Structure and Milieu


C Wright Mills commuting to Columbia College, Yaroslava Mills

by Dan Hind

The inexhaustible novelty of how we feel serves to protect the old order from what we think.

C. Wright Mills begins his essay The Sociological Imagination by drawing a contrast between the ‘everyday worlds’ that ordinary people are aware of, where ‘their visions and their powers are limited by the close-up scenes of job, family, neighbourhood’, and the ‘structure of continent-wide societies’. The two worlds – the visible, tangible and emotionally coloured world of milieu and the abstract world of structure – are inextricably connected –

The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women … When classes rise and fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.

But for all that we do not seek to make sense of our own lives in structural terms –

Yet men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction.

Mills wanted to find the means by which ‘the personal uneasiness of individuals’ might be ‘focused upon explicit troubles’ and ‘the indifference of publics’ might be ‘transformed into involvement with public issues’. To this end he argues for the development of a ‘sociological imagination’

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.

So The Sociological Imagination is an argument about the methods and assumptions of social science, an attempt to persuade his peers (‘journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors’) ‘to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening in themselves’. It is a call to reconcile the registers of biography and history, since –

No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history, and of their intersections within a society, has completed its intellectual journey.

He goes on to suggest that –

Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure’.

Mills’ distinction between structure and milieu, and his insistence on the need to explore their connections, remain of the utmost importance. But he was mistaken when he wrote that the sociological imagination was becoming ‘the major common denominator of our cultural life and its signal feature’.

Far from working to make reasoned sense of the relationship between milieu and structure, those who together hold the power to shape our shared understanding have tended, in one way or another, to confuse the two, or to disparage one in favour the other. Over the last generation the cultural community – Wright’s ‘journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors’ who together determine the field of things that are widely discussed  – this community has concentrated on milieu at the expense of structure, even as the structures in which it operates have become more colossal, global rather than continent-wide.

And milieu has changed, too. For many people in Anglo-America, it has become ever more cluttered with cultural products that seek to reproduce the world of affect. Matters of structure have become a peculiar and unsatisfying subset of things that might, somehow, occasionally be brought into this well-lit world.

Such political coverage as there is tends to focus on personal rivalries or the vices and virtues of individuals. A handful of journalists try their best to give due attention to institutional factors – they therefore retain some capacity to think structurally. Most are discouraged from doing so, working as they do in structurally significant institutions that don’t like to be described. What is left is milieu.

Recently the campaigner for tax justice, John Christensen, described how attempts to reach large television audiences with descriptions of offshore finance – perhaps the most radically under-reported and consequential structure in the world – repeatedly founder on the broadcasters’ desire to re-frame the issue in terms of milieu:

The important part – when I talk to the journalists – and you can spend hours and hours talking to them, you say ‘look this is systemic’ and we will spend way more time talking about it for a documentary. Several weeks or months into the process, and I find that the whole thing’s been turned on its head: you’ve moved from the systemic to the individual. ‘Let’s focus on the Royal Family.’ or ‘let’s focus on the Cayman Islands.’ That’s the problem all the time – and that’s been over ten years’ experience.

All the time we say: ‘don’t focus on the islands, or on the companies, but focus on global financial architecture issues.’ The BBC isn’t engaging in its mission to inform properly — it is only engaging in the most superficial stuff.

(quoted from Nick Shaxson’s Treasure Islands blog) 

The islands can be filmed. They exist in the world. The Royal Family excites envy or admiration, it is part of a landscape of shared emotional resources. Structural matters are only thought to become accessible once they are represented in the familiar terms of milieu – recognisably personal tales of wrong-doing, or the impassioned crusader’s search for justice.

Perhaps audiences can be made to feel indignant about money launderers or crooked financiers? So that becomes the way to approach the subject. What is particular to the thing itself, its nature, loses definition as it is made to conform with the demands of narrative. As it blurs we lose yet another chance to understand what is going on around us.

