Focus: Fracturing Societies

Focus: Fracturing Societies

Rowland Atkinson and Don Mitchell

The world feels like it is falling apart, and maybe it really is. Maybe the weight of human misery, the collapse of civil societies, ethno-national tensions and divisions, political exits and polarization and the accelerating ecological crisis, maybe all of this make things different this time.

Despite optimistic assessments of the place of violence in global life (by the likes of Steven Pinker), the wonders of urban life and opportunity (as promoted by Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida) or the role of economies in lifting many from poverty (name your favorite mainstream economist) we also know that we share a world that is fracturing along a number of axes – material inequality, work and income, gender, generations, sexual identity as well as national and political affiliation. Things feel broken, operative models of political action or resistance are not working well and our assessment of the scale of problems like grand fraud, economic crime, violence and public health are still only getting to grips with the magnitude and complexity of these problems. How will the social sciences respond to these grand challenges and contemporary evils?

There is a grain of truth in the caricature of the social sciences as a blithely positive discipline. In response to many a doom-laden assessment of the state of society it will often suggest we have been there before or that things are not as bad as they may seem. The Chicago sociologist Robert Park once commented that if something troubles us it is because we don’t know enough about it. Of course, there is something in this, but such a position also risks benign neglect or worse, a cocooning mentality that insulates us from the real depths of breakdown and troubles of society. Here the social sciences become conservative and uncritical, unable to equip society with the conceptual tools and evidence of a complex and runaway world that presents us with ever greater challenges. Today we are compelled to look beyond local problems and to scale-up and connect many social problems to complex and often hidden global processes. This isn’t simply about an acknowledgement of globalization but rather the need for a sociological and geographical imagination to constantly shuttle between local issues and international problems, to paraphrase C Wright Mills.

The approaching endpoint of human societies linked to coming ecological catastrophes is only one aspect of our broken condition, it is also woven deeply into the motives and forces reshaping human experience. Yet, the relationship between massive levels of human migration and political destabilization are as yet barely recognized within the social sciences. Questions of economic growth, local sustainable development or housing construction, for example, mean almost nothing when set aside the overwhelming challenge of a seventh of humanity uprooted in the coming decades due to climate change and flooding. How will we cope? Can we in fact be too despondent and pessimistic? How should we redirect the energies of our research in this context, recognizing the deep power inequalities and interests of economic management and global elites to retain their privileged positions and the continued workings of our economies which propel us further along this suicide-run of economic growth? Answers to these questions are not easy or comfortable, they necessarily place us in a position of responsibility to which we perhaps feel ill-equipped to begin to respond. One result has been the role of the Mediterranean Sea as a mass graveyard. Time is not on our side.

Many of the largest challenges are neither local nor singularly constructed – they consist of complex networks of causes, social contexts and geographical scales. As Christian Parenti has argued, an equatorial zone of politically destabilized and poor nations has created conditions of local crisis that are being amplified by climate change, a background driver to regional chaos but which has also been of the global north’s making. Swathes of humanity internally or internationally migrating to find opportunities or to move from low-intensity and long-lasting conflict are increasingly met with walls, barriers and guards along national boundaries, mandated by anxious and aggressive citizens to repel those desperate enough to try to enter (see Briggs in this issue).

Our response to these problems has been undermined by a combination of government austerity programs and rising inequalities in the global north. These have generated polarized political debates that re-emphasise the kind of racial and national politics in the name of national sovereignties and economic vitality perhaps not witnessed since the run-up to the second world war (see Winlow in this issue). It seems that detached liberal elites, who presided over massive increases in inequalities, did not spot the levels of anger that fueled a huge blowback – Brexit and the ‘Brexit+’ of Trump’s win in the US. The place of dispassionate and critical responses to these conditions in such an angry and bitter context is made very difficult indeed.

Fracturing societies
What are we to make of the social condition around us? Can we be too bleak in our assessment? Is some form of catastrophism required in order to spur social and political action? Can the formal political field even begin to arbitrate or effect these outcomes as many of its key actors abdicate their role in sorting problems out? The grand challenges of our time, including social inequality, urbanization and spatial divisions, regional chaos, social fragmentation and ecological limits, mark the need for what some have defined as an ultra-realist response. In this perspective the surface reality of ‘all is normal’ in contemporary social life is rejected. Instead it is argued that we need extended forms of critique and a concerted search below the surface to locate the incredible violence, dispossession and humiliations that characterize our economic system. It is here that we can see the raw play of politics and corporate life, the excess of our elites, the non-stop gender-based violence and that of war, as well as the increasing emphasis on forms of fraud and other economic crime. This is a world falling into splintered political camps while new physical camps mark the presence of an expelled global diaspora of the desperate. What positive spin or gloss might we seek to place over this situation? Do we look back to better days and suggest that things are not as bleak as they appear or do we give deeper credence to questions of rising political polarization, forced migration, anxiety (see Mills in this issue), depression and massive inequalities of wealth and income within and between countries? The list goes on and in the background is the increasingly visible outline of the elephant in the room, the approaching limit of the environments around us.

