When I was, I guess, in my twenties, I had quite a lot of interest in psychoanalytic theoretical resources. Although there is much to criticise in the Freudian and post-Freudian apparatus, I felt then – and still feel – that the Freudian approach captures something important about human behaviour and emotion. Freud is best, in my view, not in the mechanistic and often embarrassingly arbitrary or ideological attempts to typologise specific behaviours and beliefs in terms of a set of narrowly family-oriented interpersonal relationships – as if these specific family structures are human universals, and as if the rest of our social environment does not impact our psychological formation – but rather in the basic insight that our pyschological behaviours, including those that we aspire to distinguish from our baser motives, are driven by gratifications and pleasures that we often are not open about, either with others or with ourselves.

For Freud ‘libido’ is the master category here, and the analytic strategy of decomposing psychological structures into complex movements of libidinal cathection runs through much of his work. Moreover, the idea that such movements of libidinal cathection are mediated through others – that we are bound into our social sphere by the way in which our own identity is shaped by locating elements of that identity ‘within’ other social actors – is, I think, a way in which the Freudian apparatus valuably opens out onto broader social theory, despite Freud’s own relatively narrow interest in a small number of interpersonal relationships – particularly family relationships – as the locus of psychological formation and transformation.

Since then, in my thirties, I’ve spent a lot of time with a theoretical apparatus that many would see as very different from the psychoanalytic approach: the kinds of mathematised rational choice theory associated with economics and formal political science or sociology. It is easy to see this approach as fundamentally opposed to the Freudian one – emphasising, as it seemingly does, reason over affect, judgement over libido, and so forth. And there’s something to that.

At the same time, though, there are also important overlaps between the Freudian and rational choice approaches. For one thing, rational choice theory of course has its origins and a significant part of its theoretical warrant in a utilitarian approach to the analysis of social life: the idea that fundamentally we are pleasure-maximising creatures, and that our decisions are (‘rationally’) guided by the desire to maximise our gratifications (or some reliable proxy of those gratifications). Both approaches in this sense can easily be seen as ‘debunking’ approaches to social life, such that ‘higher’ matters can be explained by ‘lower’ ones.

At the same time, rational choice theory, like Freudianism, has the capacity to expand the scope of its analysis, to encompass a wide range of behaviours that would not typically be characterised as gratification-oriented. Just as Freudians can specify that libidinal gratifications can reside in (for example) masochistic submission to pain, or repression of desire, or subordination of individual interests to the attempt to fully realise an ego-ideal, or any of a range of other apparently non-pleasure oriented behaviours, so the rational choice theorist can specify that the individual social actor aims to maximise their utility by maximising any arbitrary function in which utility is simply fiated to reside.

This means that, like Freudianism, rational choice theory has the capacity to expand to encompass literally any human behaviour, and is in this manner vulnerable to the charge of pseudo-scientific irrefutability. If any behaviour can be explained as motivated by the instincts and their vicissitudes, or by the rational maximisation of some opaque and convoluted utility function, in what sense are we really engaged in the game of explanation here at all? Are we not simply rewriting our observations or ideas into an all-encompassing theoretical idiom that can never be refuted precisely because it can encompass any and all observations, with the appropriate theoretical tweaks?

I think there is clearly something to this worry or complaint. Both Freudianism and rational choice theory are perhaps best understood less as theories than as frameworks – analytic systems within which theories can be proposed and rejected, but where it is unclear what counter-evidence would justify the rejection of the framework as a whole. This attribute can reasonably been seen as placing these theoretical frameworks outside the space of science. And yet different frameworks make different theories easier to think: some things are much more easily said in one metatheoretical idiom than another. Such idioms can, therefore, I think, be justified on the basis of the theoretical – and thus, potentially, scientific – resources they make more or less readily available. In any case, and despite all the objections, I personally find it valuable to engage in theoretical speculation or discourse at this (quite high) level of abstraction.

At that level of abstraction, then, what can we say about the relationship between Freudian and rational choice resources? At one level, for the reasons gestured at in the last paragraph, we have no obligation to ‘choose’: some theoretical approaches are more fruitful in some contexts, and some in others – there is nothing at all wrong with a theoretical, or a meta-theoretical, pluralism.

At the same time, I increasingly, as I approach my forties, find myself thinking about the relationship between these approaches – and specifically, feeling that the rational choice approach can in many contexts usefully be seen as a special case of the Freudian (broadly understood). If we take it that our master category is something in the space of ‘gratification’, and we see both approaches as analysing individual motivation and behaviour as seeking to maximise ‘gratification’, then it seems to me that the psychoanalytic approach has a more capacious and sophisticated understanding of what gratification consists in. Specifically, where rational choice theory sometimes has difficulty breaking out of the constraints of a narrow methodological individualism, the psychoanalytic apparatus – while of course methodologically individualist in some sense (and in my view none the worse for it – though that is a topic for another post) – can in principle understand our individual gratifications as highly motivated by our investment in broader social structures – one’s ego-ideal, which it is gratifying to preserve and to aim to realise – can be constructed out of the resources available in one’s broader social environment, and one’s investment in or cathection of those resources can be very complex indeed.

Rational choice theory, it seems to me, is most valuable in those common special cases where matters of gratification are quite straightforward – where some relatively simple reward function is a passingly adequate model for individuals’ motives and behaviour. In many cases that concern us as social scientists and social theorists, this is the case. Seeing individuals as wishing to maximise their income, or their power, or their prestige, or some other modelable proxy for ‘gratification’, is a close enough approximation to individual motive in many circumstances that the resources of rational choice theory can frequently be useful.

