Back in the day (more than a decade ago, my god!) I sort of ‘live blogged’ my reading of Robert Brandom’s ‘Making It Explicit’.  That generated a few blog posts that in retrospect were badly wrong in key points (as well as a lot of blog posts that I still stand by and value!) – but I nevertheless found the process very helpful in working through Brandom’s system.  So, recognising that I risk again polluting the blogosphere with incorrect takes on Brandom, but selfishly going ahead anyway for purposes of self-clarification, I’m going to put up some remarks on Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel as I start to engage with it.

These are pre-preliminary remarks because I haven’t yet found time to even begin reading ‘A Spirit of Trust’ (Brandom’s Hegel book).  Instead, I’ve been listening to the Leipzig lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology that Brandom has very helpfully put up on his YouTube channel.  I take it that these lectures basically cover the same terrain as the book, but of course ~18 hours of lectures can’t go into nearly as much detail as a ~800 page book, so I’m not imagining that these lectures are an adequate substitute for the text.  Nevertheless, until I can find time in my reading schedule for the book itself, this is what I’ve got.

It’s probably worth saying upfront that I’m not interested at all in the question of whether Brandom gets Hegel right.  Brandom’s is a reconstructive project, and while it’s obviously going to greatly irritate Hegel scholars if Brandom’s reconstruction departs in major ways from their interpretation of Hegel’s own position, I don’t care.  Moreover, although it is common and reasonable to assume that Brandom’s Hegel is simply Brandom himself dressed up in a slightly different technical vocabulary, I think it’s probably worth exercising a bit of caution here too.  Clearly Brandom’s Hegel’s system bears a striking – even an uncanny – resemblance to Brandom’s own system, but Brandom is still following the text of Hegel’s Phenomenology in his interpretation, so I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that, if Brandom were sitting down to write a ‘phenomenology of spirit’ himself, it would look like this.  Rather, I think we can usefully operate as if what we have here is a third figure, analogous perhaps to ‘Kripkenstein’ – Saul Kripke’s influential and controversial interpretation of Wittgenstein – which exists somewhere in the space between or is produced in the interaction between Brandom’s and Hegel’s commitments.

So, with that said, some very preliminary, pre-preliminary remarks on starting to listen to the lectures.  First up: it probably doesn’t need saying, but as with ‘Making It Explicit’, my overwhelming impression is just how clever it all is.  Brandom has so many balls up in the air, and he juggles them with such deftness, interlocking different elements of the system in ways that are both intricate in detail and yet also load-bearing within an overall architectonic structure… it’s all just deeply impressive to watch.  I am, clearly, a Brandom fan, and that isn’t going to go away on the basis of this Hegel project.

With that said, I nevertheless have more unease about the Hegel project in some important areas than I did about ‘Making It Explicit’ (MIE).  As ever, there’s much more to be said than can be covered in a single blog post, even if I had actually read the book.  For now, though, I think the best way to begin discussing some of that unease is to highlight two key elements of MIE, and my takes on them, before contrasting those elements of the MIE project with similar elements of the Hegel project.

So.  Extremely long-term readers of the blog may remember that my main discomfort with ‘Making It Explicit’ focused on the role that Brandom grants to specifically linguistic practice within his system.  Clearly that’s a big disagreement to have, given that Brandom is first and foremost a linguistic philosopher, and given that he pretty clearly thinks that participation in a linguistic community is in some sense a precondition of sapience (a view I disagree with!).  Nevertheless, my disagreement with MIE on the role of the linguistic was tempered by the way in which Brandom embeds his ‘inferentialist’ semantics within his ‘normative pragmatics’.  MIE is interested in the way that language is, first and foremost, something that we do, as a social activity.  Moreover, one of the key elements of Brandom’s account of how linguistic practice generates the forms of normativity characteristic of sapience was his metaphor of ‘scorekeeping’.  In MIE, ‘scorekeeping’ plays a fundamental explanatory role – a role analytically more fundamental (I would argue) than the specific linguistic practices that Brandom uses to give an account of how scorekeeping functions within a discursive community.

