Continuing the institution-design thread on the blog, which I expect to be the dominant focus here for years to come…

I’m currently working through [Using the phrase “working through” is a trick I’ve picked up to make it sound like I’m doing something fancier than “reading”] Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, since the project I’m pursuing here seems to broadly fit within or alongside Wright’s. Wright characterises his work as an example of ‘emancipatory social science’, which he says in turn comprises three main tasks:

elaborating a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; enivisioning viable alternatives; and understanding the obstacles, possibilities and dilemmas of transformation.

Moreover, although here Wright categorises ‘diagnosis and critique’ as one task, this can of course be broken down into very different component parts:

To describe a social arrangement as generating ‘harms’ is to infuse analysis with a moral judgement. Behind every emancipatory theory, therefore, there is an implicit theory of justice, some conception of what conditions would have to be met before the institutions of a society could be deemed just.

In this post I just want to focus (pretty superficially) on the relationship between this kind of political ideal – whether understood as a theory of justice or some other kind of normative framework – and an institutional proposal.

We evaluate institutions in terms of whether they realise our political ideals, so debates about which institutions we should adopt always play out in at least two registers: debates about what ideals they should try to realise, and debates about how they can best realise those ideals. These two debates intertwine. It is possible to bring together a coalition of very different political ideals under a shared institutional goal, and vice versa. It is also possible for our institutional goals to modify our political ideals.

As any very long-term readers of this blog, if such there be, may remember, I spent considerable time some years ago on the work of the analytic philosopher Robert Brandom, and in particular on Brandom’s normative pragmatics. I don’t want to revisit that fairly involved terrain here, but I want to highlight that the relationship between norms and practice is very relevant, at a metatheoretical level, to the normative study of institutions. Institutions are, after all, enacted by practices, and if we understand (as I think we should) norms as also products of practice (albeit in a complicated and non-reductive way), then we see that our norms are not just benchmarks against which institutions can be evaluated, but are also themselves, in part, products of our institutions. The institutional world we make shapes our values, and those values in turn react back on our institutions, and permit us to evaluate – and critique – them. For example: one of the ways in which capitalism is (potentially) self-undermining, for Marx, is not just that it creates the objective conditions for its abolition (for example, in creating productive forces that can be redirected to other ends), or even that it creates the subjective conditions for its abolition (in the sense of creating a ‘collective subject’ of a class-conscious proletariat) but just as importantly that it creates the subjective conditions for its abolition in another sense: the institutions of capitalism generate a range of historically novel normative ideals that provide resources for the emancipatory critique and rejection of capitalist institutions.

So the relationship between institutions and norms is complicated. It is a mistake, in an ‘abstract’ sense, to think that we begin with historically-abstracted norms and then move to devise institutions that can realise the ideals of those norms: our norms are a product of practice too, and may shift as our practices shift. Nevertheless, we do evaluate institutions against our norms, and in a less abstracted or philosophical sense it doesn’t matter much where those norms come from. After all, they are our norms – in our ethical and political debates we accept or reject them because of reasons, not simply causes.

So, to repeat, debates over institution design play out in two registers: debates over what ideals we should attempt to realise, and debates over what institutions we should adopt to attempt to realise those ideals. These debates are intertwined at an abstract metatheoretical level – but they are also intertwined at more ‘applied’ levels. One easy mistake to make, in ‘theoretical’ institution-design, is to think that one can begin with a set of foundational normative principles, and from these principles ‘derive’ the institutions that best realise them. This direction of political-theoretical reasoning is certainly one of the discursive and political resources at our disposal – but we need to be cautious. In practice our norms are complicated and conflictual, filled with competing preferences and values which need to be wrestled with to attempt to balance partially incompatible goods and goals. This kind of work cannot be carried out at the level of pure abstraction – it needs to be thought through in relation to concrete problems. Thinking about actual institutions is therefore important not only when we attempt to realise our political ideals, but also in order to understand what those ideals even are. Different people who share ‘the same’ values may find themselves with very different practical intuitions when confronting real-world political problems – and these practical problems therefore function to illuminate differences of values that might have been invisible, or at least difficult to discern, until they were tested.

