Two anti-pragmatist arguments

September 11, 2022

I think I’ve now assembled all the various resources I need to make the argument I want to in this series of posts, but first I want to pull back again to discuss the broad ‘problem space’ around pragmatism that this entire series of posts is operating within.  In this short post I want to outline two common critiques of pragmatism – as I see things, a good one and a bad one – then in the next post I’ll (hopefully) turn to addressing the good critique.

To review: pragmatism, as I understand it, is a philosophy that takes social practice as its core explanatory category.  Other major philosophical categories – e.g. truth, reason, normativity – are to be explained in terms of social practice.  The pragmatist position, in particular, is that norms are instituted by social practices, and that any philosophical projects that deal with norms – i.e. all philosophical projects – therefore need to attend to social practice as a core part of their explanatory apparatus.  Brandom is obviously a pragmatist in this sense – as is Brandom’s Hegel.

The first (bad) critique of pragmatism, I take it, runs something like this: explaining norms in terms of social practice is inevitably to completely lose our normative bearings.  There must be something that transcends social practice if the norms are to be norms at all – otherwise we are simply relativists and, probably, nihilists.  This critique of pragmatism, by my lights, is driven by a desire for a ‘solid ground’ that can provide a kind of normative guarantee.  The most straightforward instantiation of this approach, I suppose, is a range of categories of religiosity – the idea here is that a divine transcendent power is the ultimate source of normative authority, and this transcendent reference-point allows us to orient our normative lives around something with more permanence and meaning than simply social practice.  But although religious critiques of this kind are the most direct, I would argue that a large number of ‘secular’ metaphysical positions are also anti-pragmatist in this sense.  Many forms of ‘foundationalism’ are anti-pragmatist in this sense, for example.  From this anti-pragmatist perspective, the very idea that normativity might be grounded in something as contingent and human as social practice is basically risible.  I’m going to call this stance the ‘critique from metaphysics’.

As I say, I think this is a common critique of pragmatism, and in a way it’s not something that I have a huge amount to say about.  In my view the ‘metaphysical’ sentiment that Dewey calls ‘the quest for certainty’ and Derrida calls the desire for ‘presence’ is a major driver of critiques of pragmatism, and although I think there are good arguments against this sentiment, I think that ultimately those arguments are unlikely to convince most people who are strongly motivated by this desire or project.  Moreover, that’s ok.  I don’t think it’s either necessary or plausible to imagine that we pragmatists are going to be able to get anything close to consensus on our preferred meta-theoretical framework.  On most practical matters, the question of whether people are pragmatists, metatheoretically speaking, is just beside the point.

So, I’m basically bracketing this disagreement, which I take to be a matter of something like fundamental philosophical orientation.  There is, however, a second category of anti-pragmatist argument, which can be quite hard to differentiate from the first, and which provides, by my lights, as it were, its rational core.  This is the argument that the pragmatist cannot in practice elaborate a pragmatist position that doesn’t collapse into some form of deference to power.  The argument here is that if pragmatists explain norms in terms of social practice, it should, from a pragmatist point of view, be possible to transform our norms simply by transforming our social practices.  This means, in turn, that if the community we inhabit becomes as a whole normatively monstrous, it becomes impossible to establish a normative critical standpoint from which to criticise that community.  If norms (in some complicated sense) just are social practices, then isn’t the abolition of critical social practices also the abolition of the relevant critical norms?  And isn’t this a politically and morally unacceptable philosophical position?

I think a clear articulation of this standpoint is James Conant’s essay on Richard Rorty in the Brandom-edited volume ‘Rorty and His Critics’.  Once again, I’m running off vibes here, so I’m not going to go back and actually check the essay, but if I recollect roughly correctly, Conant uses the memorable conclusion of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ as his critical lever against Rorty’s pragmatism.  In the concluding sequence of that work, Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is tortured by an agent of the totalitarian state, O’Brien.  O’Brien makes what are, effectively, a set of pragmatist arguments – pragmatism as imagined by its critics.  O’Brien argues that the power of the Party is able to remake individuals, in their behaviour and psychology, and that therefore truth itself is malleable by the Party, for how can the idea of truth have any meaning outside of human subjective beliefs and actions?  The horror of O’Brien’s arguments is meant to be not merely the idea of the totalitarian state exercising coercive power over individuals, but the idea that by doing so the totalitarian state can abolish even the normative basis for critique and resistance.  The critique of Rorty’s pragmatism, then, amounts to the following: how can Rorty’s position differentiate itself from O’Brien’s?

I think Rorty is vulnerable to this critique, because Rorty is (by my lights) quite careless about how he articulates his pragmatism.  Although they don’t identify exactly as pragmatists, the strong programme theorists I discussed earlier are likewise vulnerable to this critique, because they are willing to simply bite the bullet and say that norms can correctly be identified with whatever a community takes them to be.  I think the tendency of pragmatism to collapse into this kind of stance – or at least the difficulty pragmatism has in robustly differentiating itself from this stance – is a genuine problem with and for pragmatism, which needs to be reckoned with by pragmatists.

However, I also think that a broadly Brandomian apparatus gives us the resources to respond to this critique.  In the posts that follow, then, I’m going to draw on the arguments that I’ve assembled over the last dozen or so posts to try to articulate in extremely broad brush strokes a pragmatist theory of normativity that I believe can plausibly respond to this challenge.  I guess we’ll see how I do.


I recently read Don Lavoie’s ‘Rivalry and central planning’ – an account of the ‘socialist calculation debate’ which I can’t recommend highly enough.  Lavoie is a partisan – his goal is to present a ‘revisionist’ account of the debate which makes the case for the Austrian side.  But it’s also simply an excellent piece of ‘internalist’ intellectual history.  Moreover, to my mind Lavoie’s reconstruction of the Austrian arguments is much more clearly articulated than any of the debate’s ‘primary texts’, and the book is well worth engaging with on that basis.

The core of the calculation debate is, of course, over the feasibility of socialist or communist central planning.  The debate is multi-faceted and it’s not the goal of this post to even begin to attempt to summarise it, but the postage-stamp-sized version of the Austrian argument is that central planning isn’t going to work well because of a set of ‘knowledge problems’: local knowledge, tacit knowledge, and – especially – ineradicable uncertainty mean that central planners simply don’t have the categories of information required to engage in efficient economic planning.  Therefore, the argument goes, the Marxist goal of rational central planning is a pipe dream.  By contrast, the Austrians argue, market-based ‘spontaneous order’ – or ‘catallaxy’ – can be responsive to local knowledge, tacit knowledge, and the forms of unexpected discovery associated with ineradicable uncertainty, in a way that central planning never can be.  Therefore markets are better than planning.

Along the way in making this argument, Lavoie summarises two elements of Marx’s work.  First, Lavoie argues that Marx is committed to a naive concept of planning, which hasn’t reckoned with the very serious obstacles to ‘rational’ central planning.  I think this is a very fair critique – though again I don’t want to get into this side of things in this post.  Second, Lavoie gives an excellent summary of one dimension of Marx’s account of capitalism: the centrality of uncertainty and disequilibrium to market dynamics.  

