The Abstract Society
Imagined Communities and the System That Rules Them
Society is an abstract concept. Abstraction is also a social and material process. Society is also becoming increasingly abstract. These are a few fundamental ways in which abstraction is a vital concept in sociology.
The Abstract Society: A Cultural Analysis of Our Time is an obscure sociological treatise from 1970, by Anton C. Zijderveld, which sets the metamodern stage for the present abstract sociology of The Abs-Tract Organization. The problem, as it is formulated, is that society is abstract — too abstract. Society is abstracted by the pluralist segmentation of its institutional structure and the division of the sciences, among other factors. This abstraction poses a problem of increasingly complexity. And this was published in 1970!; just imagine where we are today. In a book review from 1972, Stephen Mennell called it a “serious contribution” to sociology and the study of alienation. In my mind, it is an overlooked gem on par with The Sociological Imagination or Revolt of the Masses. The Abstract Society brings the critique into full view to address the most elusive threat — society itself, through its machinations. The inset of the jacket cover reads:
“In every modern industrial state more and more individuals find themselves confronting and revolting against an abstract entity — ‘the system’ or ‘the establishment’ which seems to rule their lives.” — The Abstract Society
The book is a level-headed critique which clearly relates the processes of modernization and alienation to abstraction. Many other terms enfold into modernization, adding different dimensions to the process of abstraction: segmentation, bureaucratization, institutionalization, rationalization, autonomization, commercialization, etc. All of these reflect the ways in which society becomes increasingly abstract and systematized, leaving the individual isolated and powerless, distanced from their own destiny. One concept that is notably absent is globalization. It is arguably in the sense of globalization that abstraction is the most salient, vis-a-vis Marx’s commodity abstraction — “… the veneration of abstract realities… particularly possessed by the abstraction par excellence: money” — not to mention Zijderveld’s insights applied on a global scale.
It is also worth noting here that society is also demonstrably abstract in terms of nationalism, a topic not really covered in the book. We understand nations as “imagined communities” thanks to Benedict Anderson’s book of the same name. In this way, we can see how society is socially constructed, and ‘in our heads.’ The media perpetuates these perceptions, and the idea becomes reified and concretized, even though it is not real. People come to believe in the eternity and fixity of their state the day after it was founded, only for the abstract leviathan to turn against itself and others in an inevitable identity crisis. Global capitalist process transcend the nation-state and co-opt its governance functions, abstracting authority up the chain to a global Ouija board of (corporate) directors spelling out ecological collapse.
Pluralism is another main theme, which I would argue culminates in postmodernism. Conspicuously, the term postmodern is also left out, as the book is explicitly a critique of modernization, which runs through to present day. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise, intentionally left open and undogmatic so it can be incorporated into metamodernism. Pluralism is of course essential in the generic sense — and he confirms this — but is “no longer the coherent, meaningful universe it had been before.” Pluralistic society has an “atrophied experience of meaning and reality.” It creates an illusion of freedom, characterized as Marcuse’s ‘one dimensional man’ on a consumption spree. There are growing gaps and voids between humanity and institutions, and between rationality and irrationality.
Zijderveld relates abstraction with increases with distance and size as well. As industrialization and bureaucratization grow, society becomes more abstract. The world is dominated by technocratic abstraction, and modern consciousness is polarized into intellectualization (smartening up) and primitivization (dumbing down), hence the broad notion of ‘the abstract society.’ The general theme of the book is that abstraction is a variegated process with negative social implications, so we must consider abstraction way beyond just the cognitive concept.
“Two aspects are typical of modern consciousness, according to Gehlen: on the one hand, an increasing intellectualization; on the other, a growing primitivization. By intellectualization Gehlen means the tendency to think and speak in terms of highly abstract models and formalistic categories, to experiment and to emphasize calculable effects. Parallel to this runs modern man;s tendency to express himself in slogans. He has a need for simplicity and plasticity, and a concurrent aversion to subtle conceptual distinctions and nuances. He sacrifices intellectual honest for popularity and emotional satisfaction. Gehlen calls this primitivization. It is represented by the mass media which continuously bombard us with their slogans and nervous shocks promising us the newest, the latest, the best, and the deepest.” — The Abstract Society
Zidjerveld attempts to clarify by problematizing micro- and macro- abstraction separately. Beginning with the individual dimension, the author’s concept of abstraction revolves around the dangers of false consciousness and reification, which are central to the sociology of knowledge. “[Human] nature is embedded in social ambiguity” and we have to fix that. The macro- dimension is the aforementioned aspect of “the system.”
It is in these respects I would argue that the book is decidedly marxist, if the term didn’t come with pejorative connotations. For its high degree of abstraction and prescience, I would say it qualifies as meta-Marxist. It has no political agenda except to improve society through the critique against its abstraction, which is Marxist. It is in the spirit of resolving the contradictions of capitalism, of creating class consciousness, and confronting alienation. Zijderveld tracks abstraction from Hegel through Marx;
“According to Karl Marx, Hegelian totalitarianism was utterly unreal and abstract. [Marx] reformulated it in terms of socio- economic reality and thus carried on Hegel’s search for totality and comprehensiveness.” (p.74).
Thus, Marx’s ‘historical materialism’ provided a concrete basis for an abstract social theory. But Zijderveld does indeed go beyond Marx (and Durkheim), and owes credit for the formal legacy of this idea to Simmel, for whom sociology is basically founded on abstraction.
“Insofar as it is based on the notions that man must be understood as a social animal and that society is the medium of all historical events, sociology contains no subject matter that is not already treated in one of the extant sciences… Sociology thus is founded upon an abstraction from concrete reality, performed under the guidance of the concept of society.” — The Sociology of Georg Simmel
Here is where the abstract society is scattered in a hall of mirrors, in an eternally reflexive relationship between society and the concept of society; between the concrete and the abstraction. Therefore, we must (re-)construct an ideal concept of society. This is made difficult in the current state of academia, with the retreat/suppression of critical theory, and the deterioration of education quality under the pressures of austerity. Notwithstanding the grand theory of Hegel and Marx, the over-specialization of contemporary science has…
“become so abstract and obscure that not only colleagues within the same discipline but even experts within a single specialty have difficulty understand each other’s issues. This is the exact opposite of intellectual totalitarianism, and I propose to call it intellectual Taylorism.” — The Abstract Society
Adding to the abstract processes eviscerating society and community, here the problem is abstract in several more ways. Philosophy was too abstract (dry, pedantic), ‘the system’ has become too abstract (complex), the sciences are too abstract (fragmented). Towards the end of the book, Zidjerveld advances a critique of utopian thinking, and calls for ‘intellectual ascetism… to master the forces of control on the level of consciousness first’ before structural changes can be decided.
In the current anti-intellectual climate of Trump, this could not be more urgent. If all this seems bleak, there is good news, and that is the metamodern truth emerging: that we can solve all of this, but it requires a global consolidation of abstraction, good and bad, to take control of the forces that rule our lives and harm our fellow humans. I’ll give Zidjerveld the last word, from the literal last words of his book, advancing an abstract perspective which is increasingly relevant today:
“The present study is an attempt to transcend the customary intellectual division in order to contribute to a cultural analysis of man’s position in an increasingly abstract society.” — The Abstract Society