Recent Events in Charlottesville

Monday, May 22, 2017 | Jeffrey Olick, SImone Polillo and Allison Pugh

Candlelight March

It is quite shocking, from within the halls of Ivy, to hear about a white supremacist rally in the heart of our wider community, the City of Charlottesville. For both those who live here—permanently as faculty and staff, or temporarily as students—as well as for those thinking of moving here, it certainly gives pause.  And that may be precisely the point. 

So how does one react?  On the one hand, it is always a bad idea to give radicals attention, especially when that is so obviously what is being sought.  On the other hand, how can one stay silent?  The question for a sociology department is not, however, one of condemning action that members of the department find appalling as individuals, but to bring to bear our expertise as sociologists to unpack what is happening.  This means trying to understand the motives and perspectives of those who undertook this provocation, but even more the perspectives of those who support the occasion for the protest—namely the desire to preserve Confederate monuments—since provocations like this would be less relevant if they were not capturing or amplifying something many people feel.  And it also means being clear about the effects these actions have on our community, for many of whom the sight of torch-bearing white supremacist protestors generates emotions ranging from mere disgust to paralyzing fear. 

As head of an academic community (the sociology department) that includes many hundreds of people (current faculty, staff, and students, as well as their wider circles, and interested alums), I am tempted to assert that we are a safe space for intellectual inquiry and diverse points of view.  But is this accurate?  Events like that of May 13 call us to question whether we are, or can be, in the world as it is, especially when we are reminded that our home town is part of that world, and that it may not be quite the space we thought it was (though, to be sure, the protestors were not, as far as I know, Charlottesvillians, much as some people in the community might support them—if not their methods, then their desires to preserve celebratory markers of our violent past).  I make no assumptions of ideological unanimity in the sociology department and its wider community.  How boring it would be were this the case!  But despite the fact that this protest took place just down the street, I know that I am lucky to work in a place where people are committed to genuine and respectful engagement and exchange across their differences.  So despite our proximity to this small piece of national politics, I am confident we are no worse off than many, and actually quite a bit better off than most.  I thus hope you will reaffirm your commitment to our inclusive, welcoming, and diverse community, just as I reaffirm my commitment to making sure it so.

One potentially productive way of dealing with this event is to frame it in sociological terms from different perspectives. Specifically, how does our disciplinary background help us cast light on a controversial political event in a way that you would not get from other viewpoints? In order to pursue this, I have  invited colleagues to contribute brief analyses.  I am happy to present the first one below, by our friend and colleague Simone Polillo, and welcome more contributions and responses. 

- Jeff Olick

Economic sociology studies the intersection between markets and society: how production is socially organized, or how and when cultural values and beliefs change in face of economic transformation, to name just a couple of examples. What economic sociology might have to say about the nauseating events of last Saturday in Charlottesville--a white supremacist rally in a downtown square that is already scarred by the relics of a horrific past--might not be entirely clear on first sight. 

But economic sociology is also the analysis of how societies have historically reacted to the uncertainties and instabilities brought on by new market processes. And so it can lend a critical eye on recent events, informed by a long-term perspective on human history. History never repeats itself. But history is the best data on the human experience at our disposal. Making good use of these data can open new perspectives on current problems, perhaps even illuminate news paths into the future. The parallel I want to draw here is between the contemporary political and economic landscape of the United States, and the political and economic situation of some parts of the Western world around the 1920s. And I want to do it by introducing two classical thinkers from the tradition of economic sociology (incidentally, thinkers coming from opposite sides of the political spectrum): Karl Polanyi and Vilfredo Pareto.

Polanyi was a Hungarian scholar, and a socialist. Writing just before the end of the Second World War, indeed rushing to finish his work in the hope of influencing the world to come after the conflict, Polanyi is famous for proposing an analysis of the rise of fascism--the political movement that precipitated the Second World War--that tied it to the more general rise of economic protectionism in 1920s Europe and North America. Polanyi argued that economic protectionism was the reaction of society to the previous rise of worldwide markets: the emergence, that is, of global and free systems of exchange that characterized the second half of the 19th century. These new global markets brought enormous prosperity to the Western world, at the expense of its colonies, but also at the cost of increased instability and disorder. The more markets expanded, the more difficult for people, and the working and middle classes in particular, to keep up with competition. The harder for people to maintain a steady job, take care of their families, and live a life of dignity in the face of unpredictably changing market conditions. Polanyi argued that economic protectionism was society's response to a market that increasingly threatened to destroy its very foundations.

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian political theorist and economist, and an authoritarian. Writing just before the rise of the fascist regime in Italy, he proposed a model of political power centered on the idea of the "circulation of elites." Power, he argued, was cyclically held by two types of social groups: "foxes," cunning, manipulative elites able to win the support of public opinion through money, corruption and deceit; and "lions," rigid, authoritarian, militaristic elites denouncing the schemes of the foxes, with a penchant for governing with an iron fist. Too much control and rigidity, Pareto argued, opened the door to elites able to game the system. Too much flexibility and cunning, by like token, opened the door for power-hungry authoritarians, riding on public discontent with corruption to gain power.