It is this second element of Lavoie’s summary of Marx’s argument that I want to focus on in this post.  Interestingly – and in my view correctly – Lavoie argues that this dimension of Marx’s argument is a point of commonality between Marx and the Austrians.  Lavoie makes this argument by contrasting this position (shared by Marx and the Austrians) with two rival understandings of market dynamics.  On the one hand, there is the position that sees capitalist markets as simply chaos (a view that Lavoie argues Hayek wrongly attributes to Marx).  This is wrong – markets are not chaos – rather they are a form of ‘spontaneous order’.  On the other hand, there is the position that capitalist markets can in principle attain perfect efficiency (a view expressed by, for example, the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics).  This is also wrong, because of the ‘knowledge problem’ associated with ineradicable uncertainty.  It is impossible for markets to attain perfect efficiency, even in principle, because one of the functions of markets is to discover information that is not and cannot be known to any of the market participants when those market participants take the actions that will, ultimately, lead to the discovery of the information.  In Hayek’s phrase, market competition is a ‘discovery procedure’ – and precisely because it is a discovery procedure market actors can in principle never possess the kind of perfect knowledge required for fully efficient coordination.  For the Austrians, in other words, a large part of the value of markets lies in their failures of coordination, in their constantly renewed moments of disequilibrium, because such moments of disequilibrium are a necessary precondition of the production of the knowledge that can then be disseminated through the price system.  (Indeed, the workings of the price mechanism are themselves one of the mechanisms via which such knowledge is discovered.) I’m being very telegraphic here – Lavoie spells all of this out in much greater detail and one day I would like to too – but that’s the general idea.

One strand of Lavoie’s argument in the second chapter of ‘Rivalry and central planning’, then, is that Marx: a) understands this dimension of capitalism very well; b) regards this dimension of capitalism as a flaw rather than as a virtue of the system; c) believes that this feature of capitalist markets can feasibly be replaced with a form of central planning that would not exhibit disequilibrium dynamics; and d) is wrong about this.

Now, I think Lavoie is right to say that Marx understands this element of capitalism very well.  Ironically, this element of Marx’s argument is frequently missed by both Marx’s critics and his defenders.  Marx’s critics frequently don’t understand how sophisticated and developed Marx’s understanding of market dynamics is.  Of course, Marx doesn’t use the Austrian term of art ‘catallactics’, but Marx in ‘Capital’ is definitely giving an account of a complex spontaneous order that operates via constantly renewed disequilibrium.  Indeed, this element of Marx’s account of capitalism deeply informs Schumpeter’s concept of ‘creative destruction’.  At the same time, many Marxists are also indifferent to this element of Marx’s argument.  Perhaps a bit provocatively, I think you could give a reasonable first-pass typology of a range of strands of recent Marxist theory in terms of what they miss about this element of ‘Capital’.  On the one hand, there are forms of ‘political Marxism’ which see Marx’s contribution as an emphasis on class conflict – either at the micro level of the site of production, or at the national level of ruling capitalist class versus the proletariat, or at the international level of core versus periphery.  Of course all of these forms of class conflict are indeed essential to Marx’s account of capitalism – but it is easy for accounts of Marx’s argument that emphasise these issues to miss the elements of Marx’s analysis that do not focus on any of these forms of conflict, but rather on the ‘spontaneous order’ that emerges from dispersed social action.  On the other hand, there are forms of Marxism that make central use of categories which are presented in Marx’s analysis as ‘emergent’ phenomena – and yet ‘reify’ such categories in a way that severs them from the explanatory apparatus developed in ‘Capital’.  In my view quite a lot of recent Hegelian and ‘value form’ Marxism can be understood in this way – that is, as treating what are for Marx emergent categories in ways that render them analytically opaque by losing track of the mechanisms of their emergence.  In this sense, I think it’s important to see that ‘Capital’ is a ‘microfounded’ account of large-scale emergent phenomena, and looking exclusively at either ‘side’ of that dichotomy (either just the microfoundations or just the large-scale categories) will give an unrepresentative account of what Marx is doing.  (As always, I need to flag here how much of my own understanding of Marx’s argument is informed by N. Pepperell’s work.)

On this side of things, then, I think Lavoie is exactly right in his re-presentation of Marx’s analysis of capitalism.  Moreover, I think Lavoie is right to say that Marx thinks the disequilibrium dynamics he analyses are bad qua disequilibrium dynamics.  For example, one of the many dimensions of capitalism that Marx is interested in is large-scale economic crisis – financial system meltdown, the forms of underemployment of resources associated with recession and depression, boom and bust cycles, etc. – and of course these elements of capitalist dynamics are intimately connected to the constantly renewed disequilibrium and speculative uncertainty that both Marx and the Austrians agree are core to capitalism as a system.  For Lavoie, Marx thinks that this kind of disequilibrium process can be contrasted with rational central planning which would not exhibit these attributes, and rational central planning is to be preferred on this basis.

So, I think Lavoie is right about all of this.  I also think Lavoie is right that Marx is severely underestimating the difficulties associated with ‘rational’ planning.  So what’s the problem?  Isn’t Lavoie – and, by extension, the broader Austrian critique of Marx – just right, full stop, by my lights?

Well, in a sense, yes.  But here’s the issue.  In Lavoie’s discussion of Marx, he foregrounds Marx’s dissatisfaction with the disequilibrium dimensions of capitalism, and their consequences.  As I say, I think this is indeed a central element of Marx’s critique.  But I think it’s important to remember that there are other dimensions of Marx’s critique of capitalism.  In particular, one of the most central dimensions of Marx’s critique of capitalism is that it is oppressive.  And I think it is important to distinguish two different senses in which capitalism is oppressive, for Marx.

Here I am shifting from discussing Lavoie’s book – which is quite narrowly focused on the specifics of the calculation debate – to discussing the broader debate between the Austrians and Marx.  That is, I’m giving myself permission to paint with broader brush strokes.  Broadly speaking, then, I think there are two key elements of the Austrian enthusiasm for market catallactics which Marx’s analysis challenges, quite distinct from the critique of disequilibrium dynamics in general.

First, there is the problem of power and direct oppression.  I think it’s fair to say that one of the reasons that Austrian economists (and many other economists more broadly) often value markets as freedom-enhancing is the idea that market exchanges are voluntary, and in this respect differ from commands laid down by a violence-monopolising state.  One of the things that Marx relentlessly emphasises in ‘Capital’ is the power relations that run fractally through the apparently ‘voluntary’ exchanges of the market – in particular, but by no means limited to, the exchanges associated with labour.  For Marx, the pro-capitalist emphasis on voluntary exchange is frequently simply engaged in denialism about the many forms of coercion that can be and are encountered in ‘market society’.  This is the element of Marx that contemporary ‘political Marxism’ emphasises.

So that’s one problem with the Austrian position: are we sure that things are so free out there, really?  This problem is, as it were, at the micro level – it concerns the kinds of interactions that are going on all the time in capitalist society.

The second problem is at the macro level – that is, at the level of emergent spontaneous order, or ‘catallaxy’.  Here’s the problem: granted that market society is a catallaxy in which a spontaneous order emerges as the product of human action but not human design, what actually is the spontaneous order?  Is it good?  Or is it oppressive?

This, in my view, is where the large-scale elements of Marx’s argument in ‘Capital’ start to bite – because Marx in that work has an extremely involved account of the spontaneous order of capitalist society, built up from a micro-level analysis of a very large number of different social practices and institutions that comprise capitalist society.  Again, my goal here isn’t to summarise ‘Capital’, but Marx’s overarching claim is that, yes, capitalism represents a ‘catallaxy’, but it is a bad catallaxy: the emergent patterns of capitalist society have an oppressive, not a liberatory, impact on a large proportion of capitalism’s inhabitants.  The invisible hand of the market is not beneficent, even metaphorically; it is drenched with blood.

Now, this obviously isn’t to say that we need to accept this element of Marx’s argument (which, again, I am not even attempting to summarise here – I am simply gesturing at Marx’s conclusions).  But it is important to recognise that this element of Marx’s argument is not a rejection of ‘catallactics’ qua catallactics.  The claim is not simply that spontaneous order is bad because it is spontaneous, and because it exhibits the forms of inefficiency that are intrinsically associated with any ongoingly-evolving spontaneous order.  Rather, Marx’s critique is directed at a specific spontaneous order – the spontaneous order of the capitalist society he is examining.  Marx’s claim in ‘Capital’ is that this spontaneous order is bad – and this argument cannot be rebutted simply by making a case for catallactics against planning.  We need to engage with the specifics.  

