March 4, 2023

Ok. After a few relatively carefully written posts, in this post I want to revert back to barely-articulate quasi-diaristic thinking out loud.  I want to do two things in this very short post.  First, I want to flag the beginning of my effort to do a ‘close read’ of the second half of Brandom’s ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  It may be a while before I actually get to it, but this post is the start of that train of thought.  Second, I want to make some gestural noises about ethics or moral philosophy.  Let’s see how that goes.

Let me begin the Brandomian train of thought as follows.  I think it’s worth thinking about Brandom’s project in ‘A Spirit of Trust’ in terms of concentric circles of normative pragmatics.  Brandom’s most central preoccupation is semantics.  His overarching questions are: what is semantic content, and where does it come from?  In a sense, I think, Brandom’s entire apparatus is an effort to answer this question.  But in developing that apparatus, Brandom inevitably has things to say about other topics.  Semantic content is to be found in our beliefs, and in the relation between those beliefs and their objects – so the next concentric circle is epistemology.  This is the philosophical space I’ve been occupying for the last few posts: the space of social epistemology.  But because Brandom is a pragmatist, semantics and epistemology in turn need to be grounded in a more general theory of action.  The linguistic actions we take in the production of semantic content are only one kind of action – and our account of those linguistic actions therefore needs to be part of a broader account of action.  So the circle we’re about to enter, on the blog, is the circle of “general theory of action”.

Now, seen in this frame, Brandom’s work is all about the relationship between action and norms.  The problem of grounding semantics in pragmatics, for Brandom, is also the problem of explaining norms in terms of social actions.  If I’m honest, I personally have no real interest at all in semantics – in this sense I’m very ill-suited to being a close reader of Brandom.  But I do have an interest in an account of the social production of norms – and I think Brandom offers a very sophisticated such account.

But as we leave semantics and even epistemology behind, we enter a slightly different philosophical terrain. Thinking about the relationship between actions and norms ‘in general’, rather than in the (very important, but nevertheless) special case of the determination of linguistic content, opens us onto a philosophical space that seems a lot more like ethics or moral philosophy, to me.  And this is what I want to begin thinking about in this post.

In general – on the blog, and in my personal life – I haven’t had much time for moral philosophy.  I attribute this to a range of factors, and I want to very briefly typologise them.

The first reason, I feel, I haven’t had much time for ethical or moral philosophy, is that I am (in some unclear sense) a member of ‘the left’, and I think a lot of the left (certainly not all, but still) has traditionally disdained this kind of moral philosophical intellectual space.  I think there is a tendency, on much of the left, to think that what matters is not ethics, but politics.  More specifically, I think there is a suspicion that a focus on ethics (which is about personal behaviour) is a distraction at best and an active diversion at worst from a focus on politics (which is about collective behaviour).  Ethics, the thinking goes, is a basically conservative orientation, in its focus on personal rather than collective action.  I think this is analogous, in a reasonably robust way, to the left’s frequent disdain for ‘methodological individualism’ in the social sciences, which is seen as a distraction from or evasion of a proper focus on structural phenomena.  And, no doubt, there’s something to this.  But as I get older, I am increasingly unpersuaded by this kind of argument.  One could interpret my impatience with this position, I suppose, either as me getting wiser and less swayed by the bad opinions of my peers, or as me becoming more conservative – or I guess both.  In any case, on my current view, it’s basically ridiculous to disdain methodological individualism on the grounds that what matters are collectivities and structures.  Do we really have no interest in the component parts of those collectivities and structures?  Are we so insecure as to think that analysing the microfoundations of some phenomenon diminishes the larger phenomenon?  I’ve written about this before on the blog – of course there’s vastly more to say about it all – and I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole here.  But I guess my point is that there seems to me to be something similar going on with the frequent left dismissal of an intellectual focus on ‘ethics’.  And this in turn, I think, leads to two bad phenomena.  First, there is the fact that ‘we’ on the ‘left’ do talk about ethics all the time – but discussion of interpersonal ethics frequently gets ‘coded’ as discussion of structural phenomena, in a way that can often be confusing at best.  I’m thinking here about the way in which criticism of bad interpersonal behaviour is so frequently articulated on the left by discussing the larger structural dynamics that the interpersonal behaviour represents or channels.  And that’s important – I’m not meaning to dismiss this kind of analysis at all!  But I do worry that one of the consequences of this tendency on the left is that bad interpersonal behaviour that can’t readily be parsed in terms of larger structural forces becomes harder to talk about.  Second, there is the fact that dismissiveness of an intellectual focus on ethics as ‘moralism’ or some such, can give legitimacy to people who are, frankly, just behaving appallingly.  How can you be so gauche, people argue, as to level moralistic critiques at a fundamentally political project?  This is a very useful line if you’re doing nasty stuff in the name of some high political ideal.  Again, my goal here isn’t to litigate any of this, but it seems to me that there are practical downsides to consistently diverting talk of ethics into talk of politics on the left.  That’s the first point.

Second reason I haven’t had much time for moral philosophy and so forth: when I’ve looked at moral philosophy, it often, to be blunt, strikes me as borderline sociopathic.  I think there’s a familiar phenomenon in academic fields where people study things they’re not intrinsically good at – after all, one reason you might want to study something intellectually is that you lack a non-intellectual comprehension of the phenomenon.  Obviously this isn’t the only route into an intellectual project, but I do think it’s common to run into (let’s say) economists who are terrible with money; psychologists who lack basic empathy or interpersonal insight; sociologists who are profoundly antisocial; and so on and so forth.  And I think there’s a version of this phenomenon in moral philosophy, where a troubling proportion of moral philosophers seem to lack basic intuitions or insights that seem, to me, central to the kind of ethical existence one would want to participate in.  I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, here!  But I’m saying the experience of picking up some moral philosophy and thinking “what in the world is this??!” and putting the book right back down again has happened to me more than once.

The third reason I haven’t had much time for moral philosophy and so forth is just: this isn’t my research area, and I really don’t want it to become my research area.  I already have more than enough to read!  I intend to stand by this line if at all possible.

Finally – and perhaps most consequentially – the fourth reason I haven’t had much time for moral philosophy is that it seems to me that moral philosophy is intrinsically more ‘personal’ than some other kinds of ‘theorising’ one can do.  I try to keep my personal life off the blog.  But of course the kinds of thinking one engages in, when thinking about ethics, is often personal thinking: what should I do?  What should I not do?  What should I have done?  What should I not have done?  We are here in the space of guilt, shame, regret, desire – and so forth.  For myself, I find it hard to think about ethics without thinking about personal matters that frankly I have no desire to air on a public-facing website.  And this makes it difficult to ‘think in public’, as I tend to on the blog, in this domain.  I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to tackle this, when working through the second half of Brandom’s Hegel book, and the intellectual terrain it opens.  But I guess I want to at least open that space in this meta-level and abstract sense, here.

Ok.  I guess that’s all I’ve got to say for now.  As I say, I expect this line of thought on the blog to be fairly inarticulate and meandering – but so it goes.  Maybe I’ll get somewhere worth going eventually.


In the last, extremely long, post I gave an overview of a social-epistemological understanding of science.  In this, extremely short, post I want to make some placeholder remarks that follow on from that post, just to get these lines of thought down in gestural form.  There are five placeholder points I want to leave here.

First point.  I want to make clear that I am not making any claims at all to originality in any of the thoughts I articulated in the last post.  More (or rather less) than that: I think that the position I articulated in the last post is basically an extremely mainstream one within the philosophy of science.  Still less even than that: the position I articulated in the last post is also massively underdeveloped relative to mainstream philosophy of science because (as ever on this blog) I haven’t done my homework properly.  I’m aware, of course, that there is such a thing as contemporary social epistemology – I’ve even read some of it – but I haven’t done anything close to enough reading in that space.  In the last post, then, I am, I believe, laboriously working my way round, in an autodidact fashion, to positions and themes that have already been very extensively and prominently worked over, again and again, and in much greater depth, in recent philosophy.

Now, in my defence, to a large extent this is what the blog is for.  I don’t know how other people think things through, but I find the amount of stuff in my head almost unmanageable if I don’t externalise it as I go – the blog is basically for that externalisation (with large and heartfelt apologies to anyone who actually reads it).  The downside of this, of course, is that a large proportion of the posts on the blog would be much improved if I’d written them after doing the reading that the writing of the post clears the headspace for.  This is embarrassing, but it is what it is, unfortunately.

Now, separately, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a mainstream or widely-held set of commitments – in fact, given my social-epistemological positions, one would typically expect one’s views to be nearly identical to those of lots of other people in one’s historical moment and social milieu, because we are all creatures of our time and place!  Still, having reached some kind of local equilibrium in my thinking in this space, I think it’s probably incumbent on me to do more serious actual reading of the countless other people working through these and similar ideas.

Second point, reinforcing the first: this idea (that I ought to do much more reading in recent social epistemology) is underlined, to my mind, by the fact that I just can’t seem to stop myself thinking about social epistemology.  Really, I want to be studying political economy – or at least I want to want to be studying political economy.  But my ‘revealed preferences’ are, I think, extremely clear, at this point: social epistemology is just a central preoccupation of mine, like it or not.  So this is another reason why I want to do significantly more reading in this space, over time.

So, those two points amount to: I want to do a lot more reading in social epistemology.

Third point: the last post gave a rather sunny account of science as an institution.  I think that’s important – it’s important to explain why, if all goes well, it is reasonable to defer to scientific knowledge-claims, and in what sense.  But, for me, the reason why one needs social-epistemological heavy-lifting in giving such an account is that, of course, sometimes it is not rational or reasonable to defer to science: sometimes science is wrong in fundamental ways – ways that cannot be folded back into the ‘progressive self-correction’ narrative that justifies both deference to science and error within science.  Sometimes science is just plain evil.  So one’s account of science needs to also give an account of that.  

Moreover – and this is one of the core, as it were, methodological commitments that is animating this whole line of thought – that account (I claim) needs to be “symmetrical”.  That is to say, if we’re serious about historicising our understanding of science and ourselves, and if we’re serious about anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism, then we can’t just say “science as an institution that works well is the real essence of science; everything else is an unfortunate external deviation from that essence”.  Our methodological anti-essentialism understands essence as something that is retroactively constituted by our judgements, rather than as an attribute of the phenomenon in question: talking in terms of essence may express normative preference, political alignment, etc., but it can’t do any explanatory work.  An anti-essentialist, anti-foundationalist, non-teleological, historicist account of science, in other words, needs to adhere to something fairly close to the strong programme’s principles of symmetry, impartiality, and so forth.

My point here is just that although the account in the last post was very sunny or optimistic, that’s because I was working through the ‘positive’ dimension of science.  But the account is intended to leave ample space, at a depth level, for a ‘symmetrical’ account of the ‘negative’ dimensions of science – to leave all the room necessary for the ‘critical’ bit of critical science studies.  And that’s something I want to spend more time on, going forward.

Fourth point: In my head this whole set of posts is, basically, an intermission in my close read of Brandom’s ‘A Spirit of Trust’ – we’re still, as I see it, within the ‘epistemological’ implications of that work.  But at some point I need to move past the epistemological dimension, and launch into the theory of action / theory of history stuff.  I just want to put down a promissory note, making clear that I haven’t forgotten that side of things.

Fifth and final point: To the extent that any of this has any relevance at all to political economy – my nominal research interest – one element of relevance is what it implies about the status of economics as a science, and the relation of heterodox economics to the mainstream.  A lot of heterodox economics, in my view, does itself no favours in how it understands both the discipline of economics as a whole and its own place within it.  One day I hope to come back to that issue, armed with a better-informed and more fully articulated set of resources within the social epistemology of science.

But that’s enough placeholder remarks for now.  Back to reading.

Ok.  Over the last three weeks I’ve written a fairly long series of posts outlining a broadly Brandomian neo-pragmatist social theory.  What I ought to do now is write a conclusion to the series, and then a summary post that brings it all together.  And I may well circle back round and do those things at a later date.  But I’m pretty tired of writing this series, and at this point I’ve gotten out (almost) all the substantive points I wanted to make, in some form or another.  I recognise that a lot of these posts are fairly poorly articulated, that some make mistakes even by my lights, that many are extremely telegraphic and would greatly benefit from a more careful expansion, and moreover that there are some important things I’d intended to cover but never got round to.  Nevertheless, from my point of view, ‘affectively’, I’m sort of done, at least for now.  What I’m going to do, then, is take a break from blogging on these themes.

I will, however, use this post as a sort of retrospective table of contents for this series.  Here are the posts in the series to date in chronological order, for what it’s worth.  If I do eventually write ‘summing up’ posts, as I hope to, I’ll add them to the list of links below.

Private rule-following and sociality

Normative delegation in Brandom, Hegel and Freud

Independence and dialectics

Brandom, Hegel, Derrida, the strong programme

Types of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism

Transcendental and empirical dialectics

‘Psychodialectics’: some throat clearing

Psychoanalytic categories

Three psychoanalytic arguments

The faculty of sympathy

Two anti-pragmatist arguments

Brandom as philosopher and social theorist

Norms produced by and within a complex social system

Rousseau, Mises, Hayek, dialectics

Conflictual spontaneous order

Buchanan, Hayek, and the evaluation of emergent norms

The algebra of normativity

The psychodynamics of recognition

Psychoanalytic and Brandomian categories

The divided self within a recognitive community

Influence – N. Pepperell

Norms grounded in non-intersubjective practices

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.

What Did Marx Get Wrong?

January 9, 2015

There are lots of criticisms commonly directed at Marx. Most of these I think are misplaced; two of them I think are correct. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but here, very briefly, are some of those common criticisms. (In line with my new blogging practice, I’m not even aiming to argue for these positions here – this is just what I think…):

Criticism: Marx has a teleological stagist view of history.
My view: No he doesn’t.

Criticism: Marx’s labour theory of value is untenable.
My view: Marx doesn’t hold the labour theory of value.

Criticism: Marx’s humanist philosophical anthropology paints too rosy a view of human nature.
My view: Marx doesn’t have a humanist philosophical anthropology.

Criticism: Marx’s narrow economism has no space for agency.
My view: Marx is not narrowly economistic.

Criticism: Marx is too optimistic about the possibilities of technology.
My view: Marx is right to be optimistic about the possibilities of technology.

Criticism: Marx is too optimistic about the possibilities of central planning.
My view: I agree with this criticism.

Criticism: Marx’s attempt to provide blueprints for future institutions is dogmatic and utopian.
My view: Marx doesn’t provide such blueprints.

Criticism: Marx ought to provide blueprints for future institutions.
My view: I agree with this criticism.


All that is by way of saying, I see two central flaws in Marx’s work. First – he is too optimistic about the possibilities of central planning. His position is – as always – more nuanced than a quick summary suggests, but at base Marx thinks that bringing the uncoordinated and indirectly coordinated actions of the complex system of capitalism under some kind of centrally planned control is the way to eliminate the irrational and coercive aspects of that system. Marx is far too incautious about the concentrations of power that accompany such central planning – he doesn’t give nearly enough attention to the abuses of power and the exploitative dynamics that are likely to result from such massive concentration of political and economic power.

That said, Marx doesn’t spend much time writing about the shape of the more centrally planned society he’d like to see because, second: Marx is of the view that the shape of future society will basically be worked out ‘in practice’ – that it is not the job of intellectuals or political activists to provide ‘recipes for the cook-shops of the future’. I disagree with this too. Institutional change comes about because people change those institutions, and they change institutions by thinking about what institutions they’d like better. I believe there’s no reason why such thought can’t take place ahead of time – and I believe it’s better that a lot of such thought take place ahead of time, so that people aren’t having to do that thinking at short notice in incredibly stressful circumstances with catastrophic consequences of poor judgement calls.

So – those are the main areas where I disagree with Marx.

In other news, I have a new comment policy. (It basically just says that I’m going to stop responding to comments, because it takes me forever – like months and months – and really what good is that to anyone.)

Comment on Zizek

July 29, 2012

[I was recently in an argument, over at An und fur sich, about Zizek’s politics – the relevant posts are here and here. After a time Adam Kotsko closed comments; since the last of my comments didn’t make it through moderation I thought I’d paste it here. Comment is below.]


Right. Here’s the quote from Zizek’s article again:

the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS today’s hegemonic ideology – its function is to enable us to evade the deadlock of the hedonist permissiveness which is effectively hegemonic.

Adam initially (in this comment) apparently parsed Zizek’s statement as claiming simply that patriarchy is not hegemonic. But this is not what the statement says: the statement says also that critique of patriarchy “IS today’s hegemonic ideology”. I pointed this out here.

Adam then responded as follows:

There’s a difference between the claim that mainstream liberals like to shadow-box against the kind of forthright bigots and sexists who are actually a fringe element in American society and directly identifying with those bigots and sexists as the real victims! I don’t think Zizek is doing the latter, at all. [CORRECTION: Obviously in the piece on the Roma, Zizek is identifying with the bigots as the real victims. But I don’t think he usually does that.]

It seems to me that the hardcore Fox News Republicans are a small but vocal subculture that succeeds precisely because of the phenomenon Zizek pinpoints — the tendency for liberals to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives.

This is a little difficult to parse in relation to the discussion of Zizek’s statement, because it again doesn’t appear to be putting forward the same claim. Adam seems to be saying:

1) I am accusing Zizek of “identifying with the victims” of the holders of the patriarchal (or substitutes) ideology that is not hegemonic but that still has power.

2) Forthright bigots and sexists [and/or ‘hardcore Fox News Republicans’ which I take it is meant to pick out roughly the same set of people?? though maybe not?] are “actually a fringe element in American society”.

[OK, on this. I’m not sure why we’re specifically talking about American society suddenly, when that’s not the focus of the Zizek or Ahmed pieces in question. But second, I don’t see any very obvious sense in which this is true. On the ‘hardcore Fox News Republicans’, it depends I guess what you mean by ‘hardcore’ – which can be meant in narrow or broad ways (so some sense of this sentence will certainly be true, but not necessarily usefully so). It should be clear that regularly-Fox-News-watching-Republicans are not a fringe element in US society. As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, there are about 55 million registered members of the Republican party, which is about 26% of the adult US population. According to Pew, “40% of Republicans say they regularly watch Fox News”. And also according to Pew, about 39% of those who regularly watch Fox News identify as Republican, and about 49% as leaning Republican. Let’s go with 40% of 55 million, to get 22 million Republican party members who are also regular Fox News watchers: more than 10% of the US adult population. Presumably you have a narrower category of folk in mind with your ‘hardcore’ Fox News Republicans – but that qualifier is having to do an awful lot of work here. I don’t think the statement is persuasive without some pretty idiosyncratic senses of at least some of its terms.

On “forthright bigots and sexists”, again, it obviously depends how we understand the qualifier ‘forthright’. Still sticking with the US (for some reason) a pretty superficial google search gives me this paper, which has some useful graphs tracking various survey responses in the US from the late 70s onwards. (There’s obviously going to be heaps of excellent work in this area; I just don’t know it.) Basically attitudes to gender roles get a lot more egalitarian until the early ’90s, at which point everything plateaus. So, for instance, in the last dataset represented there (from 2008), about 70% of respondents disagreed with the claim that men are better politicians than women. That could obviously be a lot worse – but it’s hard to see it justifying the claim that the critique of patriarchy is hegemonic.

On racism (which I’ll take as an initial proxy for your ‘bigotry’, just to stop this comment blowing out indefinitely), it’s equally obviously not the case that forthright bigots are a fringe population. I’ve exhausted my googling patience for now, so let’s leave the US behind – but here’s a report on survey data from eight European countries. An eye-watering 56.9% of Polish respondents believe that “Jews in general do not care about anything or anyone but their own kind.” In Britain it’s a mere 22.5%. Still – 45.8% of Britons agree with the statement “Because of the number of immigrants, I sometimes feel like a stranger in [country]”. More than a third (34.6%) of UK respondents agree with the statement “There is a natural hierarchy between black and white people.” And so on. Bigotry is really common. (And it’s not as if the US is untarnished in this respect either.) I don’t think you’re coming from a very convincing place when you characterise forthright bigotry and sexism as ‘fringe’, even given the slightly hazy qualifier ‘forthright’.