And yet, of course, as we all know, social life is more complex than such simple models can convey. If we begin with a rational choice theoretical idiom, our attempt to reckon with such complexity can all too often result in either ad hoc re-specifications of individual utility functions, or in the fiating of an alternative realm of behaviour that goes beyond the rational into the ‘ideological’.

Of course, these approaches may bear fruit – and psychoanalytic theory is, as discussed above, no less vulnerable to the ad hoc respecification of gratifications to ensure that theory matches behaviour. But for me, right now at least, it feels more fruitful to see the psychoanalytic apparatus as the more capacious framework. In particular, I feel like the psychoanalytic framework of ‘gratifications’ is more amenable to dismantling the all-too-easily reified distinction between ‘ideology’ and ‘interests’ than is the rational choice approach.

But that is probably best discussed elsewhere, rather than in this post.

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Continuing the institution-design thread on the blog, which I expect to be the dominant focus here for years to come…

I’m currently working through [Using the phrase “working through” is a trick I’ve picked up to make it sound like I’m doing something fancier than “reading”] Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, since the project I’m pursuing here seems to broadly fit within or alongside Wright’s. Wright characterises his work as an example of ‘emancipatory social science’, which he says in turn comprises three main tasks:

elaborating a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; enivisioning viable alternatives; and understanding the obstacles, possibilities and dilemmas of transformation.

Moreover, although here Wright categorises ‘diagnosis and critique’ as one task, this can of course be broken down into very different component parts:

To describe a social arrangement as generating ‘harms’ is to infuse analysis with a moral judgement. Behind every emancipatory theory, therefore, there is an implicit theory of justice, some conception of what conditions would have to be met before the institutions of a society could be deemed just.

In this post I just want to focus (pretty superficially) on the relationship between this kind of political ideal – whether understood as a theory of justice or some other kind of normative framework – and an institutional proposal.

We evaluate institutions in terms of whether they realise our political ideals, so debates about which institutions we should adopt always play out in at least two registers: debates about what ideals they should try to realise, and debates about how they can best realise those ideals. These two debates intertwine. It is possible to bring together a coalition of very different political ideals under a shared institutional goal, and vice versa. It is also possible for our institutional goals to modify our political ideals.

As any very long-term readers of this blog, if such there be, may remember, I spent considerable time some years ago on the work of the analytic philosopher Robert Brandom, and in particular on Brandom’s normative pragmatics. I don’t want to revisit that fairly involved terrain here, but I want to highlight that the relationship between norms and practice is very relevant, at a metatheoretical level, to the normative study of institutions. Institutions are, after all, enacted by practices, and if we understand (as I think we should) norms as also products of practice (albeit in a complicated and non-reductive way), then we see that our norms are not just benchmarks against which institutions can be evaluated, but are also themselves, in part, products of our institutions. The institutional world we make shapes our values, and those values in turn react back on our institutions, and permit us to evaluate – and critique – them. For example: one of the ways in which capitalism is (potentially) self-undermining, for Marx, is not just that it creates the objective conditions for its abolition (for example, in creating productive forces that can be redirected to other ends), or even that it creates the subjective conditions for its abolition (in the sense of creating a ‘collective subject’ of a class-conscious proletariat) but just as importantly that it creates the subjective conditions for its abolition in another sense: the institutions of capitalism generate a range of historically novel normative ideals that provide resources for the emancipatory critique and rejection of capitalist institutions.

So the relationship between institutions and norms is complicated. It is a mistake, in an ‘abstract’ sense, to think that we begin with historically-abstracted norms and then move to devise institutions that can realise the ideals of those norms: our norms are a product of practice too, and may shift as our practices shift. Nevertheless, we do evaluate institutions against our norms, and in a less abstracted or philosophical sense it doesn’t matter much where those norms come from. After all, they are our norms – in our ethical and political debates we accept or reject them because of reasons, not simply causes.

So, to repeat, debates over institution design play out in two registers: debates over what ideals we should attempt to realise, and debates over what institutions we should adopt to attempt to realise those ideals. These debates are intertwined at an abstract metatheoretical level – but they are also intertwined at more ‘applied’ levels. One easy mistake to make, in ‘theoretical’ institution-design, is to think that one can begin with a set of foundational normative principles, and from these principles ‘derive’ the institutions that best realise them. This direction of political-theoretical reasoning is certainly one of the discursive and political resources at our disposal – but we need to be cautious. In practice our norms are complicated and conflictual, filled with competing preferences and values which need to be wrestled with to attempt to balance partially incompatible goods and goals. This kind of work cannot be carried out at the level of pure abstraction – it needs to be thought through in relation to concrete problems. Thinking about actual institutions is therefore important not only when we attempt to realise our political ideals, but also in order to understand what those ideals even are. Different people who share ‘the same’ values may find themselves with very different practical intuitions when confronting real-world political problems – and these practical problems therefore function to illuminate differences of values that might have been invisible, or at least difficult to discern, until they were tested.

One of the conclusions we could draw from this line of thought is the position discussed in my last blog post: the idea that politics can only really be carried out ‘in practice’, and that trying to theorise institutions (or anything else) in too much abstraction or too much in advance is hubristic. But, as I said in that post, I think we should reject this idea. The inseparability of theoretical ideals and practical problems should not lead us to reject the former – still less to reject theoretical attempts to provide resources for practical problem-solving. Nevertheless, it is useful to be aware of the ways in which these areas of theory, politics and experience intersect.

In short, in thinking about institutions, we should pursue both tasks: clarifying our political values, and clarifying our sense of what institutions can best realise those values. Moreover, for the reasons I have discussed in this post, it makes sense to ‘tack back and forth’ between these projects. To bastardise Kant, institutions without ideals are empty; ideals without institutions are blind. We will carry out both of these projects better, I think, if we keep them in close contact.