This, I think, is where the critique I made a few posts ago about Austrian economics’ inconsistent application of the principle of epistemic limits comes into play.  My view is that Austrian economics wants to make two qualitatively different categories of argument.  One is that the actually-existing spontaneous order of capitalism is good not bad, that the invisible hand is more to our benefit than to our detriment, etc.  This is a normative social-scientific claim, which relies on us being able to analyse and understand in quite some detail the structure and dynamics of both capitalism and alternative political-economic systems.  The other category of claim Austrian economics wants to make is that our knowledge, understanding, and ability to act in ways that have the consequences we desire, are all so limited that we had better leave well alone in the face of spontaneous order – essentially ‘Chesterton’s fence’ at the level of large-scale political economy.  But it seems to me that these two positions are in significant tension.  If our understanding is so limited, how are we in a position to adequately assess the virtues of capitalist spontaneous order?  On the other hand, if we claim to understand capitalist catallactics well enough to make a dispositive case for capitalism’s virtues, what has become of our epistemic humility?  It seems to me that Austrian economics moves back and forth between these two epistemological poles of its argument, and that there is a tension – even, perhaps, at times, a convenient double-standard – in this movement.

So, let’s say we grant (as I think we should) that Marx is being naive in his imagining of a form of rational economic planning that could replace the spontaneous order of capitalism.  The claim I’m making is that this doesn’t in itself dispose of Marx’s broader arguments, because there are two further scenarios that need to be considered.  First: the possibility that the specific spontaneous order of capitalist society is sufficiently awful that forms of planning – even with all their inefficiencies and oppressions – are nevertheless an improvement.  Second: the possibility that other spontaneous orders are available – that we can transform our practices in ways that replace bad catallactics with good catallactics, or at least worse with better.  Moreover, there is arguably significant overlap between these scenarios, because one of the surprising claims underlying the Austrian critique of planning is that the institutions of a planned economy must themselves in practice be a complex system which does not lie under any individual’s control, if they are to function in the ways they often do in practice.  Thus there is a startling moment late in Lavoie’s book in which he argues that the USSR under Stalin is a good example of catallaxy:

although the Stalinist economy ‘professes to be planned,’ to use Hayek’s phrase, it in fact relies on the outcome of the clash among rivalrous, decentralised decision-makers – that is, it is anarchically rather than consciously organized. (155)

I think this view has a lot to recommend it – but in my view it also risks wreaking havoc with a lot of other Austrian arguments.  For if Stalin’s USSR and US market society are both examples of catallaxy, then it’s unclear the extent to which the categories ‘catallaxy versus planning’ can get a purchase on the relevant comparative institutional question.

Perhaps this seems like a facile debating point – and perhaps it is.  At the very least, this issue merits a lot more time and care than I’m giving it here. But I think this problem nevertheless captures something, which is that there are countless possible spontaneous orders.  Almost all of those spontaneous orders contain some degree of planning.  It’s unclear to me, then, how a general emphasis on catallaxy can guide us in choosing which actions we wish to take, in order to influence, in whatever ways, the specific nature of the spontaneous order we inhabit.  One response to this problem is, of course, full stoicism, or quietism.  But if we reject that route – as all participants in the calculation debate have, to some extent – then I see no real alternative to wrestling with concrete social-scientific questions of political economy.  The level of abstraction at which the socialist calculation debate is carried out cannot in itself be an adequate guide to political-economic action.  Which, in fairness, I think all the participants, on both sides, already knew – but that’s all I’ve got to say for now.

Hayek on rules and order

August 11, 2022

I just read the first volume of Hayek’s ‘Law, legislation and liberty’ – ‘Rules and order’ – and as usual, I want to put up some quick notes while it’s still fresh in my mind.  I don’t have a specific argument I want to make here, so this is again largely ‘notes to self’.

I guess the first thing to say about ‘Rules and order’ is that in my view it’s easily the best work by Hayek that I’ve read.  ‘Law, legislation and liberty’ is the culmination of Hayek’s late turn to broader social theory, away from ‘traditional’ economics or political economy.  For my money, both ‘The road to serfdom’ and ‘The constitution of liberty’ – two earlier works that are arguably precursors – are deeply flawed.  ‘The road to serfdom’ is a popular polemic that I feel isn’t really going to be persuasive to anyone who isn’t already sympathetic to its arguments.  ‘The constitution of liberty’, while a much longer and more serious work than ‘Serfdom’, is also a huge mess.  I wrote up my thoughts on ‘The constitution of liberty’ last year on the blog, but in summary: it is packed with ad hoc arguments and claims that don’t seem to fit in to any very coherent broader thread, and moreover its more ‘philosophical’ or social-theoretic claims are in my view often very muddy or confused in their expression.

‘Rules and order’ fixes both of these problems – in a sense it’s ‘The constitution of liberty’ done properly.  It develops a coherent, clearly articulated, wide-ranging argument, and that argument moreover in my view has a lot to recommend it. (The stuff that I didn’t like in ‘The constitution of liberty’ is likely still to come in volumes two and three of this work, but I’m talking about volume one here.)

So, on the substance, I’m going to very briefly note a few themes in no particular order.

  • The most central theme of the book is the distinction between planned and spontaneous social order.  A planned order is chosen and directed by some specific social actor or actors’ intention; a spontaneous order is the emergent effect of many decisions none of which are oriented to producing this order as their outcome.  This is Hayek’s central distinction, and it seems like an important and useful one.
  • Hayek then derives from this distinction an account of two different forms of rationalism – one which sees order as necessarily planned, and one that is willing to accept spontaneous order.  For the former kind of rationalism, only order that has been fully chosen, intended and constructed is legitimate order; for the latter kind of rationalism, order may emerge without the intention to produce that order, and we should not intrinsically see this lack of intention as a problem with the order.  Hayek calls the former a ‘constructivist’ rationalism, and the latter an ‘evolutionary’ rationalism.  (He also cites Popper’s articulation of the same distinction in terms of ‘naive’ versus ‘critical’ rationalism.)
  • Hayek then connects this distinction to two different ways of thinking about normativity or social rules.  From a ‘constructivist’ perspective, rules must be fully chosen if they are to be legitimate – this approach results in social contract theory as the understanding of the basis of political legitimacy.  From an ‘evolutionary’ perspective, rules or norms may have evolved over time without being specifically intended in this form by any social actor, and this should not intrinsically be seen as a problem with them.  Here the model is not social contract theory but common law.
  • This distinction also results in a difference in explanatory priority: for social contractarians the willing and choosing subject is fundamental, and rules, norms, a political order, etc. are chosen by this subject.  For the evolutionary approach, the subject is always formed by an existing tradition, and cannot get ‘outside’ of that tradition (though it may transform it).
  • Within the spontaneous order side of his dichotomy, Hayek distinguishes in turn two different ‘levels’ of spontaneous order.  One is the spontaneous order of the marketplace (or of capitalist political-economic dynamics more broadly).  This is the focus of the first (long) period of Hayek’s career, in which he is primarily working as an economist.  The second kind of spontaneous order is the emergence of rules or norms that can find expression in law.  This is the focus of the latter period of Hayek’s career, culminating in ‘Law, legislation and liberty’.  The latter (legal) order is an institutional precondition of the former (market) order, because a legal framework (and the normative practices associated with private property, exchange, etc.) is required for the spontaneous order of the market to get off the ground.
  • These distinctions then also allow Hayek to draw a distinction between ‘law’ and ‘legislation’, where ‘legislation’ is a constructed and intended legal order, and ‘law’ is an evolved set of norms that can be codified in common law but already exist prior to that codification as an emergent or evolved phenomenon.  In Hayek’s vocabulary, an emergent order is ‘cosmos’ and a constructed order is ‘taxis’; evolved law is ‘nomos’, and constructed law is ‘thesis’.
  • With some important but definitely secondary caveats, Hayek basically thinks that cosmos and nomos are good, taxis and thesis are bad.
  • This is fairly close to a kind of Burkean conservatism.  However, Hayek differs from at least the most ‘vulgar’ forms of Burkean conservatism in his account of, and at times enthusiasm for, ongoing evolution of the spontaneous legal order.  [Of course Burke also says that tradition can evolve, and this is central to his Whiggism, so we’re arguably dealing with somewhat fine distinctions here, but to me Hayek seems to be more centrally an ‘evolutionary’ thinker than Burke.]  There are two mechanisms for the transformation of the evolved legal tradition that Hayek discusses.  First, when we are confident that the tradition has got it wrong we can simply use legislation to transform it.  Second, the application of the tradition in practice may reveal internal inconsistencies within the evolved rules we are applying – in this scenario, we must make decisions about which dimensions of the tradition to apply and which to discard.  This latter, in particular, is a mechanism via which the tradition can genuinely evolve, without the intervention of direct ‘constructivism’.
  • Again to a first approximation, Hayek thinks that evolved law is legitimate, while legislation has a tendency towards despotism.  The goal of maintaining a legal order protective of the forms of economic and political liberty that facilitate the (‘lower-order’) spontaneous order of the market, therefore, in general requires constraining legislation – and certainly constraining the specifically targeted decisions of an administrative state – and deferring to common law traditions.  
  • This connects (a little clumsily, I think?) to the distinction between ‘impartial’ law and ‘the will of the powerful’ that animates the argument of ‘The constitution of liberty’.

