Book Review – The Rise of the Global Imaginary – Part 1

RGI I have already blogged a bit about Manfred Steger‘s concept of social imaginary but that was before the actual publication of his book on the subject. Now that I have had the time to read the book, let me offer the following review.

Let me say right off the bat that I am a big fan of Manfred Steger’s writings on globalization. His Globalization: A Very Short Introduction is still the best introduction to globalization on the market and the one I use for my undergraduate classes. His other book, Globalism: Market Ideology Meets Terrorism is a great exploration of the ideological and cultural implications of globalization.

In his latest book, The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from The French Revolution to the Global War on Terror, Steger offers another analysis of the ideological dimensions of globalization, but more in-depth than in his previous books.

The book starts with a general discussion of the various concepts used later, especially political ideologies and social imaginaries. Steger starts with a definition of ideologies borrowed from political scientist Michael Freeden , from his book Ideologies and Political Theory:

"Ideologies may be power structures that manipulate human action but they are also ideational systems that enable us to choose to become what we want to become."

The first part of the definition, of course, goes back to the Marxist conception of ideology. The second part refers to a more politically neutral conception of ideology as the set of beliefs as to who we are as collectivities.

Steger borrows the definition of social imaginary from Charles Taylor, in his book, A Secular Age:

"The social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy."

Steger prefers to use the neutral sense of ideology, defining it as

"Comprehensive belief systems composed of patterned ideas and claims to truth. Codified by social elites, these beliefs are embraced by significant groups in society." (5)

These beliefs systems are products of their social and historical contexts and they are also normative in that they extend to permissible and prohibited social practices and actions. Any ideology also deploys core concepts whose meaning it seeks to control. Borrowing again from Freeden, Steger calls this process decontestation. A successfully decontested concept is no longer questioned, or not thoroughly questioned all the way to its roots. As Steger puts it

"They [Decontested concepts] are held as truth with such confidence that they no longer appear to be assumptions at all." (5)

And from Freeden himself, from his book, Ideology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press‘s Very Short Introductions series is excellent):

"An ideology attempts to end the inevitable contention over concepts by decontesting them, by removing their meanings from contest. "This is what justice means," announces one ideology, and that is "what democracy entails." By trying to convince us that they are right and that they speak the truth, ideologies become devices for coping with the indeterminacy of meaning…. That is their semantic role. [But] [i]deologies also need to decontest the concepts they use because they are instruments for fashioning collective decisions. That is their political role."

And of course, whoever controls the language controls the discourse and controls the way any issues gets discussed, which ideas or solutions are acceptable, and which are not. And more generally, language controls the way we see the world.

I cannot emphasize enough how important I think the concept of decontestation is.

Social imaginaries are different than ideologies.

"Charles Taylor argues that the social imaginary is neither a theory nor an ideology, but an implicit "background" that makes possible communal practices and a widely shared sense of their legitimacy. It offers explanations of how "we" – the members of the community – fit together, how things go on between us, the expectations that we have of each other, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations. These background understanding are both normative and factual in the sense of providing us both with the standards of how things usually go on and how they ought to go on. Much in the same vein, Pierre Bourdieu notes that the social imaginary sets the prereflexive framework for our daily routines and our commonsense social repertoires." (6)

Social imaginaries seem to me very close to Durkheim’s concepts of collective representations in the sense of being the ties that hold us together as a community and give us a sense of who we are and how we belong together. Being prereflexive, of course, means they might not be apparent in discourse but they do become articulated through ideologies.

For instance, with the rise of the Westphalian order after the 1648 Treaty, we see the transition from monarchical and aristocratic entities where people are subjects, to nation-states where people are citizens. The corresponding cultural and ideological expectations are solidified into social institutions (such as the modern forms of governments and bureaucracies) derived from the national social imaginary.

And indeed, the first part of the book is dedicated to the rise of the national social imaginary during the modern era, and its derivative ideology, nationalism. This national social imaginary emerged with the American and French Revolutions.

It is Steger’s contention that the national social imaginary is visible in a variety of political ideologies, from both the left-wing and the right-wing of the political spectrum, in liberal and conservative ideologies, as well as in totalitarian ideologies such as communism and national-socialism. In other words, the same national social imaginaries can be articulated in a variety of ways, but what remain are the common background assumptions as to what the proper political and communal unit is – the nation – even though each specific ideology deploys its own specific concepts such as freedom, progress, community, etc.