Offshore finance, a system that must be understood in its own terms if hundreds of millions of people are to make sense of their  lives, vanishes in the effort to make it seem like another feature of the close-up world. It ceases to be a matter that must be weighed and considered alongside other structural features – the state, the corporation, the system of communications. It becomes another opportunity for sentiment, for outrage, perhaps, or self-satisfied worldliness. Structure collapses into milieu and our intelligence is insulted in the process. The patient work of relating structure and milieu – of showing how tax evasion contributes to fiscal crisis, and so to attacks on ‘unaffordable’ public services – all that is skipped in favour of the sentimental, the luridly coloured, the emotionally accessible.

When the public fails to be interested in the results, which have to be misleading because they are, in a quite specific sense, deranged, the cultural community feels free to dispense with structure altogether and to experiment instead with ways of refining and mass producing affect. They can concentrate on reality television, lottery results, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous – the cultural forms that reproduce in cartoon form ‘the close-up scenes of job, family, neighbourhood’.

Efforts to describe the world according to a rational order of priorities give way to the sobbing contestant, the blind and mistreated donkey, the nasty one in the house. What is important is obscured by what feels significant.

The same process is at work in the debate about the financial crisis. Politicians assure the public that they, too, are angry with bankers. Nick Clegg tells us:

I am like anybody else: you want to wring the neck of these wretched people who behaved so irresponsibly and then we are now having to bail them out.

And so the private language of sentiment substitutes for a public language of structural description.  (Attempts to challenge the facts of structural power have, more or less successfully, and more or less honourably, sought to work within this concerted moral and intellectual myopia. NGOs who opposed genetically modified foods did so for structural reasons – they were concerned about food security and about the very real human costs of corporate control of the food chain. But their concerns were often framed in terms of ‘Frankenstein foods’. The structure of the food economy was crowded out by what looms large in our individual relationship with food – in this case the fear of contamination.

Similarly, critics of corporate power focused on the practices of companies that had sought to become objects in the private worlds of milieu – brands like McDonalds or Nike, say. They aimed to create relationships with their customers, and so they became vulnerable. In the process the structural similarities between corporations could be lost.)

What then is to be done? Those who benefit from the existing structures aren’t that keen to see them described accurately. They would rather we didn’t see clearly how present structures connect with what happens in our lives. People lose their jobs, their benefits, their footing in close-up, day-to-day world. Let them blame themselves, or find consolation in racial prejudice or interactive entertainment. Let them do what they want, so long as they do not seek the cause of their private troubles in public issues. Above all, keep them away from the idea that they have the means to change the structures within which their visible lives take place.

C. Wright Mills put his faith in experts, in the hope that the joy of knowing how the world is in fact, and the joy of creating lucid summations of this knowledge, would outweigh other considerations. Instead social science, insofar as it tried to explore the relationship between structure and milieu, all but vanished from our shared life. Economists took centre stage with elaborate fantasies about anarchic markets in which atomised individuals sought to satisfy their preferences. The facts of structure vanished in a concerted act of professional make-believe.

Journalists reveled in the endlessly rewarding inanity of their intrusions into the intimate lives of the well-known or the merely unlucky. Denied a public life we were encouraged to look on as their victims (their subjects?) learnt what happens when the structural demands of a competitive media system meet the ordinarily deceptive and faithless conditions of our close-up worlds.

Adam Curtis has noticed how the personal world of affect has crowded out discussions of what is the case, and of what might be done. My own book includes a discussion of the phenomenon, as well as an account of why it has become more complete over the last thirty years – more of a trap, to use a word from Mills (‘Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps.’).

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, BBC, 2011 

The solution is not to be found simply by restating the problem – though there are elegant and entertaining ways of doing that.

We will only restore a proper balance between structure and milieu when we have some power to determine the objectives of social science. There are always good reasons for individuals to avoid certain subjects. Powerful individuals and institutions will seek to shape the way they are described. In large part their ability to do so is what we mean when we say that they are powerful. If we leave decisions about what is investigated in the hands of a few editors, researchers and journalists, then they will come under irresistible pressure to concentrate on some matters and to neglect others.

Those who understand a complex matter for the most part benefit from their understanding and from our ignorance. We need independent means to fund expertise and to reward service to the common good. We need to have, in virtue of our being citizens, the power to commission investigations into the facts of structure, and the power to commission attempts to make these facts meaningful – to relate them to the conditions of our lives.

Piece crossposted with The Return of the Public

About the Author:

Dan Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. He is the winner of this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize.