2. Unwitting Complicity: The Curse of Neoliberal Propaganda
Given that the discourse on epistemic injustice neglects class issues, some may say: “so what? We’re all intersectional now.” There be good reason, some may hold that ‘we’ have evolved beyond a focus on class issues, as it were. There is, however, good reason to be cautious of the exclusion of class issues and classism from debates in normative social epistemology. Against such a reaction, this section argues that the omission of class is shared by neoliberal propaganda, thereby uncovering that in confining class to the margins, the discourse on epistemic injustice unwittingly makes an unwanted and unwelcome ally in neoliberalism.
Spiegel, Thomas J. 2022. “The Epistemic Injustice of Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 75-90. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7dv.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Editor’s Note: Thomas Spiegell’s “The Epistemic Injustice of Epistemic Injustice”, will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part II. Please refer to Part I. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.
❦ Hähnel, Hilkje. 2021. “Who’s to Blame? Hermeneutical Misfire, Forward-Looking Responsibility, and Collective Accountability.” Social Epistemology 35 (2): 173-184.
❦ El Kassar, Nadja. 2018. “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology 32 (5): 300-310.
❦ Dotson, Kristie. 2014. “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.” Social Epistemology 28 (2): 115-138.
To this end, this section first construes the relation between classism and testimonial and hermeneutical injustice respectively before giving a brief overview of some epistemological aspects of neoliberalism relevant to the current context. I shall aim to demonstrate that one of the main goals of neoliberal propaganda is to prevent and stifle class consciousness by diverting attention away from class and denying the crucial role class plays in virtual all aspects of social life. In this manner, neoliberal propaganda actively creates and enforces hermeneutical injustice as it pertains to class. The main point, however, then is that neoliberal propaganda thereby shares this aspect with the discourse on epistemic injustice: both engender hermeneutic injustice with regards to social class—the main difference being that neoliberal ideology does this purposefully while the discourse on epistemic injustice most likely does it unwittingly. This unwitting complicity ought to present strong reason to re-orient the discourse on epistemic injustice onto class, lest we play into the hands of neoliberal ideology.
Classism, i.e. discrimination based on class, is connected to both testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. On the one hand, it should be fairly straightforward that classism is closely connected to testimonial injustice. This can become clearer by considering what Dotson calls epistemic oppression, i.e. a kind of exclusion that “hinders one’s contribution to knowledge production” (Dotson 2014, 115). In virtue of socio-economic status alone, the working class generally are still disproportionally excluded from academic and scientific discourse in a way that excludes them from certain epistemic practices. This amounts to a specific kind of testimonial injustice: While representatives from lower classes are not only often afforded a credibility deficit in, say, courts (cf. Behuniak 2003), epistemic oppression begets fact that the testimony of lower classes by far and large as a means of knowledge production cannot adequately contribute to academic research. It is simply not heard because it is not given a chance to be heard.
However, the way classism connects to hermeneutical injustice is more pertinent to the current context. Hermeneutical injustice concerns those forms of injustices through which a person is disadvantaged in “making sense of their own social experience” (Fricker 2007, 146), it is “having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding” (Fricker 2007, 154). In order to apply this idea to class, it is first important to note that hermeneutical injustice and the Marxist concept of ideology aim to describe very similar phenomena: distortions of our understanding of the mechanisms of injustice, inequality, and oppression.
One of the most prevalent, most powerful, and most pernicious ideologies is ideology that upholds classism and socio-economic injustice. It has been one of the most potent intellectual strategies of neo-liberalist institutions and ideologues to obfuscate the role and reality of class and classism in an effort to thwart and dismantle burgeoning class consciousness. It is difficult to pin down what neoliberalism really is. The term “neoliberalism” has perhaps become a pejorative chiffrè for social injustice more than any other term. In this sense, it might seem warranted to decry the fact that neoliberalism can seem like a “conceptual Swiss Army knife which can unpick and cut through almost any argument concerning the modern world” (Eagleton-Pierce 2016, xiii). However, it is not too difficult to focus on some substantial semantic facets of the term.
