US Presidential Election 2020: a failure of competition?

As I write this the US is in a strange limbo.  Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the November 3rd Presidential election by news media and poll analysts, and has been recognised as the President-Elect by many foreign heads of state.  All that awaits is formal confirmation through the reporting of the electoral college.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues to claim that the election was stolen by fraudulent practices led by the Democratic Party, and he and his supporters continue to legally contest results at state and local levels, despite little evidence in support.  Everyone is waiting.

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The Problem of Imaginary Agents

I have often pointed out to my students a kind of conceptual error endemic in the social sciences, a tendency to imbue names for large and complex processes with an imputed agency.  A familiar example is when we talk loosely about ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘globalisation’ being the cause of some result we decry.  For instance, if the university becomes more economistic in its cost/benefit calculations, this is an effect of neoliberalism.  In some very general sense this may be true, but to substantiate the claim we would need to trace out actual efforts by social actors to affect institutional policies, and the wider environments shaping those actions.  The promotion of formalised ‘workload allocation models’ in universities, which seek to standardise the amount of hours staff can claim for various activities, on one hand is driven by managerial objectives of rationalising the allocation of university resources.  But it is also driven by labour unions to insure equity among staff for their work contributions.  Together these bring about the more ‘neoliberal’ approach to labour calculations, even though we might only recognise the first as motivated by neoliberal assumptions.  However, the wider point is that ‘neoliberalism’ isn’t an historical actor doing anything.  It is a broad label for a set of ideas, policies, and processes.  But we very easily slide from this understanding to one in which we are readily complaining of neoliberalism doing bad things to our lives and oppressing us, of a dark ‘neoliberal project’, whose projectors remain unspecified.  This is partly an accident of language, in which the grammatical structure for saying an agent did something (‘Bob pushed me over’) and for saying a non-agent did something (‘The wind pushed me over’) can look and feel superficially the same.  And a complex object such as neoliberalism of course includes actors and actions, though it cannot be reduced to these, which makes the elision all the easier.

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Marxists or Jacobins?

One of the most disconcerting things about public discourse these days is the running together of ideas of ‘marxism’ and ‘postmodernism’, as though they are equivalent, or that latter grows directly out of the former.  This can be found, for example, in statements by YouTube pundits Jordon B. Peterson (Prof. of Psychology at U. of Toronto) and Douglas Murray (an Editor with The Spectator)[1].  Both might be described as conservative-leaning, but also hold strongly liberal views. 

The context is the current fusion of academic social theory and social movements based on identity politics. The argument seems to be that the defining feature of Marxism is an analysis of society in terms of a fundamental opposition of power, namely between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and a political call to overturn that power relationship, so the oppressed (the proletariat) are on top, and the oppressor (the bourgeoisie) is on the bottom.  What later postmodern, postcolonial, and identity-based theories supposedly derive from Marx is this same basic analysis and problematic, of a world defined by oppressed and oppressors, and a revolutionary call to overturn the relationship.  But now the bi-polar relationships concerned have both multiplied, in terms of axes of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity (class is often weakly in the mix), and yet also amalgamated into a macro-pattern of oppressed and oppressors.  Figures like Peterson and Murray understandably express frustration with how this model tends to over simplify the world, and become an ideological banner under which people march.  Marxism persists in a new outfit. 

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Remembering Hume

My university has recently announced its intention to ‘temporarily’ rename David Hume Tower by the more harmless ‘40 George Square’,[1] in light of a recent petition calling for its renaming on the basis of objection to a notorious racist footnote in his essay ‘Of National Character’ (1753).  One can read extensive comment on the footnote and its history[2], so I will not go into it again here.  Suffice it to say that the views Hume expresses there are racist, offensive, and worthy of condemnation. 

Let me start by saying I don’t have any deep commitment to the naming of buildings.  This will always reflect the times in which a building is named, or renamed, and there is not much at stake in the names of buildings (unless one is a rich benefactor wanting a building named after yourself).  But I suspect that if we did an exhaustive review of the histories of all persons with buildings names after them, we would end up working largely in numbered addresses.  Indeed, the petition in question originally proposed renaming the David Hume Tower after Edinburgh graduate Julius Nyerere until it was pointed out that he held homophobic views.

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The irreducible tension between technology and morality

My university has just announced the launch of a new Centre for Technomoral Futures.  The announcement lays out an agenda boldly.  The new centre

… focuses on integration of the technological and ethical … as a groundbreaking initiative to design more sustainable, just and ethical models of innovation. … that unifies technical and moral expertise.

The Centre’s unique mission is driven by the insight that effective design and governance of today’s increasingly complex social systems demands a fuller integration of technical and moral knowledge than is possible in traditional academic structures, where these typically develop in isolation from one another.”