But putting all that aside…]

3) “the phenomenon Zizek pinpoints” (in the sentence quoted above) is “the tendency for liberals to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives.”

(This is the real point:) I can’t stress enough that this isn’t what Zizek is saying in the passage under discussion. Zizek is not saying, in this sentence that I quoted and that we are discussing, that liberals have a tendency to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives. Zizek is saying that the critique of patriarchy is hegemonic. Again:

the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS today’s hegemonic ideology

Adam – you simply haven’t defended this statement. You have defended other statements that are somewhat but not very closely related. But this statement, that Zizek writes very plainly and that is a central claim of this piece (not at all incidental illustrative material) is:

a) untrue: the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS NOT today’s hegemonic ideology. (Neither is liberal multicultural tolerance, as Zizek also claims.)

b) reactionary, because (I am claiming) it is in fact reactionary to claim that anti-racism, anti-sexism, and “the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology” are themselves hegemonic. This is an empirically incorrect view that is nevertheless widely believed and articulated from within the (reactionary and widespread) viewpoint that sees itself and its privileges as under unjust assault by the partial victories of ‘identity’ politics: feminism, civil rights, GLBT rights, etc. (This is a perspective that Zizek’s work shares with Fox News.)

Now, further to the ‘political correctness’ issue, and on a factual point – Adam wrote upthread, in response to Adswithoutproducts: “I don’t recall any anti-P.C. swipes in Living in the End Times at all.” But the article we have been discussing is published in ‘Living in the End Times’. So no. One can also consult the index of ‘Living in the End Times’ to find page references for that work’s anti-P.C. swipes, such as this one, the first listed, from pages 38-39:

As every close observer of the deadlocks arising from political correctness knows, the separation of legal justice from moral Goodness – which should be relativized and historicized – ends up in an oppressive moralism brimming with resentment. Without any ‘organic’ social substance grounding the standards of what Orwell approvingly referred to as ‘common decency’ (all such standards having been dismissed as subordinating individual freedoms to proto-Fascist social forms), the minimalist program of laws intended simply to prevent individuals from encroaching upon one another (annoying or ‘harassing’ each other) turns into an explosion of legal and moral rules, an endless process (a ‘spurious infinity’ in Hegel’s sense) of legalisation and moralisation, known as ‘the fight against all forms of discrimination’. … In France, there are associations for obese people demanding that all public campaigns against obesity and in favour of healthy eating habits be stopped, since they damage the self-esteem of obese persons. The militants of Veggie Pride condemn the ‘speciesism’ of meat-eaters (who discriminate against animals, privileging the human animal – for them, a particularly disgusting form of ‘fascism’) and demand that ‘vegeto-phobia’ should be treated as a kind of xenophobia and proclaimed a crime. And we could extend the list to include those fighting for the right to incest-marriage, consensual murder, cannibalism…

Really this is not sophisticated argument – it is the same crass, hyperbolic, lazy, empirically inaccurate (has anyone ever used the phrase ‘vegeto-phobia’ in this sense except Zizek? Let’s check. No.) anti-‘p.c.’ polemic found in newspaper columns by Andrew Bolt or Richard Littlejohn – it just includes incidental references to Hegel, since Zizek’s audience is continental Theory nerds, rather than tabloid newspaper readers. It is not an “utterly ridiculous conspiracy theory” to place the stance articulated in these passages on the political right.

The Next Thing

April 9, 2012

As readers of the blog (if such there be) will know, my current ongoing project (or, I suppose, sub-project) is a document on the implications of the work of Robert Brandom for social theory. I’m keen to get that document done, but it’s on the back-burner for now, while work and life take well-deserved priority. Still, things churn away in the brain cell, and I’ve been thinking a bit what the next thing to do is, once the Brandom document is complete.

My master-plan for the overall project has (as, again, readers may conceivably recall) six broad stages. The first three of these were, in order:

1) Social-theoretic foundations [the Brandom document]
2) History of capitalism
3) Analysis of value theory

(The remaining stages were, more or less, variations on ‘do political economy’)

I’d planned to move on to my (very brief!) history of capitalism once the Brandom document was done. My idea was that social theory and economic history were the broad areas of study that need to inform an adequate economics, but that are under-represented in current economics education – so I thought I’d get some basic grounding in these areas, before approaching economics itself.

My worry: if I do this, I’ll never get to the economics :-P. So: I’ve had a rethink. I still intend to write a history of capitalism, but I’m now seeing this as something to do in the interstices of my other studies.

This leaves the question: what to move on to once the Brandom document is complete?

