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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some very preliminary, scattered, and basic notes.

One of the dichotomies that structures a lot of work in economics is that between coercion and freely made decisions. There’s a lot to unpack here and the following is very crude, but ‘ideal typically’, a lot of economic theory draws a distinction between state action – which can be coercive, due to the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force within the state’s geographical boundaries – and freely made decisions, such as contract formation, market exchange, or collective action within civil society. Obviously the market, or contracts, are structured by ‘rules of the game’ that are themselves coercively enforced by the state – so the market and the contract are not untarnished, as it were, by coercive force. Moreover, economists are obviously aware that the state is not always and everywhere coercive. Nevertheless, this dichotomy does, in my view, inform a lot of economic analysis, in some sense.

There are at least two things to unpack from this picture. First, the dichotomy between coercive and free economic relationships; and second the way this dichotomy maps onto the distinction between the state, on the one hand, and the market and civil society, on the other. Both of these ideas are, of course, flawed. W/r/t the latter: obviously coercion can operate in market and civil society contexts, and not merely via the actions of the state and its representatives. Moreover, coercion need not be violent: for example, those likely to starve if they lose their jobs are extremely vulnerable to employer demands – these employers wield a high level of power over these employees, regardless of the formal free contracting of the employment relation. These kinds of unfreedom within market and civil society relationships also indicate the flaw in the first dichotomy discussed above: that coercion versus freedom is not, in fact, a dichotomy. On the contrary, the boundary between free interactions and coercive ones is, potentially, fuzzy. Economists are happy, in many contexts, to talk about ‘bargaining power’. It is, however, innate in the concept of bargaining power, that bargaining power is power. If one participant in an interaction has enough power relative to the other, we may reasonably start to doubt the extent to which the interaction’s outcome is a freely agreed bargain, and wonder whether language associated with coercive relationships may begin to become more appropriate.

Perhaps, then, it makes sense to think of freedom not as an on-off switch, but as a spectrum: we can all be more or less free, in different dimensions of our lives, or in different social and economic interactions. This framing avoids, of course, complexities around varied senses of freedom (some of which I’ve discussed in earlier posts on this blog), and questions over the extent to which freedom can usefully be quantified, or at least represented ordinally, on any kind of spectrum. Even this crude ‘linear spectrum’ model of freedom would seem, however, to be an advance on the binary model of freedom and coercion that seems tacit in a lot of economic theory.

In my view economics as a discipline needs to better get to grips with this. Economics is not unused to making normative judgements – around welfare or utility outcomes, etc. But these evaluations often seem naive (or, from a more cynical perspective, apologistic) around questions of freedom and coercion. Bringing such problems into the apparatus of formal economics of course threatens to take economics into a terrain that is traditionally reserved for moral philosophy. I think a good case could be made, however, that a lot of economics is already in fact occupying this terrain – it is simply (too often) doing so naively and unknowingly.

Back on the Brandom beat briefly, with a long-promised post (if anyone besides the omniscient gods keeps track).

Brandom is a rationalist – but in what sense is he a rationalist? Well, Brandom believes that what distinguishes sapient creatures (like human beings) from “merely sentient” creatures (like, presumably, caterpillars) is that we (we sapients) participate in the space of reasons. What does it mean to participate in the space of reasons? Well, Brandom explains his views on that matter in enormous detail, but they more or less boils down to: participating in the social practice of asking for and giving reasons.

As any regular readers of my blog will know, I disagree with Brandom about the centrality of specifically linguistic practice to the account of sapience his work offers. I think that non-linguistic communicative practices are more than capable of being understood as social practices of asking for and giving reasons: enormously complicated communication is possible at a non- or pre-verbal level, and I see no reason to restrict sapience to those creatures whose communicative acts happen to make use, in part, of the particularly idionsyncratic skill of language. Nothing of central importance in this post hinges on that disagreement, but I want to keep it somewhere in mind.

So – we are sapient if we can ask for and give reasons for our beliefs and actions. So far so good. But what are reasons? Well – reasons are anything that can be offered in the game of asking for and giving reasons; less tautologously, they are anything that can be used as a premise in an inferential chain. Roughly speaking, in any sentence, proposition, thought or bodily intuition of the structure “If X then Y”, X is a reason. Reasons are, as it were, an entirely formal category.

The point I want to make, in this post, is that we must take great care not to confuse reasons with good reasons. Anything at all that can occupy this communicative role is a reason – whether or not we regard it as having any persuasive or normative force at all, is neither here nor there. It suffices that it could, conceivably, be taken as potentially having such force.

Put otherwise – bad reasons are reasons too. The rationalism that Brandom advocates is, therefore, an extremely slimline rationalism. It is not a rationalism that dictates that anyone, anywhere, actually be reasonable. (Though of course if Brandom’s arguments for all this are good ones, one can presume that at least some philosophers and readers of philosophy have their wits about them, at pain of performative contradiction.)

Furthermore, even the overt statement that there is no reason for something is itself the offering of a reason. If I ask “why is there something rather than nothing?” and you reply “that is just how things are”; or if I ask “why must we continue suffering?” and you reply “because I say so”, these may not be good reasons, but they are reasons. “Because I say so”, “just coz”, “no reason”, “if you disagree I’ll hurt you” – these are all reasons. If we refuse to treat them as adequate reasons, this is because we are ourselves participating in the challenge/response game of asking for and giving reasons – not because there is anything un-reason-like about the statements themselves, ‘as such’.

