Canadian Journal of Sociology Online May-June 2000

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Lawrence Busch.
The Eclipse of Morality: Science, State and Market.
New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2000. 219 pp. $65.25 Cloth (0202306216), $32.75 paper (0202306224)

Sociologists will easily recognize the main theme of this book as the problem of social order. It will be more difficult perhaps to locate Busch’s particular approach to examining this issue. A Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University (, Busch is known for his influential work on the sociology and politics of the agricultural sciences. The Eclipse of Morality represents an attempt to develop a general theoretical and sweeping historical argument in which his previous work would seem to be well situated.

Busch’s main argument is this: In the development of the distinct but interconnected spheres of the sciences, the state and the market, modernity has produced an understanding and desire for a social order which is ultimately undemocratic, self destructive and morally irresponsible. Modernity has sown the seeds of its own destruction through its relentless pursuit of idealized notions of natural, social and moral order. It is a familiar critique that at times reads like an indictment of modernity worthy of a Murry Bookchin or Jeremy Rifkin but with an added touch of social theoretical complexity punctuated with empirical examples drawn from a substantial bibliography.

The obsession with idealized order is exemplified for Busch through the influence of Bacon in the case of Science and Technology, Hobbes in the case of the State, and Smith in the case of the Market. Thus, the core of the book examines the development of the technosciences along Baconian lines that gives rise to Social Darwinism, Taylorism, Soviet scientism and the Green Revolution (chapter 2). The Hobbesian conception of the State gives us Colonialism, Totalitarianism, and the privatized states of the modern industrialized West (chapter 3). Finally, Smith’s idealization of the Market produces the Irish Potato Famine, individualized conceptions of property, the decline of education, and attacks on social security (chapter 4). The point of these chapters is to show how the desire for social order in the first instance has led to the social disintegration observable today. We are shown the continuity, for instance, between the origins of scientism, the failure of the green revolution and current “problematic” trends in biotechnology.

There is little room for ambiguity and complexity in Busch’s sweeping critique but the approach lends itself well to establishing the similarities and connections amongst the major social shifts that have formed the contemporary social world. Coupled with more in-depth analyses (perhaps some of the texts from Busch’s bibliography) this book would make a good undergraduate introduction to modernity. It is a passionate yet scholarly work that is clearly argued and easy to follow.

The other important but somewhat disappointing component of this book is Busch’s foray into theory (the last two chapters). Busch starts with the often-repeated observation that the ability to theorize the influence of modernity in the social sciences has been affected by that very modernity. The result of this is a legacy of understanding society in terms of the duality of structure and agency and a limited conception of what counts as a social agent. As a result, Busch’s synopsis of the history of sociology as a battle between radical structuralisms and individualisms follows nicely from his account of scientism, statism and marketism but seems rather crude as contemporary social theory is reduced to Wallerstein versus Coleman, or Althusser versus Homans. From my own experience teaching theory I have found that American students tend to benefit from the structuralist critiques of rational choice theory but this singular obsession does not seem to have the same impact in Canada or Europe.

Busch’s proposed and politicized solution to the structure/agency dilemma and the social problems produced by modernity is a version of Latourian Actor-Network Theory that is referred to as “networks of democracy” (chapter 6). As with Latour (see We Have Never Been Modern, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard, 1993), Busch’s democratic networks include things – a recognition of our interconnectedness with non-human and human ‘others’. Unfortunately, Busch does not help make sense of nonhuman agency and it would be far more useful to engage Latour’s other texts instead.

Networks of democracy for Busch are about public participation and interaction and not about consensus. This sounds fine. Busch advocates for a direct democracy in the workplace, in education, in health care, the arts and the media, and in decisions over future directions for science and technology. These institutions are meant to form overlapping networks and create local, trans-local and global democratic action. As Busch writes, “by building networks of democracy, we can begin to resolve the problem of order in a manner that creates individual autonomy while defining and reaching for the common good, in a manner that embeds moral responsibility in the networks rather than in either individuals or structures” (p. 186-7).

To my mind, Busch further exposes the weakness of the network metaphor with this statement. It seems to be a concept that can accommodate just about anything in an increasingly complex social world. What do networks look like? Are they different from one another? Do they have different social-material properties? How are they different from conventional institutions? These are questions that the concept of a network alone cannot deal with and Busch offers us little else in the way of a theoretical framework.

In the end, I am not sure what to make of Busch’s final argument other than to agree with the sentiment and praise the activist stance that the book advocates. It would seem that at this stage however, more empirical work is called for in examining historical and contemporary alternatives to scientism, statism and marketism (Busch also throws in religious fundamentalism for completeness) while perhaps avoiding a potentially problematic alternativism that might rest on its own idealized notion of social order. In this sense, Busch’s book can only introduce such a project; for more substantial analysis readers will certainly have to look elsewhere.

Bart Simon
Queen’s University
June 2000
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