longread> Interview with Craig Calhoun, director of the London School of Economics

Longread Craig Calhoun: "There are always other options"

There aren't many things Craig Calhoun hasn't researched. The underlying rationale? "There are always other options."


What does solidarity entail for you and where does it come from?

Craig Calhoun: «I define solidarity as the ways in which people are connected to each other and create a bond amongst themselves. It’s different if you’re talking about solidarity in a social movement, solidarity with all the suffering people in the world, or solidarity making a society. Solidarity is about creating the connections. They are the glue holding social life together.»

You’ve stated that this solidarity is easier to promote on a national level. Where does this focus on nationalism come from?

Calhoun: «Nationalism has a very bad reputation in some quarters. If we throw out the baby with the bathwater, we lose a resource that can do positive work, it’s not just a bad thing to be condemned.»

If nations as a concept or entity would dissolve, would there be some kind of hole in solidarity?

Calhoun: «Yes. There are things we value which depend on national solidarity. Of course you could replace nationalism with something else. For example, if you think about democracy, who gets to vote? We use national determination. You could come up with another way to determine who gets to vote and you could build a European nationalism, so instead of talking about particular countries we’re going to talk about all of Europe as one giant nation. That could still work, I’m not sure it will work very well, but it’s a possibility. The point is we wouldn’t have a democracy or the redistributed social welfare systems if we didn’t have some strong way of feeling we belong together. Right now, that is what nationalism offers. So to throw it out before we have something else would be a bad idea.»

Social media

There seems to be a paradox: people feel grouped together yet, have never been as alone as before?

Calhoun: «On the one hand you get the individualism of the social media, on the other hand you get the actual connectivity. If you’re about to make a trip to Los Angeles tomorrow, I’m sure you can find somebody on Facebook who knows somebody you know. It’s not all egoism and decline. It’s also new different kinds of networks.»

«The same holds true for building nations in the 18th/19th century in Europe. Back then, it was a matter of overcoming conflicts. Every European country had internal conflicts. Belgium is distinctive because it didn’t resolve those kinds of conflicts, it basically said “let’s have a truce”. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in France ended up with the Protestants being driven out of the country or massacred. There are less attractive resolutions but the building of nation states dealt with conflicts and scale of connections. Because markets needed to be organized on this larger scale. Villages and provinces couldn’t handle it alone.»

Is there a distinct difference in solidarity between 200 years ago and today? Has solidarity become something conditional? People can log off Facebook, can’t they?

Calhoun: «It’s not wrong, but it isn’t the whole story either. If you define solidarity in terms of tightness of connections, it has declined dramatically. The early communities were really dense, everybody knew everybody else, they were also multiplex because there were different kinds of relationships. They went to church with the same people they went to work with. Those kinds of communities have declined. But it didn’t decline into egoism. It declined in favour of networks on a very large scale and categories like nations.»

«Whether you like it or not, you are embedded in these networks; You can’t travel without a passport. The kind of community that existed in villages is the definition of solidarity. Today there are much more forms. One need only think of taste communities. All those people that are connected through a mutual interest in music know each other even when they live at the other side of the ocean. That kind wasn’t possible in the past.»

International solidarity

You have solidarity on an individual level and on a national level. What do you think of the levels above that, like the UN?

Calhoun: «We face problems we can’t handle nationally, such as financial prices and stability, and climate change. The conditions for international cooperation are partly national conditions. If we, in our various countries, do not support the idea that our government should figure out how to have international cooperation, they won’t because politicians will only worry about how to get re-elected in the next election.

If you put it in terms of risk, the biggest risks are mostly risks of failed international cooperation. It’s not only a diplomatic question, like “We need better trained ambassadors”. It’s a sociological and a political-economic question. As China becomes stronger, the US remains military strong but becomes weaker economically. How does that destabilize other relationships? How do you create the vehicles for operation, to solve these problems?»

«As researchers we tend to inherit the blind spots that were established by the previous works. Everybody said the big issue is villages versus nations. What about corporations? There’s some work to be done there. I don’t mean to say everybody has been ignoring it. But I’m pretty sure you can find ten publications on urban neighbourhoods for every piece written about a corporation. Yet, corporations are pretty important in the modern world.»

Even on an international level, solidarity can be traced back to individuals who have to be willing to commit themselves to a sort of ideal.

Calhoun: «That is certainly true, but not only the individuals, but also the different communities. The business communities are an example of a major change. Sociology has acknowledged this but hasn’t paid enough attention to giant corporations. For the most part, corporations are an invention of the last 100 years. Corporations are not how 19th century capitalism worked. There were no corporations during the whole industrial revolution. That did only set in later and now it matters enormously. So you have big multinational corporations.»