By the same token, if “I’ll hurt you if you do” is a reason (which it unambiguously is, on Brandom’s account), so – by my lights – is the actual act of violence that this linguistic act threatens. Violence is communicative; if I ask “why can’t I?” and you draw back your fist – this is the offering of a reason (it is the same propositional content expressed by “I’ll hurt you if you do”). By the same token, if I ask “why can’t I?” and you simply punch me to the ground – this is also communicative – it clarifies the consequences of the action I was proposing, and in so doing offers a reason against this action.

I don’t regard this as a weakness of Brandom’s theory. Brandom is not committing us to the absolute dominance of force, by advocating for this vision. We do not have to accept the legitimacy of these reasons – we do not have to take them as good reasons. Indeed they are bad reasons – the worst. But if our acts of violence communicate in this way, we are still inhabiting the space of reasons; there is nothing formally irrational or irrationalist here, no matter how substantively irrational we may take these reasons to be.

I believe all this is a consequence of Brandom’s theoretical framework – but Brandom himself does not agree. These remarks take me back to my very first, uncomprehending post on Brandom, from – my goodness – July 2010. There I was puzzled by the discussion, in Making It Explicit‘s first chapter, of “beating people with sticks”, as an examplification of the kind of ‘naturalistic’ explanation that Brandom opposes. I now, I’m sure, have a much more nuanced sense of what Brandom means by ‘naturalism’ and ‘anti-naturalism’ (see this post) – but I remain perturbed by these passages. Indeed, more than perturbed. I’m now convinced that Brandom gets this wrong – something has gone wrong in Brandom’s comprehension of his own theory, in these early passages of Making It Explicit. More ‘diagnostically’, I think – Brandom’s commitment to rationalism, in a substantive sense, has led him to confuse that substantive sense with the much more formal definition of rationalism that his work elsewhere articulates and defends.

To be both ‘diagnostic’ and a little simplistic: Brandom wants reason, not force, to be the driver of human affairs. Brandom wants to rescue reason from the clutches of force. He wants to liberate a form of rationalism from the naturalistic, materialist, pragmatist, social-theoretic tradition whose insights he nevertheless does not wish to abandon. He succeeds in doing this, I am sure. But in these pages of Making It Explicit, Brandom’s desire is visible, in that his claims overreach the degree of ‘autonomy’ he can in fact grant reason. Brandom shows us some of the ways in which ‘the force of the better reason’ can emerge from the ugly, violent, contingent, banal, unredeemed world of everyday social practice. But Brandom cannot, as he here wishes, fully differentiate the administering of beatings from that social structure of reason. What differentiation we find here must take place ‘downstream’, in our own enacted and contingent politics. The rejection of force as warrant cannot be ‘baked in’ to our philosophy. We have to draw and reproduce this difference in practice.

I’m reading Zizek’s ‘Violence’ on the commute. I’m going to write up notes on it here, as I go. Page numbers, quotes, my comments. We’ll see how far I get.

1. “A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance.”

The fascist move: tolerance is really intolerance; opposition to violence is really violence; those who claim to criticise ugly deeds are really just denying their own ugliness; therefore to be more honest, more knowledgeable, more authentic we should acknowledge the violence that is intrinsic to our natures: own it. An advocacy of evil presented under the guise of a more thorough critique of evil than that offered by liberals and ordinary wimpy leftists.

1. “embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call ‘our house of being'”

Really people need to stop wielding Heidegger as if a) he’s an authority (in fact, Heidegger’s just making this stuff up – the fact that it seems compelling may be because of affective or intellectual resonance, but there’s no particular reason to accord Heidegger’s ideas any warrant – certainly there’s no evidence for them), b) he’s a leftist authority. If a work of theory is allied with fascism, or centrally using the work of a fascist (which of course is what Heidegger was), that doesn’t in itself mean that the work must be on the right: but we should adjust our priors in that direction.

1. Tripartite categorisation of violence: subjective, & two kinds of objective: political-economic and symbolic (=language)

2. “The Congo today has effectively re-emerged as a Conradean ‘heart of darkness’. No one dares to confront it head on.”

3. “My underlying premise is that there is something inherently mystifying in a direct confrontation with it: the overpowering horror of violent acts and empathy with the victims inexorably functions as a lure which prevents us from thinking.”

This isn’t true at all – we can (obviously!) both exhibit empathy and think about the content of that empathy. In fact, there’s plenty of stuff (violence, in fact, included) that one can’t think about in many of its dimensions without empathy.
That aside, the book here states one of its goals: to persuade its readers not to think about the victims of violence with empathy, not to experience horror at violent acts, but to train themselves out of these attitudes and approaches.

3. “What renders a report of a raped woman (or any other narrative of a trauma) truthful is its very factual unreliability, its confusion, its inconsistency.”

Zizek promotes the idea of the unreliability of reports of rape – indeed, elevates this to a general principle – all reports of rape must always be unreliable.

