Dr. Pilon reviews Behemoth: Main Currents in the History and Theory of Political Sociology
Posted: Monday, January 23, 2012
Below is Professor Juliana Geran Pilon's review of Irving Louis Horowitz's book Behemoth: Main Currents in the History and Theory of Political Sociology.
Reading Behemoth is the intellectual equivalent of watching a consummate athlete break the world record. Elegantly written, dispensing with the obligatory academic shibboleths, "Behemoth" is a breathtaking tour de force.
Anyone willing to accompany the author on his journey, revisiting the key themes underpinning the major theories of political and social change, will be amply rewarded with insights into the deepest dilemmas of modern life that elude the self-styled professional punditry that nowadays passes for intelligentsia. The book's subtitle, "Main Currents in the History and Theory of Political Sociology," refers to a critical yet generous ("there are no villains in this book") overview of the most important efforts by eminent thinkers starting with Montesquieu, followed by Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Marx, among others, alongside the canonical sociologists including Durkheim and Weber, to explain the relationship between state and society. That relationship - the question of how political system and the social order interact - is what this superb book is about.
The word "Behemoth" is roughly synonymous with "Leviathan" - Hobbes's all-powerful state - but Irving Louis Horowitz uses it primarily as a complement to "anarch," which refers to "society," or perhaps the "un-state," which doesn't merely precede the political (as it did for Hobbes) but complements it, opposes it, or, paradoxically, both. How to understand the tension between these two poles of human organization - the state and society? Simple dichotomies such as objective-subjective, private-public, conservative-liberal, will not do. The synthesis to which this narrative leads is the eventual, current merging of state and society, which he calls "the welfare state" (as distinguished from "the welfare society"). The modern "behemoth," a bewildering product of contradictory forces and unintended consequences, though ostensibly, at least initially, benevolent, threatens in the end to smother the individual ( or rather, more comprehensively, if not less vaguely, the "human forces" which encompass the complex factors that "resist the blandishments of the welfare state").
But is the modern behemoth not "democratic" (with all the honorific connotations)? Horowitz observes that "the ease with which the welfare state can be detached from any semblance of democratic moorings is itself a source of deep concern for liberals as well as conservatives. There is an uneasy feeling that the uncontrollable urgings of the welfare state combine the worst features of the State, its repressive potentials, with the worst features of the Society, its unbridled utilitarianism." Sometimes euphemistically described as either the "liberal" state or "open" society, the new Behemoth is "indifferent to ideological labeling, whilst becoming remarkably attuned to the demands of the political elite and the social mass at the same time." Marx would not be alone in finding such a proposition incomprehensible; so would most social "scientists" even (or rather, especially) today.
What then are we left with? On one side is "the oft-discarded and discredited notion of civilization" - sometimes synonymous with "culture" -that transcends any one nation-state, and on the other, various modern utopias such as the idealized "community," whose presumed common interest the State is supposed to fulfill. Neither can save us from what, like it or not, is Behemoth as a force unto itself and, more ominously, "an end unto itself." Progress has always been an illusion; technological advance can plunge humanity into the abyss as easily as its absence, if indeed not more efficiently. Though refusing to indulge in easy solutions, the book ends on a note of hope, if certainly not euphoria. At least we cannot say we have not been warned.