my films are what I categorize as “educational”. That is, I present the ideas of Gramsci or Bourdieu or Weber, or whoever in film using cinematographic images and music to supplement and enhance the explanatory narration. The films are self-contained; but they were made with an idea as to how they would be used: in a classroom setting where, for example, Marx’s Theory of Alienation and Species Being would be shown along with a discussion and perhaps a lecture on such. And that, more generally, is how I see things with respect to image and word. One is not more important than the other; rather they can and should enhance one another. Film is, I believe, a very powerful medium but it does not replace lectures, seminars, books, articles . . . or political rallies; it only supplements such.
You have studied various movements such as Anonymous, Occupy, Idle No More, etc. Can we say that we are in a pre-revolutionary period?
We are in “. . . the best of times and the worst of times.” Things are dire and getting worse. The Trump administration makes the former aspect seem obvious in a way that the Obama administration did not; though one could also accurately assert that “Trumpism” was born of the American liberal establishment that Obama was a part of. So things are now worse on many fronts but the very obviousness of the problems give openings for resistance that were not there before.
Occupy, Anonymous etc. have things in common with the populism that fueled Trump’s victory insofar as they are all reactions against the political economic establishment. Black Lives Matter, The Fight for Fifteen, Standing Rock, these more recent movements are similar in that regard. And though I have used Trump and America here as examples, this is also true in many other countries.
Whether we are in a “pre-revolutionary period” or not would depend really upon how such was defined. Perhaps a better, though more cumbersome term, would be to say we are in a “pre-pre-revolutionary period”. We are definitely not right around the corner from revolution. A politically informed general strike by the unionized workforce with significant support and participation by the non-unionized workforce could be perhaps the penultimate stage before revolution. But we are a long way from that in most countries . . . though Greece and a few others may be exceptions to this assertion. But everywhere there is widespread and growing resistance to the current status quo. However, such resistance is very significantly inchoate and confused. For example, Anonymous is certainly resistant to the status quo of power relations in many forms and also has significant streams of revolutionary socialist thought within it; but libertarianism is actually a much more influential philosophy within it.
What it comes down to, is that there is a growing awareness of injustice, of environmental issues and so on, along with a growing commitment to try and do something about them. Most hopeful is the fact that links are being made and understood: between Ferguson and Palestine, between the criminal injustice system and Walmart. There is a wonderful meme which expresses this perfectly: a protestor outside of Walmart with a sign saying “hands up, don’t shop!”
So, there is growing understanding, rage at injustice and environmental destruction, and a deepening, spreading commitment to radical political change. However, the problem of political organization remains unsolved by the Left. The failures of democratic centralism and social democratic parties have become simultaneously more obvious, as has the unworkability of “horizontal (dis)organization.” It seems to me that some new model of organizing is required . . . however that would be to begin a whole other question.
In one of your publications: « Power and Knowledge: A Dialectical Contradiction« , you talk about the concept of structural mystification. Can you enlighten our readers about this concept?
Structural mystification is a concept intended to do the work done by various notions of ideology, false consciousness etc. It asserts there is a dialectical contradiction in all the major institutions that produce and disseminate knowledge in a capitalist system. What is meant by this is that the essence of such institutions, for example, the university, is to produce and disseminate knowledge; but that it is also a central feature of the institution to do just the opposite: to mystify, obfuscate, confuse and restrict the production and dissemination of knowledge. The idea of the term “essence” in relation to the notion of a dialectical contradiction here is simply that research and teaching, the production and dissemination, of knowledge is fundamental to the very notion of what a university is . . . in a way, for example, that having a football team is not . . . though of course with regard to many American universities where the football coach is paid many times more than any professor, one could be forgiven for thinking just the opposite. The contention associated with the concept of structural mystification, is that impediments to the production and dissemination of knowledge are not only part of the structure of the institution but are fundamental to the institution.
The concept of structural mystification is crucial to my dystopia thesis. Structural mystification is one of the principal reasons why the many painful and dangerous problems facing humankind cannot be solved. Knowledges, very sophisticated and detailed knowledges to do with such problems, can be and are being produced. They are being disseminated to various degrees within different groups and the public at large. However, structural mystification ensures that such knowledges will not be politically consolidated. By that I mean that a sufficiently large and influential group of people will not come to sufficient awareness of the problems to coalesce the political will necessary to solve them.
