I’m reading Zeev Sternhell’s The Birth of Fascist Ideology (it is is excellent). Sternhell argues that fascism should be understood, in the first place, as a cultural movement – an ideology; the formation of this ideology precedes fascism’s formation as a set of organised political movements. For Sternhell, fascism’s origins should be seen as a synthesis between:

a) an idealist revision of Marxism
b) nationalism

Sternhell discusses Georges Sorel at some length – Sorel is, for Sternhell, an important figure in the idealist revision of Marxism. Marxist theory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was (generally) characterised by: a) an emphasis on an ‘economistic’ science of society: historical materialism; b) revolutionary opposition to bourgeois society / capitalism; c) a conviction that the proletariat were the revolutionary agents of history, as part of a class-struggle analysis of that history; d) opposition to private property: a commitment to the socialisation of central aspects of economic life.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Western Marxism splintered. The social democrats abandoned – in practice and subsequently in theory – the commitment to revolutionary seizure / overthrow / command of the state. Instead, the proletariat became agents of history via the effectiveness of labour movement parties within the democratic system. Revolutionary socialism was successful in Russia, but Leninist-style revolutionary parties became minority interests in most of Western Europe. This was, Sternhell argues, the dominant response on the left to the apparent unwillingness of the Western European proletariat to engage in revolutionary overthrow of the state – the goals remained the same, but reform, rather than revolution, became the means. [This associated with the wrought but successful transformation of liberalism into liberal democracy – the expansion of the vote transformed revolutionary Marxism into Social Democracy in most states where liberal democracy was instituted.]

The Sorelian revision of Marxism, by contrast, maintained the commitment to revolution, but abandoned, instead, historical materialism; commitment to socialisation of property; and a belief in the proletariat as agent of history. Instead, Sorelian ‘Marxism’ emphasised the important of market economies and private property; emphasised voluntarily willed culture, instead of economistic or historical determinism; and abandoned the belief that the proletariat were the class that would effect revolution against bourgeois society.

This ‘revision’ of Marxism became fascism when conjoined with the nationalism that was coalescing in the same period. If the proletariat was no longer the revolutionary agent that would destroy bourgeois society, who was? For the emerging fascists, the nation state as organic unity became the revolutionary agent. Bourgeois society, no longer understood as principally an economic concept, but instead as a cultural one – a society of decadence and corruption – could only be overcome by the unified action of the organically homogenous people of a given (national) cultural unit. This organically unified people became the agents of revolutionary change – within the state (against those corrupting forces that sought to undermine the state’s organic unity), and internationally (against other states). The Marxian narrative of class conflict was transformed: violence became the driving force of history, but now it was the violence of the unified people against their enemies. Where Marxian economism had been rationalist (as it claimed objective grounding in a science of society), fascist nationalism was irrationalist (as connection to the underlying unity of the nation-organism was pre- or anti-rational).

In Sternhell’s words:

Having to choose between the proletariat and revolution, they chose revolution; having to choose between a proletarian but moderate socialism and a nonproletarian but revolutionary and national socialism, they opted for the nonproletarian revolution, the national revolution. (p. 27)


I find Sternhell’s analysis helpful in looking at the contemporary ‘radical theory’ intellectual milieu. I’ve been frustrated, recently, in trying to make the case that intellectual figures who self-identify as ‘radical left’ are better placed on the radical right. (Notably Slavoj Zizek, whose political writings tick all the boxes of classical fascism, in my judgement – but see also ‘Accelerationism’ (Compare).) Sternhell’s book is useful because it shows in detail how an idealist transformation of Marxism is hardly a novel way to end up with fascist commitments.

I need to do a lot more reading and thinking about all this – about political ideology in general, not just fascism. And I don’t want to get too preoccupied by engaging the purportedly ‘radical’ continental theory space (from a personal biographical p.o.v, I’d like to reduce engagement with that space, which has already absorbed too much of my attention). But a few disconnected thoughts:

It’s important to distinguish between the different kinds of commitment to a political ideology.