Ok – those are some of the major themes of ‘Rules and order’.  Obviously there’s more to it than all this, but this is a reasonable first pass I think.

I don’t really want to spend much time on ‘editorial comment’, as it were, but a few quick remarks alongside this summary.  First, as I say, I think this is all a very well-developed metatheoretical apparatus.  Second, I think that meta-theoretically speaking it is largely correct.  I obviously differ from Hayek in a large number of ways at the level of theory, but the apparatus he develops here for the discussion of spontaneous order seems to me to be mostly good and right.  I’m not the person to develop this, but I think there are worthwhile connections to be made between Hayek’s discussion of common law and Brandom’s historicised normative pragmatics, for example.  I recently read Burczak’s ‘Socialism after Hayek’, one of the arguments of which is that Hayek can usefully be understood as a ‘postmodern’ theorist.  I think that argument is sometimes a bit of a stretch, but I see what Burczak is getting at.  For myself, though, I would articulate the point by saying that at a metatheoretical level, the apparatus developed in ‘Rules and order’ is really quite pragmatist (in the philosophical sense).  From my perspective this is a virtue (though Hayek would no doubt not have welcomed the comparison!)

All that said, I want to mark a few ways in which I would want to depart from, or at least significantly modify, Hayek’s apparatus.

First, as ever, there is the issue of conflict, coercion, and dissensus.  Hayek throughout his corpus is systematically under-attentive to many of the conflictual dimensions of social life.  Of course, Hayek is interested in competition, but there are many forms of conflict that are also central to social life that Hayek is basically indifferent to.  And yet conflict is part of these spontaneous orders too!  Conflict contributes to the production of these spontaneous orders!

Second, and relatedly: Hayek’s tacit model of common law here presupposes a high level of internal homogeneity of norms within the relevant society.  And yet why should we assume that such normative homogeneity exists?  What if dimensions of common law are better characterised by one subcomponent of society simply imposing ‘their’ norms on another?

Third: If we accept (as I think we should!) Hayek’s account of the evolution of norms through the need to choose between conflictual implications of our existing normative framework in new cases, and if we tether this element of Hayek’s apparatus to a more conflictual understanding of society as a whole, the implication, I believe, is that the ‘evolutionary’ process in question may necessarily at times become radically transformative: we may have no choice but to choose some dimension of ‘our’ normative tradition over another, in a way that has radically transformative implications for the entire tradition going forward. Again, I don’t think Hayek would exactly disagree with that, but I think it’s clear that his basic model of societal evolution is more ‘incrementalist’ than ‘revolutionary’ – and yet from my perspective his metatheoretical apparatus is neutral on this question.   

Fourth and finally: given that social actors are (of course) engaged in intentional action in order to produce the spontaneous orders Hayek is discussing, and given that some forms of intentional action may be quite far-reaching, where are we to draw the line between intentional action that contributes to the creation of a spontaneous order, and intentional action that aspires to override a spontaneous order?  It is not clear to me that this distinction is as clear-cut as Hayek implies.  Even if we think about large-scale purposive state action (Hayek’s paradigmatic case for hubristic constructivist interference in a spontaneous order): states are still social actors within a complex system, and their actions also both contribute to and are shaped by an emergent spontaneous order. The distinction between ‘evolution’ and ‘construction’ seems to me to be muddier than Hayek’s discussions of this issue often suggest.

All of these are points I want to return to as I continue to work through and work with Hayek.  But for now I just wanted to get these notes down.

I just read Hayek’s essay ‘Individualism: True and False’ and wanted to put up a few notes while it’s relatively fresh in the mind.  The essay, perhaps oddly, reminds me a bit of Richard Rorty’s essays, in the following way: it clearly has some worthwhile points, but it insists on making those points by drawing an extremely sweeping distinction between two purported styles of thought, and then filing everything it likes on one side of the distinction and everything it dislikes on the other.  If you squint a bit, this can look clarifying, but in my view it is on balance more confusing than not, because the bundles of commitments Hayek organises on each side of his dichotomy in fact don’t have to belong together, and it leaves the reader with the difficult job of disentangling it all.  

Anyway, I don’t want to attempt anything close to a comprehensive disentangling in this post, but I did want to post a few notes to self as usual.

Hayek’s core distinction in this paper is between two traditions of individualism.  One is grounded in predominantly English-language classical liberalism (Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, Burke, Lord Acton, and also Tocqueville) – this is the good, true individualism.  The other is grounded in continental theorists (Descartes, Rousseau, the Encyclopedists, the physiocrats) – this is the bad, false individualism.  What does this distinction amount to?  Well, as I say, I think there would be room for more clarity on this score, but one of the core elements is the difference between what Hayek takes to be a bad rationalist philosophical approach (on the continent) and a good anti-rationalist philosophical approach (among mostly English-language classical liberals).

That is to say, one of Hayek’s core points is the distinction between rationalist versus anti-rationalist individualism.  This distinction has several dimensions.  First, Hayek opposes the egalitarian dimension of rationalism – he rejects the idea that there is a universal and invariant faculty of reason that is equally shared by all humans, and believes instead in a higher degree of social and psychological pluralism, so to speak.  Second, Hayek rejects what he sees as rationalism’s overweening arrogance about the capacities of human reason.  We should not imagine that we have the capacity to remake our world as we please – our faculties of comprehension and of action are more limited than utopian Enlightenment rationalism believes.  Relatedly, Hayek rejects the rationalist rejection of slowly evolved community norms.  For the rationalist, norms and practices that cannot be justified by the faculty of reason should be abandoned; for Hayek, we should respect the potential wisdom of institutions and practices that have developed and evolved over time, even if we cannot rationally articulate the substance of that wisdom.  Hayek endorses the Burkean rejection of revolutionary rationalist fervour on these grounds.  Moreover, the sheer diversity and complexity of social life should make rationalist planning of a new social order so overwhelmingly difficult as to be impossible without the suppression of that diversity and complexity.