The rise of a new nationalism and populism in Europe, North America, and across the Pacific to the Philippines, Thailand, China and India speak of a retreat from international identities and progressive resolutions. Increasingly aggressive immigration policies have been installed that seek both to slam the door on refugees, scapegoated as foreigners and others, and defend the relative stabilities and privileges of country-sized lifeboats amidst new forms of chaos and migration generated by severe climate change. Behind buckling social contracts a global cadre of those wielding power licensed by wealth, either as individuals or global corporate institutions, are increasingly identified as symptoms of a global system that works for money and the monied, rather than human needs.  Beneath this plutocracy, a state in which money animates power, we can see many indicators of the brokenness of our contemporary condition:

  • Environmental degradation, climate change, oceanic pollution, land salination and the resulting emerging exodus migrations to urban centres and the global north;
  • Cities sharply contrasting their conspicuous display of construction and tax breaks for the super-wealthy and luxury shopping districts alongside an almost universal housing crisis (see Marsh in this issue);
  • Staggering, and growing, numbers of homeless people in the world’s richest countries, let alone the poorest with expulsions and exclusions from core goods and services such as health and education;
  • New and rediscovered ethnic and religious fundamentalisms and increasingly hostile inter-group negotiations around modes of identity and dress;
  • Austerity measures that have closed-down the public realm (see Davidson in this issue) – libraries, swimming baths, health clinics, and access to legal aid while jacking up tuition rates and bloating a student debt-reliant financial system;
  • An epidemic of anxieties and psychological distress forged by a combination of insecure economic conditions and work opportunities (again, see Mills this issue) in, screen technologies and shifting social scripts further eroded or medicated by opioid and other addictions, and;
  • The solidification of national boundaries and calls for their further installation such as the American-Mexican border, US-Canada, Swedish border checks and the Israeli ‘peace wall’ alongside major national-level advocates such as Trump, Duterte and Modi.

The articles that follow may be read as reports from the front lines on some of these conditions, focusing both on the construction of a world of great comfort (though also paranoia) for the well-off and a world of abject and increasing impoverishment, disease and misery for the rest.  The contributions here show how processes of social fracturing and division are the result of a world order that is dying – twice over.  The post-World War II global order has been falling-away for a long time, but, now, so too is the global neoliberal order that had partially replaced it, assailed from within by its own contradictions and crises, from outside by increasingly vocal calls for reform or more revolutionary forms of change.

What will arise in this context is not at all clear, but even within this fragmenting world there are arising a series of progressive, even utopian, movements and struggles: from students in Santiago fighting privatization to Indignados in Spain fighting neoliberalism; from Swedish families opening their homes and hearths to the very refugees that others in their country are trying to keep out, to labor activists fighting for living and social wages; from the Panama Papers leaks to a growing movement of students refusing to repay predatory loans; from a vigorous global climate movement to the most local struggle to keep the public baths or a neighbourhood library open. All of these are crosscut by the disruptive, but also liberatory, force of new technologies and the still-regnant ideologies of market fundamentalism.

Fracturing at the top
A traditional focus on social problems and poverty has not always served society well. The glaring omission of the rich and powerful in much work has arguably helped them to maintain, even improve, their situation in a period of rising inequality (see Shildrick this issue). This gap in our knowledge has not helped public conversations about how our system works and who it privileges. Yet this situation is changing and researchers are increasingly working to examine the lives and power of the wealthy and their co-opted political devotees. These efforts have assisted with increasingly energetic calls for action and progressive change despite the role of gated communities, glittering tower blocks, tax breaks, tax havens, private guards and fortress homes in blocking the sight of social distress and the consequences of market reforms from the wealthy themselves (see Atkinson in this issue).

Despite the contentment and denial of many in the global north it is trauma and loss that permeate the being of the world’s majority. New surveys of our world offer horrifying insights into conditions within the underbelly of social life, but often do little to illuminate how these are linked to the lives and demands of those at the top. As the ills of forced and induced migration, austerity cuts, changing and increasingly precarious work patterns, premature mortality, hunger, and metastasizing slum conditions bleed slowly into the consciousness of even the relatively comfortable. It is vital to understand how these problems are linked to political inaction and intransigence, corporate excess and tax avoidance, the demands and excesses of the super-rich, as well as the benign neglect of middle-income groups. When human rights are effaced, dignities are eroded, and human potential is arrested, national projects founded on ideas of social togetherness and common resources founder.

At the international level, regional blocs have become the site of anxious discussions about how a tide of human misery generated by the problems of far-flung places are in reality linked to their uneven incorporation into the global economic system (for which ruling elites’ only answer is still more of the “free trade” that induces and relies on this unevenness) or more directly by the foreign policy choices of current and past policy regimes (still rooted in a long-discredited realpolitik). All of this suggests a real brokenness to the ideas used within conventional policymaking or understandings of how to reform or improve global and national social outcomes.

The role of the academy amid chaos
The first response to all of this is perhaps to acknowledge that we really have a problem. This collection of essays starts from the proposition that despite continuities there are new and different forms of social distress and collapse that mark the presence of many underlying causes and structures which are having a profound and negative impact on human societies, indeed the very possibility of some social formations. What can society expect of its embattled ranks of social researchers and investigators in a mission to restore, heal and re-balance our social condition? What is the role of the academy at a time of social polarization, political upset, ecological catastrophe and psychical pressure from austerity, work and new technologies? More importantly, how do we respond when these aspects of contemporary social life are interacting with each other in multifarious ways that produce new and complex possibilities and damage? The aim of this collection of essays is to address such issues by offering accessible and provocative analyses of our divided global condition, a dispatch from researchers seeking to offer insights, answers, and responses to these connected problems.


Rowland Atkinson is Chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield, UK. Don Mitchell is Professor of Geography at Uppsala University, Sweden.