ghosts of capitalism past, present and yet to come: the plan

This is the chapter plan of the book I am working on at the moment. The guiding idea is to trace interactions between capitalist development and ethical, spiritual, religious, utopian imaginaries which inform that development, reflect it, inflect it, are evoked by it etc. Among the ghosts conjured up here are Weber’s famous Protestant-induced “spirit of capitalism” and its younger sibling, Colin Campbell’s Romantic “spirit of modern consumerism”. There is also the haunting ghosts of original accumulation – like the ghost of colonialism still waiting for a second burial. And there are the spirits of possible futures – utopias of a libertarian/socialist transcendence, but also the already tried, tested and failed dystopias of totalitarian transcendence. The theoretical background is to be a transformative dialogue between Weberian and Marxian traditions. Their respective Euro-centrism will be challenged by introducing, in all three sections, a non-Western perspective, namely a Turkish one.

I have linked up related blog posts and other papers under the chapter headings. These are glimpses into what informs my thinking on these subjects. Some of them already anticipate the book chapters while others are only loosely connected. I will keep them updated as I go along. Read the full post »


health= abstract labour power (outline)

Working towards a conceptualisation of the changes in professional approaches towards long-term unemployment and how they are informed by the medical system (see previous posts), it turns out that Jan Grue‘s suggestion to make analytical use of the metaphor “illness is work” merits a little “subproject” as it were. Central to my argument will be the notion that in the moral grammar of a society commoditising labour power health equals, from a system point of view, abstract labour power. The idea that illness resembles work, or at least is subject to similar social expectations, is conducive to that argument. Grue builds on Strauss and Glaser’s pioneering work, the research since then and his own empirical work, showing that in many ways illness – and particularly chronic illness, is akin to work. He concludes:

‘The point of these observations is that ILLNESS IS WORK may be quite useful in capturing the sense of individual responsibility experienced by patients with chronic illness, as well as the need for their continuous effort—even, and perhaps particularly, when these are not explicitly recognized by others. It may help explain their motivation and actions, including when their actions are or appear to be in conflict with professional medical opinion and advice. The notion of a purposeful trajectory marks a clear distinction from passive patient roles while recognizing work that is already being performed as work. People with chronic illness strive for recognition of their experiences, their competence, and their embodied knowledge of themselves and their own illness; this effort may be tightly interwoven with the struggle toward health, but does not entail an expectation to become free of all illness and experience total well-being.’ (Grue 2016: 410)

I will argue that the metaphor of “illness is work” was always around and as latent idea affected the social practices in and around illness ever since the time Parsons formulated his sick role theory. (which is my one-and-only disagreement with Grue’s text). The difference between illness-as-work in a Parsonsian world and today is that it was not out in the open as a metaphor but as a Barthesian myth. While the metaphor can, within the limits which Grue lays out, lead both to better insights into the lifeworld of people with chronic illness and to greater recognition of their struggles and contributions, the myth has very much the opposite effect: it creates a set of work-like expectations which underline the reduced legitimacy and autonomy of the sick person while also minimizing the recognition for compliance and contribution within the sick role. As long as the prevalent experience of illness was that of transient acute illness the prospect of regaining autonomy and recognition within the framework of commodified labour power this was not necessarily experienced as an unbearable burden. With the shift towards chronic illness that changes. The cases highlighted by Grue could therefore also be interpreted as struggle to transform the “illness as work” from myth to metaphor and thereby claiming the hitherto withheld recognition.


For a theoretical grounding I will start with my own suggestion (/free) that Parsons’ concept of health – in the functionalist terms which may be untenable theoretically but nonetheless constitute an adequate reflection of the still dominant normative expectations in a capitalist society self-defining as meritocratic “achievement society” – is congruent with what in Marxian terms could be called “abstract labour power”. For Marx, there is, of course, only labour power – he applies the distinction concrete/abstract to aspects of labour expended. However, there is a case to be made for an inference from abstract labour to abstract labour power, denoting that aspect of the potential in human capacity which is recognised in the valorisation process by abstract exchange value, expressed in the universal, impersonal and abstract commodity: money. I will here go back to Isaac Rubin’s suggestion that abstract labour only is established as a social fact in the abstraction of commodity exchange where different human capacities as manifested inqualitatively different products create the premise that there must be something equal in them which makes them commensurable.