The way I currently see it, contemporary economics has two broad areas of technical expertise:

First, statistical analysis of economic data.
Second, modelling of economic structures.
And, of course (third, if you like), drawing connections between them.

Obviously each of these areas have their formal and contentful aspects – the formal being simply how to do statistical analysis or modelling; the contentful being analysis of actual economic data, or discussion of actual economic models.

I want to start getting to grips with these technical areas of economics sooner rather than later. My current background concern is: how. I’m considering taking a higher degree in statistics – or just autodidacting may way through the terrain, as usual. This will have the advantage of having real-world application (i.e. I can use it on the job market, which is important); and it has the further advantage that I have a lot of respect for orthodox statistical theory and practice (whereas I have very little respect for orthodox economic models and modelling) – so I’m less likely to flame out of these studies in the kind of bitter rage that motivates this blog as a space to do heterodox intellectual work. The downside is that statistics still isn’t economics proper – so it’s still a postponement of (what I regard as) the core of my project.

Just putting this up to externalise and help along the thought-process, really. Also to explain a shift in content on the blog – I’m still not blogging properly again, but I aim to starting putting up statistics-related content; this is why.

I hope folks out there are well.

Blog Hiatus

June 19, 2011

With apologies, I’ve decided to put the blog into hiatus for a while. I’ve been really enjoying and valuing the conversations I’ve been participating in here and elsewhere – and I aim to continue those conversations that are presently in progress, as it were, although it may take me a little while to reply to people. Nevertheless, I think my time will, for some time, be better spent on tasks other than blogging.

Though there are real-world obligations I need to attend to, this isn’t a decision that’s entirely external to the content of the blog. I’ve been working for a long time now on how to understand the kinds of phenomena I was discussing in my most recent series of posts. Those posts, I feel, successfully articulate the central concepts of the theory of practice I endorse. That is to say, they fulfil the principal task I set myself as the first part of my broader project – at least to my own satisfaction.

Now there’s a world of difference between fulfilling an intellectual task to one’s own satisfaction, and fulfilling it to anyone else’s satisfaction. One of the things I’ve learned in my participation in this online community of intellectual discussion, is that the work of articulation and persuasion is the bulk of the work involved in intellectual practice (although the work of articulation can often involve a solidification and, at times, a transformation of conceptual content, and so cannot be fully separated from the work of thought).

I have a lot more to do, in other words, in the elaboration and detailed articulation of the practice-theoretic perspective I advocate. I’ll aim to continue that work when I start blogging here again – along with other things. However, this theoretical perspective is also something that I’ve been wanting to nail down, to my own satisfaction, for a long time, for other reasons, and before attempting various other tasks. Now that I’ve done that, I’m going to shift personal focus towards some non-intellectual matters. At the moment I’m thinking of spending a year or so away from blogging, but that’s a rather arbitrary guess.

I’m sad about this – I’ll miss blogging and, especially, interacting with people in this online community, very much. At the same time, I think this is a good decision.

In lieu of new content I thought I’d link to the bloggers I’ve found most value in reading or interacting with over the last few years. Which of these you’ll enjoy depends on why you read the blog, but they all intersect with the work done here in one way or another.

Dead Voles – Carl Dyke and company
Deontologistics – Pete Wolfendale
Ktismatics – John Doyle
Limited, Inc. – Roger Gathman
The Luxemburgist – Reid Kane’s political blog
Planomenology – Reid Kane’s philosophy blog
Qlipoth – multiple authors
Rough Theory – N Pepperell
What In The Hell – Nate H

I’m also going to link again to Martin Jolly’s most recent music, because it is remarkable, and not enough people have clicked through.

Thank you for reading. 🙂

Personal Blogging

November 17, 2010

As I said a few posts back, I started blogging more than three years ago in a state of considerable turmoil and distress. In an early post I quoted Bellow’s Herzog, which captures something of the seething inner frenzy of thoughts and associations that the blog was meant to help articulate, externalise, and make available for reflection and action. In that department, blogging has succeeded pretty much beyond my wildest dreams: when I started blogging, I had at my intellectual disposal a mass of unsystematic autodidactic reading, much of it literary; an undergraduate degree in analytic philosophy; an intense engagement with a handful of intellectual figures (e.g. Derrida; Freud); an intense and justified rage; and a desire to master the discipline and subject-matter of economics, without an understanding of which it seemed impossible to comprehend the social forces that make and destroy our lives; or to understand what among the world’s abundant horrors can and should effectively be contested, and how.

Out of that work of articulation has come a settled and long-term intellectual research project, the value of which I am confident in, and do not feel the need to defend (though I am happy to). To recapitulate, I see the long-term project as consisting in the following stages (I’ve said all of this before, so the blockquoted section below can be skipped):

1) Social-theoretic foundations. I want to establish, to my own satisfaction, the social-theoretic basis on which the analysis of complex social and economic structures can rely. That’s another way of saying that I want at least a sketch of a solid, scientifically legitimate theory of practice. I also want a mastery of the core texts of the social-theoretic canon, such that I can participate with some authority in social-theoretic discursive communities. I also feel it would be valuable and, given my intellectual background, plausible, to aim to articulate the philosophical reasons for accepting a theory of practice as foundational, in the way I advocate: that is, to participate in philosophical discussions of the status of social practice, etc. This latter is not a particularly central goal of the project, though. I’d like to produce at least one document that gives an account of the positions I advocate in these areas – not to do so would, I think, be a waste of a lot of work. On the other hand, these social-theoretic foundations are foundations, rather than the finished thing I’m building, so I don’t want to get too hung up on articulating this stuff.