Are corporations not concerned with solidarity?

Calhoun: «Some are. The American pattern has been to shed costs in favour of finance. But there are other patterns in the world, if you lookat China and Korea, you won’t see what you see in the American version. These firms are not completely private or connected to the state, they provide welfare for their employees, they almost do foreign policy, they have a high level of internal solidarity, and they have company songs. They use internal Facebook systems inside the company to connect the workers to each other. I don’t know the answer, I just think it’s an interesting question.»

Because they can create a sense of community and solidarity on their own?

Calhoun: «Exactly. If you’re an African in Africa, perhaps the biggest determinant of whether you can get expensive medical care, is when you work for a multinational. If you don’t, you have no access to medicine, because the national governments can’t afford it. So in a bunch of countries like Zimbabwe, it’s hugely important to be a member of international firms.»

If all these communities, such as nations and big corporations, work together, it becomes very hard to locate where decisions are made. Decisions such as whether the UK will stay in the EU. Who makes a decision at that point?

Calhoun: «There will be a referendum. But that doesn’t answer your question completely, because it’s the media dominating the referendum. They influence what everybody thinks. That’s the nature of the modern world we work with as sociologists. So we have to adopt ways to study it and be able to ask to what extent the media influence is decisive. To what extent do politicians dominate the media? These are research questions, they’re not easy to answer, but they’re the questions that we want to know about.»

Tuition fees

Higher education in the UK comes at a steep price, many students have a lot of debt. Doesn’t this diminish solidarity? Students are forced into an individualistic approach to pay back their debts?

Calhoun: «That’s true. Not just individualistic, but it makes career choices. You’re being forced to do something that’s not your individual preference. The LSE and every other leading university are locked into competition. This raises the costs and demands certain kinds of performance to meet the research requirements. There are certain things you could do that would be catastrophic for rankings. Stop doing research and focusing completely on teaching students, that would be very good for the students for a while, but eventually we would lose our reputation and then the students wouldn’t get good jobs after they graduate.»

«What’s going on, is the subjection of higher education to more or less capitalist market competition, just like lots of other things. Some countries are resisting that, maintaining the high levels of national funding. You could do that but then you’ll have to not do something else, unless you’re Norway maybe. What percentage of students goes to university? In Britain it’s more than half of the students. Supporting all of them equally is too much money for the government. When I went to school in the UK, I think it cost just over £1000 a year, compared to £9000 for British students and £17000 for foreigners today. That’s dramatic. But in the seventies only twelve percent went to university, now it’s fifty percent.»

Doesn’t the government have a responsibility to make sure every student has a fair chance at higher education?

Calhoun: «The government thinks it is doing that now with its loan system. Everybody gets a loan and they only start paying it back when they make over a certain amount. On one level that’s very good because nobody is stopped when they have no money. But on the other hand you’ll have to make certain work choices to make sure to be able to pay off the debt.>>

In the old system with a cheaper or no tuition fee, it was highly selective so less people could get in. Which of those is better and what are the other choices? In the US, their fees are very high but they give lots of scholarships. So the official price is $ 60.000 but only rich kids pay that much.»

«As president of a university, I can say we don’t have much choice. We can’t ask the students what it is they want us to not do in order not to have the high fees. In my view it’s part of the whole so-called neoliberal system. I don’t like the word, but that’s the common word to describe governments getting out of providing public services and using markets instead. That has a mixture of good and bad effects. In this case I think it has a relatively bad effect on our education.»

Top and bottom

Does the egocentric attitude dissipate into other domains, like healthcare?

Calhoun: «Piketty, who holds a PhD from LSE, showed that this is part of how inequality capitalism works. If you make something market-driven and you don’t counterbalance that with charity or something else, then you will get inequality. Therefore capitalism by itself produces inequality. He doesn’t say that’s inevitable because in the welfare state in the post-war boom, it was possible to counteract that tendency so equality went up. Since 74-75 it has gone the other way. The effect of the current policy on higher education is exactly as Piketty says. It increases the inequality, an inequality that is already noticeable in primary schools. »

«The minute you start not having universal public education you’re on a slippery slope. For those who can afford it, it gets better. But for those who can’t pay for private education, it gets worse because they don’t even have those other students in their classes anymore. They don’t have the middle class parents putting pressure to make better public schools. The split gets wider, that’s what’s happening in universities. I went to Oxford, a very famous and privileged university, even in the seventies. Yet, the difference between Oxford and Kent was not what it is today. And Kent is still way better than those at the bottom of the system. »

«The difference between the top and the bottom gets wider, so from the point of the individual student that means you want to go to the top if you can, because that’s better for your career. The LSE has the highest starting salaries. I actually don’t think we have the best education. What we have is an amazing reputation combined with the ability to select amazingly good students. We only take 1 out of 13 applicants, and we have a good education. Those 1 out of 13, they were already good when they started with us, we didn’t make them smart.»