A few thoughts on the project of political-economic institution design.

I guess you can think of a spectrum of ‘large-scale’ political transformations – those that make changes within an existing institutional framework (say, increasing the budget for a specific program, or reducing it for another); and those that transform the institutional framework itself. It’s a spectrum because it’s sort of unclear at what point tweaks within an institutional framework turn into transformations of the relevant institutions – one person’s transformation is another person’s tweak. But still – one of the things that people do, in politics, is propose changes to institutions, large and small. And one of the things political actors do – or try to do – is actually change those institutions.

I guess you can say that a lot of ‘policy’ literature exists on the ‘tweak’ half of the institutional change spectrum (whether tweaks large or small): ‘reformist’ proposals that aspire to modify existing institutions in a way that will better achieve whatever goals. Then there is another tradition – a more ‘revolutionary’ or ‘utopian’ tradition – that aspires to much more dramatic institutional transformation, changing the very category of institutions that structure our political, economic and social worlds.

Both of these approaches have lots of critics, from different bits of the political spectrum. So, for example, there is a prominent critique of ‘planning’, coming primarily from the right, but also from some bits of left, which comes in different shades. One such shade is a cluster of critiques of Soviet-style central planning, which argue that central planning: has a tendency towards authoritarianism; is inefficient; tends to serve the interests of an elite of planners rather than the broader population they purportedly serve; tends to make bad planning decisions due to the myopia associated with elite class fractions; tends to make bad planning decisions due to the intrinsic difficulty or impossibility of any, even an idealised, planner mastering the complexities of a complex society; etc. etc.

This category of critique often involves critique of a specific form of planning – centralised command and control economic planning – and many such critiques only really apply to planning in this sense. However, the broad critique of ‘planning’ can also extend to a critique of much weaker forms of planning than Soviet-style command and control economies. These categories of argument are often levelled against even fairly moderate social-democratic or left-liberal policies, for example. Moreover, various critiques of ‘planning’ can in principle apply to any effort to design political-economic institutions that will better the lives shaped by those institutions. From the perspective of this quite capacious critique of planning, institution-design as such is hubristic in its conviction that the institution designers know enough to design institutions that will improve people’s lives.

Perhaps it helps here to separate out different forms of liberal, conservative, and radical critiques of ‘planning’. One critique, for example – call it the Hayekian critique – emphasises that individuals know better than planners what their own needs and desires are, and that the goal of political-economic institution design should therefore be to facilitate the expression and realisation of those needs and desires, rather than to paternalistically or coercively take such decisions out of individuals’ hands. This argument is often made by advocates of market choice, for example, who argue that the market is an institution well-suited to communicating preferences that would otherwise be unobservable or impossible to adequately respond to, within a more centralised system. From this perspective, the goal of the institution-designer is to establish institutions – such as markets – that facilitate this aggregate social communication and responsiveness to human needs or desires. The planner has a role, but it is a ‘meta’ role, in designing, realising, and safeguarding the institutions that can in turn do the heavy lifting of actual resource allocation, etc.

From a more conservative point of view, this form of institution design itself involves excessive planning. Some conservatives argue that such attempts to design institutional frameworks – however decentralised – are hubristically confident that such institutional planning (including the planning involved in the creation and maintenance of markets) results in institutions superior to those that have either evolved slowly over the centuries and millennia, are the underlying essence or core of an immutable human nature, or have been gifted to humanity by a supernatural order. From these perspectives, our goal should be to interfere as little as we can in ‘natural’ institutions, whether that nature is identified with historical stability, transhistorical essence, or divine order. This tension between different forms of conservative (liberal, traditionalist, religious) orientation to institutions has much to do with the tensions in conservative political coalitions.

At the same time, there are a range of critiques of planning that often come from a more leftist, or radical, ideological tradition. There is a class critique of planners as managerialists. There is a broader anarchist tradition that sees planning in general – even in weak forms – as a recipe for domination. There are traditions that aspire to ‘drop out’ of large-scale political-economic institutions altogether, establishing alternative communities where problems of institution-design must be considered at the local level if at all. And there are ‘voluntarist’ traditions that see the desire for planning as an effort to pre-empt the decisions and insights that will be generated in practice, as a component of political struggle or as wisdom forged in the heat of revolution.

One of the phrases that is sometimes cited by (some of) these more radical traditions comes from Marx’s Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital I. There, responding to critics of the first edition of Capital I, Marx mocks the idea that Capital – an analysis of the dynamics of the capitalist system and of associated ideological perspectives – should also have included a set of blueprints for an alternative future society:

the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing recipes (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.

Marx’s narrow point here is that expecting Capital to provide a blueprint of a future society is to mistake the purpose of the book – but this phrase is often also used (whether in line with Marx’s broader views or not) to express a critique of the idea of preparing ‘recipes’ for the creation of future societies at all.

How seriously should we take such critiques of the project of institution-design – critiques that reproach not a specific institution, but the goal of designing institutions at all? My view is: not seriously enough to actually abandon the project of institution design, but seriously enough to offer a serious set of responses.

Here again I think it’s worth distinguishing different elements of the critique of institution design. The narrow Hayekian critique of planning is, as I said above, not really a critique of institution-design as such, but rather of a particular category of institution: the centrally planned command and control economy. This critique is worth taking very seriously indeed, in my view. The radical or communist left had much of the world’s population across much of the twentieth century as its experimental site, and the project failed, very badly. Of course, this assessment of the 20th century communist project is itself contentious – but it’s my assessment. I think the 21st century left has a responsibility to demonstrate that it has learned the lessons of the 20th century left’s failures and crimes, and has incorporated those lessons into an alternative or at least heavily revised radical project that can be trusted, with good reason, not to make the same mistakes again.

There is also a broader critique of ‘utopian’ leftism, which argues that any effort to radically remake the world is doomed to failure, whether because human nature is intractably flawed, or because unintended consequences inevitably follow from large-scale schemes to change the world. Again, I think these critiques are worth taking seriously. If we want to persuade people that the world can be remade in dramatic ways – and if we then want to actually achieve that remaking of the world – I think we have a responsibility to demonstrate that we’ve thought through the ways in which such transformative projects are likely to fail. Projects that are grounded, for example, in the idea that transformations in society will also transform human interpersonal relations in such a way that kindness and solidarity will prevail where previously all was strife, need to reckon with the charnel house of history, and that fact that utopian project after utopian project has run into the ground of human propensities to cruelty, pettiness, self-interest, etc. etc. Similarly, projects that have grand transformative goals with vague, handwavy mechanisms for achieving those goals can perfectly reasonably be approached with some scepticism, in my view. Plenty of ambitious plans for a better world turn to ashes or worse when confronted with the practical problems of putting ideals into practice. But this is an argument for institution-design, rather than against it. One of the ways we can try to evaluate the credibility of a political project is by evaluating the institutions that are proposed to achieve its goals. Just as ‘reformist’ policy wonks aim to assess the likely impact of tax measures or changes to the healthcare system, using the tools of political-economic and policy analysis, so more radical thinkers should make similar cases to similar ends, in my view.

What about some of the other radical arguments against institution-design – the arguments that to prepare “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” is to betray the radical nature of the radical project – that radical political outcomes should be chosen by the people, and informed by the revolutionary struggle, rather than devised in advance by sub-academic leftist intellectuals?

Here again I think we should take seriously – but not too seriously – this critique of institution design. It is certainly true that history is contingent, the future unpredictable, and that any effort to remake the world that dogmatically adheres to a single solution is likely to be undone by that solution’s poor fit for the exigencies of the historical moment in which it is attempted. Political actors must be responsive to circumstance, and this in itself rules out the rigidity associated with any ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to institution design. Similarly, we should be appropriately modest about the knowledge and wisdom we possess, relative to the knowledge and wisdom possessed by the actors who will ultimately be responsible for attempting to realise our political goals. Political struggle gives insight and experience that may well call forth better judgements than those we can form now. Relatedly, our preferences may change – we should not assume that we know what future political actors will value, even if we are those future political actors, and we should therefore consider the possibility that institutions designed to realise our preferences, will confound the preferences of those who have to inhabit them. All this is worth bearing in mind – and it all gives some weight to the idea that institutions are better forged ‘in practice’ than derived from pre-planned ‘designs’.

And yet these insights can only take us so far, in my view. In particular, these insights point, I think, not to the rejection of the project of institution design, but rather to a degree of humility in its pursuit. We should be aware that one size does not fit all. We should be aware that the political actors responsible for attempting to realise our dreams may know more, and better, than we do. But we should also bear in mind that one of the ways in which those political actors may be better equipped than we are, is that they have the benefit of our ideas, including our institution-design proposals.

In this respect, I think the “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” metaphor works well. Those in the future cook-shops may choose to follow any given recipe or not – but they will be better equipped if they have a broad set of debates and proposals ready to hand. One of the tasks of radicals is to work through political ideas in debate and analysis now, such that those debates and their conclusions are available as a resource for others. This understanding of the project of institution design does not grant excessive wisdom or power to the institution designer – but it also means that political actors are not stranded without intellectual resources at the moment when fateful decisions must be made. Keynes’s famous remark – that

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

– applies not just to heads of state but also to revolutionaries (and reformists). Better that the intellectual resources on which political actors draw are the result of careful thought and pluralist debate now, than are derived from “voices in the air” distilled from who knows what unacknowledged sources. People making decisions about the shape of our political-economic world are typically doing so under conditions of enormous stress – bad decisions are likely, and everything we can do to make those decisions better – and better informed – is desirable.

There is of course a huge amount more to be said about the project of institution design – what it should consist in; how it should be pursued – but the goal of this post is not to get into those debates, but rather to respond to some common objections to the project as a whole. Enough for now.

Starting afresh

February 27, 2019

A couple of big ‘life changes’ this year: I’m close to finishing my Ph.D., and I’ve moved with my family to Aotearoa New Zealand.

The process of doing the Ph.D. has in a lot of ways been less useful than I’d hoped in terms of getting me up to speed on contemporary economics – it has, however, given me a decent grounding in some elements of institutional economics and political economy, which I hope to draw on in future work.

It’s also made me somewhat sceptical about elements of the enterprise of academic research – which enterprise has many strengths, but also important weaknesses. I’m keen in the next however-many-years to do some work, if I can, that isn’t too constrained by academic genre conventions. Hopefully that will involve more blogging.

I’ll be wanting to spend a lot of attention in the next however-many-years on the rather daunting task of trying to get to grips with a whole new country’s history and institutions.

But I also want to make some time, if I can, for elements of the existing intellectual project – and this post is I guess yet another effort to pin down the trajectory of that project.

For me, for now, I think the thing I most want to focus on – painting with a broad brush here, obviously – is the relationship between liberal and radical generative principles of political-economic institutions and institution-design. I feel like, on the one hand, I’ve got a huge amount of work to do – getting to grips with even the basics of both a new country and big areas of this intellectual space. On the other hand, though, I feel like I’m now middle-aged, and need to accept that in a range of areas my intellectual apprenticeship is, for better or worse, over. I’ll be trying to “make a start” rather than “prepare to make a start” over the next few months and years.

Update on ‘the project’

November 25, 2018

Back at the dawn of time, just over eight years ago, I posted on ‘the project’ as I saw it then – meaning my own personal intellectual project, as carried out here on the blog and elsewhere.  It feels like it’s time for a review of where I’m at, where my sense of the project has changed, and where I want to go next.

The project as I sketched it then had six components:

  1. Social-theoretic foundations;
  2. History of capitalism;
  3. Value theory;
  4. A more detailed engagement with contemporary economic theory;
  5. Analysis of contemporary events;
  6. Discussion of proposals for economic institutional reform.

I said then that I regarded (6) as the most practically important – seeing the others in some sense laying the foundation for it – and I basically still see things that way.

So, where am I at?  Obviously this was all very ambitious, and it’s not a surprise that significant components of it have fallen entirely by the wayside.  Easiest, then, to start with the bits I’ve abandoned.

  • History of capitalism.  I’ve more or less entirely abandoned the idea of writing up a (very) brief history of capitalism.  I made a desultory start on this, doing some (very) preliminary reading in medieval history, and I basically concluded that (as might have been expected) nah, my life is too short, it’s just not realistic.  I would like to read more history than I have, but as things stand I’m basically happy to outsource my first pass sense of the history of capitalism to Wallerstein’s ‘The Modern World-System’ series and other overview works, and pick up more knowledge if and when I can.  Scratch this one entirely off the list.
  • Value theory.  I’ve also more or less entirely abandoned this element of the project, for a different reason: I’ve decided that it’s sort of a red herring.  Value (in the sense of economic value, which is how I meant the phrase) is just an emergent result of the social practices of capitalism, and those practices can simply be analysed directly.  Getting fixated on the category of ‘value’ does more to distract from useful analysis of political-economic institutions and dynamics than it does to illuminate them, I now think. My idea back then was to do a sort of ‘deconstructive’ survey of theories of value – and one can imagine that as a worthwhile project – but it seems to me now to be a project of second (or third, or fourth) order importance, and I don’t really want to spend the time on it.  So – the value theory dimension of the project has also been abandoned.

What about the rest?

  • Social-theoretic foundations.  Here I feel I’ve made very substantial progress, to the extent that I’m more or less happy to cross this off the list as ‘mostly done’ – with important caveats to follow.  My focus here has been the work of the philosopher Robert Brandom, whose work I’ve argued provides a lot of ‘fundamental’ resources than can be applied to problems in the social sciences.  In my own head, I now have a fairly well developed ‘Brandomian’ theory of practice, which ‘weakly’ grounds my other work at the meta-theoretical level. (‘Weakly’ in the sense that I find it an illuminating and productive meta-theoretical framework, but there’s no actual requirement to accept it for any of the other arguments I’m making to work.)

The catch here is that although, as I say, I’m pretty satisfied with this in my own head, it’s hard to make the case that I’ve actually articulated it in a manner that is likely to make sense to anyone else.  I published a lot of blog posts on Brandom, on this site, but – as with most of what I’ve written here – I mostly wrote those posts while I was working through the ideas myself, and therefore they often don’t really represent my settled conclusions, still less the clearly articulated implications of those conclusions.  I’ve published a paper which applies Brandom’s apparatus to a specific problem in the social sciences – the debate over the concepts of ‘symmetry’ and ‘reflexivity’ in the strong programme in science studies – but this is just one tiny example of applying a Brandomian apparatus to a social-scientific problem space – and the paper is, moreover, probably close to impossible to parse for anyone who doesn’t already have both considerable familiarity with the relevant material and a very similar theoretical sensibility to mine or my co-author’s.  (Journal papers are short, and it’s really hard to make a complex argument given the word constraints.)

In other words, although I’ve basically completed this bit of my project to my own satisfaction, I’m aware that I haven’t completed it to anyone else’s satisfaction.  As far as the public record is concerned, this isn’t done at all. There’s a good case, then, that I should write up my thoughts about how to apply Brandom to the social sciences at much greater length and in a much more accessible form.  The downside of doing this is that it will take time, and there’s a major opportunity cost, in that any time I spend on this is time I can’t spend on other, more pressing elements of the project. So I haven’t decided what to do here, but I’m not crossing it altogether off the list just yet.

Moving on…

  • A more detailed engagement with contemporary economic theory.  I’ve emphatically done quite a bit in this area, in that I hope to soon finish up a PhD in economics – it seems pretty clear that I’ve made progress here.  On the downside, much of my PhD isn’t actually focused on areas of economics that are hugely relevant to the long-term project sketched here – and regardless, I still need to do a huge (one might even say, a horrifying) amount of studying in contemporary (and canonical) economics.  Of course, this is always going to be the case – getting to grips with an academic discipline is a lifelong project. So – a lot done; a lot still to do.
  • Analysis of contemporary events.  Clearly this is ongoing – I’d like to get better informed about current affairs, particularly internationally.  At the same time, arguably I’ve spent too much time in the trenches of following some contemporary events – particularly the fights around ‘the Corbyn project’ in the UK – and I could stand to spend more time on ‘fundamentals’.  So, some uncertainty about how to grade myself here, as it were. Not great, probably.
  • Discussion of proposals for economic institutional reform.  I can’t claim I’ve made zero progress here, but given how central this is to my own motivations, I’ve really not done nearly enough.

So, that’s where I am in terms of the project as I understood it eight years ago.  How would I now reconceptualise the project?

Well, I would now rearticulate it in something like these terms, with the following distinct subcomponents.

First: broad metatheortical foundations, sitting at the intersection of philosophy and social science – i.e. (basically) the Brandomian stuff.

Second: more political-economic theoretical foundations – as I see it now, this largely amounts to theorisation of the foundations of institutional economics, or of the political-economic study of institutions.

Third: study of specific political-economic institutions and their dynamics – e.g. in international macroeconomics.  This stage will inevitably schism into countless sub-projects once I actually start paying it some attention.

Fourth: application of all of the above to contemporary debates and events, as informed by broad reading in history and current affairs.

As you can see, this new version of what I’m trying to do here basically operates in descending levels of abstraction, starting with philosophy-adjacent social science, and ending with applications.  As I see it, I have completed stage one to my own satisfaction, but not to anyone else’s. Stage two feels most ‘alive’ to me, at the moment – that’s where my head is at, as it were, and what I want to be working on when I have time.  Stages three and four are still in the “need a whole lot of background reading – keep working at them, and eventually maybe you’ll get there” box.

Now a cynic might argue that all I’ve done here is disaggregated my original stage one (“social-theoretic foundations”) into two subcomponent stages – (“philosophical foundations” and “political-economic foundations”), and that I am declaring partial victory on subcomponent 1(1) despite not having anything much to show for it, even after nearly ten years.  But I would reject such cynicism, comrades!  Rather, I would argue that things are progressing more or less creditably, albeit with some judicious trimming of the project’s scope here and there.  Regardless, it doesn’t really matter.  I am going to keep on trogging along at this, as life and other obligations permit, and what gets done gets done.  I don’t assume any of this is going to pan out – but there’s no harm in giving it a go, and this is where the project as I see it stands, right now.

Notes on free speech

November 1, 2018

The debate on free speech at the moment seems pretty unproductive, with industrial quantities of right wing outrage directed at phenomena as varied as blasphemy laws, student no platforming of campus speakers, social media terms of use, identity politics, political correctness, internet trolls and abuse, left wing editorial decisions, and people being rude about things they dislike on twitter, all criticised under the banner of ‘defence of free speech’.  The left tends, in general, to be unimpressed with this ‘defence of free speech’ discourse, in part because of the understandable suspicion that it is a discursive tool that will in practice be used to promote right wing political opinion and the speech of the privileged, while attacking left wing political opinion and the speech of the more marginalised.  Nevertheless, I’m increasingly strongly of the opinion that left reluctance to defend free speech in general is an error both of principle and of tactics: in my view a credible case can be made that the left generally benefits from broad free speech protections; that even if it didn’t such protections would be good in themselves; and moreover that it’s just a bad tactical idea to allow the right to own this issue.

I don’t really feel competent to wade into the trenches on these debates – but as is my habit, I do at least want to have a go at producing a preliminary and under-informed typology, plus some general remarks.  So, here are some broad categories of constraints on free speech, with some unorganised remarks attached.

  • Legal restrictions on speech. These come in a lot of forms: restrictions of political speech; on incitement to violence; on threats; on hate speech; on offensive speech; on blasphemy; on libel; and others.  I think almost everyone agrees that it’s appropriate for various forms of incitement to violence to be illegal; there’s a fairly widespread view that libel is a legitimate legal category, even if there are a lot of disagreements about how broad libel laws should be; but there’s a lot of disagreement about what other forms of speech should be legally restricted.  I don’t feel I have any very nailed down opinions here – but I do think that the left is being altogether too sanguine about state powers to restrict speech.  In general the left is rightly suspicious of police powers, and doesn’t take very seriously reassurances that those powers will be used wisely and well.  I don’t really understand why this scepticism is not more broadly applied when it comes to the policing of speech.
  • Platform restrictions on speech.  Sometimes you’ll see people argue that the only real issue with respect to free speech constraints is legal constraints (see this well known XKCD comic strip, for example), but I don’t think this is right.  If major platforms refuse to host specific forms of speech, then this is a meaningful and substantial constraint on people’s ability to engage in that category of speech.  Here, again, I think the left is being altogether too sanguine about the idea that vast private corporations should exercise much greater censorship over the forms of speech that they host.  Why should we trust Facebook, or Twitter, or WordPress, or whatever company, to decide which categories of speech it is acceptable to publish?  It’s not at all clear to me that we should.
  • Employer sanctioning of speech.  One of the various ways in which the exercise of free speech has real world consequences is people getting fired for speech.  Sometimes this is appropriate – if a person is employed as a prominent public representative of a company, say, it may be one of the conditions of employment that they comport themselves in a certain way in the public sphere.  Similarly, in their internal interactions within the company they may be held by their employer to certain standards of professionalism; etc.  Nevertheless, in general I think it’s an important workplace right that employers are not entitled to fire employees on the basis of not liking what employees do in their lives outside their professional role, and there should be significant workplace protections on what employers are entitled to ask employees to do, or not do, within their role as well.  Again, I think the left is often being too sanguine about defending workplace rights in this area – and in general I think a significant portion of the ‘free speech’ debate could usefully be reconceptualised as a workplace rights debate.  (This applies to many of the debates over ‘academic freedom’, for example, a category which sometimes seems to imply that academics are uniquely entitled not to be fired for expressing political opinions in the public sphere, which doesn’t seem like an idea the left should be supporting.)
  • Editorial decisions.  A surprising amount of the free speech debate orbits around editorial decisions by publications.  It seems like a safe principle that editors do not have an obligation to publish any given content on free speech grounds – an editorial line is an editorial line, and publications have the right to adopt whatever editorial line they want (again with constraints around incitement to violence, etc.)  Nevertheless, there is a point here, in the sense that publications are a platform, and if certain categories of speech systematically cannot find a platform that has implications for the shape of our public sphere.  This issue may not always be best discussed under the heading of ‘free speech’, but it is an important issue that merits serious discussion.
  • Social sanctioning of speech.  Finally, quite a bit of the debate around free speech revolves around the issue of informal social sanctions.  It’s common to see the argument that if people in the public sphere express strong disapproval of an opinion, publication, or individual this may lead to a ‘chilling effect’ on speech.  This argument is often greatly overstated – expressing strong disapproval of opinions and individuals is, typically, part of the free speech defenders of free speech should aim to defend, rather than a threat to it.  Nevertheless, there is again a point here: informal social sanctioning does sanction – that’s why we do it.  The more intense and widespread the sanctions, the more they disincentivise the speech they aim to sanction.  So social sanctions do have an impact on the shape of our public sphere, and it’s not silly to want to debate or assess that impact.