It seemed to me then (and still does!) that the role of scorekeeping in MIE leaves open the door to a parallel philosophical apparatus (formally very similar to Brandom’s, but departing from it in key respects), that gives a non-linguistic account of social scorekeeping.  So (perhaps eccentrically), it seems to me that despite Brandom’s own heavy emphasis on specifically linguistic practice, the apparatus of MIE has much to teach us, even if we do not share Brandom’s own commitments in linguistic philosophy, or concerning the centrality of language to thought.

That’s one key element of MIE, and my reaction to it.  Another key element of MIE is Brandom’s account of objectivity.  For me, this is really the key ‘output’ of Brandom’s apparatus.  Again, it’s necessary to be extremely crude and simplistic, if one wants to give a subsection-of-a-reasonable-blogpost-length summary of what Brandom is doing.  But as I see it, one key goal of Brandom’s system is to address a problem that has plagued the pragmatist philosophical project from the beginning.

That problem is, to be crude about it, “what about objectivity, then?”  The pragmatist project, crudely put, is to ground our understanding of traditional philosophical categories – categories like knowledge, truth, value – in social practice theory.  The idea is that what we do as social beings is in some sense generative of these categories, and the categories can only be explained in terms of social practice.  The core objection to the pragmatist project is, basically, that this can’t be done.  Moreover, not only can it not be done, but the effort to do it opens the door to moral, political, and epistemic nihilism (at worst) or moral, political, and epistemic incoherence (at best).  This is what Bertrand Russell is saying when he suggests that US-style pragmatism is a gateway drug to fascism.  This is what Sokal and Bricmont were doing when they suggested that the strong programme in science studies was somehow destroying left politics.  And this is (part of) what many contemporary critics of ‘critical theory’ are doing when they suggest that ‘social justice’ accounts of politics or truth are destroying civilisation.  The idea is that truth, morality, etc. have some reality that exists beyond the social practice of contingent social groups, and that critical-theoretic efforts to ground these categories in social practice are undermining the categories themselves.

Obviously there is a lot mixed up in these debates besides the philosophical issue of the coherence of the pragmatist project, so I want to be clear that I’m not at all suggesting that these debates can be reduced to the kind of abstruse meta-theoretical problems that preoccupy Brandom.  Nevertheless, for me, one of the most important contributions of MIE was that it provided a detailed and (in my humble opinion) satisfactory account of how norms and objectivity can be explained in practice-theoretic terms without succumbing to the theoretical vulnerabilities that have bedevilled earlier pragmatist thinkers (such as Brandom’s doctoral supervisor Richard Rorty, but extending back to the ‘classical’ pragmatists like Dewey, James, etc.)

OK.  So for me Brandom’s account of the concept of ‘objectivity’ was probably the key contribution of MIE.  It’s this account of objectivity (of reference and of norms) that explains why pragmatism isn’t simply a way of explaining truth and value in terms of (say) the practices or beliefs of a dominant social group, and why pragmatism doesn’t simply evacuate these categories altogether. And that concept of ‘objectivity’ more or less emerges from Brandom’s account of scorekeeping.  In particular, Brandom’s account rests on a set of distinctions between different attitudes to normative commitments, established via his scorekeeping apparatus. 

On this account, I as a sapient creature have certain normative commitments about the way things are.  I also track other people’s commitments.  But this tracking of commitments operates via what Brandom calls a form of ‘double bookkeeping’.  I can have an opinion about what somebody takes themselves to be committed to; I can also have an opinion about what they actually are committed to, given my own views about what their commitments entail.  And this ‘double bookkeeping’ can reflexively be applied to my own commitments.  I know what I take my own commitments to entail, but I am also aware that others may take my commitments to entail something different – and this gap between my current perception of my own commitments, and the commitments I may eventually take myself to have really possessed all along, opens up a ‘formal’ concept of objectivity that can be understood independent of any specific account of what objectivity substantively consists in.

I’m being much too telegraphic here to capture how Brandom’s argument functions with any adequacy, I’m really just trying to gesture to the broad space of Brandom’s argument.  For the purposes of this blog post, what I mostly want to capture is that this account of objectivity is extremely ‘slimline’ – this key element of MIE’s argument does not make any ontological claims about what the substance of objective knowledge consists in.  It gets you out of the problem that has historically plagued pragmatism – how can we give an account of objectivity that cannot be reduced to, say, the consensus of a given sub-community? – and that’s ‘all’ it does.