2) History of capitalism. I’ve already discussed this in an earlier post – basically I want to produce a very short, very rough-and-ready history of capitalist society from about 900AD (i.e. well pre-capitalist) to the present day.

3) Value theory. Again, I’ve discussed this briefly elsewhere – I want to make a systematic study of different traditions of economic theory, comparing and contrasting approaches to the theory of value between and across traditions. This will involve articulating the theory of value that I myself aim to defend.

Those are the three core initial stages of the project. There’s other stuff I need to cover too – e.g. I ought to read some anthropology as part of the social-theoretic reading; I need to acquire a mastery of the central mathematical tools used in modern econ. But this stuff can be slotted into the category of ‘general further studies’. Basically the above three sub-projects I think cover the core foundational elements of the larger endeavour.

Of necessity, subsequent work is at present less clearly planned in outline – I expect it in large part to be determined by the results of 1-3 above. I think I can, however, sketch at least the general intent, since the later work is, after, all, the principal purpose of the project. Once 1-3 above are largely complete, therefore, I expect to turn to:

4) A more detailed engagement with contemporary economic theory. Critique of positions I regard as flawed; articulation and defense of positions I regard as correct.

5) Analysis of contemporary events. This will presumably have two components:
a) more International Relations / world-systems type analytic work.
b) more immediate commentary on stuff in the news, etc.

6) Discussion of proposals for economic institutional reform. I regard this last as by some distance the most practically important of the goals listed here. Again, I’ve discussed this briefly before on the blog, but to recapitulate still more briefly: I regard the proposal and analysis of institutional alternatives as by far the most practically helpful contribution intellectuals as intellectuals can make to the general left project of transforming society for the better. Further, I regard it as a really important and essential contribution, and a task that I think the left in general should spend a lot more time on than presently it does. I’m sure I’ll write on this again in the future, and obviously I can’t discuss this rather fraught set of issues now in the detail they deserve – but basically, there are a number of key things that have often gone wrong, historically, with attempts at large-scale emancipatory transformation of society: a) hard power wielded by the ruling class crushing the attempt. b) popular movements pushing for right, rather than left, politics (this can be framed as a problem of organisational strategy, but it’s clear that anti-establishments movements aren’t intrinsically leftist.) c) radicals who gain power fucking up, policy-wise. It’s c) that interests me in this department. It seems to me that bad institutional choices have often been made by powerful groups with radical left intent, and that while there are a lot of reasons for this, one of the important ones is that the radical left hasn’t spent nearly enough time discussing what concrete institutions it wants to implement, if and when it gets the chance (and we’re in a particularly barren period, for this, historically, now, I think). What do we actually want, in concrete institutional terms, and why? There are, of course, answers to this question being put forward – I’m obviously not suggesting that there’s a blank slate here. I am saying that I want to be able to provide my own answers to this question, in some detail; and also that I want, if I can, to help foster and participate in a more far-reaching debate on the left around this issue than presently exists.

There’s of course a lot more that I’d like to write about all of this stuff, even in this kind of outline form, but I’m going to leave it all aside for now. The above is a sketch of what I understand my intellectual project to be. I think it’s a potentially valuable one, and it’s a project I’m committed to. It’s also, obviously, a fucking huge project. I don’t think it’s unrealistically huge, given my age, abilities, and the average predicted human life-span for those in my demographic. But clearly there’s a lot that could happen – a lot of different kinds of things that could happen – to prevent me from completing these tasks. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to me to have these goals: a roll of the dice at not unacceptable odds.

Having established all of that, I want to talk a bit about the personal (social) affiliations I think this project involves. To my mind I am, in attempting this project, affiliating with two separate, though overlapping, broad communities of practice and discourse: first, the scientific community, specifically the social-scientific community (and as I’ll say at greater length eventually, I regard the social sciences as, in principle, legitimately affiliated with the broader scientific community – I don’t regard sociology or economics as intrinsically pseudo- or non-scientific, although both disciplines have serious and non-accidental problems.) Second, the socialist/communist/Marxist political community. As I say, I regard these affiliations as to a very large extent distinct: the bulk of my project is social scientific, and I aim to legitimate the claims I’ll be making (about value theory, or the history of capitalism, for example) on social-scientific, rather than partisan political grounds. The bottom line is: a fact is a fact, whatever one’s politics. (Saying this doesn’t mean that I deny that struggles over what criteria to apply in determining what we accept as fact are political; and of course I feel free to make judgements about the material I’m studying that wouldn’t be shared by those who disagree with me politically. Again, I’ll expand on these distinctions at some later date.) At the same time, the social-scientific work I aim to be doing is of course informed by my political convictions: what research topics I consider worthwhile pursuing, what aspects of my topics I look into, etc. – all this is informed by the potential political use I see this social-scientific research as having, down the road. I see my commitment to norms associated with social science, and my commitment to norms associated with socialist / Marxist politics, as informing each other but as non-identical (though also as compatible). I also should say that these are non-homogeneous communities of discourse/practice, and that membership of them partly involves participation in the ongoing debate about their nature practised by those in and outside the communities themselves. I plan to explore all this stuff in future posts.