If illness in capitalist societies is, as Parsons portrays it, the loss of the ability to function in social reciprocities (and the central reciprocity which makes that sociality “functional” in the first place, as Sohn-Rethel points out, is that of commodity exchange), then its opposite, health, is reduced to nothing but that very ability prior to any concretisation. Because health itself is not specified in its productive application – as it can be the minimal subjective condition for very qualitatively very different individual contributions to the process of production, it is the equivalent of labour power as such, labour power “before”[1] its concretisation through expenditure, i.e. abstract labour power.


The ability to work (and therefore functional health) is not a given state but subject to permanent reconstruction, reproduction and therefore also (re)creation, change. Georges Canguilhem emphasised this aspect of health – health as ability to weather blows to the system, to adapt to changing environments, respond to challenges and re-form (heal) the biological entity whose property it is. He also underlined that there is no reversibility in this – it is never an act of going back to a previous state but brings to bear the Platonic logic that culminates in the capitalist myth of the producer. According to Marx labour power is subject to reproduction – and therefore labour power needs to be expended on this task (in fact, he measures the value of labour power in precisely the amount of socially necessary labour time spent on its creation and maintenance). For Marx this is happening mainly outside the properly capitalist process of production in the gendered division of labour of the family. That division has been been transformed but not abolished in our contemporary gendered and racialised modes of reproductive labour, which are increasingly marketised and valorised (a development intersectional theorists like Mignon Duffy (2005) have a lot to say about). But what has long been overlooked is that of course every individual has reserve some of her/his labour power (i.e. health) for their own reproduction (after all, people working full-time in reproductive occupations also have to reproduce their own labour power) – this only becomes visible in the very recent trends such as that of digitalised health through self-tracking, where the consumer is offered the opportunity to self-monitor and self-regulate the time spent on reproducing health as abstract labour power. Or in the notion of “resilience” (e.g. Luthans et al. 2006) whose active strengthening through measures of primary prevention is proposed to secure the individual’s ability to retain and rebuild their labour power under increased work-place stress. This concept very much circumscribes precisely that part of individual labour power which is reserved for its own reproduction: employees are encouraged to make the most efficient use of it to reduce ill health (and sick leave), while employers are called upon not to use it up for primary production as they risk costs related to illness. At the same time there seems to be a tacit understanding that active reproduction through measures under the flag of “resiliency” (mostly programmes of digitally self-monitored changes to nutrition and physical activity) are to take place outside hours, i.e. on employees’ own time. This is only natural, as that is when the reproduction of labour power is to take place and what the wage, in Marxian terms, is for.


If despite such efforts functional health is lost, what remains is the firm expectation that whatever remaining resources there are will be mobilised in a surge to regain it. This is what is behind Parsons notion that the sick role offers the ill person an alternative to the roles they can no longer perform in (and he does acknowledge that the role where compliance is reciprocated through payment is the dominant one of those). Here the expectation is (under an obligation to a “will to get well”) that the ill person concentrates all their productive energy, whatever is left of their labour power, on the restoration of the ability to perform in reciprocal role relations – to restore their full (elastic and plastic, and hence abstract) labour power.


In acute illness, the strange set of assumptions may go unnoticed. In chronic illness the medically supported upsurge of restorative abstract labour power does not lead to a recovery on the same level (or, where the same level of performance can only be reached by spending a larger part of one’s labour power on holding that level, i.e. by hours and hours of illness work). Here it becomes clear, to those ready to see, that illness under capitalism is in fact very rarely a merely passive suffering – both self-care as reproduction (and restoration) of health as labour power and its valorisation through its commoditisation in the labour market are expected. The dual imperative translates in the double suspicion which people with chronic illness have to negotiate according to Alan Radley (1994: 157) that of unduly withholding labour power (“malingering”) and that of neglecting reproductive self-care at the expense of paid work (“recklessness”).