Now, there are other elements of MIE – indeed, some of the most involved sections, such as Brandom’s lengthy discussion of anaphora – that I haven’t discussed here.  And indeed, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near even trying to summarise those sections without reading the book again.  So I don’t want to make any strong claims about what the book doesn’t do.  My points here are more that: First, the elements of the book that I’ve highlighted are, to me, a big part of its core argument; Second, this core argument is quite ‘slimline’ in terms of its commitments: Brandom builds a great deal on the foundations of a quite minimal theory of practice.

Ok.  So, with that overly laborious background (given the brevity of the rest of what I have to say in this post), let me articulate some pre-preliminary thoughts on Brandom’s Hegel project.  And here I want to contrast two elements of Brandom’s Hegel with those elements of MIE I’ve just highlighted.

First, although Brandom’s Hegel is a pragmatist, and there is no inconsistency that I can see between the apparatus of MIE and the apparatus of A Spirit of Trust, the latter seems to me (again, at a very first pass) to devote less energy to grounding its account in a ‘deflationary’ pragmatics.  So far in Brandom’s Hegel lectures we have had no discussion of scorekeeping, that key explanatory component of MIE’s account of objectivity.  Rather, Brandom’s Hegel (so far) has a tendency to leap straight in to the more directly semantic elements of the argument.

Clearly there’s nothing wrong with this – and indeed for all I know these matters will be addressed in full later.  But for people like me for whom the normative pragmatics dimension of MIE was in some respects more interesting than its inferentialist semantics, this is a bit disappointing.

That’s my first, very brief and fairly trivial, observation.  My second observation is that it seems to me that Brandom’s Hegel may be making stronger ‘ontological’ claims than the core elements of MIE that I’ve highlighted need commit us to.

In particular, Brandom has an extremely intricate and carefully developed account of Hegel’s idealism.  I’ll want to circle back round and give a much fuller account of this once I’m more confident in my grasp of this material.  But at (again) a very preliminary and crude first pass, Brandom argues that for Hegel the world is already ‘conceptually structured’.  What this means is not that the world is ontologically dependent on thought – Brandom’s Hegel is not a ‘subjective’, Berkeleyan idealist.  For Brandom’s Hegel (much of) the world would be the way it is even if nobody had ever existed to perceive it.  Rather, the argument is that the structure of the world is such that we are capable of having ‘adequate knowledge’ of the world, and this seemingly requires a homology between the normative structure of thought and the ontological structure of the world.  Specifically, Brandom believes that for Hegel the normative component of semantics maps onto the modal structure of reality.  That is, if I am committed to a claim, what this means is that I am committed to some other claims also being the case, and some other claims also not being the case.  And this normative network of obligations and entitlements (legitimate and illegitimate inferences) is homologous with modal relations of possibility and impossibility between and within states of affairs in reality.  If such-and-such a commitment about the world is incompatible with such-and-such another commitment about the world, this normative obligation to not hold those two beliefs simultaneously is saying that such-and-such a state of affairs is in reality incompatible with such-and-such another state of affairs.  Modal claims about compatibility and incompatibility of real states of affairs map onto normative claims about our inferential obligations given our commitments, and vice versa.

My account of this argument here is desperately crude relative to Brandom’s – my goal is again just to gesture in the direction of the Brandomian Hegelian apparatus.  The point is that this account of Hegel’s idealism explains how we have objective knowledge of the world.  For Brandom’s Hegel, this argument meets the sceptical challenge thrown up by his predecessors in the modern philosophical tradition.  And this goal of meeting the sceptical challenge of Descartes, Kant, and others is a key motivator of this apparatus, on Brandom’s account.  For Brandom’s Hegel, one of the problems of the pre-Hegelian modern philosophical tradition was that it baked scepticism into its semantics, by postulating a relationship of representation that intrinsically rendered reality ungraspable in key elements.  ‘Objective idealism’ aims to address this problem, by showing how reality can be ‘conceptually structured’ and thus knowlable in itself without committing us to the idea that reality is ontologically dependent on knowing subjects.