Apart from illustrating what a scumbag he is, this also illustrates why Zizek’s fans must at some level be reactionaries, even if they don’t ‘get’ the overall thrust of the theoretical approach. To admire this passage one has to read it and think something like: “Yes! That’s right! Zizek’s really nailed it, as to why women’s testimony of rape is so unreliable!” The passage relies on the reader’s acceptance of an intrinsically reactionary, totally false position. And, of course, by relying on that acceptance it promotes that acceptance – treating a position as self-evidently true is a way of advocating for it.

4. Now he has the nerve to cite Primo Levi as an example of the unreliability of trauma victims’ testimony. (Introduction; endnote 2).

4. Zizek quotes Akhmatova’s famous introduction to her poem ‘Requiem’ (one of the most famous passages of twentieth century Russian literature – possibly the most famous(?)). Except Zizek doesn’t know that it’s the introduction to ‘Requiem’ – he thinks it’s an extract from Akhmatova’s memoirs (!).

5. The beginning of a discussion of “the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence”. Zizek writes about “the staging of the scene of violence – against women, blacks, the homeless, gays” – here Zizek participating in the usual reactionary making fun of ‘victim poltics’ – no doubt black disabled feminist lesbians will be showing up soon. “Underlying all this is a hypocritical sense of moral outrage.”

Again, the purpose is to attack moral objections to violence, domination and atrocity – to ridicule these moral objections – to present them as hypocritical or naive.

6. “As Bill Gates recently put it: ‘What do computers matter when millions are still unnecessarily dying of dysentry?'”

For some reason we’re supposed to find the sentiment that Gates expresses here risible.

6. Zizek refers (without citation, as is his customary practice) to an 1870 letter from Marx to Engels in which Marx expresses the wish that the (I presume French) revolutionaries not succeed until he has finished ‘Capital’. I don’t know this letter, and it doesn’t seem to be on marxists.org. Does anyone have a reference for it?

6. “‘Do you mean we should do nothing? Just sit and wait?’ One should gather the courage to answer: ‘YES, precisely that!'”

It should be obvious what the appeal of this is to Zizek’s audience: people who want to regard and present themselves as radical, who also want to spend their time reading works of theory and consuming cultural products, and are uncertain about how to reconcile these impulses. Simple: those (like the despicable Bill Gates – symbol of any kind of political intervention any time and any where) who wish to improve lives with their actions, or even who wish to think about the fact of suffering with some empathy or compassion – these people are hypocrites who deny their own essential violence. Unlike these hypocrites, we must refrain from any kind of ameliorative political action or empathy for those who suffer, and instead do nothing… except consume and analyse cultural products. And this lack of engagement with actual politics makes us, in fact, by the transformative magic of Zizek’s work, into more politically astute and engaged people than those who actually do stuff or feel compassion.

9. Zizek returns to his tripartite division: subjective, objective and symbolic violence. Subjective violence is “that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds”. Zizek says that there is “something suspicious, indeed symptomatic” in the liberal focus on subjective violence.

10. “the task is precisely to change the topic” … “subjective violence is just the most visible of the three”.

10-12. Discussion of ‘objective’ violence. This section is quite interesting, as an example of Zizek ‘on game’: it draws a distinction that is well worth making, turns the distinction into metaphysical nonsense, then redirects the nonsense into reactionary historical revisionism. This is Zizek working well – redirecting potentially useful critique towards fascism. I’ll quote at some length, then discuss.

10-11. “The notion of objective violence needs to be thoroughly historicised: it took on a new shape with capitalism… It is far too simple to claim that the spectre of this self-engendering monster that pursues its path disregarding any human or environmental concern is an ideological abstraction and that behind this abstraction there are real people and natural objects on whose productive capacities and resources capital’s circulation is based and on which it feeds like a gigantic parasite. The problem is that this ‘abstraction’ is not only in our financial speculators’ misperception of social reality, but that it is ‘real’ in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social processes: the fate of whole strata of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the ‘solipsistic’ speculative dance of capital…”

11. “Therein resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their ‘evil’ intentions, but is purely ‘objective’, systemic, anonymous… One can experience this gap in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist’s report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country’s economic situation is ‘financially sound’ – reality doesn’t matter, what matters is the situation of capital.”

11-12. “In short, the highest form of ideology does not reside in getting caught in ideological spectrality, forgetting about its foundation is real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality and in pretending directly to address ‘real people with their real worries.'”

Ok, what’s happening in this section?

Zizek is mushing together a number of analytic distinctions that, taken independently, could be valuable, but that conflated in this way make a (deliberately) ideological mess. What exactly is Zizek saying in this passage – what distinctions is he drawing? I’m going to list various ways in which some of these remarks could be interpreted, then show how Zizek shuffles between these senses to enable his historical revisionism.

First: the distinction between violence that is intended by agents, versus violence that is an unintended, unwitting consequence of multiple agents’ aggregate actions. This distinction is the sense that can be given to Zizek’s remarks about “concrete individuals and their ‘evil’ intentions” versus violence that is “‘objective’, systemic, anonymous.” – if Zizek’s distinction is to be given social-theoretic content, this must be that content. (Note that I’m not saying Zizek’s distinction actually does mean this, in his text – I don’t think it does – just that this is what it would have to mean to render the distinction meaningful, accurate, and analytically useful.)