There’s more to Hayek’s argument than this, but this will do for now.  Articulated like this, I always feel like I should be more sympathetic to Hayek’s philosophical position than I am.  Philosophically speaking, I’m a pragmatist.  I’m a big believer in fallibilism in epistemology – I think it’s definitely the case that our cognitive faculties are sharply limited, and that we should be cautious about too-grand claims to be able to comprehend and order the overwhelming complexity of our societies.  Moreover, I agree with Hayek that the ‘individual’ of classical individualism should be seen not as atomistically distinct from society but as embedded in and shaped by its social world.  I agree with Hayek that social pluralism is an active virtue.  Finally, I agree that freedom of the individual should – in part for these reasons – be seen as a central political-economic value and goal.

So why do I always find myself so unsympathetic to Hayek’s arguments?  Part of it is, no doubt, about political tribalism: I am on the left, Hayek is on the right, and we are always more resistant to finding value in the beliefs of our political opponents than in those of our political allies. But I think there’s more to it than this.  The political right/left distinction, crude as it is, also expresses something about social philosophy: it’s a matter, in part, of philosophical – and, of course, normative – substance, not just of tribal allegiance.  I think one of the things that rubs me the wrong way about Hayek is that he often seems to me to be differentially applying elements of his argument in ways that amount to a political thumb on the scales.  In other words, I often feel like Hayek’s ‘downstream’ political preferences are driving his ‘upstream’ political philosophy in ways that feel dubious to say the least.

For example, take Hayek’s Burkean conservative arguments about tradition.  As I discussed (too telegraphically) in my post on Burke, there are several very obvious problems with this philosophical-political approach.  For example, there’s the problem that there is in fact no reason to presuppose that traditions which have evolved over the centuries contain much in the way of wisdom.  Maybe they do – but maybe they are simply oppressive, or bigoted, or shortsighted.  There are bad traditions and good traditions – obviously (to me) we don’t just want to defer to tradition blindly, on the grounds that it’s tradition.  And Hayek agrees – he famously argued that he is not a conservative, in part for this reason!  But at times Hayek will apply Burkean arguments about deference to tradition, even as at times he rejects them, and it’s hard not to feel that this differential application of such arguments is partly driven by motivated reasoning.

I feel similarly about Hayek’s rejection of the idea that we can comprehend the complexity of our social world.  There is a lot to recommend this argument, in my view!  And it certainly should make us think twice about our capacity to engage in large-scale rationalist planning.  And yet at the same time Hayek’s arguments about the virtues of the market themselves involve substantive claims about how our political economy functions – Hayek is making social-scientific claims about which large-scale institutions will produce positive and negative results, and in my view there is only so much scepticism about our ability to understand social complexity that is compatible with such strong substantive claims about what forms of social organisation are to be preferred.  Again, I’m not saying that this circle can’t be squared – clearly Hayek thinks it can be – but I feel like often, in Hayek, there is the differential application of a sceptical argument, where Hayek is all about epistemic modesty when he is evaluating his political opponents’ claims, and yet is simultaneously willing to make quite sweeping judgements about what forms of social organisation are objectively superior when he is advocating for his own views.

So, let me try to write out a preliminary typology of some elements of Hayek’s ‘anti-rationalist’ views here, again with the assumption that I’ll try to nail all this down more carefully later.

  1. Burkean conservatism.  This is, roughly, the idea that our faculty of reason is sharply limited, while our institutions, norms and practices have evolved over the centuries, and thus contain greater wisdom than the individual human mind.  The first problem here is simply: what if the evolved institutions are actually bad?  This is a problem that, frankly, Burkean conservatism often simply waves its hands at without credibly addressing.  The second problem is that society is complex and plural, and there is never just one tradition that we can defer to – we always constitute our traditions by choosing in the present what to recognise as tradition – and such judgements must themselves be based on something.  For this reason, Burkean conservatism is often simply cloaking its own independent preferences in the cloak of tradition.

But of course Hayek is not simply a Burkean conservative!  He also endorses a second idea:

  1. Spontaneous order as a progressive force.  Here the idea is something like: spontaneous order is the mechanism by which individuals with their diverse preferences can work out the ways of life that suit them best, and out of that process a broader social ordering emerges that is more responsive to individual preferences – and therefore preferable – than would be any social order that is the product of large-scale rational planning.  This is, as it were, the future-oriented version of Burkean conservatism: something close to Whig progressivism.  Where Burkean conservatism defers to tradition by default, spontaneous order progressivism assumes that individuals freely pursuing their preferences will transform traditions in a way that is to their, and quite possibly our, benefit. If this position is something like a ‘mirror image’ of Burkean conservatism, then a similar objection applies: why should we assume that ‘spontaneous order’ is in fact good?  Might it not be that spontaneous order is extremely bad?  Shouldn’t this possibility at least be considered?  Again, it’s unclear what the mechanism would be that would reliably cause good order to emerge from this process of social evolution.  More on this in a bit, perhaps.

Then we have a set of commitments about the state:

  1. The state is the major source of unfreedom, and restricting state power is therefore the major goal for freedom-oriented politics.  This is the ‘libertarian’ dimension of Hayek’s ‘classical liberalism’.  As I’ve written about on the blog before, I think this is badly wrong.  Of course, the state is a major oppressive force!  But there are many forms of oppression and of unfreedom in society, and many of Hayek’s arguments in this area operate by simply fiating these forms of unfreedom out of the space of legitimate political consideration.  Contra Hayek, poverty is a form of unfreedom.  ‘Civil society’ oppression is very widespread, and can in fact potentially be mitigated by state action.  Etc.

But, of course, Hayek is not an anarchist because:

  1. Constitutional constraints on state power and limited government committed to the rule of universally applied impartial law is crucial for establishing the conditions under which freedom and spontaneous order can flourish in society.  In particular, a state that is committed to the protection and enforcement of property rights, while constrained from administrative overreach is the optimal form of government.

And related to this:

  1. A set of concrete social-scientific claims about the virtues of market society as catallaxy.

Anyway, I’m rambling a bit here, but I guess the point I want to try to get at in this post – hopefully to be worked through more precisely at some future point! – is that Hayek’s nexus of commitments seems to me to require some quite sharp footwork with respect to epistemological warrant.  On the one hand, Hayek’s philosophical stance puts heavy weight on the limits of human reason, and therefore defers to spontaneous order in preference to rational planning.  At the same time, Hayek is making social-scientific claims about the virtues of specific forms of spontaneous order, and the institutional structures and policy decisions that facilitate them – and these social-scientific claims seem to me to require a much stronger set of claims about our ability to know what policies and institutions will produce desirable social outcomes than Hayek is elsewhere willing to accept.  If we can in fact know these substantive things with the degree of confidence that Hayek often appears to assert, then doesn’t that seem to undermine the broader scepticism about social-scientific rationalism that undergirds Hayek’s project?  And if, by contrast, we accept that we can’t know what’s best for social order in a relatively strong sense, doesn’t that go for Hayek’s policy preferences too?

Again, I’m not saying that this apparent tension can’t or couldn’t be resolved – but it seems to me that Hayek’s work often flits quite happily up and down the ‘epistemic scepticism’ spectrum, making extremely strong and concrete political-economic claims at one moment, and then throwing up its hands at the impossibility of the kind of social-scientific knowledge that could inform rational institution-design at other moments.  I find it hard not to feel that this movement up and down the scepticism spectrum operates in ways that are extremely convenient for a right-wing political project.