– At the most clear-cut, one can endorse a specific, realised or realisable socio-economic form of organisation. In this sense a fascist would endorse the organisation and policies of Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy.

– Next ‘rung’ down the ladder, one could endorse some mode of political or social organisation that doesn’t so closely resemble actually-existing fascism, but that leads one to endorse such fascisms, as steps along the way, best approximations, etc. This might be actually realisable, or it might be utopian and fantasised.

– Next rung, one could thoroughly reject any actually-existing fascisms (or even regard them as anathema), while committing oneself to a politics that is likely to result in such modes of organisation, if pursued.

– Next rung, one can have a set of political commitments or inclinations, that may not be worked up into anything close to a coherent organisational proposal, but that cohere with aspects of such proposals.

– Next rung down, one can have a set of emotional orientations or associations, that don’t exactly even count as developed political commitments, but that cohere with aspects of such commitments.

Given that most of us don’t have fully fledged detailed policy or organisational proposals ready to articulate, or fully developed political strategies for the implementation of those proposals, most of us are going to be on the lower ‘rungs’ of this schema most of the time. But this doesn’t mean that the commitments, associations and emotions that we have can’t be characterised in terms of their association with political ideologies. Indeed, political ideologies need to be understood, in part, in these terms (rather than just in terms of their most developed articulation or projects).

Connected to this, here is a first pass at a rule of thumb about whether a revolutionary or radical political space can best be characterised as left or right. To me, the defining features of left critiques of bourgeois / capitalist society, are the opposition to oppression, poverty and exploitation. Right critiques of bourgeois / capitalist society, by contrast, are critical of decadence, corruption of values, contamination of the social organism by pollutants characteristic of modernity. This is only one rule of thumb, but it’ll be one port of call, for me, for now, in thinking about these things.

A quick summary of an article I recently read, to save this stuff from the memory-hole.

Hamilton, Richard F., “Hitler’s Electoral Support: Recent Findings and Theoretical Implications”, The Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 1-34

This is a summary of the main findings of Hamilton’s 1982 book, “Who Voted for Hitler?” It annoyingly doesn’t contain much in the way of concrete statistics (presumably because the details of the data are treated in length in the book – I should try to get ahold of it I guess.)

Hamilton frames his piece as a critique of an overemphasis on class analysis, w/r/t support for the National Socialists in Germany. The orthodox narrative, Hamilton complains, is that the petite bourgeoisie voted for Hitler.

The argument of an impoverished, proletarianized petite bourgeoisie is, without doubt, the leading “model’ for the explanation of the rise of the NSDAP. It has, since 1929, appeared in endless repetition. Among those who have proclaimed this “truth” are Theodor Geiger, Harold Lasswell, Alan Bullock, Sigmund Neumann, C. Wright Mills, Seymour Martin Lipset, William Kornhauser, Joachim Fest, and Karl Dietrich Bracher. It would be easy to name dozens of others. (p. 1)

But, Hamiltonargues, class position was not the principal determinant of fascist voting in late twenties and thirties Germany; where it was a determinant, this was not in the way the orthodox narrative suggests. Instead, there were three principal determinants of votes for Hitler: urban/rural residence, religion, and then class. In Hamilton’s words:

For a brief synoptic portrait, it is difficult to see how one could proceed with anything less than these three statements: that the vote of the NSDAP in Protestant communities varied inversely with size of community; that the vote in Catholic communities varied positively with size of community; and that, in the cities, the vote increased with the class level of the district. (p. 7)

Hamilton provides a table to summarise the figures here – hopefully I’m successfully reproducing its contents below.