To elaborate on the content that I am temporarily granting Zizek’s distinction… Take as an example of intended violence, the institution of slavery. Slave owners obviously know and intend the violence they perpetrate on the slaves that are their property. Against this, we can give an example of the violence of unintended consequences: Let’s say a technological innovation greatly improves farming yields for a given crop. Now that yields have improved, the global market is flooded with the crop, and its price falls. Poor farmers, who had relied on exports of that crop as their principle source of income, find their income dramatically reduced. They must consume more of their own crops themselves, to survive, which reduces their income still further. They also cannot afford their principle investment expenditure. Without this investment, the subsequent year’s crop is dramatically worse. Famine; many deaths.

This socially-effected violence is not ‘intended’ by anyone – but it is objective, and it is a product of specific decisions by a very large number of social actors. Of course even this latter ‘objective’ violence requires a ‘subjective’ violence in order to occur: the social structures that generate this outcome are created and maintained, in significant part, by deliberate force. Still, this way of drawing a distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ violence can be understood in a meaningful way, I believe. [It should go without saying that this example of ‘objective’ violence is not more hypothetical than is the institution of slavery – Amartya Sen’s work on famines and Mike Davis’s ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ are useful reference points here.]

This isn’t how Zizek understands his distinction, though – as we’ll see. What else is happening in this section?

Second: the distinction between “ideological abstraction” and “real people and natural objects”. This could be understood as a critique of a kind of vulgar materialism (again – I’m granting Zizek’s words content here, rather than offering an interpretation of their actual function in his text). One might think that ‘abstractions’, in the sense of concepts in one’s head, don’t have material force – but in fact of course they do. Zizek writes (to quote this passage again)

The problem is that this ‘abstraction’ is not only in our financial speculators’ misperception of social reality, but that it is ‘real’ in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social processes

We could take this to mean that misperceptions by powerful actors have a material impact, because those power actors act on their misperceptions, granting them real social force. Or we could mean the first thing, about unintended consequences – Zizek could be saying (he isn’t) that the ‘abstractions’ he is referring to are the aggregate effects of many actors’ actions.

What else?

Third: Zizek could be referring here to an actual metaphysical entity independent of social actors. This passage doesn’t particularly suggest this, I don’t think – but I’m putting it out there anyway, as I’m sure this is how Zizek is understood by some of his readers.

Fourth: Zizek could be drawing a distinction between spheres of social action. On the one hand, the social action of financial speculators; on the other hand the social action of other economic actors. This doesn’t, in fact, map well at all onto the ‘abstract’ versus ‘real’ distinction Zizek is discussing, here: financial speculators are in fact also real social actors. But this is probably the most obvious way to interpret what he is saying. Zizek’s final example – of a country filled with human misery, but valuable to capital, could be taken as an example of this: an economy that is valuable to capital is, of course, valuable to the capitalist social actors who are profitably investing in the country. Whatever else Zizek is saying about ‘objective’ and ‘anonymous’ economic structures, we know that differentials in the benefits accrued from these social structures are real and large.

Now watch as Zizek moves through several of these very different possible meanings of his remarks, exploiting his own unclarity and assuming a reader who cannot be bothered to pin him down.

First Zizek talks about an ‘objective’ violence that is “systemic, anonymous” – that no one intends, that is associated with no specific agent, but that is a feature of the system as a whole. Then he shifts to talking about the perspective of the economist, as against the perspective of those in ‘human misery’. Then we reach this extraordinary passage, which returns to the earlier thematised Congo (“re-emerged as a Conradean ‘heart of darkness’”), and reveals what that earlier Conrad reference was foreshadowing:

12. “Our blindness to the results of systemic violence is perhaps most clearly perceptible in debates about communist crimes. Responsibility for communist crimes is easy to allocate: we are dealing with subjective evil, with agents who did wrong… But when one draws attention to the millions who died as the result of capitalist globalisation, from the tragedy of Mexico in the sixteenth century through to the Belgian Congo holocaust a century ago, responsibility is largely denied. All this seems just to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, which nobody planned and executed and for which there was no ‘Capitalist Manifesto’… The fact that the Belgian king Leopold II who presided over the Congo holocaust was a great humanitarian and proclaimed a saint by the Pope cannot be dismissed as a mere case of ideological hypocrisy and cynicism. Subjectively, he may well have been a sincere humanitarian, even modestly counteracting the catastrophic consequences of the vast economic project which was the ruthless exploitation of the natural resources of the Congo over which he presided. The country was his personal fiefdom! The ultimate irony is that even most of the profits from this endeavour were for the benefit of the Belgian people, for public works, museums and so on.”

Let’s remind ourselves and Zizek of the administration of the Belgian Congo under Leopold II. Here’s an excellent short video; Here’s Adam Hochschild’s ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ on Amazon [full disclosure – I haven’t read the Hochschild]; here’s a review of the latter from the New York Times, from which I will quote:

It shows, above all, that during Leopold’s rule in Africa from 1885 to 1908, and in the years on either side of it, the peoples of the Congo River Basin suffered, in Hochschild’s words, ”a death toll of Holocaust dimensions.” This is not said lightly. The strategy adopted to plunder the area was, in effect, a war of enslavement against the indigenous population.

