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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The UK Parliament and Instrumental Populism

In Jan-Werner Müller’s recent short study What is Populism? (2017, Penguin) he defines it as a form of politics characterised by anti-elitism, the imagined oneness of ‘the people’ and their representatives (regardless of the mechanisms of representation), and the categorisation of political opponents as ‘enemies’ outside the body of ‘the people’.  Müller calls populism ‘the permanent shadow of representative politics’, in which the necessary pluralism and compromise of modern democratic politics is rejected.  It offers a dream of untainted ‘rule by the people’, attempting to bypass the frustrating process of real democracy.

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The Relevance of Nationalism Today

Some might argue that the wave of scholarship on nationalism stimulated by decolonisation and subsequently the collapse of the USSR has run its course.  Many leading scholars of this era have departed this world—Gellner, Smith, Hobsbawm, Anderson, and Connor.   On the other hand, it is easy to point to current developments—Trump, Brexit, Windrush, Syria, North Korea, China—and argue that nationalism is implicated and still highly relevant, perhaps even resurgent.  But there are deeper reasons for believing this.  Nationalism isn’t just persistently topical, it’s deeply structural.  Let me suggest several reasons why nationalism and the need to study it are not going away anytime soon.

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Trump’s Inaugural Address: Power, Identity, Narrative

(Jan. 2017)

Presidential inaugural addresses tend to be broad vision statements with gestures towards national unity and purpose. A few policy directions may be outlined, but that is not their main purpose. Donald Trump’s address on 20 January 2017, sits strangely in this genre, stylistically nodding in this general direction, but primarily addressed to his already convinced supporters, more concerned to connect with them, than to intimate policy aims, or include his opposition.

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Whither Scotland Post-Referendum

(October 2014)

When I was a graduate student studying anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was conventional to divide anthropological theory between ‘idealist’ and ‘materialist’ approaches.  Most students found this distinction meaningful, but at the same time too stark.  Today this distinction comes back to haunt me.  Having lived in Edinburgh since the late 1990s, working in sociology, and specialising in Scotland and nationalism among other things, our recent referendum on Scottish independence has forced me to think again about this distinction.  Not in the sense of having to choose between materialist and idealist modes of analysis, but in terms of witnessing manifest tensions between materialist and idealist types of arguments in the debates that surrounded the referendum.  Repeatedly I was struck by how, when confronted by the sheer incalculability of material realities and future economic prospects, hope, aspiration, and enthusiasm seemed to rush in to fill the void.  Imponderable, and frankly tedious questions about how much North Sea oil is left, what will become of the Euro, and so on, would run into the ground, to be supplanted by affirmations of sheer will.  Before I say more about this, let me back up a bit, and present the general situation.

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