Hannah Arendt famously pointed out that modernity associates, semantically, work and suffering, as for the industrialised forms of work the signifier for productive creativity (derived from Latin opera or German Werk) by signifiers emphasising woe and misery (labour from Latin labora, Arbeit from the old arebeit…). With regards to illness work one could say that these signifiers work both ways, also underlining suffering as a related to work and requiring productive activity. The old (stoic, Catholic…) option of accepting suffering, even finding meaning in it and bearing it as one’s assigned fate, is no longer available.  One may think of this as a loss or celebrate the end of fatalism. Either way, within the moral grammar of a society that runs on the commoditisation of labour power it is an inevitability.


As long as this is the case, as long as the latency of illness-as-work, its character as a Barthesian myth persists, people with, from the perspective of the system of production, “reduced” health, are denied access to recognition that would be taken for granted in other role reciprocities. While social expectations toward people with illness and especially with chronic illness are formulated under a tacit assumption of illness-is-work, they are cannot utilise the culturally dominant vocabulary of motive of production/reproduction. Promoting illness-as-work as an analytical metaphor would be a move towards changing this. What it would not change, of course, is the underlying moral grammar of commoditisation – but at least it would make it more visible and therefore a potential object of critical praxis.


Arendt, Hannah (1958): The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barthes, Roland (1957): Mythologies, Paris: Éditions du Seuil

Duffy, Mignon (2005): ‘Reproducing Labor Inequalities: Challenges for Feminists Conceptualizing Care at the Intersections of Gender, Race, and Class’, in: Gender and Society, Vol.19, no.1, pp.66-82

Georges Canguilhem (1988) : Le normal et le pathologique, Paris : Presses Universitaires de France

Grue, Jan (2016): ‚ILLNESS IS WORK: Revisiting the concept of illness careers and recognizing the identity work of patients with ME/CFS’, In: Health, Vol.20, no.4, pp.401-12

Luthans, Fred/Vogelsang, Gretchen R./Lester, Paul B. (2006): ‘Developing the Psychological Capital of Resiliency’, in: Human Resource Development Review, Vol.5, no.1, pp.25-44

Radley, Alan (1994): Making Sense of Illness, London: Sage.

Sohn-Rethel, Alfred (1985): Soziologische Theorie der Erkenntnis, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp





[1] Before in inverted commas since it is abstract only logically before its concretization – in real time, labour comes before labour power (which is a mere inference from the observation of what then appears as its actualization) and concrete labour comes before abstract labour (again, the latter being an inference form the former)

Chronic Unemployment and the Professionalisation of Personal Advisors in the Context of the Moral Economy of the Welfare State (Abstract)

Welfare-state provision has always consisted of more than just the administration of benefits. From early on it also included professional services tasked with, among other things, with the maintenance of the moral integration of societies strained by individual and collective anomy. The classic case is the medical profession. Over the last decades, with unemployment having become a more individualised phenomenon, and the persistence of long-term unemployment during near-full employment having moved into policy makers’ focus of attention, the professional aspect of the services of the German Federal Labour Agency has been systematically strengthened.

The aim of the paper will be to develop a theoretical understanding of this professionalisation. Instead of deriving it from a general trend towards neo-liberal “welfare to work” policies I will focus on the way that unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, constitutes both a troubling individual anomy (in the context of the normative expectations centred on a moral economy around paid employment, Cole 2007) and a perceived collective anomy (the fact of long-term unemployment putting in question taken-for-granted assumptions about meritocratic legitimacy in the same way chronic illness does, Müller 2015).

Building on existing research on the changing role of personal advisors at local labour agencies and jobcentres (e.g. Bartelheimer et al. 2014, Behrend/Ludwig-Mayerhofer 2008,  Bender and Brandl 2017, Terpe 2012) and my a re-assessment of Parsons’ theory of the medical role (Varul 2010a) in the context of the moral grammar of labour-market centred societies (Varul 2010b), I will argue that those changes follow from the way that unemployment now is socially presented as resulting, at least partly, from a deficit in the ability to adapt motivationally. This widens the field of professional action on behalf of the welfare state from illness to unemployment. Approaching professionalisation in this field from the nature of the problem which professionalised staff are to work on will offer a new angle to attempt an explanation as to why the considerable allowance of discretion of ‘activation workers’ in social administration (van Berkel/van der Aa 2012) is not just a concession to the pragmatics of service provision but creates the felt need for a distinctively professional approach.  It is significant that Bender and Brandl (2017) are able to etch the professionalisation of advisors at the labour agencies into particularly sharp relief by using the examples of advisors specialising in people with multiple and complex problems – constellations that merit the characterisation as ‘anomie’ which is the starting point of Parsons’ theory of professional action.