Which is all fair enough.  My initial worry about this dimension of Brandom’s Hegel’s argument, though, is that it might ‘prove too much’.  Like Brandom’s Hegel, I am suspicious of any epistemology that seems to intrinsically condemn us to scepticism.  Maybe we’re completely misguided about reality, but it doesn’t seem right to have this deep epistemological failure be an intrinsic feature of our philosophical apparatus.  (I’m aware that ‘doesn’t seem right’ isn’t actually an argument, but I’m not going to shoulder the burden of grounding my philosophical intuitions in this blog post…)

At the same time, though, and in the other direction, I worry about arguments that seem to imply that reality must be knowable to us, at least in principle, or at least in general.  What if there are elements of reality that we simply cannot comprehend, and never could?  What if the reason for our inability to comprehend those elements of reality is that reality is not ‘conceptually structured’ in Brandom’s Hegel’s sense, or is so only in some of its aspects, or ‘from a certain point of view’?  I’m inclined to a ‘satisficing’ approach to knowledge – a ‘good enough’ account of what it is to know something – and it feels that Brandom’s Hegel’s account of epistemology might be after a stronger sense of epistemological adequacy.  What if this criterion for adequacy of knowledge is just too strong to actually capture the reality of how we know things?

Now, as I keep saying, these are only pre-preliminary thoughts.  I’m writing them up here not because I’m presenting them as an argument against Brandom’s Hegel’s project, certainly not as stands, but because I find it useful to get my reactions down in writing as I go.  Still, these are some of the things I’m going to be thinking about as I continue to work through Brandom’s remarkable 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.

When I was, I guess, in my twenties, I had quite a lot of interest in psychoanalytic theoretical resources. Although there is much to criticise in the Freudian and post-Freudian apparatus, I felt then – and still feel – that the Freudian approach captures something important about human behaviour and emotion. Freud is best, in my view, not in the mechanistic and often embarrassingly arbitrary or ideological attempts to typologise specific behaviours and beliefs in terms of a set of narrowly family-oriented interpersonal relationships – as if these specific family structures are human universals, and as if the rest of our social environment does not impact our psychological formation – but rather in the basic insight that our pyschological behaviours, including those that we aspire to distinguish from our baser motives, are driven by gratifications and pleasures that we often are not open about, either with others or with ourselves.

For Freud ‘libido’ is the master category here, and the analytic strategy of decomposing psychological structures into complex movements of libidinal cathection runs through much of his work. Moreover, the idea that such movements of libidinal cathection are mediated through others – that we are bound into our social sphere by the way in which our own identity is shaped by locating elements of that identity ‘within’ other social actors – is, I think, a way in which the Freudian apparatus valuably opens out onto broader social theory, despite Freud’s own relatively narrow interest in a small number of interpersonal relationships – particularly family relationships – as the locus of psychological formation and transformation.

Since then, in my thirties, I’ve spent a lot of time with a theoretical apparatus that many would see as very different from the psychoanalytic approach: the kinds of mathematised rational choice theory associated with economics and formal political science or sociology. It is easy to see this approach as fundamentally opposed to the Freudian one – emphasising, as it seemingly does, reason over affect, judgement over libido, and so forth. And there’s something to that.

At the same time, though, there are also important overlaps between the Freudian and rational choice approaches. For one thing, rational choice theory of course has its origins and a significant part of its theoretical warrant in a utilitarian approach to the analysis of social life: the idea that fundamentally we are pleasure-maximising creatures, and that our decisions are (‘rationally’) guided by the desire to maximise our gratifications (or some reliable proxy of those gratifications). Both approaches in this sense can easily be seen as ‘debunking’ approaches to social life, such that ‘higher’ matters can be explained by ‘lower’ ones.