However… as I was saying to a large class of first year students only a few months ago, when studying social change, the relationship between technology (and science) and morality, raises some vexing questions.  It may take more than fusing them together in the word ‘technomoral’ to really grapple with the abiding tensions between them.  But attention to those tensions may provide some insight into the actual scope of human knowledge, and the reasons that different traditions of human inquiry follow different paths.

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The culture of poverty, again…

Listening to ‘heterodox’ black American intellectuals such as Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes talk on various podcasts[1] about the current state of race politics in the US has got me thinking once again about what we mean by ‘culture’.   These thinkers are inclined to draw a line between ‘structure’ and ‘culture’ as explanatory lenses for understanding enduring poverty in black communities, and the overall wealth gap between blacks and whites in the US (black families have on average a 10th of the wealth of white families).  In a tradition of argument that traces back to earlier ‘conservative’ black intellectuals such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, they are inclined to argue that too much emphasis is placed on economic and legal structures as barriers to greater racial equality, and not enough on culture, meaning values, behaviours, and such things as educational aspiration and two parent families, which are seen as weakly present in the cultures of the communities in question.  The basic message from them is that blacks need to take responsibility for their own culture to improve their circumstances and not lose their agency by relying on state assistance.

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In Defence of Competition

I’d like to argue, in a way perhaps uncharacteristic of the left, in favour of competition.  Not for blanket endorsement, but qualified recognition of the value of competition.  A basic premise to my argument is that the work of criticism, to be such, has to be concerned with differentiating the good from the bad in some area of phenomenon, according to some clear criteria.  By definition, wholesale condemnation is not critique, it is just rejection.  We learn much more about the world, and ourselves, when we try to clarify why we approve of some versions of a phenomenon, and disapprove of others.  For those in the habit condemning competition wholesale, as the pernicious effect of life under omnipresent capitalism, I hope to convince them that, on reflection, they are in fact deeply committed to competition in some of its forms, and there is value in understanding which forms and why.  Indeed, being able to do so may be the path to the most robust critique of competition.

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Michael Lind—Marx or List?

Michael Lind’s new book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite (2020, Atlantic Books) is a compact argument aimed at a general readership.  In it Lind makes the case for a revival of ‘democratic pluralism’, his term for the post-WWII left-right consensus politics of the US and Europe, exemplified by FDR’s ‘New Deal’, and sometimes referred to as the ‘Keynesian consensus’.  He emphasises the weakening of the position of labour in the capitalist core countries since the 1970s, both by offshoring of production in search of cheaper labour, and by the importation of immigrant and often illegal workers undercutting wages.  He calls for tighter labour markets so that workers in these countries will have greater bargaining power.  This involves controlling the international investment of national capital, and controlling labour immigration.  The argument is presented as a critique of a neoliberal consensus, and reassertion of the importance of pluralist nationalist politics.

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Dignity and the Modern Nation

Two things primed me to write a blog about Francis Fukuyama’s new book Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. First, last week I gave a lecture to students on our MSc in Nationalism Studies on the key theoretical ideas of Liah Greenfeld.  I was explaining to them the central role of the expansion of ‘dignity’, from a preserve of aristocratic elites, to a general property of the members of the nation.  For Greenfeld, it is the equal right to dignity that gives the modern nation it’s restless quality, as people are no longer content with their station in life, and must struggle endlessly and competitively to assert their social status.  The next day I was at a seminar lecture by David Goodhart (author of The Road to Somewhere) in which he was arguing that the ‘knowledge economy’ in the UK (especially) allowed the more highly educated and fortunate to achieve dignity and recognition, but tended to leave those less cognitively adept adrift, with a kind of status deficit.  For him, a lack of access to ‘dignified’ work helps explain support for Brexit, and more general alienation from the current economic and social order in Britain.  The weekend before all this, I had listened to David Runciman’s excellent Talking Politics podcast in which he interviewed Fukuyama[1].  That told me enough to know that this theme of dignity and modern politics (national and otherwise) featured there as well, and spurred me to buy the book and read it.  Dignity was in the air.

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The Letter and the Spirit of Democracy

As I begin to write this on 19 October, 2019, Michael Gove is speaking for the government in Parliament against the Letwin Amendment, which requires that implementing legislation be passed before the Prime Minister’s ‘Brexit Deal’ is approved by Parliament.  Once again, he gives the refrain that respect for democracy requires that Parliament support a deal, because that’s what the people voted for (by 52%).  A few days earlier, on a BBC show reporting on its own opinion survey on support for a ‘no deal Brexit’, the ever-strident Anne Widdicombe (now with the Brexit Party) was making the same point, that the essence of democracy lies in the result of the referendum vote.  On the same panel a world-weary Stephen Kinnock (Labour MP) said that while he voted remain, he has steadily supported proposed deals in Parliament because he respects the referendum vote.  However, he has always preferred a ‘soft Brexit’ (customs union, Norway model, etc.) of the type that has never seriously been countenanced by the Conservative Government, under either May or Johnson. 

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