This is all well and good. The point is that as I’ve been blogging these last few years, I take myself to have developed a solidity of focus, and a confidence in the legitimacy of a potentially achievable complex long-term intellectual project. What started as a highly exploratory working-through of intellectual preoccupations has coalesced into a focused – albeit wide-ranging – set of tasks. I expect to continue working on these long-term tasks, and to regularly publish updates on my progress. It’s reasonably likely that I’ll try to publish some of this material in a formal setting (though I’m obviously also a big believer of blogging as a legitimate and valuable mode of publication).

However, this focus only applies to my sense of the tasks I’ve outlined above, and of the intellectual space this endeavour inhabits. Thinking about the tasks I’ve outlined above, as I go about them in my day to day life, I know that in attempting them, and even more in discussing my results, I am inhabiting a specific, and quite narrow, set of social roles. These roles are ones that I feel I’ve spent much of the last three plus years acquiring mastery of, and I’m happy with the level of mastery acquired. Nevertheless, these roles, and the complexes of practice they inhabit, only make up a fraction, albeit a significant fraction, of my life – and in many ways, now that the chaos of Herzogian internal association has diminished, at least with respect to intellectual matters, these roles do not represent the most significant and pressing aspects of my thinking to myself.

All these preliminary remarks are by way of saying that I’m thinking of making a significant shift in the content of the blog. I’ll still, as I say, publish material related to the vast ongoing project, some of it formal in nature. But I’m also going to start publishing a lot more personal material on the blog. I’m unclear at present exactly how this is going to work out: I don’t have a clear sense in my head of the form the future blog will take. I expect a lot of it will still be fairly abstract and ‘theoretical’, given that that’s often how I actually think. But to a large extent I’m going to turn this into a personal blog.

What does that mean? Well, given that the blog is published under my name, I’m obviously not going to be putting up anything that would cause serious problems with either the law or with the institutions that provide my income. (Not that there’s anything that I think would cause such problems; I’m just saying.) Likewise, I plan to respect the privacy of my family and friends in a fairly rigorous way, which is going to hugely limit, practically speaking, the amount of personal stuff I can blog about. Quite apart from personality issues, then, the blog is of practical necessity probably going to involve a lot of internal ‘reflections’. When I started blogging, the blog was highly ‘exploratory’. Basically I’m going to reboot to that kind of exploratory approach, w/r/t personal, rather than intellectual matters.

Now, although I’m not planning on being hugely revealing, w/r/t private lives of people I know etc, I’m assuming that the blog will aim to be quite personally exposing, in terms of things like the affects and thought processes and aspects of self made public. In terms of your readerly experience, the blog will quite likely become fairly tedious – others’ self-explorations are rarely engaging. While there’ll still of course be some philosophical and Marxian social-theoretic material, the blog’s content will be significantly shifting towards reflections on days’ events, on my own feelings and personality, etc. To be completely clear, there’s absolutely no chance that I’ll be offended if you de-blogroll the blog (for example), now that the nature of its content has changed. On the other hand, I’ve got zero sympathy with potential complaints that the blog is now too self-absorbed, that it assumes others will be interested in the minutiae of my life or thinking, etc. It’s entirely your choice whether you read the blog or not; if you are bored or irritated by its newly personal nature, don’t read it. I’ve created a ‘personal’ category, so you can tell what kind of content you’re likely to encounter in a given post, if you wish.

Most of the writing that’s gone up on my blogs so far has in some sense either inhabited or been oriented toward the social roles I discussed above. I’m going to try to step back from those roles, to a considerable extent. I suppose what I’m saying is that the blog up until now has been principally oriented to the discussion of intellectual content, whereas now the blog will also be more about me, the person who happens to be producing this content. This is, I think, what a lot of people use their intellectual blogs for already – so in that sense I’m just saying, again, that this is going to become a more personal blog.

At the same time, I’m not particularly interested in using the blog for socialising, etc. My plan is really to use the blog for a potentially slightly more exposing task: talking about the kinds of things, in personal and social life, that often can’t easily be articulated in more regular social or professional environments. Such difficulty of articulation is at least partly because of reputational risk – and reputational risk is obviously a large issue online. Nevertheless, the portability of online content – its relative lack of necessary connection to any specific discursive space – allows I think some possibilities of articulation that are foreclosed in the discourses of many smaller and more specifically grounded discursive communities. At any rate, I’d like, among other things, to explore here some things that are typically, I think, difficult to articulate in at least certain social spaces I’m familiar with.

I think this post basically covers my thinking about the transition to a more personal blog. Now to get on with it.