In his 1954 lecture ‘What does the economist economise?’, Dennis Robertson writes:

There exists in every human breast an inevitable state of tension between the aggressive and acquisitive instincts and the instincts of benevolence and self-sacrifice. It is for the preacher, lay or clerical, to inculcate the ultimate duty of subordinating the former to the latter. It is the humbler, and often the invidious, role of the economist to help, so far as he can, in reducing the preacher’s task to manageable dimensions. It is his function to emit a warning bark if he sees courses of action being advocated or pursued which will increase unnecessarily the inevitable tension between self-interest and public duty; and to wag his tail in approval of courses of action which will tend to keep the tension low and tolerable.

This passage is approvingly quoted in Part One of Buchanan and Tullock’s ‘The calculus of consent’. And this basic idea informs much of public choice theory – a branch of economics and political science that uses tools often associated with microeconomics to analyse political decision-making. Slightly more specifically, public choice theory often focuses on the ways in which political decision-makers’ individual interests and incentive structures influence their policy-making, frequently to the detriment of ‘the public good’. In Buchanan’s words, in his 1986 Nobel lecture:

Economists should cease proffering policy advice as if they were employed by a benevolent despot, and they should look to the structure within which political decisions are made.

As Robertson says, the idea here is not that altruistic acts are in some way incompatible with human nature; it is, rather, that an institutional structure that heavily relies on altruistic acts for its ongoing stability is likely to be more fragile, all else equal, than an institution that accommodates less noble motives as a major component of its day-to-day functioning. Acts of heroism, kindness, self-sacrifice, selflessness – these are, contrary to more pessimistic views of ‘human nature’, extremely widespread. But a political-economic institution that relies upon these facets of human nature for its day-to-day reproduction, and that will quickly fall apart in their absence – such an institution is at constant risk of either collapse, or transformation into an institution that does accommodate less noble elements of human behaviour, perhaps to the detriment of its intended or apparent goals.

This ‘pessimistic’ public choice vision of political-economic institutions has often not found favour on the left. Leftist critics of public choice theory – or of the broader liberal tradition of which it is apart – tend to object both to its methodological individualism, and to the kind of ‘human nature’ that is tacitly or overtly ascribed to the individuals it considers. For many leftists, furthermore, the public choice approach to political economy is less an analysis of the pitfalls of collective action, than it is an attempt to undermine or attack successful collective action, in the service of right-wing, anti-statist interests and policies. From this left perspective, public choice theorists attempt to emphasise the ways in which institutions of collective action are liable to fail, because public choice theorists want such institutions to fail: by arguing that the successful collective provision of social goods is difficult or impossible, and that apparently successful collective action is really a mask for individual self-interest, public choice theorists serve the interests of those opposed to emancipatory collective action.

There is much to be said for this left critique of public choice theory. Public choice theory has, indeed, typically emerged from and aligned itself with the right of the political spectrum, and sought to provide intellectual resources and arguments for those who wish to greatly reduce the size of the state and the scope of democratic or collective social decision-making. It is, primarily, a conservative school of thought, and much of the public choice tradition cannot usefully be interpreted unless its analysis is seen as informed and shaped by conservative political commitments.

But should the tools of public choice theory be exclusively the property of the right? Does it benefit the left for this to be the case? In my view, the answer to these questions is ‘no’, and a ‘public choice theory of the left’ is a worthwhile project, no matter our views on ‘actually existing public choice theory’.

Why is this so? First of all, analytically speaking, there is a lot of potential common ground between public choice theory and traditional left critical analysis: the capture of powerful institutions by special interest groups and the use of power to advance the interests of those with power, as against the broader public good… they are not themes that are entirely alien to left analysis. Public choice approaches should be capable of use for left critique.

Secondly, though, the normative public choice critique of would-be emancipatory collective action also carries weight: the left ought to reckon with this category of critique of its own projects and institutions. Public choice theory is suspicious that institutions – paradigmatically state institutions – that are intended to serve the common good have a tendency to serve instead the interests of those who wield power within those institutions. If left politics aspires to create institutions that are not disastrously vulnerable to this phenomenon, it needs to reckon with this risk and this critique. Moreover, it needs (I would argue) to reckon with this critique in a way that does not appeal to unrealistically utopian claims about long-term selfless action on the part of key social actors.

Perhaps the paradigmatic case here is Soviet communism. For many critics of the USSR, the Bolshevik project was intrinsically flawed because the institutions it proposed and implemented in the name of emancipation were always likely to result instead in state power serving the interests of a governing elite rather than the broader citizenry. Of course, there are many on the left who reject this analysis. But there are also many on the left – including me – who agree that Soviet-style communism was in practice a novel form of domination and oppression rather than a fundamentally emancipatory project. And this judgement raises the question of how to evaluate leftist transformative proposals, to ensure that would-be emancipatory institutions are likely to genuinely be emancipatory.

In my post on Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, I discussed one leftist response to this problem: Wright’s centring of ‘social power’ (as against state power) as the ‘true north’ that should guide ‘the socialist compass’. I argued, against Wright, that there is in fact no reason to believe that ‘social power’ is intrinsically more emancipatory than ‘state power’ or indeed ‘market power’ – that we need more fine-grained criteria for evaluating political-economic institutional proposals, to assess whether these proposals are likely to move us in a more or less emancipatory dimension.

The insight from Robertson with which I started this post, I believe, offers one such useful criterion (of course at a very high level of abstraction). As Robertson writes, we can distinguish between on the one hand institutions that, for their emancipatory functioning, require members of the institutions to persistently navigate a high tension between their own personal interests and those of the ‘public good’, and, on the other hand, institutions that reduce the tension between self-interest and public duty to a “low and tolerable” level. Institutions of the latter sort are, all else equal, more likely to be sustainable. The task for leftists is to construct institutions that are emancipatory in their outcomes and processes, while also exhibiting this feature.

In the jargon of game theory, this kind of institution design challenge is known as “incentive-compatible institution design”. That is to say: when we are constructing political-economic institutions, we want to construct those institutions in such a way that the incentives of individuals within the institutions are aligned with the tasks we would want those individuals to fulfill. In the maxim of many introductory economics courses: “incentives matter”.

This is a lesson that should be applicable across a broad range of categories of institutions. It should not be restricted to the political projects of the right, or to the critique of the left. And the left, I think, needs to get better at thinking about institutions in these terms. Paying closer attention to public choice theory is perhaps one route via which that could be accomplished.

I’ve talked on this blog before about three different concepts of liberty: negative liberty, in the sense of action unconstrained by others’ coercion; capabilities liberty, in the sense of possessing the material and social resources and capacities required to make use of one’s negative liberty; and positive liberty, in the sense of active participation in self-governance.

When I was taught political philosophy at an undergraduate level, I remember a lot of focus on liberty versus equality, with the idea that there was some trade-off between the two. Obviously one can value equality for itself – but I tend now to think that equality, at least in the sense of material equality, is mostly a derivative political virtue. The main reason we should value material equality, and the kinds of redistributive politics associated with it, is because of those policies’ impact on capabilities and positive liberty. Material redistribution increases capabilities liberty by directly increasing people’s material and social capabilities – destitution is a form of unfreedom, and redistributive policy therefore increases liberty in at least this sense. Moreover, at the other end of the material wealth spectrum, extremely high levels of wealth can be transformed into political power and influence, so reducing wealth inequality also reduces the inequality in forms of political voice and influence associated with wealth – which is in turn likely to increase the positive liberty of the non-wealthy. So: the major virtues of this kind of egalitarian policy can be derived from principles of liberty – and I think this is often a better way to think about the normative or political or ethical warrant for such policies than to simply value equality itself.