Much of the death toll was the result of killing, pure and simple. Villages were dragooned into tapping rubber, and if they refused to comply, or complied but failed to meet European quotas, they were punished. The hands of dead Congolese were severed and kept by militias to account to their quartermasters for spent ammunition. And, as Morel said, the practice of mutilation was extended to the living. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, were caused by sickness and starvation. The effect of the terror was to drive communities from their sources of food.

A Belgian Government commission estimated that from the late 1870’s, when the explorer Henry Morton Stanley made his first forays into the Congo on King Leopold’s behalf, until 1919, the year the commission published its findings, the population of the Congo Basin had been reduced by half. In 1924 there were thought to be some 10 million inhabitants — which means, Hochschild says, that ”during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately 10 million.”

Now return to Zizek’s description of the Belgian Congo holocaust:

All this seems just to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, which nobody planned and executed

Is this an accurate characterisation of the policies and atrocities of Leopold’s Belgium in the Congo? Of course it is not. It is an obscenity. Leopold’s Belgium’s actions in the Congo are one of the most unambiguously centralised, planned, deliberately administered, exploitative, violent, murderous sets of state actions in capitalist history. It is hard to think of a case that would be more clearly a) capitalist; b) centrally planned and knowingly directed; and c) an atrocity of this scale.

But wait? Does Zizek mean it? Defenders of Zizek will, I believe or predict, at this point leap into the fray and insist that I am overlooking the crucial word “seems”. Zizek is not himself describing the Belgian Congo holocaust in these terms – he is ventriloquising liberal capitalist ideology (or some such perspective).

If this defense is your first impulse, reader, I invite you to review the structure of this section of the chapter again, yourself. In addition, let me talk it through again one more time.

– Zizek draws a distinction between ‘subjective’ violence – planned and intended by agents – and ‘objective’ violence – anonymous, unintended, systemic.
– He says that his goal is to direct attention away from ‘subjective’ violence, towards ‘objective’ violence.
– Zizek states that communism’s violence is obviously ‘subjective’, because clearly planned and intended.
– He states that capitalism’s violence is much more often ‘objective’, because it is not intended, but the results of the anonymous operation of an impersonal system.
– He gives as an example of this ‘objective’ violence the Belgian Congo under Leopold II
– This example amounts to extreme reactionary historical revisionism.

Zizek is not ventriloquising capitalist ideology here – the distinction between subjective and objective violence is his own, and has been offered as his valuable contribution to debates around violence. The example he chooses is his own. And the chapter has clearly been written with this example in mind, because he has foreshadowed it: the murder of Congolese by Congolese is ‘subjective’ violence; the murder of Congolese by Belgian colonialists is ‘objective’ violence.

In addition, note how Zizek is repurposing his own choice of technical vocabulary. In drawing the distinction between violence that is intended by an agent, and violence that is perpetrated by agents without intent… in drawing this distinction, Zizek chose the rather idiosyncratic terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ to characterise the types of violence that he had in mind. Now, at this crucial point in his argument, Zizek is – without flagging it – abandoning his previous technical definitions of these terms and returning to their ordinary language usage; he thinks he can count on most readers not to notice. Zizek writes –

Subjectively, he may well have been a sincere humanitarian

– meaning that in his own subjectivity Leopold may have sincerely regarded himself as a humanitarian. But of course this is not what the nexus of terms around “subjective” means in the technical vocabulary Zizek has just introduced. If we read this passage using Zizek’s own definitions of his terms, Zizek is here saying that Leopold may well not have directed the policies implemented in his rule of the Belgian Congo. This is, self-evidently, false.

Finally, no passage of Zizek would be complete without a more straightforward factual error: Leopold II was not “proclaimed a saint by the Pope”, as Zizek claims. It’s possible Zizek has in mind Leopold III (1095 – 1136), patron saint of Austria. Or it’s possible that he’s just flinging around whatever falsehoods suit his argument, as he is wont to do.


My reading has gotten ahead of my note-taking, but I wanted to skip ahead to mention this. Not the worst thing in the book by a long way, but particularly striking to me for some reason:

42-3. “When the United Airlines Flight 93 and three other planes were skyjacked on 9/11, it is significant that the gist of the phone calls to their closest relatives from the passengers who knew they were about to die was ‘I love you’. Martin Amis emphasised the Pauline point that all that ultimately matters is love:”

[NB: I think Amis himself would probably tether this closer to Larkin – “our almost-instinct almost true: what will survive of us is love” is the sentiment Amis has cited every other time he’s made remarks of this kind that I’ve read – though I’ve not read the piece Zizek cites here – but no matter.]

[NB#2: Well, after a bit of googling, here it is:

Like the victims on the other three planes, but unlike them, because they knew, the passengers called their families and said that they loved them. It is an extraordinary validation, or fulfilment, of Larkin’s lines at the end of An Arundel Tomb:

…To prove Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

See? Larkin (who, whatever else you can say about him, was properly secular – really not necessary to bring Paul in.)]