I shall follow Pierre Bourdieu in using “neoliberalism” to denote the “transformative and […] destructive action of all of the political measures […] that aim to call into question any and all collective structures that could serve as an obstacle to the logic of the pure market.” (Bourdieu 1998). Accordingly, I use “neoliberalism” as a catch-all term to denote the individual or systemic advocacy for deregulation, privatization, ‘free’ markets, and solidification of the (late-stage) capitalist mode of production. It is difficult to overstate the effects that neoliberal politics have had in Western countries at least since the second half of the 20th century.
However, more than a top-down political movement, neoliberalism represents a means of social power and control. More specifically, the purpose of neoliberal propaganda is to disseminate and propagate neoliberal ideology. Following Jason Stanley, propaganda is “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” in order to move certain groups towards immediate action (Stanley 2015, 48). Rather than presenting as one unified ‘theory’, neoliberal propaganda is constituted by an umbrella of neo-liberal misinformation and misdirection that causes, motivates, and fuels our collective ignoring of class and classism in debates on social injustice. In this sense, the action that neoliberal propaganda demands is, somewhat ironically, a kind of inaction: neoliberal propaganda is directed at appeasing swathes of a population through convincing them that the power structures they live in are unproblematic. It is to keep citizens from developing “fomenting dissent” (Stanley 2015, 50).
The three most important of these strategies to incite this inaction might be the ideology of individualism (Honneth 2004), the ideology of reconceiving justice as mere “equal opportunity” in tandem with “rags to riches” narratives and “bootstrapping” oneself out of poverty, and the ideology of “individual freedom”, most notably championed by ideologues like Ayn Rand. These three forms of ideology often overlap in practice, reinforcing one another. For example, the ideology of individualism is strongly connected to the idea of personal freedom which in turn often supports bootstrapping narratives. In any case, they all serve to obfuscate the social function of class, prevent burgeoning class consciousness, or even to deny the existence of social classes at all.
It is important to note that neoliberal propaganda, rather than the kind of agitation political grassroots movements engage in, is well-funded by powerful institutions. While most industrialized countries have neoliberal (or “free market”) think tanks on a national level, I shall focus on the largest ones from the Anglophone world: Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Mises Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, and PragerU.
Neoliberal think-tanks certainly do not openly state that it is their purpose to stifle class consciousness. Their strategy is more complex: Firstly, neoliberal think tanks may sometimes state that class is not important when it comes to questions of justice. Some might even deny that something like different social classes truly exist such that there is no class struggle to be had. While it is usually mentioned in debates on social ontology, the most famous expression of this idea comes perhaps from Margaret Thatcher, herself an icon of neoliberalism: “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first” (Thatcher 1987).
While Thatcher here appeals to self-reliance of the individual rather than hoping for support from wider society, the kind of ontological individualism motivating this appeal can also be operative in denying the existence or relevance of social classes which constitute a large part of social reality.
Secondly, neoliberal propaganda has been rather successful in engineering certain normative concepts that would have implied a reference to the concept of class. The most salient example is the re-engineering of the concept of Justice. While it is certainly a perennial debate what justice truly is, neoliberal think-tanks have been rather successful in establishing and consolidation a notion of justice that differentiates between justice as the equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Compared to, say, a framework of retributive justice, this re-defining of justice is purposefully myopic as it claims to redistribute opportunities as goods, but not wealth and power which largely determine one’s opportunities in life in the first place. This is often accompanied by neoliberal ideologues habitually decrying attempts at redistributing wealth at all. As a paradigmatic example, the Cato Institute suggests that a progressive income tax would, as it were, benefit the “envious and greedy”.
