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Economic and Social History Blog

20. Joop Goudsblom and the rewildering of society (7-4-2020)

Joop Goudsblom and the rewildering of society (7-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Two weeks ago, Johan Goudsblom, eminent sociologist of the Amsterdam school, passed away. He was one of the representatives of the approach to sociology that was close to economic and social history, as historical, long-run changes in society were the primary object of study. His main source of inspiration was Norbert Elias’ concept of the civilization process, and he inspired colleagues to work on ‘big history’ with an even larger time frame than the 12 centuries of European history Elias wrote about. I met him at various occasions – mostly at KNAW events – and he once invited me to his home in the elegant 19e century Amsterdam Zuid neighbourhood, were the reception was equally elegant (for starters, his wife kindly asked me if I cared for coffee or tea). He was a very gentle soul, and concerned with the future of the Amsterdam-school-type of sociology within an academic climate where only papers in top journals mattered (he and his colleagues preferred to write books, in Dutch). We also briefly discussed our sources of inspiration, and compared Elias – for whom the disciplining of behaviour was an end in itself, as it led to ‘civilization’, the ultimate aim perhaps being the stiff upper lip expressing irony and understatement – with North, for whom constraining behaviour was a means to economic development as it enhanced predictability and trust.

When Arjen Lubach last Sunday presented an overview of the bunch of loonies that are now governing our planet (I do not have to give names now), I inadvertently had to think about Joop’s civilization process. Why is there in politics such an obvious ‘de-civilization’ process going on? It is so odd and unexpected that we do not have a word for the reversal of civilization, not in English (I think, and Google seems to agree with me), nor in Dutch (ont-beschaven? Ont-schaven? As the opposite of Beschaven). Perhaps ‘rewildering’ – the return of wild, unpredictable, uncivilized behaviour – is most appropriate, and the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro embody the process.

Now we have a word for it, the question remains why it is occurring on such a large scale – from the Philippines to – even – the UK, and from Brazil to Hungary. And so suddenly, and almost everywhere, in the last 10 years or so. One explanation may be that it is related to the rise of the internet. It created a free space in which the usual rules of engagement between people did not apply. In daily life, for example, when you abuse your neighbour, you will have to deal with the consequences for quite some time (until he moves, or you move). The same applies in most other situations in real life (the traffic jam may be an exception, but that is also a place of extreme impolite behaviour). On the many blogs, twitters, and other platforms people could and can express their opinions in the most unpolished forms and strongest terms, often anonymously, and without being afraid of repercussions. And they did, as you probably know, and, to some extent another culture of unrestrained self-expression arose. The rewildering started there, and then people learned that this behaviour often was rewarded, that politeness and good manners were pretty useless in this new space, and the new norms started to show up in ‘real life’. Trump, who tries to rule the world via his Twitter account, is the example par excellence of this link.

So the behaviour that became the norm in the unregulated ‘wild west’ of the internet, changed attitudes and norms in the ‘real world’. Usually, the ‘core’ brings law and order to the ‘wild west’ and enforces civilized behaviour; however, the opposite has happened in this case: the cowboys of the wild west are now setting the tone in the ‘core’. It seems, however, that political systems that concentrate power into the hands of one person only – presidential systems like the US – are much more affected than systems which are based on a much wider sharing of the power of the executive. The ‘winner takes it all’ kind of political systems create the right incentives for playing it hard, and be unmerciful with your opponents. But you still cannot lie in Dutch politics (as Thierry Baudet found out recently), you cannot threaten to put your opponent in prison (as Trump did: ‘Lock her up’), as you probably have to sit down and work together after the elections. This robustness of our political culture is a small ray of hope in this bewildering process of rewilding, which must have been so unexpected for Joop Goudsblom.

Continue reading: Back to the dinosaurs (8-4-2020)