Ok – those are some categories of constraint on speech, and some thoughts connected to them.  Now for a few more general remarks.

First up, I think it’s worth seeing constraints on freedom as a spectrum, where the sanction for an action varies in degree.  If you’re going to be arrested and imprisoned for something, that is a very substantial constraint or disincentive, and it seems clearly and entirely legitimate to call that a constraint on freedom.  If you’re going to be politely criticised for something, that is a social sanction and therefore a disincentive, but it doesn’t seem a disincentive substantial enough to call a meaningful constraint on freedom.  But there is a spectrum here, and the point at which responses to speech shift from “disincentives within a space of freedom” to “actual constraints on freedom” is muddy.  (This point obviously applies to all kinds of actions, not just to speech.)

Second, free speech is a formal value, but like all formal values the interpretation of its content necessarily and constantly draws on non-formal but rather substantive judgement.  This is one of the reasons the debate over free speech (and formal liberal values in general) is so controversial – different people impute very different substantive content to the same formal principles.  It seems like a general issue of liberalism that formal liberal values can be ‘filled in’ in a huge number of different ways by different people – and that those substantive commitments fall along lines of ideology and interest.  This is one of the reasons I’m so keen on Charles Mills’ analysis of different kinds of liberalism – the idea that liberalism ‘as such’ is not the problem, but rather liberalism the substantive categories of which are in large part determined by racism, sexism, class domination, etc., allows us to more easily see how liberal principles are compatible with radical politics (as I believe they are).

So I think we need a double commitment in these debates over liberal principles like free speech: on the one hand, we need to understand that formal principles aren’t `innocent’, but are to a very substantial extent determined in their application by the substantive commitments of those doing the implementing.  On the other hand, we need to also understand that this fact does not evacuate formal principles of their value or meaning as formal principles.  It’s not the case (contra some on the left) that liberal principles are nothing more than a mask for the substantive commitments – of ideology or interest – that shape them.

My worry with the free speech debate, then, is that it’s one of a range of areas in which the left is overweighting the ‘substantive’ dimension of the debate, and underweighting the ‘formal’ one.  Yes, many of the most prominent current arguments in defence of free speech are transparently bad faith efforts to push a particular political line or defend a specific set of interests, and shouldn’t be taken seriously – but we also shouldn’t generalise from that to the idea that ‘free speech’ in general is nothing more than an ideological mask for political interests.  The left gains from broad commitments to free speech too.  I think we’re in danger of the left endorsing – or indeed pushing for – the broad legitimation of substantial free speech constraints, in part as a response to bad faith right wing ‘weaponisation’ of free speech discourse, in a way that will near-inevitably rebound on the left itself, as left wing speech – and the speech of the marginalised – bears the brunt of new, more substantial censorship regimes.

The debate over antisemitism within Labour and the broader UK left has often been pretty unedifying, but I thought this twitter thread by Edmund Griffiths was valuable. I’ll quote it in full, then make some remarks of my own:

One point I don’t think gets made often enough in the antisemitism conversation is that the things antisemites say aren’t true. The Rothschilds don’t run the central banks; British & US foreign policy isn’t made by a Jewish lobby; Jews don’t control the media; the Holocaust did happen. Maybe it seems too self-evident to bother saying. But if you’re newly politicized, & you’re angry with the way things are, & you’re looking—especially online—for answers, then it’s pretty easy to come across those untrue claims & perhaps it is not going to be self-evident to you that they’re wrong. You’ll see antisemitic arguments made on explicitly far-right sites, but you may well see them being put forward in left spaces too; & you won’t always see them being robustly countered by the left. And, on top of that, leftists sometimes choose to express themselves in ambiguous language (“global elites”) that can be understood in antisemitic terms even if that isn’t the intention. And, to the extent that antisemitic propaganda gains any traction, it does great harm: it encourages people to direct their anger against a minority who are not really to blame, and it lets the capitalist class & its institutions off the hook. As a movement, we need to do much much better at producing propaganda & educational materials—especially online—to expose antisemitic scapegoating as lies & misdirection. We need to ensure that anybody who is looking for political answers encounters clear, convincing rebuttals of antisemitic ideas. Obviously convinced antisemites are unlikely to be persuaded, & need to be fought; but the people who are exposed to their propaganda do need to be persuaded. And I think the form of our rebuttals should be less “You mustn’t say that because it’s antisemitic” than “That is untrue, & it scapegoats a minority, & it shields the actual ruling class from criticism, & therefore it is profoundly anti-socialist”. The Labour Party & Momentum both have the resources to do this on a large scale, & I hope they will; but there’s nothing stopping other organizations & even individuals doing it to, & I mean to do it more energetically myself. The main objective isn’t to prevent antisemitism generating bad headlines for the Labour Party—it’s to reduce the actual prevalence of antisemitic ideas, in society as a whole but particularly in spaces where the left can get a hearing.