43-44. “[Zizek quoting Amis:]’Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black.’ However, a suspicion remains here: is this desperate confession of love also not something of a sham, the same kind of fakery as the sudden turn to God and prayer of someone who suddenly faces the danger or proximity of death – a hypocritical opportunistic move born of fear, not of true conviction? Why should there be more truth in what we do in such desperate moments? Is it not rather that, in such moments, the survival instinct makes us betray our desire? In this sense, deathbed conversions or confessions of love are sacrifices of desire… (This, incidentally, brings us to what would have been a true ethical act: imagine a wife phoning her husband in the last seconds of her life to tell him: ‘Just wanted to let you know that our marriage was a sham, that I cannot stand the sight of you…’)”

Ok – as I say, there’s plenty that’s objectively worse than this passage in ‘Violence’, but for some reason this strikes me as particularly revolting. Zizek doesn’t understand that most of us actually love those we choose to spend our lives with. He really doesn’t understand – he doesn’t believe it. Oh, sure, there are plenty of people who live unhappily with their partners – it’s perfectly plausible that some of those on Flight 93 called people they did not, in fact, love, and told them that they loved them – because this was a lie the relationship was based on, and they wanted to maintain that lie until the end. Even this scenario – even this – strikes me as an act of generosity, rather than of cowardice. But in fact for most people, when we call those who are closest to us in moments that we believe to be our last, and tell them that we love them… we are doing this because their and our lives’ meanings are bound together, because this expression of love is the most meaningful thing we can do for us and them with those last remaining minutes and seconds, because we want those who mean most to us to know that they were in our hearts, that we care for them and wish them to know that we care for them – this is what’s going on in such calls.

But because Zizek doesn’t share these attitudes – because he doesn’t care for those he pretends to – because he himself never means it when he says “I love you” – Zizek doesn’t believe it. This passage is as pristine an example as you’ll find of a common ‘theoretical’ move: 1) project your emotional problems onto all humanity; 2) congratulate yourself on the remarkable fact that you, almost alone, have the self-knowledge required to understand this invariant quality of human nature; 3) berate everyone else for concealing their true wretched state from themselves.

Again, Zizek’s fans, when reading this, presumably participate in this circuit of self-congratulation. These people (mostly male, I think) are overgrown adolescents – emotionally immature, incapable of even really imagining a full, loving relationship of any kind – and they snigger and high-five each other as Zizek says what they take everyone else to be hiding – taking their incapacities as insights, their emotional ignorance as emotional depth. (But I think the huge aggression in passages like these comes from a level of suppression, probably. If Zizek and his fans were secure in their analysis there wouldn’t be quite this level of obvious aggressive glee in its articulation. Zizek can’t quite decide if he’s soberly revealing that everyone is like this, or if he’s resentfully attacking those who aren’t like this; I think the affect wavers a bit between these stances.)


52. “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?”

Zizek contrasts his view with that of Jean-Marie Muller. Quoting Muller:

“Speaking is the foundation and structures of socialisation, and happens to be characterised by the renunciation of violence”

Against this view, Zizek cites Lacan.

52-3 “for Lacan – at least for his theory of four discourses elaborated in the late 1960s – human communication in its most basic, constitutive dimension does not involve a space of egalitarian intersubjectivity…. On the contrary, what Lacan indicates with his notion of the discourse of the Master as the first (inaugural, constitutive) from of discourse is that every concrete, ‘really existing’ space of discourse is ultimately grounded in a violent imposition of a Master-Signifier which is stricto sensu ‘irrational’: it cannot be further grounded in reasons. It is the point at which one can only say that ‘the buck stops here’; a point at which, in order to stop the endless regress, somebody has to say, ‘It is so because I say it is so!‘”

Brandom is a valuable counterweight to this false view of the functioning of language. I’ve discussed the Brandomian apparatus in great detail elsewhere on this blog. To summarise the relevant points briefly: yes, Zizek is right that any given ‘actually existing’ discursive chain of reasons must come to a halt at some point, when it reaches a point that (for whatever reason) the discursive community in question has chosen to treat as a ‘material inference’ – as, if you like, axiomatic. But it does not follow from this (as Zizek suggests) that such ‘stopping points’ themselves cannot be grounded in reasons. Brandom has a ‘default>challenge>response’ model of asking for and giving reasons: any ground can be challenged, and further reasons for it can be adduced. But no specific ground has to be challenged in any given interaction. So for any given interaction there will be heaps of unchallenged ‘axiomatic’ claims; but for the community as a whole, over time, any of these ‘grounds’ can be challenged and, potentially, rejected. There need be no ‘Master Signifier’. Neurath’s boat cannot be entirely dismantled at any one time; but every plank can be changed over the course of time (and, in principle, as part of this ongoing reconstructive work, the structure of the ‘boat’ itself can be transformed.)

So Zizek’s leap to irrationalism here – and his claim that an act of force that exists only as force, without any possibility of rational justification, must form the substrate of reason – all this is unwarranted.