The moral pressure faced by the sick and the jobless are similar: they can count on social support under an assumption of innocence. Yet that assumption is fragile and open to challenge when evidence of motivation becomes crucial in the legitimation of welfare provision: the “will-to-get-well” as much as the “will-to-work”. Both are put in question by the involuntary inability to make work-based contributions, which means that there is a systematic suspicion that both ill health and unemployment may be caused by dysfunctions in the motivational structure of those affected.

Like the sick role, the institutional role of jobseeker provides a context where the assumed motivational causes can be tackled through the provision of a legitimate alternative role. Here compliance in social reciprocities can be enacted even though participation in “normal” reciprocities (as in labour market participation) is not possible. With “acute” unemployment becoming a less pressing problem due to a dynamic labour market, and “chronic” unemployment is moving to the centre of attention, maintaining the morale of the affected becomes a more urgent issue which lends intuitive plausibility to a turn from an administrative to a more professional approach. While the main goal remains to end unemployment, personal advisors now also have to be able to help the long-term unemployed to maintain motivation even where such motivation will not lead to a reintegration in gainful employment.

The parallel logic of the professional approaches to chronic ill health on the one hand and chronic unemployment on the other is reinforced by the fact that the two are, of course, also causally linked (e.g. Holleder 2012). With chronic illness impacting on work and thereby on work-related identity and self-esteem (Markle et al. 2012) it is therefore to be expected that future impulses for further professionalisation will come from those areas of praxis where long-term unemployment and chronic illness mutually reinforce each other. Depression, which as disease affects the core virtues of employment-centred societies, namely motivation, initiative and responsibility (Ehrenberg 2000), has been ascribed a pioneering role in the process, as we already witness a rapprochement of professional action in the jobcentres and the medical system (Bühler et al. 2013).


Bartelheimer, Peter/Brussig, Martin/Henke, Jutta/Kotlenga, Sandra/Reis, Claus/Wagner, Alexandra/Kupka, Peter/Schwarze, Henrik/Wolf, Andreas/Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut an der Universität Göttingen (2014): Beratungskonzeption SGB III: Endbericht, Göttingen: SOFI-Forschungsbericht.

Behrend, Olaf/Ludwig-Mayerhofer, Wolfgang (2008): ‚Sisyphos motivieren, oder: der Umgang von Arbeitsvermittlern mit Chancenlosen‘, in: Zeitschrift für Sozialreform, Vol.51, no.1, pp.17-55.

Bender, Gerd/Brandl, Sebastian (2017): ‚Beschäftigungsorientierte Beratung im Spannungsfeld von Bürokratie und Professionalität‘, in: Zeitschrift für Sozialreform, Vol.63, no.1, pp.75-101.

Bühler, B./Kocalevent, R./Berger, R./Mahler, A./Preiß, B./Liwowsky, I./Carl, P./Hegerl, U. (2013): ‚Versorgungssituation von Langzeitarbeitslosen mit psychischen Störungen‘, in: Der Nervenarzt, Vol.84, pp.603-7.

Cole, Matthew (2007): ‘Re-Thinking Unemployment: A Challenge to the Legacy of Jahoda et al.’ in: Sociology, Vol.41, no.6, pp.1133-49.

Ehrenberg, Alain (2000) : La Fatigue d’être soi : Dépression et société, Paris : Odile Jacob.

Hollederer, Alfons (2002): ‚Arbeitslosigkeit und Gesundheit. Ein Überblick über empirische Befunde und die Arbeitslosen- und Krankenkassenstatistik‘, Mitteilungen aus der Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung, Vol.35, no.3.

Markle, Gail/Attell, Brandon K./Treiber, Linda A. (2015): ‘Dual Yet Duelling Illnesses: Multiple Chronic Illness Experience at Midlife’, in: Qualitative Health Research, Vol.25, no.9, pp.1271-82.

Müller, Arne (2015): ‚Dis/Ability und Prekarität. Inklusion durch Arbeit? Eine Problematisierung des Leistungsprinzips‘, in: Susanne Völker/Michèle Amacker (eds): Prekarisierungen: Arbeit, Sorge und Politik, Weinheim: Beltz Juventa, pp.111-127.