One of the conclusions we could draw from this line of thought is the position discussed in my last blog post: the idea that politics can only really be carried out ‘in practice’, and that trying to theorise institutions (or anything else) in too much abstraction or too much in advance is hubristic. But, as I said in that post, I think we should reject this idea. The inseparability of theoretical ideals and practical problems should not lead us to reject the former – still less to reject theoretical attempts to provide resources for practical problem-solving. Nevertheless, it is useful to be aware of the ways in which these areas of theory, politics and experience intersect.

In short, in thinking about institutions, we should pursue both tasks: clarifying our political values, and clarifying our sense of what institutions can best realise those values. Moreover, for the reasons I have discussed in this post, it makes sense to ‘tack back and forth’ between these projects. To bastardise Kant, institutions without ideals are empty; ideals without institutions are blind. We will carry out both of these projects better, I think, if we keep them in close contact.

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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.

Ok, this is a very brief, schematic post, based as so often on far too little reading. Still, for what it’s worth, recent debates on the UK left (broadly understood) about Syria have made me think about old and ongoing fights about anti-imperialism. “Anti-imperialism” here, throughout, to be clear, denotes a politics adopted by leftists in the UK and other core states, rather than the politics of those in the actual periphery or semi-periphery of the world system.

So – Stephen Bush, the best political journalist on the Blairite wing of the UK Labour party, in my view, suggested somewhere (perhaps the New Statesman podcast) that there are three tests to be met for ‘humanitarian intervention’: 1) is something awful happening? 2) can intervention stop it from happening? and 3) can this be achieved with sufficiently low domestic cost as to be politically feasible?

This doesn’t strike me as the worst way in to the problem of ‘humanitarian intervention’. As you’d expect from a Blairite, it is a framework that will often favour intervention – it clearly assumes that humanitarian crises can warrant use of military force, it clearly doesn’t regard states as intrinsically bound by international institutions, and it is concerned simply with delimiting the situations in which the use of (potentially unilateral) force is wise. It’s a controversial position, but it obviously isn’t an incoherent one.

Off the top of my head, I can think of four broad alternative frameworks that would push back against this approach. First, straight-up isolationism – the idea that the political and ethical concerns of the state do not extend outside the boundaries of the state at all. Second, old school ‘realpolitik’ realism – the idea that states’ foreign policies should purely and coldly serve the national interest, and should not attend to humanitarian matters. Third, rule-bound liberal internationalism – the idea that military force should only be used in accordance with the processes of the relevant international institutions, which here means the UN. Fourth, anti-imperialism. It’s this last that I’m interested in, in this post.

In the recent debates over Syria, Jeremy Corbyn – the Labour party leader – has been widely criticised for his opposition to the UK’s participation in the latest round of US bombing. Corbyn’s opposition is articulated in liberal international proceduralist terms – he argues that military intervention is only warranted when it complies with the principles laid out in the UN Charter. This position has been criticised both on its own terms (because the UN, it is argued, is an institution incapable of fulfilling its necessary role in cases like these, where a permanent member of the Security Council is willing to exercise its veto power), and because many critics see Corbyn’s liberal position as in large part a ‘respectable’ way to reach a conclusion that Corbyn himself has reached on other grounds.

For myself, I think that Corbyn is probably more of a liberal internationalist than he’s often taken to be – but the pundits are also in my view right that this liberal position is at the very least strongly informed by an additional set of anti-imperialist ideological commitments. What are those commitments?

There’s a lot of variety, and a lot of debate, within the anti-imperialist tradition (as of course there is in the other traditions mentioned here). Still, as a first pass let me sketch three categories of commitment that pick out a foreign policy position as anti-imperialist in the relevant sense (recognising that there’s a great deal omitted here).

First, the idea that the international system is structured by core/periphery relations that are both economic and military, with the US by far the most powerful actor in the world system, and with other imperial core states largely aligned with and benefiting from US imperial power.

Second, the idea that ‘Western’ foreign policy – that is, the foreign policy of the states that comprise the imperial core of the global geopolitical system – serves the interests of this imperial core in exploiting the other members of the international system, as well as being informed by imperialist and/or capitalist ideology. That is, that the US and other imperial powers are basically malign actors on the world stage.

Therefore, Third, the idea that opposition to the malign international actions of the imperial core states is a crucial (probably the most important) geopolitical or foreign policy task, a prerequisite for any politics that is emancipatory at a global level.

This bundle of commitments is what critics of anti-imperialism characterise as knee-jerk anti-americanism, or hostility to ‘the West’. How do these commitments stack up, relative to their rivals in international politics? (Obviously I mean – how do they stack up in my own opinion). I will very quickly give my take on these commitments (not in order).

W/r/t the second of these commitments, then – for me, the idea that the US and other core imperial states are mostly malign actors in their military actions is clearly true. Obviously this is a controversial normative judgement and there can be no proof in matters of norms. Similarly, there is no claim about social reality – particularly not one as bald and generalising as this – where it is wrong to say that “things are more complicated than that”. But still, if you have to pick a commitment off the shelf about the military actions of imperial core states, the idea that those actions are driven by the states’ own interests and ideology, which do not align with the interests of those in whose lives the states are intervening, seems extremely solid to me.

This fact on its own (if we take it to be a fact) as I see it badly undermines Stephen Bush’s criteria for intervention, with which I began. Where the humanitarian interventionist sees the actions of the US or UK militaries as in this context first and foremost tools for achieving humanitarian outcomes, the anti-imperialist sees these actions as first and foremost serving imperial interests and ideology. This perception greatly raises the bar for intervention. The interventionist asks: can we (that is, ‘the West’) make a humanitarian difference? The anti-imperialist perspective reframes this question as: can imperial states pursuing their own – admittedly often misperceived – geopolitical and economic interests while caring little or nothing for the lives of those in the countries they bomb and invade make a humanitarian difference? These different framings of the same basic question typically yield different answers.

W/r/t the third of the commitments – the obligation to oppose the military actions of imperial states – things get a bit more complicated, in my view, even at a crude first pass. In what does this opposition consist? Lobbying our governments not to intervene – but what else? Should we also support (or stand in solidarity with, whatever that means, if anything) those ‘on the ground’ opposing imperialism? If so, who? At base, who are ‘the good guys’?

Very roughly speaking, there are two answers to this last question, corresponding to the two main attitudes of ‘Western’ radical leftism to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, the ‘tankie’ attitude is that we must stand in solidarity with those powerful actors opposing imperialism – a solidarity that frequently extends to endorsing an anti-imperialist state’s own oppressive violence and coercions. On the other hand, the ‘trot’ attitude that we should support “neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism” – a support that often apparently in practice means deciding which micro-group in a civil war is the most socialist.

In my view, the ‘tankie’ perspective is pretty straightforwardly horrific. If we want a more emancipated world, we need our ideals to be opposed to tyranny, torture, etc., not to align with them where the tyrants and torturers occupy the role of an oppressive elite within a state attacked by empire. Obviously there are political scenarios where one needs to make a hard choice and endorse the lesser of two evils – but analysing conflicts and picking sides in debates within the UK media or social media public sphere isn’t even close to being in this category, to my mind. This seems to me relatively straightforward position to reach. The position I’m calling the ‘trot’ one is better. In general, though, I think it’s important to recognise that there may not be a group or political actor available to endorse – that our opposition to imperialism does not in itself require a specific identification with an alternative actor. Social reality is complex, all groups are internally diverse, and the potentials of any given social movement or social moment are always multiple and conflictual. It is not an intrinsically materialist or leftist obligation to collapse those potentials into the endorsement of any ‘actually existing’ political entity or movement – even though this is a very common expectation in radical debates.

This point is also relevant to the first of the commitments I’m discussing – the idea that the global system is structured in terms of core/periphery relations. Here I think things are also more complex than ‘crude anti-imperialism’ would suggest. As I discussed in my post on Wallerstein, the basic world-systems perspective, while grounded in the analysis of core-periphery relations, sees those relations in quasi-cyclical terms. For world-systems theory, there are four stages in the ‘cycle of hegemony’ – the hegemonic stage in which a single imperial power dominates the world-system; the stage of imperial decline, in which other states begin to increase their power relative to the declining hegemon; the stage of multi-polar great power rivalry, in which multiple states jockey for geopolitical position; and the period of world war, in which these great powers militarily compete in a major great powers war, resulting ultimately in a single new global hegemon.

‘Classical’ anti-imperialist theory was established during the later two stages of this cycle – Hobson’s ‘Imperialism’ was written in 1902; Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ in 1917. This early anti-imperialist perspective therefore typically analysed imperialism in terms of competing imperial powers. Post-war anti-imperialism, as I mentioned above, analysed imperial relations in terms of the rival powers of the US and the USSR – with the latter often seen as the hard power bulwark against US global imperial dominance. Post-1989 anti-imperialism has typically analysed the international order in unitary terms: there is a single dominant global power – the US, with its allies – and a range of different lesser powers and movements resisting its global dominance. There are then also a series of debates about whether other, lesser great powers can also be usefully analysed as imperialist.

However, again as I see things, we’re now entering a period of increasing rival great power competition. In this context, an anti-imperialism that sees the global order as shaped by a single dominant power or group of allied powers is poorly suited to accurate geopolitical analysis. I’m not saying that all contemporary anti-imperialism has this problem, but quite a lot of it does, I think.

To sum up: I’m very crudely arguing that there are three elements of anti-imperialism: 1) a core-periphery analysis of the global geopolitical system; 2) a belief that the core actors within that system act in their own imperial interests; and 3) a belief that these core powers’ imperial actions should be opposed, politically. I’m saying that, for me, (2) is pretty solid as a first approximation to the geopolitical reality, and that (1) and (3) are both true for some value of ‘true’, but that the ways in which they are cashed out within contemporary anti-imperialism are often ‘problematic’. Specifically, it’s important that a critique of imperial power within the global system doesn’t naively (or indeed cynically) align itself with politically oppressive rival powers. This is particularly important because we are now entering a period of increasing rival great power politics, and ‘anti-imperialist’ powers that anti-imperialists might choose to align with are therefore increasingly likely to themselves be, or be aligned with, potential rival imperial powers. At the same time, it’s obviously important to make these points without engaging in apologism for actually-existing present or past US or other core states’ imperialist actions.

This is all a long-winded (yet much too brief) way of making some pretty crass points – and self-evidently there’s a lot more that can be said about all of these issues – but this kind of first pass discussion is what blogging is for, so that will do for now.

Some very preliminary, scattered, and basic notes.

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

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

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

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

Notes on Ideology Critique

November 26, 2017

Some work-in-progress notes on what I see as best practice in ideology critique, with references to some relevant figures.

1) Symmetry.

The joke about ideology is that it’s an irregular verb: they have ideology, you have beliefs, I have clear knowledge. But as I see it ideology critique ought to be ‘symmetrical’ and ‘reflexive’ in the sense in which those terms are used by David Bloor, in his ‘Knowledge and Social Imagery’. It’s fine to prefer one’s own ideology, but one ought to be able to adopt a perspective that sees one’s own ideological commitments as ideological commitments like any others. Apart from anything else, one will not be able to fully understand another ideology, if one cannot see one’s own ideological perspective through another’s eyes. [This doesn’t, as I’ve argued elsewhere at some length, commit one to a relativisation of perspectives – but it does mean that one should be able to shift perspectives, even if one retains rational warrant for adopting one’s own.]

2) Ideologies involve ‘social ontologies’, not just value-claims.

Although one can in principle distinguish between factual matters and ideological commitments, in practice ideological commitments typically involve lots of contested claims about factual matters. Adherents of different ideologies take themselves to be inhabiting different worlds, and these debates over matters of fact are major sites of ideological contestation.

3) ‘Irrational’ commitments are often rational.

A great deal of what is typically attributed to ideological bias, motivated reasoning, delusion, etc., is better understood as rational commitments given different priors – understand the priors and you understand the commitments. It’s a good rule of thumb to assume, as a first pass, that someone’s ideological commitments make sense, and that if they seem not to make sense, it’s because you don’t understand the relevant background commitments. An ‘inferentialist’ approach to ideology critique is useful here – mapping an ideology by understanding the inferential connections that bind and form the beliefs that, in their interconnection, constitute an ideological system. [I’ve spelled out my understanding of inferentialism in a longer series of posts on Robert Brandom, previously on this blog.] At the same time:

4) Some ‘irrational’ commitments really are ‘irrational’.

Some ideological commitments are better understood using psychoanalytic resources – broadly understood – than using the resources traditionally associated with rational belief network mapping. Ideologies can be driven by desire, and the expression of desire – including its symptomatic expression. Although there are lots of problems with the Freudian apparatus, many of its core concepts – repression, sublimation, cathection, etc. – are useful for understanding why people act and think in the ways they do.