Nietzsche’s thought is bravely, corrosively, excoriatingly sceptical – letting no piety stand before it; destroying the platitudes of our decadent time in its lordly conflagration of received opinions: so we are told, most of all by Nietzsche himself, who informs us – boldly yet bashfully – that, when we read him, we are in the presence of

a characteristic scepticism to which I confess only reluctantly… a scepticism which sprang up in my life so early, so unbidden, so unstoppably, and which was in such conflict with my surroundings, age, precedents, and lineage that I would almost me justified in calling it my ‘a priori’ (The Geneaology of Morality, 1994, Cambridge University Press, p. 4-5)

Nothing escapes this scepticism – all thought and action is subjected to it, as Nietzsche ruthlessly pursues his genealogies of morality and truth, uncovering the tarnished origins of our most cherished convictions, aided by his “innate fastidiousness with regard to all psychological problems”.

Curiously, though, something escapes this scepticism: the source of Nietzsche’s own claims. On this epistemological matter – the legitimacy of his views – Nietzsche informs us:

The fact that I still stick to them today, and that they themselves in the meantime have stuck together increasingly firmly, even growing into one another and growing into one, makes me all the more blithely confident that from the first, they did not arise in me individually, randomly or sporadically but as stemming from a single root, from a fundamental will to knowledge deep inside me which took control, speaking more and more clearly and making clearer and clearer demands. And this is the only thing proper for a philosopher. We have no right to stand out individually: we must not either make mistakes or hit on the truth individually. Instead, our thoughts, values, every ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘if’, and ‘but’ grow from us with the same inevitability as fruits borne on the tree – all related and referring to one another and a testimonial to one will, one health, one earth, one sun. (p. 4)

Nietzsche’s scepticism is remorseless – except when it comes to Nietzsche. Should you doubt Nietzsche’s historical conjectures or political preferences, remind yourself that Nietzsche possesses “a fundamental will to knowledge” deep inside him – bound to one health, one earth and one sun. Do you have such a fundamental will? Is it deep inside you? No? Then fuck you: let Nietzsche speak.

The shamelessness of this rhetorical move – all should be doubted, except the world-historical profundity of Nietzsche’s vision – has not damaged its effectiveness. Nietzsche appeals to those vulnerable to being bullied by his certainty, and to those who wish also to inhabit the privileged clique of world-historical visionaries, alongside him. Nietzsche does not appeal to those who care about the basis of their claims.

Nietzschean ‘scepticism’, then, and its derivatives, should be seen for what it is: a lack of scepticism, a self-deluding gullibility, a willingness to believe the most unsupported fantasies if they provide a particularly gratifying self-understanding – all presented, falsely, bizarrely, as coruscating willingness to subject everything to critique.

Obvious points, I realise – but still.

[UPDATE 1 – 4/9/12: This comment is now back up at the LARB site – see comment thread below]

[UPDATE 2 – 5/9/12: For some reason I can’t get comments to work on the LARB site today; this is probably just a glitch, but I’ve posted the additional comment I was planning to leave in comments here.]

[UPDATE 3 – 6/9/12: Comments are still not easily visible on the LARB site; they seem to all be in ‘white-on-white’ type.]

Another deleted comment on Zizek to file away here. This one I posted below an article by Kotsko on Zizek at the LA Review of Books – here’s the piece.

Alphonse van Worden has a screencap of the thread as it was before the LARB deleted a number of comments (including mine). [UPDATE: As of the evening of the 4th, my comments are back up on the site; Alphonse van Worden’s are not.] I thought I’d post my long comment here, too.

(The admittedly somewhat bitter title of the post comes from one of the pro-Zizek comments that didn’t get deleted.)

Comment is below:


Another data point on the issue of why many people (including me) regard Zizek’s politics as reactionary, and as a negative influence of any attempt to think constructively about alternative political and economic institutions:

Here’s a Zizek piece published in the New Statesman:


The main question Zizek is trying to help us to answer, in this piece, is what institutional changes can help us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in such a way that we can hopefully escape the more extreme predicted possible environmental consequences of our current economic practices. This is, of course, an incredibly pressing and important problem, many possible detailed solutions to which have been proposed by people and organisations right across the political spectrum.

Opinions differ on everything, here, of course – but it seems to me, and to many observers, that one of the principal things missing in ‘our’ ability to implement various of those proposals is political will. It’s not hard to see how regulation of carbon emissions, for example, would work (whether or not this is our favoured solution): but it’s hard to see how a sufficiently large-scale implementation of such regulation could be achieved in present political circumstances. Reasons for this lack of political will can themselves then be discussed (e.g. the difficulty of international co-ordination w/r/t free rider problems; the influence of existing industry interests on political decision-making bodies; etc.)

All these issues are, as I say, being discussed in great and concrete detail by people right across the political spectrum; there is a vast body of academic and non-academic work on almost every aspect of these issues.

Now what does Zizek add to this serious, extensive and ongoing debate, in his New Statesman piece? He proposes four things:

1) “worldwide norms of per capita energy consumption should be imposed”

2) “terror: the ruthless punishment of all those who violate the imposed protective measures, including severe limitations of liberal “freedoms” and the technological control of prospective lawbreakers.”

3) “voluntarism: the only way to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is by means of collective decision-making”

4) “trust in the people: … We should not be afraid to encourage, as a combination of terror and trust in the people, the resurgence of an important figure in all egalitarian-revolutionary terror – the “informer” who denounces culprits to the authorities.”