Terpe, Sylvia (2012): ‚„Mit Gefühl“ im Wohlfahrtsstaat: Berechenbarkeit, Gleichbehandlung und Transparenz in der entbürokratisierten Arbeitsverwaltung‘, in Bereswill, M. et al. (eds.): Wechselverhältnisse im Wohlfahrtsstaat. Dynamiken gesellschaftlicher Justierungsprozesse, Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.

van Berkel, Rik/van der Aa, Paul (2012): ‘Activation Work: Policy Programme Administration or Professional Service Provision?’, in: Journal of Social Policy, Vol.41, no.3, pp.493-510

Varul, Matthias Zick (2010a): ‘Talcott Parsons, the Sick Role and Chronic Illness’, in Body & Society, Vol.16, No.2, pp.72-94.

— (2010b): ‘Reciprocity, Recognition, and Labor Value: Marx’s Incidental Moral Anthropology of Capitalist Market Exchange’, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol.41, No.1, pp.50-72.

Out now: Lego Movie as Consumer-Capitalist Myth


Finally out – am grateful to the European Journal of Cultural Studies and its reviewers for putting up with a rather meandering line of argument…

Took a while – the first version was held as a presentation at the German Sociological Association’s biannual conference in 2014. But then, this has given me time to discover more evidence for the link between Wyldstyle and Lévi-Strauss’ La Pensée Sauvage (see previous post) … and to put in a reference in passing to the current US President whose Taco Tuesday was, unfortunately, more successful than that of Lord Business in the movie.

The resurrection of the Demiurge reaches its climax in the fascist celebrations of industry, such as in Oswald Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes where an elite of industrial/engineering führers leads the masses in the execution of a ‘program of technological advance carried out by the national community of blood’ (Herf, 1984: 63). In our own time, we are witnessing the ascent of leaders who recast themselves as Platonic demiurges, Faustian creators to Spengler’s taste (1923: 591ff., also cf. Michaud, 2005) of whom the wall-building real-estate tycoon President ‘Lord Business’ in the Lego Movie is a caricature before the event.

open access pre-published, pre-Trump version here

open access conference paper (in German) here

Emmett engineering, bricolage, Brickowski

In my take on the Lego Movie I have speculated that the female protagonist’s nom de guerre ‘Wylde Style’ could be a reference to Levi-Strauss’ La Pensée sauvage (the English title is The Savage Mind… but the Danish is Den vilde tanke). So he stands for the principle of bricolage which, once activated comes to its own in the film’s anti-hero Emmett Brickowski. The surname is a more-than-obvious reference to the Lego brick, but as he is much in love with Wylde Style the allusion to bricolage is not entirely implausible.

I have not, though, given much thought to whence Brickowski’s first name might derive. Given that the writing team has not missed a single opportunity to insert cultural clues (both high cultural and popular cultural), the plainness of the name is odd. Of course, Emmett’s extraordinary ordinariness is essential to the plot – but then, “Emmett” is not precisely a common name these days.

In rewriting the paper I have reread Mary Douglas on Lévi-Strauss’ piece on Asdiwal. And there it was. An absolutely plausible explanation for Brickowski’s first name and how it links up with the notion of bricolage.

‘The bricoleur, for whom we have no word, is a craftsman who works with material that has not been produced of the task he has in hand. I am tempted to see him as an Emmett engineer whose products always look alike whether they are bridges, stoves, or trains, because they are always composed of odd pieces of drainpipe and string, with the bells and chains and bits of Gothic railing arranged in a similar crazy way. In practice this would be a wrong illustration of bricolage. Lévi-Strauss himself is the real Emmett engineer because he changes his rules as he goes along. For mythic though a card-player could be a better analogy, because Emmett can use his bits how he likes, whereas the bricolage type of culture is limited by pattern-restricting rules. Its units are like a pack of cards continually shuffled for the same game. The rules of the game would correspond to the general structure underlying the myths.’1

And, ironically, while the film celebrates the creativity of ordinary people as inventive bricoleurs, the plot itself is deliberately “post-modern” in that it simply (but very effectively and entertainingly) rearranges (slates…) elements of pre-existing myths from antiquity down to the modern comic book.