5) De dicto versus de re ideology analysis.

The ‘rational’ inferentialist and ‘irrational’ Freudian dimensions of ideology analysis and critique are not as conflictual as they appear, however – a good deal of the apparent tension between them can be resolved by adopting the Brandomian distinction between de dicto and de re commitment tracking. The commitments that ideology-holders take to be their own may not be the commitments that we attribute to them. That disjunction may exist, of course, because we are wrong about someone’s commitments – but it may also exist because an ideology does not adequately know itself. Tracking the *actual* commitments that inform and shape an ideology, beyond the nominal commitments that form an ideology’s own self-understanding, is one of the ways in which ideology critique functions as *critique*.

6) Ideologies often have more than one set of apparently conflictual commitments.

However, we also should be cautious about ‘seeing through’ ‘nominal’ ideological commitments to supposedly ‘underlying’ real ones. Many ideologies have different, apparently conflictual, sets of commitments operating simultaneously, and understanding the ideology requires understanding the contexts in which one set of commitments is operative, rather than another. One simple, important example of this is the ideological logic of liberalism described by Charles Mills in ‘The Racial Contract’. For Mills, the social contract of traditional, ‘mainstream’ liberalism operates within a specific, privileged social sphere. Outside that sphere, another – violent and coercive – set of ideological commitments is operative. The boundary between these spheres is determined by a ‘racial contract’ – a racial hierarchisation in which political and ethical principles are differentially applied. This is one example of a common ‘layering’ of ideologies, in which an ideology can best be understood as composed of multiple different ideologies, together with a set of principles for moving between them.

These are some first pass articulations of elements of ideology critique. More as and when.

Expanding here briefly on some things I said on twitter, in light of Labour’s very impressive showing in the 2017 UK general election.

There are a number of different ways in which a political analyst – an academic, pollster or pundit – can be wrong.

    • You can make a wrong prediction. This is incredibly easy to do – we all make wrong predictions all the time. Social reality is enormously complex, and it’s basically impossible to make strongly reliable predictions about it.
    • You can be wrong about the probability distribution of possible outcomes. It’s obviously difficult to check whether somebody is wrong in this sense – unlikely outcomes often happen, and likely outcomes often don’t happen. Still, it’s another way of being wrong.
    • You can be wrong about the range of possible outcomes. That is, you can incorrectly suggest that some events are outside – or inside – the space of the feasible. (This is a special case of the previous probability distribution point.) This can, sometimes, be checked – if you say an outcome isn’t possible, and it happens, you were clearly wrong.
    • You can have a poor ‘model’ of social reality, generating your sense of the space of probabilities. This can be a model in a formal sense, as in some polling models. Or it can be a model in an informal sense, meaning one’s view of the important forces and dynamics of the relevant social reality.

In relation to Corbyn’s Labour’s impressive electoral performance, most (though by no means all) of us were wrong in one sense or another. I didn’t venture a prediction, because I thought the uncertainty was too high for a prediction to be made with any useful confidence. But if I had been obliged to make a prediction – professionally, say – I would certainly have predicted a much poorer electoral showing than Labour in fact achieved.

It is, of course, impossible to know whether one’s probability distribution is accurate (and, arguably, what that even means, epistemologically), so I’ll put that aside. In relation to the special case of possible outcomes, however, my range of possible outcomes certainly did include the electoral gains that actually occurred – so I was not wrong in that respect.

Finally, in relation to one’s ‘model’ of social reality: I wrote up my view of the electoral feasibility of Corbyn’s project shortly after he won the leadership, in September 2015 – you can read it here. Reasonable people can of course differ on these issues – a ‘model’ can never be definitively proven or refuted – but to my mind, the analysis in that post has stood up well, in light of subsequent events.

Now, the professional UK pundit class has also been wrong about Corbyn. But I would argue that most of them have been wrong in a different, stronger sense. Not only did many pundits wrongly predict electoral disaster for Corbyn’s Labour, they also often suggested that a strong electoral showing from Labour was somewhere in the probability range between extremely unlikely and actively impossible.

