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.

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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.