Religion Villages Small Towns
Protestant 70+% 50-60%
Catholic 10% 20%


Class Cities
Upper and upper middle 40-45%
Lower middle 25-35%
Working 20-25%

Why was the rural vote so split? Essentially, if I understand aright, because there were existing Catholic parties that sucked up all the Catholic vote. Hamilton discusses at some length the tactics and success of the Freikorps in moving against weakened ‘parties of notables’ that lacked substantial resources to counter fascist activism. This wasn’t the case in the smaller Catholic communities, where Catholic parties were dominant and supported by an intergrated Catholic social structure. (In larger, more urban communities, the specifically Catholic community was less hegemonic, so more Catholics voted for alternative parties, including the fascists.)

What was going on in the cities? Hamilton doesn’t really go into this in much detail in this paper. The left parties – the Communists and the Social Democrats – had a stronger base in the cities (and of course one would presume stronger in the lower than in the upper classes). Upper class right figures endorsed or semi-endorsed the fascists as part of an attempt to build an anti-communist coalition – or in earnest, as a bulwark against working class and revolutionary politics. But I need to read more about all this, including the work of other social and political historians.

Reliabilism, concluded

June 15, 2012

Ok, so what does all this amount to? Well, in very brief:

– Reliabilism is an attempt to give an objective account of what it is to be entitled to a belief, independent of anyone’s judgements of entitlement.

– Reliabilism therefore aims to sever entitlement from judgements of entitlement.

– Brandom shows that the criteria of entitlement that reliabilism attempts to supply, cannot be made sense of except in terms of a given reference-frame or normative perspective.

– Brandom therefore shows that reliabilism cannot sever entitlement from normative reference frames, as it purports to.

– Brandom (independently) argues that these normative reference frames should be understood in social-perspectival terms.

– If Brandom is right about the last point, this means that reliabilism cannot provide a counter-position to Brandom’s social account of knowledge.

Very good. But what about non-social-perspectival accounts of normative reference frames? Let’s grant that we need *some* normative reference frame for ‘reliability’ to be specified in a way that can get a broadly reliabilist account of entitlement off the ground. Why should this normative framework be *social*?

Brandom’s fundamental answer to this question is simply the unfolding of his system. As Brandom puts it in the Preface to Making It Explicit:

The idea is to show what kind of understanding and explanatory power one gets from talking this way, rather than to argue that one is somehow rationally obliged to talk this way. (xii)

In other words, Brandom does not aspire to a knock-down argument against all alternative systems – he simply aims to show some of the things his own model can do, and make a case for its utility and plausibility on those grounds. Nevertheless, it can be worthwhile looking at rival positions, to get a sense of why Brandom’s system might be an attractive one.

My plan for the next set of posts in this series on Brandom is roughly as follows:

– Next, I will outline a popular alternative account of the origin of norms (including the normative frameworks that can help specify the nature of a given ‘reliability’) – this is the approach, grounded in evolutionary biology, that is often called ‘teleosemantics’.

– Then I will try to explain why teleosemantics is a theoretical and explanatory dead-end. (Thereby suggesting some of the benefits of Brandom’s alternative social-perspectival approach).

– I will then contextualise Brandom’s social-perspectival approach as an inheritor of the much more famous (and reviled) (and problematic) social-perspectival approach articulated by Richard Rorty, in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and later works.

– I will then argue that Brandom’s system can be seen as an attempt to ‘realise’ Rorty’s project. I will claim that this in my opinion successful ‘realisation’ also transforms Rorty’s project in a manner that removes Rorty’s tacit idealism.

– I’m probably going to have to discuss Sellars somewhere, in amongst that lot.

This will hopefully set us up to give a more thorough account of Brandom’s account of normative and referential objectivity. Once I’ve developed that adequately, I can finally turn to some of the social-theoretic implications of Brandom’s apparatus.

That’s the plan anyway. We’ll see how it goes. (Posting will remain very infrequent.)

Reliabilism, continued

June 3, 2012

I’ve been saying that Brandom contrasts his own position w/r/t perceptual knowledge with a ‘reliabilist’ one. What does ‘reliabilism’ consist in?

All the theories of perceptual knowledge in contention in this theoretical space agree that for something to be knowledge it must be:

a) a belief
b) true.