Most prominently, Matthew Goodwin, the political scientist, has now literally eaten his most recent book (‘Brexit: why Britain voted to leave the European Union’) on live television, after tweeting that he would do so if Corbyn’s Labour polled 38% or higher (in fact Labour polled 40%). This demonstrates good grace – but the existence of the tweet in the first place implies not just that Goodwin called the election wrong, but that he also called the space of the feasible wrong. And Goodwin is far from alone in this. The professional pundit class, as a whole, regarded the prospect of Corbyn’s Labour polling at ~40% not just as unlikely, but, for the most part, as absurd.

This in turn speaks to the ‘model’ of social and political reality that informs pundits’ analysis. I think there are a range of different pundit models out there, and surveying them would take a much longer post than this one. But it seems clear enough to me that the overwhelming majority of UK political pundits have badly flawed models of the political and social reality they are paid to analyse and interpret. This – rather than pundits’ bad predictions – is the big analytic problem with recent UK political commentary.

Finally, there are problems with the UK pundit sphere beyond the simply analytic. Most obviously from a ‘pro-Corbyn’ perspective, many pundits were not just badly wrong, but (to be blunt) were arseholes about it. Without wanting to get into an unproductive slanging match on this issue – and recognising that there are pundits to whom this critique does not apply – one of the negative consequences of many pundits’ belligerence towards ‘pro-Corbyn’ voices was epistemic. Pundits’ willingness to treat pro-Corbyn advocacy and analysis with contempt restricted the range of positions and perspectives that pundits treated as worthy of attention – and this in turn prevented pundits from appropriately updating their opinions in light of relevant arguments and evidence. This is one of the major reasons, I think, for the dramatic failure of the pundit class to see Corbyn’s Labour’s electoral success coming.

Now, there is an unfair imbalance in my criticism of the UK pundit sphere. I am not professionally obliged to produce analysis every week (or day!) – if I were, then over the last few years I would have been wrong about countless things. Nevertheless, as a consumer of UK punditry, I can still evaluate and criticise it. Moreover, in evaluating punditry, I’ve argued, whether pundits are wrong matters less than how they are wrong. For the most part, the UK commentariat were not just wrong about Corbyn – they were wrong in the wrong way. That is a bad problem for the UK public sphere.

Liberalism and Radicalism

December 6, 2015

Circling once more around what seems to be this blog’s only real topic of late – radicalism versus liberalism. Nothing revelatory here – just the solidification of what seem like fairly commonplace ideas. Starting with the concept of a collective ‘subject of history’, and moving on to alternatives.

If your politics is based on the idea that if the appropriate collective subject of history attains political power then domination and oppression will cease, your politics will predictably result (should it succeed in attaining power) in domination and oppression. That last sentence is the standard critique of the strand of Marxism that believes in some form of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It’s a correct critique, in my now quite firmly held opinion. But it doesn’t just apply to that strand of Marxism – it also applies to strands of feminism, of postcolonial politics, of anarchism (where ‘gaining power’ may be understood differently, but still) – and indeed to strands of would-be emancipatory movements of all kinds. Problem: one group of people is being oppressed by another. Solution: switch roles, get rid of the oppressors and replace them by the oppressed. The oppressed are the good guys, so problem solved. That’s the approach I’m criticising.

Obviously, I am caricaturing, and in a familiar way that is often used to criticise emancipatory movements as a whole – that is of course not my intention here. Nevertheless, I think this caricature accurately captures the core of a significant portion of left politics. What’s wrong with this approach? A range of things. One of them is using the collective as the unit of analysis. Why is using the collective as the unit of analysis a bad idea? Because doing so makes it harder to see how different elements of the collectivity have different interests, preferences, politics, etc. – and how oppression can operate within the collectivity, not just against it. This lack of critical insight into the internal dynamics of the collectivity means that would-be emancipatory movements that understand themselves in this way frequently and predictably fail to adequately plan for holding power – as well as failing to adequately moderate existing internal power dynamics. More precisely, they fail to adequately consider how to limit the power of those within the collective who end up wielding it. Thus would-be emancipatory movements frequently and predictably end up producing new forms of oppression and domination, rather than any kind of lasting emancipation.