Now, looking particularly at points two and four (that is: terror, and the resurgence of the ‘informer’) – what problems, exactly, are these proposals a solution to? It seems clear to me that the principal problems faced by the implementation of proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions are not located at the level of individual citizens’ transgression of authorities’ demands. But Zizek’s ‘solutions’ are principally oriented to the establishment of a global terroristic police-state-style system.

Why would a globally coherent terroristic police system, with informants denouncing fellow citizens, be Zizek’s solution to the problem of anthropogenic global warming? There seems, at best, to be a leap in argument or logic here. [Note that this is not a right wing proposal advanced in order to be problematised or transformed (as Kotsko describes in the piece above). This is the culmination of the article, and the position Zizek himself advocates for, in his own voice.]

For many (like me) the lack of logic here suggests that Zizek (like, of course, many columnists) is using issues like climate change as a largely arbitrary ‘hook’ to lead into political proposals that he wishes to advance for other reasons. And, again, for many (like me) the political perspective that Zizek in fact advocates is repugnant.

In other words: Kotsko’s piece above does not adequately address the extent to which many objections to Zizek’s work are based, not in an objection to ‘thinking alternatives’, or in a blind adherence to the status quo, but rather in specific political and ethical objections to the specific ways in which Zizek proposes we think ‘alternatives’. Put bluntly, Zizek’s politics are often (to me, and to many others) abhorrent.

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.

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.


May 13, 2012

A helpful way to approach Brandom’s inferentialism is to look at some of the positions he takes it to oppose. In this post I will begin to discuss one such position, which Brandom labels ‘reliabilism’.

Recall that the opposition here is between positions that take representation or reference to be explanatorily primitive within semantics, and Brandom’s own position, which argues that representation or reference can be fully explained in terms of inference. For Brandom, inference is a social thing – the language-behaviours with which we attribute and endorse inferences are social behaviours. Reference, by contrast, very much appears to involve something other than social practice – indeed, it is hard to imagine a credible account of reference that does not involve entities and events that would not ordinarily be categorised as social. If I state that the surface temperature of the planet Mercury can reach 700 degrees Kelvin, and that by around 8 billion years from now, by our best estimates, that planet, along perhaps with Earth, will have been destroyed by the expansion of the sun to around 256 times its present radius, I am making claims about entities that do not, in any very narrow sense, participate in our social practices. Neither are the causal mechanisms by which these entities (Mercury; the sun) impact upon our senses and equipment, mechanisms that would ordinarily be called ‘social’

Nevertheless, Brandom believes that representation should be understood in social terms. What does this mean?

We can start to unpack this by contrasting Brandom’s position with a common alternative account of reference, which Brandom (following standard philosophical usage) labels ‘reliabilism’. The issue here, of course, is how we gain empirical knowledge of the world – we are interested for now in language-entry moves (perception), rather than language-exit moves (action).

Recall, then, that Brandom’s account is built up out of reliable differential responsive dispositions (RDRDs). RDRDs are the basic (if you like ‘ontological’) building blocks of Brandom’s account. [Though this is a ‘weak’ rather than a ‘strong’ ontology, in that it does not make any claims about the ‘fundamental’ entities that inhabit our world; merely the kinds of behaviour some entities in our world must be capable of exhibiting if our account is to have any explanatory function.] Given this, it would seem to make sense for Brandom’s system to take reliability of responsiveness to stimuli as the core of its account of representation.

Brandom frames his discussion of reliabilism in relation to the classic definition of knowledge as justified true belief. In his seminal “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Edmund Gettier attributes this position to A.J.Ayer, Roderick M. Chisholm, and, more tentatively, Plato. I need, obviously, to do a more thorough review of the literature here…

A central question for justified true belief accounts of knowledge, is what constitutes justification. Brandom’s overall strategy, in keeping with his normative phenomenalism, is to explain justification in terms of the social practices of taking-as-justified. (Similarly, Brandom will explain truth in terms of taking-true; and he will explain the content of belief – that which makes a belief a belief about something, and thus a belief at all – in terms of the inferential practices of attributing and acknowledging commitments. This is all, for now, a separate set of issues.)

However, the justification of our beliefs does not prima facie have to be accounted for in terms of the activity of justifying them. As Brandom puts it:

It is generally agreed that some sort of entitlement to a claim is required for it to be a candidate for expressing knowledge. But it is not obvious that inferring in the sense of justifying is at all fundamental to that sort of entitlement.

The core point, it appears, is that our beliefs cannot be accidental if they are to be capable of counting as justified. A belief formed by flipping a coin will not (unless, perhaps, we attribute the coin-flip’s outcome to the intervention of a supernatural power) provide justified belief even if (by chance) it provides true belief. An account is needed of the non-fortuitous formation of a belief if it is to be a candidate for knowledge.

‘Reliabilism’ does exactly this, without invoking inferential justification. In Brandom’s words:

[T]he correctness of the belief is not merely fortuitous if it is the outcome of a generally reliable belief-forming mechanism. Epistemological reliabilists claim that this is the sort of entitlement status that must be attributed (besides the status of being a true belief) for attributions of knowledge.

Brandom makes use of Alvin Goldman’s ‘Barn Facade County’ thought experiment (from Goldman’s “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge”, Journal of Philosophy 73, no. 20 (1976)) to argue against the reliabilist position. I’ll talk about this next.