All the theories in contention furthermore agree that not all true beliefs are knowledge: an additional criterion or criteria are required in order to distinguish knowledge from the larger class of true beliefs.

The classic additional criterion to distinguish knowledge from true belief is justification: on this account, something is knowledge if it is justified true belief. But, notoriously, it is difficult to give an account of what such justification can consist in that gives results compatible with our intuitions as to what does and does not count as knowledge.

Raymond Gettier’s classic article ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ poses a series of dilemmas for the straightforward ‘justified true belief’ position –these dilemmas have been extended and added to by subsequent philosophers. [An example of a relatively simple ‘Gettier problem’: let’s say I put ten coins in my pocket this morning; later in the day, five coins fall out of my pocket; still later in the day, a kindly sprite places five more coins in my pocket; I now believe, correctly, that there are ten coins in my pocket, and I am justified in that belief, because I remember putting ten coins in my pocket earlier, but can I really be said to know that there are ten coins in my pocket, given the actual reasons why there are ten coins there, which are not at all the ones I imagine? These sorts of examples are always enormously silly and tedious; I’ll try to keep them to a minimum in the remainder of the discussion; I promise we’re headed places that have more bearing on things that people actually sometimes care about.] Much subsequent work within analytic philosophy has focused on ways in which the ‘justified’ criterion can be made more complicated and sophisticated to take account of such ‘Gettier’ problems.

One obvious issue with the ‘justified’ criterion, is whether the possessor of knowledge needs themselves to be conscious or aware of the justification for their true beliefs, in order for those beliefs to be justified. If we decide that the believer must themselves be aware of the justification for their belief, we seem (at least potentially) to be vulnerable to an infinite regress of the ‘KKp’ type. That is, if we must know the basis for our knowledge, then it seems we must also know the basis for that knowledge of our knowledge’s basis, and so on. This looks to be a vicious infinite regress – which in turn implies that at some point we need to bottom out w/r/t knowledge (or even belief concerning basis of knowledge) – another version of the ‘regulism’ problem I have already discussed on the blog.

If we assume, then, that we do not necessarily need to know why our knowledge is justified, in order for it to be justified, we seem to open the nature of justification to being something extra-psychical or -meaningful – something outside the ambit of consciousness or of social practice. A series of post-Gettier accounts of knowledge aim to cash out the ‘justification’ criterion in terms of the causal mechanisms that connect knowledge claims and the objects of those knowledge claims. For example, Alvin Goldman’s 1967 ‘A Causal Theory of Knowing’ argued that the missing justification-criterion was an appropriate causal connection between the object of the knowledge-claim and the knowledge-claim itself (potentially regardless of how the knowledge-claimer themselves understand that causal chain).

There are various problems with a straightforward causal theory of knowledge. One of them is that we can imagine or construct scenarios that involve exactly the same causal mechanism connecting a knowledge-claim and the object of knowledge, where it seems that some of these scenarios genuinely produce knowledge, but others do not.

An example here, much beloved of Brandom, is the ‘Barn Façade County’ thought experiment. [I think the origin of this is Goldman’s 1976 ‘Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge’, though it’s obviously been extended since that paper, and I’m not sufficiently abreast of the literature to be able to track the thought experiment’s progress.] In this thought experiment a perceiver (call him, following Goldman, Henry) perceives what appears to him to be a barn. Unbeknownst to Henry, however, he is presently in Barn Façade County – a district the favourite pastime of whose inhabitants is constructing incredibly realistic facades of barn-fronts. [Sorry again about the moronic analytic philosophy thought experiments.] Here it seems unreasonable to say that Henry knows that there is barn in front of him. Nevertheless, it also seems unreasonable to say that in most other circumstances Henry is unable to know about the existence of a barn, because it is always possible that he be in Barn Façade County or some similarly idiosyncratically deceptive environment.