I think this is right, and although I don’t myself feel very comfortable producing propaganda and educational materials (in general, who am I to propagandise and educate?) I do feel comfortable writing about ideas.

Left, political antisemitism functions not just as a prejudice but also as an explanatory system.  Stigmatising antisemitism as prejudice is unlikely to be persuasively effective if its explanatory components still seem compelling – and so the rebuttal of left antisemitism requires not just the exclusion of antisemites from the left (if that’s even possible), or the emphasis on the political undesirability of prejudice (of course prejudice is bad, but people who hold prejudiced attitudes often don’t regard them as prejudiced – they regard them as true), but also the explanation of why antisemitism is (as Griffiths says) wrong – and not just factually wrong, but also explanatorily wrong: wrong as a way to understand the world.

One of the obstacles to doing this, I think, is an inadequate ‘map’ of left antisemitism as a system of ideas.  In particular, a lot of the analysis I’ve read of left antisemitism writes as if it is a single thing, rather than a set of quite distinct commitments which can be bundled in all kinds of different ways.  Moreover it is common, I think, to write as if antisemitism is intrinsically associated with political commitments with which it is in fact only contingently – and yet non-accidentally – associated.

Thus for example two recent pieces in the New Statesman suggest that left antisemitism is in some sense an intrinsic feature of Corbynism’s current political project.  Writing in March, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts argued that:

the anti-semitic tropes which pervade the Corbyn-supporting “alt-media” and activist base, as well as Corbyn’s own dubious brand of “anti-Zionism” and “anti-imperialism”, are not mere contingencies, but the logical outcome of the movement’s morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy.

More recently, in July, David Bennum argued that, for the anti-imperalist left:

the West is always bad, no matter what its civic virtues; anybody opposed to it, no matter how awful, is better, or certainly no worse. Capitalism becomes part of a grand, overarching, unified conspiracy, to which Jews invariably prove to be integral. Anti-Semitism is thus not some random blight that affects all sectors of society and opinion roughly evenly. It is utterly enmeshed in far-left thought, just as it is in that of the equally conspiratorially-minded far-right.

In my own opinion both of these pieces significantly overstate the extent to which antisemitism is a core or necessary feature of the kind of political project pursued by Corbyn and ‘Corbynism’.  At the same time, though, these pieces are correct that left antisemitism can’t or shouldn’t be understood simply in terms of prejudice, but also as part of a broader ideological perspective or political explanatory system.

Carefully differentiating the non-antisemitic dimensions of radical left political positions and projects from their antisemitic variants is therefore I think important for two reasons.  First, it makes it harder for (for example) anti-imperialist politics in general to be written off as antisemitic – which is important if you (like me) regard anti-imperialist politics as valuable.  Second, and probably more importantly, it means that people who are interested in (say) anti-imperialist politics are less likely to be persuaded by antisemitic variants of these political positions.

One of the things I’d like to do, then, over the coming… however long, is write a bit about the common left explanatory frameworks associated with left antisemitism, and why they’re not good as explanatory frameworks. For reasons articulated by Griffiths’ twitter thread, the primary argument here is not that they’re not good because they’re antisemitic, but rather that they’re not good because they fail as explanatory frameworks.  This failure of the explanatory framework then carries through to the inadequacy of any political antisemitism grounded in it, in addition to the fact that such perspectives are also bigoted.

I think there’s a pretty high chance that this will be one of my many projects that never goes beyond its preliminary remarks, but in the spirit of hope I’ll make a few comments here and sketch what I might want to write about next.

First – obviously in this approach I won’t be dealing with left antisemitism as a whole, but rather with its explanatory dimensions. There are some thorny metatheoretical issues that I don’t want to get into in this preliminary post, and which render the remarks in this post a little over-simplistic – but I intend to largely ignore the issue of whether any given explanation is itself antisemitic, and just focus on the issue of whether it’s any good as explanation. This usefully lets me sidestep issues of intention and affect, which are always a nightmare regardless.

Second – I’ll attempt here a preliminary broad schematisation of left antisemitisms. I think you can broadly speaking see antisemitic variants of the following positions, on the left:

– Conspiracism (that is, conspiratorial explanations for political-economic events);
– Anti-imperialism;
– Anti-capitalism;
– Critiques of Israel.

None of these categories of political stance are intrinsically antisemitic, I would argue, but all of them have antisemitic variants that are sufficiently common that some care needs to be taken when discussing these issues.

I myself don’t feel qualified to discuss the politics of Israel and Palestine, so I expect to mostly leave that aside altogether in this (possible) series of posts (which is unfortunate, because this is the most central issue in current debates within and about the UK left – but I see no point in moving far outside my areas of competence.) Still, I think I have something to say on poor explanatory approaches to anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and the discussion of conspiracies, and it’s these that I’ll focus on.

My plan, for what it’s worth, is to start with anti-imperialism – and specifically to start with two texts that express rather different explanatory frameworks that give disproportionate explanatory weight to Jewish actions: Mearsheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and Hobson’s Imperialism. Then (if I ever get that done) maybe I’ll move on to anti-capitalism and conspiracism. My ultimate goal is to assemble a collection of quite short posts that together form a potentially useful ‘ideological map’ of the different explanatory frameworks often associated with contemporary left antisemitism.

As I say, I don’t rate particularly highly my chances of getting far with this project – but one can’t get anywhere at all if one doesn’t make a start, so, here’s a start.