Similarly, I remember a lot of attention in my introductory political philosophy classes focusing on principles of political legitimacy, which were more often than not as I recall understood in democratic terms: a governance system only has legitimacy if it enjoys the endorsement of the governed, in some sense. Here, again, the principle of ‘positive liberty’ seems very similar indeed – so it seems like a lot of issues in normative political theory can ‘drop out’ of these basic ideas of liberty.

OK. So – if we are thinking about principles of institution-design in these terms, we are thinking in terms of trade-offs. We need to think of trade-offs between individuals: is it worth reducing my negative liberty to engage in some action, if that action also constrains the negative liberty of others? We also need to think of trade-offs between categories of liberty: is it worth risking a loss of negative liberty to make a gain in capabilities liberty, or vice versa? These two forms of trade-off seem to capture a lot – obviously by no means all, but a lot – of the normative problems we confront when thinking about political and political-economic institution design.

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.

Notes on free speech

November 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s been a lot of debate recently about what Labour’s Brexit policy actually is – that is to say, what are the generative principles underlying the Labour leadership’s Brexit policy announcements and parliamentary tactics. One popular narrative is that Labour’s Brexit policy amounts to de facto support of ‘hard Brexit’, and that the Labour leadership’s strategy is to pursue a ‘hard Brexit’ while pulling the wool over the eyes of its core Remain support. Another narrative is that Labour’s strategy is to gradually shift its position towards a strongly pro-EU stance, while trying to minimise the electoral support it loses among Leave voters in doing so. A third narrative is that Labour doesn’t really have a Brexit position at all – that it is simply trying to hold its electoral coalition together by any means necessary. And there are of course a large number of more complicated and nuanced alternative narratives out there too.

In this post I’ll aim to lay out my own interpretation of the ‘generative principles’ underlying Labour’s Brexit policy. Obviously my goal here is explanatory, rather than normative. My own preferences (“open borders Bennism”) are briefly outlined towards the end of the post, fwiw – but the main goal here is just to sketch the political terrain.

Ok then. To understand Labour’s Brexit policy, one needs in my opinion to understand that the Parliamentary Labour Party has four major interests or constituencies in relation to Brexit.

  • Don’t blow up the economy. This position enjoys more or less complete consensus in the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Moreover, there is considerable consensus as to what this means in practice: don’t damage UK-EU trade too much. Unlike the Tory party, which has a significant number of MPs who believe that reduced trade with the EU can be more than compensated for with a bonfire of regulations and a series of alternative international trade deals, Labour MPs are in general of the opinion that the final Brexit deal should disrupt UK-EU trade as little as possible. This position is captured by the 2017 manifesto commitment to “prioritise jobs and living standards”.

In addition to this broad consensus position there are then three distinct factions:

  • ‘Continuity Remain’ – this position advocates for as close ongoing participation in EU institutions as possible. Ideally this would take the form of a second referendum that would enable parliament to reverse Brexit, but in terms of Brexit negotiations it means ongoing full participation in the single market. This wing of the party is most vocally represented by liberal or Blairite MPs like Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie.
  • Bennites. This is the old socialist Euroscepticism, which sees the EU as a capitalist club enforcing constraints on economic policymaking at the national level, to the benefit of capital. There are three major areas of contemporary Bennite objection to EU rules: constraints on state aid policy, public procurement policy, and nationalisation – Bennites want to break European Court of Justice jurisdiction over these areas of economic policymaking. There aren’t all that many Bennites in the party, but the position occupies the leader’s office (Corbyn) and shadow Treasury (McDonnell), and is therefore very influential.
  • ‘Very Real Concerns’ border control advocates. These MPs see the Brexit vote as driven in significant part by ‘concerns about immigration’, and believe those concerns need to be addressed in the Brexit negotiations – or be seen as being addressed – by a Brexit outcome that reduces – or is seen as reducing – immigration. Yvette Cooper and John Mann are (quite different) representative figures for this tendency within the PLP.

Clearly these categories are not as sharply drawn in real life as this schematisation suggests. There are different strengths of feeling and variant positions within each group; moreover there is considerable overlap between some of the positions. There are plenty of liberal pro-EU advocates who nevertheless believe that greater border controls can and should be a feature of the final Brexit outcome – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are both representatives of this opinion, as is Stephen Kinnock. At the same time, there are liberals who advocate a ‘full liberalism’ ideological package which sees freedom of movement as one of the major benefits of the EU. There is also plenty of overlap between Bennite and ‘border controls’ Euroscepticism, grounded both in an economic argument that free movement of labour undercuts the rights of domestic labour, and in a ‘Blue Corbynism’ effort to tie Bennite economic policymaking to a nationalist or communitarian ideological package. At the same time, there are socialists for whom open borders (for some value of ‘open borders’) is a core component of their socialism (Diane Abbott is the most influential advocate of this position within Labour). In addition to these ideological overlaps, there are also factional alliances of convenience, on which more in a moment.

In parliamentary tactical terms, the Labour leadership has two goals: to inflict damage on the government, and to maintain a Brexit line that will be satisfactory enough to enough of the parliamentary party to minimise major rebellions. In electoral terms, the leadership has a single goal: to adopt a Brexit policy that can sustain its electoral coalition, which is majority Remain but includes a large minority of Leave voters, including in a large number of electorally fragile current Labour seats. Finally, in substantive terms, the goals of the leadership are to balance “don’t blow up the economy” with Bennite Euroscepticism, with different bits of the party obviously contributing additional, different substantive goals, as enumerated above.

How do these different goals play out in practice in the determination of Labour’s Brexit policy? The overriding goal of the leadership has been to sustain its parliamentary and electoral coalitions. That has meant, in the first instance, a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’, which has been able to sustain the possibility of an outcome compatible with as many different Brexit goals as feasible. Under pressure of a series of parliamentary votes, however, this strategic ambiguity has slowly been clarified – and the nature of this clarification is informed by the substantive balance of forces within the party.

As I wrote above, the leadership’s major substantive goal is in my view to balance “don’t blow up the economy” with Bennite Euroscepticism. Bennite Euroscepticism does not enjoy much support within the parliamentary party – if this were the only form of Euroscepticism in the party, the leadership would be in a very weak position indeed. Fortunately for the leadership (and, one could argue, unfortunately for the broader public discourse), there is a much larger block within the PLP of ‘Very Real Concerners’. The Bennite leadership has therefore made an alliance of convenience with the ‘Very Real Concern’ border controllers, to form a (moderately) Eurosceptic block within the parliamentary party. (Moderate because both factions still believe in the underlying “don’t blow up the economy” position, and take this to require keeping disruption to UK-EU trade as low as is feasible given their other policy goals).

This moderately Eurosceptic block is then opposed by the liberal/Blairite wing of the party, who want a stronger commitment to ongoing participation in EU institutions. This conflict (between the Bennite and Real Concerner alliance on the one hand, and liberals on the other) can plausibly be presented by the liberal wing as a disagreement about ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ politics (free movement of goods and people on the one hand; closed borders, nationalism and a tendency towards autarky on the other). It can equally plausibly be presented by the Bennite wing as a disagreement about socialist versus neoliberal approaches to economic governance (state intervention in the economy on the one hand versus neoliberal regulatory constraints on state action, on the other). One of the complexities of the ideological terrain around left and liberal Brexit debate is that, because of the way the various factions and institutions align, both of these ‘framings’ are true.