Doesn’t that undermine solidarity?

Calhoun: «Yes, completely! We can create solidarity by giving certain privileges to students of the same institution. But in class terms that’s increasing the inequality because our students are almost all from the top. We can raise money for scholarships. About 10 per cent of the students gets free education, and 40 per cent gets some kind of scholarship.»

In March some of your own students occupied a room for a couple days, stating they wanted to change the “profit-driven and bureaucratic business model of higher education”. Do you agree with the culture they’re describing?

Calhoun: «They were right to see there was an issue. But their ideas about how to solve it were unrealistic. I had more sympathy for their ideas than many other people who wanted to arrest them. But they’re wrong in thinking we make a profit. The way in which the system works doesn’t depend on us making a profit. It does depend on how the chances are distributed. They got the wrong analysis of why we’re not a company; we’re not making a profit. In fact, we’re a charity; we give away more money than we bring in. It’s a misunderstanding and in fact, it’s even worse. The point is, even if you’re not profit-driven, it still works this way in this kind of economy.You can’t escape it. So it’s worse than they think, in one sense.

«No policy the LSE is able to make will solve the problem; the country would have to change it. If you want free public education, as I would want, if I announced it tomorrow at the LSE, they’d fire me. Also, we’d be bankrupt in three years. What you’d have to do is organize a political movement to convince the government it’s important. We still have free public health care, Britain is gradually privatizing around the edges but the core is still a public system, the NHS (National Health Service), vastly better than anything in the US.»

«Higher universities have become prestige economies where the main focus is not even money, but prestige.»


On a subconscious level everyone is focusing on the variables behind the rankings instead of the quality of education. Isn’t that an absurd situation?

«You want information, so you want to be able to tell citizens something and sometimes the rankings or survey evaluations are a good thing. The LSE does brilliantly in the indicators of research and prestige. Sometimes it drops depending on how you organize a variable about student satisfaction, but we should learn from that. It’s important that our students have a chance to tell us that they’re frustrated with us. »

«The problem is there are not enough variables and they are too simplistic. Some version of empirical assessment is good. We ought to answer to somebody and it is not bad that there is an empirical assessment. What is bad is that it is immediately turned into a single dimensional hierarchy. Cambridge and Oxford at the top, then LSE etc. This reduction to a single hierarchy is simply not true in the sense that number 10 isn’t necessarily better than number 20. At a certain point you have to ask the question what mean with “better” exactly. Better at some things, worse at others.

«There are always aspects that differ, sometimes it’s just a matter of style. Some schools are more business-oriented, some are more pro social work and that is lost. The rankings reduce everything to one conclusion, which turns out to be incredibly correlated to the amount of money per student.

«What the rankings do is reinforce the existing hierarchy. They increase the impact of the distance between higher or lower. There always was some kind of hierarchy, but it didn’t always matter as much.


To counter this you need a broad political movement, but the only one that comes to mind is the Occupy movement which achieved practically nothing. How can you change the system? How can you avoid fatalism?

«I am determined not to, but there really is great temptation. The danger of this kind of analysis is precisely that it makes you fatalistic. It is necessary to be realistic about the obstacles you face, you need that perspective that correctly analyses the problems.

«I’m not terribly optimistic about being able to change the system. I’m optimistic to do some good things within the existing framework, but as I said to the students who were occupying part of the LSE to protest against the focus on research and business: what you’re saying is true, but that doesn’t make anything easier.

«The most striking thing about the last 7 or 8 years following the crisis, is that there is no movement. You have podemos and Syriza et cetera, but they are essentially national, political movements. They are not movements to change the structure of our society or system. At every other crisis in European history there was socialism. Socialism nowadays appears to have been discredited, or faded or gotten old and boring so young people aren’t interested anymore.

«Whatever it is, it has been the first crisis in 150 years where there hasn’t been a socialist alternative.

Didn’t for example Occupy pave the way for figures like Bernie Sanders?

«Yeah, Bernie Sanders is making waves which is interesting because the US is so anti-socialist. He is not going to win, but it has been a long time since the US has known a credible socialist candidate. And Corbyn in Britain, although he would have been moderate in the 1970s.

«I am not saying the extremists should win, I am pointing out that the centre is moving to the right. So what counts as the left wing is centre-left.

Do we need the left?