Given that the Internet seems to have forgotten the meaning of “Emmett engineering” (although there seem to be a couple of engineering firms in around the globe registered under said name) it is difficult to imagine that there was no anthropologist among the writers of the Lego Movie – the only available meaningful reference to the term is in Mary Douglas’ chapter.

1Douglas, Mary (1967): ‘The Meaning of Myth. With special reference to “La Geste d’Asdiwal”’, in: Edmund Leach (ed.): The Structural Study of Myth, London: Tavisstock, pp.49-69, p.66f.

And molluscs fly… !?! The limits of memetic complex Panglossianism (intro)

But then the Church came to the front, with an axe to grind; and she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat–or a nation

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

hat tip.1


In an earlier post I have argued that the reference to Darwinian variation and selection constitutes a commonly missed link between Max Weber’s “idealist” argument in the Protestant Ethic and Marxian “materialism”. Exploring this link may be helpful in salvaging Weber’s approach (if not his entire argument) by integrating it into a reformulated base/superstructure concept. I have acknowledged W. G. Runciman for being about the only prominent Weber interpreter who spotted Weber’s application of a Darwinian argument, but pointed out that he both overplays and underplays his hand. He overplays it in that he makes Weber yet another witness in his project of an all-and-out selectionist-adaptationist comparative sociology to parallel evolutionary biology, with socio-cultural ‘memes’ taking the place of genes and cultures and societies supplementing the natural environment as selecting agents. The commitment to the notion of ‘memes’ ironically also means that he cannot make full use of insights from evolutionary biology and genetics about the complexities in the translation of genotypes into phenotypes, convergent and parallel evolution. My initial objection to Runciman, arising from reading his two articles (2001, 2005a) relating Weber and Darwin, was therefore that in rewriting Weber’s argument as a purely selectionist one, he discards the implications of the famous metaphor of “elective affinities” and the entanglement of individual choice and social fate, reflection and intuition that it hints to. He also cuts of the potentially productive ties to Marxian theorising in that, in dismissing the cultural-sociological approach that Weber justified by his reference to Darwin2 which would make for an adequate reformulation of the base/superstructure dialectic.

In a response to Joseph Fracchia and R. C. Lewontin’s (1999) all-out critique of evolutionism in the social sciences Runciman (2005b) rejects claims that his theory amounted to a “Panglossian” scenario in which every single historical fact, cultural expression or social institution could be explained as an adaptation in an ever improving world. And indeed he had already asserted earlier, with reference to Stephen Jay Gould and Lewontin’s (1979) critique of Panglossianism in biological evolutionary theory, that

Just because (as the paradigm does imply) competitive selection under environmental pressure is the only force capable of accounting for evolutionary change, it does not follow that every observed characteristic must have a selective value.’ (Runciman 1998: 171)

This statement makes clear the claim of evolutionary sociology, namely to explain historical shifts and general directions of development rather than the specifics of any historically given society. Fracchia and Lewontin (1999: 59f.) counter this claim with reference to Althusserian philosophy – a problematic defence given the outright anti-historical and anti-empirical tendency of his structural Marxism (see E. P. Thompson’s 1978 devastating critique). In fact, we will see that evolutionary sociology fits the bill of both Liberal (Parsonsian) and Marxist (Althusserian) structuralism since here, too, structure is imposed by selection:

Nevertheless, although random empirical behavior is not theoretically part of the system, if such behavior leads to major structural changes, then it is interpreted as the structure itself which “made way” (or created a “niche”) for the behavior. In other words, it is assumed that the structure, in theory, is always already constituted of the social conditions which arise within it. That is, behavior may be random, but if “selected,” it was structurally determined.’ (DiTomaso 1982: 22)

In this paper I am more interested in the proposed mechanics of cultural and social evolution as my interest is to salvage the utility of deploying Darwinian arguments in specific cases (such as the relation between religion and economic behaviour in the early stages of capitalist development) from the overbearing claims of an evolutionary sociology that privileges such instances as the only developments of historical relevance. As Lewontin is an early collaborator of Stephen Jay Gould in the formulation of the critique of the ‘adaptationist programme’ (Gould/Lewontin 1979), Fracchia and Lewontin’s attack on evolutionism in the historical and social sciences reflects much of the critique of ultra-Darwinism that has hence been associated with Gould (1997a, 1997b).