To make this factional conflict still more weighted, it has also become a major site of the proxy war within Labour between Corbynite and Corbynsceptic members and MPs. After the 2017 general election result made Corbyn (temporarily) unchallengeable within the party, many Corbynsceptics shifted their activities from overt criticism of Corbyn’s leadership, to specific policy and ideological battles. These proxy battles typically serve, from many Corbynsceptics’ perspective, a double function – aiming both to advance policies that Corbynsceptics support, and to weaken Corbyn within the party. Corbynsceptic pro-Europeans thus aim both to shift Labour’s Brexit policy in a more pro-EU direction and to expose Corbyn’s Euroscepticism, thereby reducing Corbyn’s popularity with the majority-Remain Labour membership. These goals stand in some tension – pro-European liberals within Labour have made a series of pro-EU parliamentary amendments to Brexit bills that have been extremely ineffective in gathering parliamentary support, in part because one of their tacit goals (I would argue) has specifically been to expose the party leadership’s unwillingness to endorse these stances.

Nevertheless, these parliamentary tactics – alongside the more central need for Labour to challenge the government in parliament – have slowly required the Labour leadership to reduce the ambiguity of its ‘strategic ambiguity’ approach. The position that Labour has shifted towards is, as I say, determined by the balance of parliamentary and electoral forces. On the one hand, the leadership wants to retain as strong EU ties are as feasible given its other policy commitments. On the other hand, it has two sets of exemptions from EU governance rules that it wants, in principle, to achieve. First: the Bennite leadership wants an institutional arrangement that enables exemptions from state aid, public procurement and nationalisation policies. Second: the Very Real Concerners on whom the Bennite leadership is reliant want exemptions from single market free movement rules.

The current Labour Brexit preferred initial negotiating position has therefore resolved to something like this: a customs union with the EU, and significant participation in the single market, via the establishment of an alternative EFTA-style institutional framework which gives the UK the ability to negotiate exemptions from some elements of single market rules, while still being bound by the great majority of those rules, in a manner that maximises single market participation.

This is a moderate Eurosceptic position (and as it happens corresponds to the most popular outcome in the electorate as a whole, per recent Opinium polling). However, it remains ‘strategically ambiguous’ in two key respects.

On the one hand, Labour’s position is deliberately ambiguous as to which single market rules the UK intends to prioritise gaining exemptions from, in a hypothetical situation in which Labour is negotiating with the EU. This strategic ambiguity is necessary in order to maintain the opportunistic big tent alliance between Bennites and Very Real Concerners within the PLP. In a situation in which Labour is actually negotiating Brexit, this ambiguity will have to be clarified, and considerable tensions within the PLP will come to the fore.

At the same time, Labour’s current position remains compatible with much fuller participation in EU institutions than either of the two Eurosceptic positions would wish. This is one of the key reasons why Labour’s ‘clarifications’ of its Brexit position can be interpreted as motivated by either ‘pro-Leave’ or ‘pro-Remain’ impulses. What is this latter ‘strategic ambiguity’ about?

In my view, this second category of ongoing strategic ambiguity serves three distinct functions.

First, lack of clarity about how much overlap with existing EU institutions Labour aspires to achieve serves the traditional goal of strategic ambiguity: keeping both Leavers and Remainers within the electoral and parliamentary big tent.

Second, lack of clarity about the exact institutional outcomes Labour aspires to achieve enables Labour the freedom to oppose Tory negotiating tactics on the basis of Starmer’s six tests, on the premise that Labour’s approach would achieve better outcomes than the Tories’, more or less irrespective of what the Tories actually do.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Labour’s Brexit policy is, if Labour were to find itself in government, the first volley in a negotiation with the EU. It is unclear what outcome Labour would actually be able to achieve in that negotiation. It seems extremely likely, however, that the EU27 would be unwilling to grant many of the exemptions from EU governance principles that Labour aspires to negotiate. It is therefore extremely prudent for Labour to give itself the ability to back down from its best-case Brexit outcome, to a series of second-, third-, fourth- etc. best case outcomes. The ambiguity over the extent to which the Labour negotiating position overlaps with the liberal ‘full EU alignment’ position strongly suggests to me that Labour intends this liberal / Blairite position to be its negotiating fallback, if the leadership’s preferred outcomes cannot be achieved.  More strongly, here is some reason to speculate that something in the space of this liberal fallback position is the preferred outcome of Keir Starmer, the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, whose six tests, vague as they are, certainly seem to imply a very ‘soft’ Brexit.  One does not need to attribute any specific individual strategy to Starmer, however, to conclude that Labour is preparing the ground for something like this EU-aligned outcome, should it find itself leading negotiations in office.

This preparation for a liberal ‘fallback’ Brexit is in my view the most important way in which Labour’s negotiating position differs from the Conservatives’. The Conservative position on Brexit began with a series of red lines (on ECJ jurisdiction, the customs union, etc.). Labour’s negotiating position began from Starmer’s six tests, which articulate the benchmark of “the exact same benefits” as current EU membership. It is therefore extremely easy for Labour to fall back, in negotiations, on a high degree of alignment with EU institutions, whereas it is very difficult for the Conservatives to do so (though of course they may well end up doing so in practice). It is this latter point that seems to me to give rational warrant to Remainers’ confidence that Labour’s negotiating position is on a Remainward trajectory.

To sum up – I started with three simple rival ‘narratives’ of Labour’s underlying position on Brexit. I’ve articulated my own interpretation of Labour’s position, which implies that all of these narratives have something to them. In my view, Labour’s preferred Brexit outcome involves significant breaks with existing EU governance rules. The leadership wants those breaks to be in the area of neoliberal constraints on socialist policy-making; much of the PLP wants those breaks to be in the area of freedom of movement. In a scenario where Labour is in government without the Brexit deal having been concluded, those two categories of negotiating priority will be in tension. Nevertheless, the tension between those two categories of negotiating priority is (I would argue) not as fundamental as the tension between some of the Conservatives’ commitments. Moreover, unlike the Conservatives, Labour have been quite careful not to articulate any commitments that cannot be backed down from towards greater compatibility with existing EU rules. Thus in a scenario in which Labour were negotiating with the EU, I would expect Labour to make an effort to achieve a set of concessions around EU rules, and if those concessions could not be achieved, to capitulate in the direction of a more liberal existing-EU-institutions-aligned position.

In other words, Labour’s Brexit policy is – contra many pundits – coherent and in my view quite strategically sound.

Is it a good policy? That obviously depends on your own political preferences. My own political preference, as I outlined in this earlier post, is a position that I would characterise as something close to “open borders socialism”. I think the Bennites are right that EU rules are egregiously constraining on democratic socialist policymaking, and I think an optimal Brexit outcome would break with these dimensions of the EU as an institution, while also maintaining sufficiently close regulatory alignment with the EU to reduce the negative political-economic impacts of Brexit on the UK economy. (This post follows the traditional mainstream UK pundit approach of just ignoring Northern Ireland, but obviously a high degree of ongoing UK-EU integration is desirable w/r/t the border.) At the same time, increasing free movement of people is a political good, and the ‘Very Real Concerners’ desire to reduce free movement – as well as the Labour leadership’s opportunistic alliance with this position – should in my view be opposed from the left. If this post is right about the logic of the party’s Brexit position, in a scenario in which Labour actually gets a go at negotiating Brexit, the balance of negotiating priorities between Bennites and Real Concerners will be a crucial factional and ideological conflict within the party. As I see it, this element of Labour’s negotiating strategy remains somewhat open (though it also seems to be that the groundwork has been laid for the rebranding of existing freedom of movement rules as a departure from the status quo).

If one were negotiating Brexit ‘from the left’, then, clearly one ideally wouldn’t start from here. Still, there’s room for left pressure to have impact even within the existing parameters of Labour Party politics, I think.  Not, of course, that we need to operate within that framework of Labour Party factional politics in our political advocacy.  Nevertheless, it helps to understand what’s going on with Labour’s Brexit policy in order to understand what’s going on with Brexit in general. There’s a lot more than can be said than I have here, and I’m sure there’s stuff I’ve got wrong, but this post is more or less my current take, fwiw.