«We need a critical position. The old left may not have all the right ideas, but you need a critical wing campaigning in favour of what is possible, in favour of greater social justice and solidarity. I personally come from a socialist background. I see great weaknesses within the socialist tradition. Socialist tradition has lost its institutional foundation and co-opted a lot. Labour unions no longer give the basis for a critical movement. They are either very weak or solely focused on protecting the working.»

«Socialism has lost its momentum and critical edge, maybe somebody smarter than I am can reinvent it, but I don’t see it happening right now. What I see catching the attention of a lot of young people who would have been socialists if they were my age, is versions of anarchism, lots of community-level alternative economies, people organizing barter-systems and such. These things happen more on city-level. At the national level, these aren’t powerful movements. On the city level these things empower people to cope with austerity, to try out new things and experiment. Those people would actually be as much anti-socialist because they view socialist as boring bureaucrats.»

Because these movements are not represented on an international or national level, the decision making process is primarily a right-wing one?

«Yeah. For example when dealing with immigrants nations think about how many they can take in without changing the existing structure. It is perverse because the number of immigrants is very low.»

«Most of the countries are worried about 3000 immigrants, even though that number will barely change anything. Even Germany worries as the number of immigrants approaches 100.000. There are 80.000.000 Germans. Taking in 100.000 people is a lot, but it’s not impossible to deal with.»

«There are no transformative movements. There are really interesting social campaigns, globally and transnationally. If there is to be a counterweight between the combination of right-wing policies and unbridled capitalistic accumulation it is going to have to count on a national solidarity. That is why I focus on it in my research.»

In the past there has been an automatic response motivated by solidarity, often in a left wing form. Why not now?

«I don’t know. We have had such a deep crisis; yet the response has largely been absent. In the seventies there was a lot of political mobilizing. Some of this has been the perception that socialism doesn’t work anymore or has been defeated. Some of it is the conventionalism of most socialist parties. They became just another cog in the system. Some of it is a failure of vision. I do think social science shouldn’t just be pointing out what is, but also what is possible.

«It should be a source of more creativity. Even social sciences are trapped in our own version of hierarchism. You need to publish in the most prestigious journals. You have no choice but to be in a system that is organized to acknowledge certain kinds of accomplishments.»

The Left

Isn’t it strange that there is no left political movement reaction across Europe?

«On the migration issue the most progressive politician is Angela Merkel. Who would have thought that? I am at a loss to explain that. I think it is one of the facts of our age and one of the themes that we systematically forget. We don’t pay attention to it. It’s the dog that doesn’t bark. There is no anti-systemic movement during the biggest crisis since the great depression. That’s interesting.

«The fear of the Frankfurt theorists of a totally stitched-up society in which change was impossible looks kind of plausible in this context. I wish I had something to put my finger on it.»

Isn’t part of the problem that the socialist movement is confined to a small community where you can see the effects? On a national level this is much more difficult.

«I could point to pockets of change, but they are exceptions. My general feeling is that it is not. The feeling in the previous century was that local activism would scale up. I don’t think this is true or will be the case. It could be connected to these things. There is still local activism, but it just doesn’t scale up to the scale that it could change things.

«There is a need for a left that is business-oriented that can also transform corporations. There is potential there. I think that if we don’t have that, the left is just failing to recognize where the levers of power are.

Your formative years are incredibly important for your openness to, say, solidarity. Isn’t there a structural failing within our education system that is too focused on competition?

«I agree but don’t underestimate reactions. The movement of the sixties was formed by people who grew up in the conformist and conservative fifties, where nobody was talking about the second World War. There was a silence about the most important thing that had happened. In the sixties, that silence exploded into a demand for a public discussion on the World War. There can be reversals, so I don’t give up hope. But I don’t think it is easy.»

«Our conversation is focused on what happens in Europe, perhaps more important is what happens in China, India and Brazil. There is intense competition all over, but where the reaction will come from and how is the interesting question. If I had to bet on alternatives I would bet on the developing world. We are too comfortable. We are ironically comfortable and insecure at the same time. We worry too much about staying comfortable and not as much about doing something creative and new.»

When tuition fees rose in Belgium, many students reacted that there were no alternatives. They acted like there were no other options.

«What you just said is the most important, there are always other options. If I thought there was a single thing about social theory or critical science, it is about knowing there are other options and therefore there are choices to make. Knowing things were created historically means they could change. »

«Margaret Thatcher said there were no alternatives. That is the enemy of critique. What people like this are saying is: stop thinking. It is a discouraging theme and it is a strange thing to be a university president of a prominent university in that system, both wanting to do my job well and thus wanting my university to change. But also wishing we could change the system.»

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