At the same time, rational choice theory, like Freudianism, has the capacity to expand the scope of its analysis, to encompass a wide range of behaviours that would not typically be characterised as gratification-oriented. Just as Freudians can specify that libidinal gratifications can reside in (for example) masochistic submission to pain, or repression of desire, or subordination of individual interests to the attempt to fully realise an ego-ideal, or any of a range of other apparently non-pleasure oriented behaviours, so the rational choice theorist can specify that the individual social actor aims to maximise their utility by maximising any arbitrary function in which utility is simply fiated to reside.

This means that, like Freudianism, rational choice theory has the capacity to expand to encompass literally any human behaviour, and is in this manner vulnerable to the charge of pseudo-scientific irrefutability. If any behaviour can be explained as motivated by the instincts and their vicissitudes, or by the rational maximisation of some opaque and convoluted utility function, in what sense are we really engaged in the game of explanation here at all? Are we not simply rewriting our observations or ideas into an all-encompassing theoretical idiom that can never be refuted precisely because it can encompass any and all observations, with the appropriate theoretical tweaks?

I think there is clearly something to this worry or complaint. Both Freudianism and rational choice theory are perhaps best understood less as theories than as frameworks – analytic systems within which theories can be proposed and rejected, but where it is unclear what counter-evidence would justify the rejection of the framework as a whole. This attribute can reasonably been seen as placing these theoretical frameworks outside the space of science. And yet different frameworks make different theories easier to think: some things are much more easily said in one metatheoretical idiom than another. Such idioms can, therefore, I think, be justified on the basis of the theoretical – and thus, potentially, scientific – resources they make more or less readily available. In any case, and despite all the objections, I personally find it valuable to engage in theoretical speculation or discourse at this (quite high) level of abstraction.

At that level of abstraction, then, what can we say about the relationship between Freudian and rational choice resources? At one level, for the reasons gestured at in the last paragraph, we have no obligation to ‘choose’: some theoretical approaches are more fruitful in some contexts, and some in others – there is nothing at all wrong with a theoretical, or a meta-theoretical, pluralism.

At the same time, I increasingly, as I approach my forties, find myself thinking about the relationship between these approaches – and specifically, feeling that the rational choice approach can in many contexts usefully be seen as a special case of the Freudian (broadly understood). If we take it that our master category is something in the space of ‘gratification’, and we see both approaches as analysing individual motivation and behaviour as seeking to maximise ‘gratification’, then it seems to me that the psychoanalytic approach has a more capacious and sophisticated understanding of what gratification consists in. Specifically, where rational choice theory sometimes has difficulty breaking out of the constraints of a narrow methodological individualism, the psychoanalytic apparatus – while of course methodologically individualist in some sense (and in my view none the worse for it – though that is a topic for another post) – can in principle understand our individual gratifications as highly motivated by our investment in broader social structures – one’s ego-ideal, which it is gratifying to preserve and to aim to realise – can be constructed out of the resources available in one’s broader social environment, and one’s investment in or cathection of those resources can be very complex indeed.

Rational choice theory, it seems to me, is most valuable in those common special cases where matters of gratification are quite straightforward – where some relatively simple reward function is a passingly adequate model for individuals’ motives and behaviour. In many cases that concern us as social scientists and social theorists, this is the case. Seeing individuals as wishing to maximise their income, or their power, or their prestige, or some other modelable proxy for ‘gratification’, is a close enough approximation to individual motive in many circumstances that the resources of rational choice theory can frequently be useful.

And yet, of course, as we all know, social life is more complex than such simple models can convey. If we begin with a rational choice theoretical idiom, our attempt to reckon with such complexity can all too often result in either ad hoc re-specifications of individual utility functions, or in the fiating of an alternative realm of behaviour that goes beyond the rational into the ‘ideological’.

Of course, these approaches may bear fruit – and psychoanalytic theory is, as discussed above, no less vulnerable to the ad hoc respecification of gratifications to ensure that theory matches behaviour. But for me, right now at least, it feels more fruitful to see the psychoanalytic apparatus as the more capacious framework. In particular, I feel like the psychoanalytic framework of ‘gratifications’ is more amenable to dismantling the all-too-easily reified distinction between ‘ideology’ and ‘interests’ than is the rational choice approach.

But that is probably best discussed elsewhere, rather than in this post.

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.

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.