Contrast liberalism. Liberalism is of course an extremely diverse political tradition, so there are major exceptions to what I’m about to say. Still, one of liberalism’s major unifying interests is the way in which diverse individual actions which may be individually self-interested can, with the appropriate institutional structures, create positive collective outcomes. This idea unites economic liberalism (where despite following individual self interest we are led, as if by an invisible hand…) and political liberalism (in which incompatible interests and perspectives hammer out some compromise in the negotiations of non-absolutist government). The radical left is often impatient with / hostile to this approach, for a range of different reasons, some good, some bad. But this liberal perspective is in my opinion a much better starting point for thinking about politics than any concept of a ‘subject of history’ or ‘collective will’.

That is to say: One of the things this liberal approach is good for, is not taking it for granted that with the right people in charge, or with the right collective will expressed, the right political decisions will made. Liberalism tends to assume, instead, that people won’t reliably look out for each other in solidarity, but will rather engage in conflict, disagreement and, potentially, oppression at all levels of the body politic – and that a core political problem is setting up the institutions within which people operate, such that those conflicts can function as checks and balances to produce positive, rather than negative, overall outcomes. In its approach to institution design, therefore, liberalism is a better starting point for thinking about abuses of power than many forms of radicalism.

OK – so drop the radicalism and embrace liberalism? Not altogether, no. There are, obviously, a range of problems with liberalism – or, at least, with ‘actually existing liberalism’ (including most ‘actually existing’ articulations of liberal political ideals). As I have done before on the blog I want to focus in this post on those emphasised by Charles Mills, in his The Racial Contract and other works. That is to say: liberalism’s ideals – including the ideals of institution design I was just talking about – are severely limited in their application. In particular, they are limited by a hierarchy of the human, in which the principles of liberal politics only need be applied to those near the top of the hierarchy – those humans who are fully human, fully adult, in full possession of their own individuality, which individuality can be given voice by the institutions of the liberal polity and economic order. As we move down the hierarchy of the human, people become less and less entitled to have voice or power within liberal institutions, because, from the liberal perspective, they are not real people. This describes the system of global racial oppression – but also many forms of gender oppression, and other forms of systematic domination.

So we have on the one hand a system of checks and balances that aspires to transform varied and conflictual individual preferences into acceptable collective outcomes, without presupposing an unrealistic degree of harmonious or self-sacrificing solidarity or collective will – then on the other hand we have those excluded from full participation in this institutional space, who therefore do not enjoy those liberal checks against oppression, coercion, violence, etc., and do not find their preferences accounted for within the system of liberal negotiations and exchanges. Here the ‘space of liberalism’ itself functions as a form of collective subject – the human, the civilised – contrasted with another collective non-subject – the inhuman, the uncivilised, the childlike brutes, the Other. And this is of course a way of justifying the actually-existing systematic oppression or domination of the latter by the former.

One way of narrating the history of liberalism is as a series of assaults on this charmed circle of the human, in which excluded groups, through the use of collective action, seek to challenge the existing liberal order, and extend the scope of liberal freedoms and rights. These assaults on the liberal circle of entitlements must use methods that are not permitted by the existing liberal order – in that sense, these movements are not liberal ones. But the end result of many of these movements has been the incorporation of their demands into an expanded liberal politics – a liberalism that includes, rather than opposes, workers’ rights, women’s rights, minorities’ rights, LGBTI rights, etc. – at least within some limited, but meaningful, political and economic field. These achievements should be regarded as (incomplete) political successes, in my opinion.

Now, the hierarchy of the human I just described is not the only problem with ‘actually existing’ liberalism – hopefully I’ll come back to all this again one day. Still, I think all this is enough of a starting point to make the case for a form of liberalism. This liberalism should take a ‘cynical’ approach to the problems of political and economic life – it should presuppose high degrees of social conflict and self-interested action at all scales of social life, and aim to design institutions that use this social discord to provide checks and balances against the abuse of any given group of individuals by any other. It should aspire to the traditional liberal goal of achieving positive overall collective outcomes by ensuring, through institution design, that where possible the individual and diverse interests of many diverse individuals interact in broadly socially beneficial ways. But this liberalism should be alive, in a way that actually-existing liberalisms have traditionally not been, to the systematic exclusion of the bulk of humanity from full participation in and representation through actually-existing liberal institutional structures – one major way, though not the only one, in which actually-existing liberal institutions cannot fulfill their (purported) political goals.

As I say, none of this ought to be very earth-shattering – I’ll aim to come back to all of this in greater depth, one day.