The problem here is a version of a general skeptical problem. It is always possible that we be mistaken about any given claim – but we don’t want to conclude, because of this, that we can never have knowledge of anything.

The epistemological theory – a version of the causal theory of knowing – that many philosophers adopt in order to give a non KKp-vulnerable account of the basis of justification, is that a person knows P if they believe P, P is true, and the person is generally a reliable reporter of P. This is ‘reliabilism’.

Brandom does not dispute the claims in the previous paragraph. But he disputes that they are enough to give us an account of justification.

Returning again to the Barn Façade County example, Henry can be a generally reliable reporter of the presence of barns (in almost all counties), and an extremely unreliable reporter of the presence of barns within Barn Façade County. Whether or not Henry is a reliable reporter of the presence of barns is relative to the environment in a way that does not impact on the causal connection between the object of Henry’s knowledge and his knowledge claims.

Reliablist theories of knowledge try to take this problem into account. As Goldman puts it in his 1976 paper:

A person knows that p, I suggest, only if the actual state of affairs in which p is true is distinguishable or discriminable by him from a relevant possible state of affairs in which p is false… The qualifier ‘relevant’ plays an important role in my view. If knowledge required the elimination of all logically possible alternatives, there would be no knowledge (at least of contingent truths). If only relevant alternatives need to be precluded, however, the scope of knowledge could be substantial. (p. 773-4)

Superficially, this class of positions appears to give us a definition of justification which is wholly separable from the social practice of taking-as-justified. On the reliabilist account, a person is justified in believing p if they reliably believe p when p, and not-p when not-p, in relevant scenarios. Whether or not the person exhibits this reliable responsive relationship to an objective fact about the world seems itself to be an objective fact about the world – it is not dependent on (narrowly understood) social acts of taking-as (other than the belief that p or not-p itself, and whatever mechanisms led to that belief-formation).

And in a sense this is true. But the devil is in the detail – or, more precisely, in the concept of ‘relevance’. Relevance cannot be objectively defined. Whether or not a scenario is ‘relevant’ is not a bare fact about the physical make-up of the world. To take a scenario to be relevant is to take it to be relevant. This means that the reliablist account must be folded back into an account of social (or at least normative) acts of taking-as.

As Brandom puts it, in relation to the ‘Barn Façade County’ example:

Goldman’s idea is that reliability is an objective affair, determined by the objective probability of a correct judgment, given one’s circumstances. But such probabilities vary with the specification of those circumstances. Given a reference class of relevantly similar cases, frequencies of success define objective probabilities. The question remains how a privileged reference class is to be determined. What is the correct reference class with respect to which to assess such probabilities?

Focusing on the relativity of reliability to decisions about where to draw these boundaries makes it evident that the question “Reliable or not?” is underdetermined in exactly the same way that the question “Regular or not?” is underdetermined. There are always some regularities that are being instantiated, and (in the case where the claim one is making is true) there are always some reference classes with respect to which one is reliable. Using these naturalistic notions to stand in for genuinely normative assessments works only relative to some way of privileging regularities or reference classes. (MIE p. 211)

This privileging of reference classes – which provide the framework within which naturalistic judgements of reliability can be made – is itself a normative practice; which means, if Brandom’s apparatus is correct, a social practice. Causal and reliabilist theories of knowledge, therefore throw us back onto social processes.

It is worth noting, in passing, that this provides another example of the (virtuous) circularity of Brandom’s own apparatus. Brandom too, of course, relies upon the concept of reliability to play a foundational explanatory role: Brandom’s entire apparatus is built up out of reliable differential responsive dispositions. Yet Brandom is clear that what constitutes reliability can only be judged from within a normative (social) framework that provides reference classes from within which reliability can be assessed. RDRDs provide the foundation for Brandom’s apparatus, therefore – but to discuss RDRDs at all requires a social framework generated by those RDRDs, in their complex interaction. This is true for many reasons – but the necessity of normatively determined reference classes for the analysis of reliability is one such reason.