"Liberalism, conservatism, socialism, communism, and Nazism/fascism were all "nationalist" in the sense of performing the same fundamental process of translating the overarching national imaginary into concrete political doctrines, agendas and spatial arrangements. In so doing, ideologies normalized national territories; spoke in recognized national languages; appealed to national histories; told national legends and myths; or glorified a national "race." They articulated the national imaginary according to a great variety of criteria that were said to constitute the defining essence of the community." (9-10)

In other words, each ideology strives to decontest its own set of core concepts and impose its own meaning of freedom, the common good, welfare, etc. The chapters in this first part then are illustrations of that general thesis using as examples the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Empire as well as Marx’s connections between ideology and revolution. Steger also uses major nationalist ideologies of the 19th century such British liberalism, French conservatism and German socialism to illustrate the diversity of articulations of the national imaginary.

Now, I have to confess that these chapters were rather tedious to me but it might be because I am European and we learn that history pretty thoroughly in high school and college, especially as social sciences majors. I am not sure how much an American audience would know about the promoters of these ideological formations (although I would assume that almost everyone knows about the Dreyfus Affair), but there was nothing really new to me there except for the clear highlighting of the politically varied articulations of the national imaginary.

More interesting to me was the discussion of fascism / National-socialism (kinda gives it away, doesn’t it) and communism. After all, both, at least, communism and Nazism can be interpreted as ideologies that exploded the national toward the universal (Ein Folk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer). But in both cases, Steger shows, through a close examination of the systems and their ideological articulations in writings, that the national is never really far from the surface.

Which gets us to the really good part: the transition from the national social imaginary to the global social imaginary… it is indeed a transitional state and Steger is careful to note that the national has not disappeared completely to be neatly replaced by the global imaginary (that never happens in social trends).

The focus is on how social imaginaries change. Working chronologically, Steger focuses on the way WWII was a turning point in the transition toward a global social imaginary in several ways:

1. WWII was truly global (WWI was largely limited to Europe and the Mediterranean region) with multiple fronts (think Normandy, Stalingrad, North Africa, and the Pacific region).

2. Multilateral alliances had to be formed for military success.

3. The discovery of the crimes against humanity committed by the Axis made racially-based national ideologies toxic and nationalism became a dirty word.

4. It is, of course, well-known that several multilateral conferences (the most famous being Yalta and Bretton Woods) laid the foundations of the global system (through the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions, for instance). In creating these institutions (the IBRD to become the World Bank, the IMF and the GATT, to become the WTO), the Allied leaders recognized the existing economic interdependencies on a transnational scale and the need to have global institutions to prevent economic conflagrations such as the Great Depression, identified as a major factor in the explosion of WWII.

5. War means the invention of military technologies that would later contribute to the information revolution.

During the Cold War, the rise of the risk society and the sudden potential for Mutually Assured Destruction through thermonuclear warfare increased the sense of global interdependency (something that the environmental crisis of the 1970s would also reinforce).

The Cold War itself was as much an ideological battle as a military one and in several ways, by creating a multipolar world (first, second and third worlds), the Superpowers also contributed to the rise of the global imaginary in several ways:

  • The use of proxy wars made the entire world the theater of the US/USSR confrontation.
  • Both the US and the USSR developed ideologies to promote their own conceptions of the good life, the common good, freedom, each with universal claims and applicability.

However, the Cold War is not the entire story of the post-war period. At the same time, many countries of the Global South entered a period of decolonization. Now, this is seems contradictory to the rise of the global imaginary since liberation movements tended to be nationalist. Out of these liberation movements, Steger identifies two ideological formations that mixed the national and the global: Gandhism and Fanonism (as in, one of my favorite thinkers, Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth is still a very relevant read).

There is no question that these ideologies shared their contestation of the colonizers’ ideologies. They disagreed on the use of violence, of course. But both ideologies found global applicability in a variety of liberation movements. On the Gandhist side, we find Martin Luther King, global environmentalism, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa as well as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. On the fanonist side, we have the early ANC, the Algerian FLN and other decolonization armed groups. Both Gandhi and Fanon postulated that national liberation should only be a step toward the achievement of a global humanism.