However inconclusive the 2005 clash between him and Fracchia and Lewontin in the journal History and Theory was how successful his defence is, particularly as both sides downscale their claims so that the former feel the need to assert the reader that they do think that there is some role for selectionist arguments in the social sciences (Fracchia/Lewontin 2005: 16), while the latter asserts repeatedly that his ‘selectionist theory’ does not account for everything in terms of adaptation but ‘accommodates both maladaptations and “exaptations” (Runciman 2009: 46). In the summa of his evolutionary theory of cultural and social selection, which makes no reference to the brush with Fracchia and Lewontin a few years earlier, Runciman (2009) now claims to have integrated precisely those apparently contradicting phenomena from evolutionary biology that Fracchia and Lewontin (1999, 2005) muster up against cultural evolutionism: catastrophic events, punctuated equilibriums, exaptations (‘spandrels’). Runciman also specifically acknowledges parallel evolution (i.e. the development of identical phenotypes out of different genotypes, or in the case of cultural evolution, memes). The question is whether the way he integrates them actually saves his claim that evolutionary arguments are not just to play a role in historical and comparative sociology but should be the master concept.

In the following I will proceed in three steps. First I will make a short case for including selection among the plurality of explanatory “cranes” that allow us to displace the legacy of theological and metaphysical “skyhooks” that even the Marxist view of history has inherited from its Christian predecessor (Löwith 1949). Secondly I will reject Runciman’s assertions that he has indeed accommodated Gould’s objections to ultra-Darwinism. Instead, I will argue, they are integrated in a way to simply afford a more complex Panglossianism which makes itself even more evidence-proof than the biological Panglossianism Gould and Lewontin initially targeted in 1979. Thirdly I will restate my objection that Runciman takes the edge off the Darwinian argument in that he does not make use of the fact that where selection works it works on phenotypes and only indirectly on the generative structures that produce them. The possibility of parallel evolution (i.e. different ways to come to similar results) is only acknowledged so that the necessity of examining those generative structures can be denied – it is selective pressures that functionally explain phenotypes and what produces them can be safely left in the black box that is the human mind. My point will be that what’s inside the box does matter because, like the phyletic constraints in biological evolution, generative structures like cognitive schemata, imaginative skills, theoretical habits etc. determine developmental potential, both by setting certain limits and by opening (and even suggesting) certain opportunities. My final point will be that when looking at those generative structures the parallel to genomes that Runciman, following Richard Dawkins (1989: 189ff.), reduces to strings of information and behavioural programmes under the title ‘memes’. The central properties of these memes (which justify the parallel to genes) are replication and mutation – i.e. they are copied and passed on between individuals and the process of copying is precise enough to ensure some stability (inheritance, tradition) and some variation (recombination, new ideas). I will argue that in any version the idea of self-replicating memes cannot account for the way that ideas, beliefs, practices etc. are passed on because the notion of replication does not capture the process even of simple and plain imitation, which always involves creativity, reflection and meaning. The cultural sociology required to understand phenomena relished by self-declared memeticists such as fashion, popular music or advertising, let alone the more existential issue of religion therefore cannot be reduced to enslavement by replicators. While most followers of memetics, including its inventor (Dawkins 1989: 200) insist on the limitation of the power of replicators (both genes and memes) by the possibilities of reflection, Susan Blackmore (1999) has stringently argue that anything but such enslavement is inconsistent with genetic/memetic explanations of culture, no matter how memes are defined. Against this I will argue that what looks like memetic replication itself cannot be conceived of in any other terms but reflection.

to be completed… #wachthisspace  (author busy earning a living)

1 The need to revisit the debate between Runciman and Fracchia/Lewontin became clear to me thanks to a short conversation with Çağlar Karaca after a talk I’ve given at Exeter in last spring and after reading his paper ‘Criticism of Memes / Reconsidering Cultural Evolution’ (Karaca there targets mainly the lack of historical perspective in memetics).

2 In effect Weber presents culture (in the specific case: theology) as the functional equivalent of the genome which provides for the variation from which the functional equivalent for nature, material conditions (in the specific case: the capitalist economy) then selects the types that are adapted enough to survive those conditions