How do you explain that at a time when big capital is going through multiple structural crises, we observe the complete absence of a great movement of the revolutionary type that will frame the protests against the capitalist system, even the revolutions to come?
Well, we don’t have a single movement; we have multiple sources of resistance; we have some important connections being made. But we also have some fundamental questions unresolved. There is the question of organization. Neither horizontal spontaneity nor democratic centralism seem adequate. Democratic socialism versus social democracy is also an old problem; one that has been resolved by Marxists for quite some time but there is a new similar problem. The new problem is so similar it gets confused with the old one. When American Marxists looked at the campaign of Bernie Sanders, they saw, correctly, not a socialist but a social democrat. And they also observed, correctly, that the Democratic Party was the graveyard of social movements. So, does that mean simply that the choice of whether or not to support Sanders was clear and easy? Not at all. He needed to be supported in spite of his limitations and the structural limitations of the situation. The Sanders campaign was the focal point of mass discontent and resistance; the struggle needed to be supported even with its limitations. Committed socialist activists need to make contact with the mass movements that spring up outside their control. We get to make choices but not in conditions of our own choosing. The problem is no longer democratic socialism versus social democracy but how to utilize a resistance of limited theoretical horizons, how to move it, so to speak, beyond itself.
I have spoken a lot in this interview about the American situation, about Sanders and Trump; but actually the UK situation is far more hopeful really. Jeremy Corbyn is perhaps something less than a revolutionary socialist but he is closer by far to such than Bernie Sanders. There is the same widespread and inchoate dissatisfaction in the UK as is found in the US. However, that is not all, or even primarily, what is fueling Corbynism. While perhaps the largest number of people behind the Sanders campaign were politically naïve and idealistic, that is not the case with Corbyn’s core support. The Labour Party membership is now significantly composed of a pretty large number of fairly politically sophisticated activists. Thus, though most of the Labour MPs and all of the mainstream media are extremely hostile opponents, the battle for the heart and soul of the Labour Party could still be won by real socialists.
So, I guess my main point is that even though there is much to worry about, much to despair over, there is still reason to hope.
In your opinion, will the Trump era be characterized by other imperialist wars led by the USA or will we finally see the emergence of a multipolar world where the US will no longer be the policeman of the world?
The ideological myth of the US as “the policeman of the world” is quite revealing if we try and connect some reality to it. The US has been to the world like the police force of Ferguson Missouri has been to its majority black community – a terrorizing, murderous force, whose actions have nothing to do with justice. The myth that so many American believe, of their country acting as a peacekeeper in the world supporting nascent struggles for democracy could not be further from the truth. Rather their actions have always been undertaken to support their economic interests – at the direct expense of any notion of justice – and to squash embryonic struggles for democracy. Since WWII if there is armed conflict anywhere in the world the US almost invariably gets involved and supports the wrong side. The term imperialism is quite apt. Trump has given a few inconsistent signs of a desire for a more isolationist US foreign policy. However, inconsistency, is key in that regard. The significant increase in military spending being put forward is much more indicative of what is likely to come. The US retains what is by far the world’s most powerful military force and will continue to use it to pursue short-sighted, self-interested objectives. There will, of course, be many contending forces. Chinese actions, for example, may have increased weight in world affairs but I think using the term “multipolar” is to exaggerate the balance of power. In military terms at any rate, the world is most significantly unipolar.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Garry Potter?
Garry Potter is professor of sociology. He received his PhD from the University of Essex (UK) in 1990 and also taught there for many years. He came to Wilfrid Laurier University (Canada) in 2000 and has been teaching there, mainly social theory courses, ever since. He is currently Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Sociology.
He is also a filmmaker and has made 11 documentary films. Nine of the films are about social theory and are distributed through Insight Media. Whispers of Revolution and Dystopia: What is to be done? are feature-length documentaries that are available for free watching. Dr. Potter is also author of the books: After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism with Jose Lopez; Dystopia: What is to be done? (; The Philosophy of Social Science: New Perspectives; The Bet, the: Truth in Science, Literature and Everyday Knowledges (Avebury Series in Philosophy) as well as numerous scholarly articles.
Published in American Herald Tribune, May 8, 2017: http://ahtribune.com/in-depth/1654-garry-potter.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.090517.htm