The rise of the global imaginary was not unique to the Global South (not yet so called), but took place in the first world as well in the form of the New Left (Steger identifies the novelty part in the youth factor and the reach beyond national and regional boundaries). The New Left became incarnated in the New Social Movements whose focus was the entire planet and the concept of global community of fate. On the right side of the political spectrum, the rise of the global imaginary was visible in the Hayek-inspired New Right that finds its incarnations in Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In typical disaster capitalist fashion, the oil crisis of the 1970s to push for the dismantling of the welfare state and push for neo-liberal policies under the banner of free-market fundamentalism.

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the market fundamentalists were able to claim ideological victory over the Evil Empire. Capitalism was now free to extend its reach on a global scale, economically, financially, culturally and ideologically. But this move did not occur without resistance. Steger identifies four types contemporary global ideologies more closely based on a global imaginary:

  • market globalism
  • justice globalism
  • Jihadist globalism
  • imperial globalism

I will discuss them at length in part 2.

9 thoughts on “Book Review – The Rise of the Global Imaginary – Part 1

  1. I haven’t read Steger, though he sounds interesting. But I can’t help pointing out that Taylor’s concept of “social imaginaries” is a very thin one when compared to Cornelius Castoriadis’. It might be analytically useful, but it lacks the explanatory power and conceptual rigour of Castoriadis’ thematisation.

  2. Very solid review Christine. Although,some of the ideas on “social imaginary” are really not new to me. Benedict Anderson (1984) wrote a book called IMAGINED COMMUNITIES which sounds like this book to some degree.

    This quote was interesting :
    “Liberalism, conservatism, socialism, communism, and Nazism/fascism were all “nationalist” in the sense of performing the same fundamental process of translating the overarching national imaginary into concrete political doctrines, agendas and spatial arrangements. In so doing, ideologies normalized national territories; spoke in recognized national languages; appealed to national histories; told national legends and myths; or glorified a national “race.” They articulated the national imaginary according to a great variety of criteria that were said to constitute the defining essence of the community.” (9-10)

    Another fruitful reason why we need to be highly critical of “methodological nationalism” as the framework for making global decisions!

  3. Sure, SocProf.

    Castoriadis is trying to do two things – answer the ontological question of what a “society” is and at the same time explain what a “social imaginary signification” is and how it works. The latter would include “God”, “money”, etc. but also things like gender – he argues, for instance that a Roman man and a Roman woman are not the same things as a French man and a French woman circa 1965 (I’m using his example from the time he was writing).

    In a way, the parallel with Durkheim is apt – in that he’s trying to tease out what a “social fact” and a “collective consciousness” might be (though without using the latter term).

    In doing so, his point of departure is Marxism. Leledakis writes:

    Rejecting both the determinant role of the economic and the privileged position of the working class, Castoriadis sought to provide a theory of history as intrinsically open and non-determinable coupled with a theory of the subject that could support the potential for individual autonomy while recognizing that each individual is inescapably a social construct.

    I might take the liberty of quoting myself here:

    Castoriadis’ social theory developed in reaction to his own previous Marxist political and theoretical position. Against Marx, he argued that Marx’ social theory was inevitably circular – by way of example that the economy could not be theorised as a closed or determinant system when the law of value is – as Marx recognised – clearly a construct of culture and of particular social and historical conditions (Joas 1989: 1186). This determinist theory could not account for creative social action, according to Castoriadis (1998: 87), which can better be conceived in terms of the Greek concept of poeisis rather than as tekhne. Castoriadis’ theory of social action emphasises its openness and creative potential rather than its determination by structure. Social action is indeed moulded by historical contingency, but the possibility of a novel response to changing constellations of contingency must be left open. Castoriadis, according to Joas (1989: 1188) regarded intentional action planned according to substantive rationality and a calculation of contingency as only a technical moment in the process of social action, which is better referred to the dynamic between the social imaginary and the socially embedded individual or organisation. It is very clear that he is quite close to Weber here both in terms of level of analysis and to the role of fate and the social and cultural carriers of shifting ethics and rationalities.

    Where Castoriadis arguably transcends Weber’s theorisation, though, is his concept of the social imaginary which is also an element of his theory of the subject. Castoriadis’ argument against functionalist theories of all kinds (and he would include Marxism under this rubric) is that they inevitably ignore contests over the cultural meanings invested in the function and system imperatives of social institutions (Joas 1989: 1189). Castoriadis’ (1998: 108) concept of the ‘institution of society’ is an attempt to theorise society as both the product of historical creations of symbolic meaning and a ‘truth’ which constrains socially possible shifts in meaning. So society is both socially instituted and institutes the social field of possible action and interpretation:

    “The institution produces, in conformity with its norms, individuals that by construction are not only able but bound to reproduce the institution. The “law” produces the “elements” in such a way that their very functioning embodies, reproduces and perpetuates the “law” (Castoriadis 1997: 7).”