Putting Pareto and Polanyi in a mutual conversation gives a new perspective on current US events. One of the reasons behind Hillary Clinton's defeat--or at least behind the animosity of the Trump-base towards her--is her public perception as a deviant manipulator, what Pareto would have called a fox. This, of course, does not make Trump a lion. A business tycoon, and himself a manipulator of public opinion with no military experience or understanding of military events, Trump is no Mussolini. Pareto would warn us that lion is whoever comes next. If we take his model of the circulation of elites seriously, we should not worry about Trump. We should worry about his successor. And we should follow the white nationalists very closely, for it may be among them the next wave of authoritarianism emerges. Their pro-Russia chants are chilling, in this respect.

History never repeats itself, however, and Polanyi helps us imagine a different future. Polanyi argued that economic nationalism was not the only response to global free markets. What in some part of Europe generated rightwing economic populism and then fascism, in the United States resulted into a very different kind of reaction: Roosevelt's New Deal. And what explains this important historical divergence between a system predicated on military power and racial oppression versus a system that was certainly full of inequalities (first and foremost racial ones) but nevertheless was also open to new, positive solutions to the problem of economic disorder? Polanyi, unsurprisingly, argued that it was the strength of society that swung the pendulum in the right direction. The more society was strong, open, and democratic, the more inclusive and democratic the reaction to dangerous markets.

What economic sociology teaches us about Saturday's events is that the white supremacists are shrewdly exploiting an opportunity to channel discontent towards solutions that will irreparably damage the democratic process. Understanding that what lies behind their renewed exuberance is not only the persistent legacy of Southern racism, but also a more general societal reaction to globalized markets, is one small step towards defeating their political project, and lay the foundations for a more just, prosperous, democratic society.

-Simone Polillo

Members of the Sociology community, like me, were horrified last week while we scrolled through our social media to happen upon the haunting images of a rally held to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park. The torches demonstrators held may have been tiki torches sold at household furniture and supply stores, but they recalled the swaying firelight of Ku Klux Klan rallies. Demonstrators -- by police estimates 100-150 people – chanted slogans familiar to white supremacist groups, and the rally was attended by known white supremacist leaders.  Deeply saddened and outraged, we worried about what sort of message these images – which spread virally, even internationally – communicated about the city of Charlottesville, about what it is like to live, work or study here. Counter-organizing by members of Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville, and other groups led to a crowded candlelight vigil the next night, but photos of that event did not spread quite so far.  

Charlottesville, like many cities, has a difficult racial past written into the city’s landscape and institutions, and there is a lot of work still yet to do to help the city become integrated across its many divides: racially, culturally, across class, even politically.  Some of that work is being taken on today by courageous people: personally, I’ve enjoyed following the efforts of Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy as he stands up for what he believes and leads us there; the local Unitarian Universalist Church is another site of a powerful conversation about racial justice and how far we have still to go.  These efforts can anger people who don’t see racial inequity or white privilege as it is enacted in our daily lives, and the ensuing conflicts make it feel to some like the city is more divided than it has been in the past. But these divides existed before, only at a more subterranean level. We can draw an analogy to the numbers of sexual assaults reported on today’s university campuses – prospective students should avoid campuses that have near-zero numbers, because that is not a sign of a gender utopia but instead signals an oppressive environment that silences truth.  Indeed, we need to honor those who open up the spaces for all kinds of members of our community to be seen, to be counted, to add their voices to the city, such as hereherehere and here.  The white supremacist rally does not reflect the true Charlottesville, but public spaces and private goods here are still marred by too much segregation and inequality, and we need to talk about that, and take actions to change it. 

Sociology has a lot to offer these difficult public and private conversations.  Sociologists have demonstrated how white privilege works to silence other perspectives and to disguise how whites benefit from advantages built in to our social institutions, from the schools to the courts.  At the same time, black feminist scholars have taught us that race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality and other social categories twist together to both enable and constrain us, generating our own particular combinations of privilege and disadvantage, making it difficult for some to acknowledge how they benefit from the former when all they feel is how they endure the latter. Sociologists at Virginia are contributing to research that is helping us move forward.  Department faculty have secured a grant to organize a two-day symposium on ‘Diverse Disciplines, Inclusive Institutions: Rethinking our Academic Agendas’ to be held in spring 2018, featuring prominent scholars focusing on questions of diversity and institutions.  Our graduate students are pursuing some remarkable projects along these lines:  to name a few, Gabriella Smith, a Ph.D. candidate, examines how race, class and culture combine to shape the way segregated whites make sense of racial others, in a dissertation entitled “Seeing ‘Other’ People: White Segregation and the Imagined Other.”  Pilar Plater’s work contemplates the intersections of gender and race in the experience of female authority in male-dominated spaces.  Candace Miller and Blake Silver are co-investigators on a project examining how race, gender, and class contribute to belongingness and alienation at an elite, public university.  As we struggle with how our practices and institutions have dehumanized us, this work and ongoing projects by other faculty and students should help us see each other as fellow human beings.

-Allison Pugh