    However, this theorisation is not equivalent to a structural determinism. The problem of social order for Castoriadis (1997: 7) is best reframed in terms of the ubiquity of social rules rather than the possibilities of social disorder:

    “Even in situations of crisis, in the most violent state of internal strife and internal war, a society is still this one society; if it were not, there would not and could not be struggle over the same, or common, objects. There is thus a unity of the total institution of society; and, upon further examination, we find that this unity is in the last resort the unity and internal cohesion of the immensely complex web of meanings that permeate, orient, and direct the whole life of the society considered, as well as the concrete individuals that bodily constitute society. This web of meanings is what I call the “magma” of social imaginary significations that are carried by and embodied in the institution of the given society and that, so to speak, animate it.”

    So then, Castoriadis argues that ‘social imaginary significations’ underlie both social practice and modes of representation. His use of the term ‘magma’ alludes to the chaotic nature of the social, which is nevertheless organised through human imagination and narrativisation. So while there are parallels between Castoriadis’ social imaginary and Durkheim’s (1970) conscience collective, Castoriadis’ concept is able to account for social contestation and social change in a way that Durkheim cannot do satisfactorily.

    That’s from a work in progress, and I’m not entirely happy with it, but it might be suggestive.

    Castoriadis’ work hasn’t had a huge reception in English speaking thought, with the partial exception of Australian social theory, for basically contingent reasons (he was out here in 1991 and the Thesis 11 people were interested in his work).

    It’s possible to get more of an idea of what he’s doing from some of the essays in World in Fragments and also from a number of journal articles published in places like Thesis Eleven, the European Journal of Social Theory and International Sociology, but I’d strongly recommend reading The Imaginary Instution of Society, which is a very rewarding and rich book.

  4. Thank you so much for these developments. They are extremely interesting.

    It seems to me there are also clear connections with Bourdieu’s work (as I was reading your excerpt, I kept thinking habitus and filed) to a certain extent.

    This deserves a post of its own.

    We should try to have cross-blogs “symposia” on social theory (especially critical ones) where we could discuss these kinds of topics.

    Let me also volunteer to proofread if needed.

  5. Thanks, that’s very kind! And I agree some sort of online social theory symposium would be a great idea.

    There definitely is also a line of flight out to Bourdieu – I’d be surprised if they weren’t aware of each others’ work but there doesn’t appear to be any explicit acknowledgement – something that’s par for the course with a lot of French writing.

  6. You know, I am French and all my university education was in France and I am afraid you’re correct in your assessment of French writing, at least in sociology.

    However, Bourdieu was an avid reader of other sociologists (he got Erving Goffman translated and published in France) so, I would not be surprised either if there had been some intellectual influence there.

    Shamefully though, although French sociological education is heavy on theory (a good thing, in my view), Castoriadis was not part of the picture, at least when I was a university student (10-15 years ago).

  7. It can make it a bit tricky when you’re trying to trace lineages or even source quotes!

    Castoriadis made his name as an activist, while working at the OECD. He subsequently trained as a psychoanalyst and is often understood as being a philosopher. He seems to have had a fairly marginal relationship to the academy, and I’m not sure where he’d be placed in terms of French disciplinary affiliations.

    He certainly has a lot to offer sociology though in my view!

  8. Very nice review! Thanks. A couple of things, though. Don’t assume Americans will have any idea about Dreyfus. I only learned about the Dreyfus Affair in synagogue, in a very short section about anti-Semitism, and as an adult. It was never taught in the public schools I attended and my students don’t have a clue.

    I use Steger’s “Very Short Introduction” in my Intro. to Soc. class at an urban community college. With the exception of my European students, my students don’t know any of the history he covers. They find the book extremely challenging.

    I, too, thought of Bourdieu when reading about the social imaginary. I also thought that the discussion of ideology was pretty clearly what Gramsci meant by hegemony.

    Sorry about the disjointed nature of this post. I’m working on syllabi.


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