The third and arguably most effective strategy is to simply omit any substantial mentioning of class. By far and large, neoliberal think-tanks operate within the ideological confines of neoclassical economy, touting it as being without alternative. It is futile to attempt to compile a list of instances in which neoliberal think tanks do not mention class. Since one of the goals of neoliberal propaganda is inaction related to class justice, not mentioning class at all is probably one of the most effective propagandistic tools. But one paradigmatic example is the Koch Industry think tank which lists its efforts pertaining to economic justice as:
• In Wichita and Kansas City, the Create Campaignprovides business development support for minority founders and urban entrepreneurs.
• Dfree advocates for financial empowerment in the Black community through a partnership with Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, a noted civil rights leader.
• SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., INC. is dedicated to addressing issues of social action, community and economic development in Atlanta by donating to various events and luncheons.
Note the common buzzwords—“minority”, “urban”, “empowerment”—which do refer to race, yet no mention of class that could lead one to believe that inequality is not only a matter of race, but also of social class. In a similar vein, the vast majority of the thousands of articles produced by the Cato Institute focus on criminal justice (and its relation to race), rather than economic justice. Only a grand total of 16 articles even mention “economic justice” as a topic at all. And if class is mentioned at all, then usually in reference to an elusive “middle class” or in reference to the “working class Americans [benefitting from] trade liberalization just as wealthier ones do”, thereby reinforcing liberalization of trade as another neoliberal trope.
What does neoliberal propaganda then have to do with hermeneutical injustice? Neoliberal propaganda, especially its treatment of the concept of class, serves to stifle class consciousness by downplaying or ignoring the role that class plays for economic justice and the world as a whole. Neoliberal propaganda thus prevents those affected by it to “make sense of their own social experience” (Fricker 2007, 146) and causes “significant area[s] of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding” (Fricker 2007, 154). In other words, neoliberal ideology solidifies a state of unawareness in both members of the ruling class and the working class as to how socio-economic stratification comes about and is maintained in future generations.
The vast majority of people are being systematically mislead by neoliberal propaganda about their standing in the social world. Some scholars (Elling 2021, Mills 2017, Hähnel 2021) have rightly pointed out that this is akin to the Marxist notion of ideology. In particular, even if the concept of ideology covers more ground, ideologies like these present a case of hermeneutic injustice. Thwarting class consciousness, or even denying that (industrialized) societies are partially organized in terms of classes prevents those oppressed by the class system, mainly the working class, to fully understand their social position in the class spectrum. Neo-liberal ideology insinuating bootstrapping narratives implicitly and explicitly panders the view that one’s social position is a result of one’s own (in)activity, and not at least partially determined by the class one was born into. Neoliberal ideology, similar to, say, racist ideologies, thus presents broad, ongoing hermeneutic injustice.
What does this have to do now with the preceding critique of the current discourse on epistemic injustice? I have pointed towards neoliberal ideology in order to point out that the discourse on epistemic injustice unwittingly threatens to reinforce the same agenda that neoliberal ideology wilfully tries to disseminate. If this is correct, there is a certain irony: the discourse on epistemic injustice is dedicated to uncovering certain injustices while the seemingly structural exclusion of class from this debate is congenial to the pernicious aims of neoliberal ideology, i.e. stifling the development of class consciousness. To stress again, it is highly unlikely that scholars of epistemic injustice are deliberately ignoring class and classism in an effort to support neoliberal agendas. But nevertheless, in continuing to side-line issues of class and classism, the discourse on epistemic injustice is unwittingly complicit in upholding this specific brand of hermeneutic injustice. In consciously or unconsciously avoiding classism as a subject, the collective discourse on epistemic injustice makes itself complicit in upholding a neo-liberal ideology of power which thrives on suppressing class-consciousness.
3. Remembering Class: Against Epistemic Resilience
One of the great anxieties of 20th and 21st social philosophy has been centred on the idea of class reductionism. That is, the idea that some traditions of thought, particularly Marxism, claim that virtually all social struggles and questions of social justice can be construed in terms of class, functionally skipping over categories like race or gender which results, the critics pose, in an oversimplified picture of the social world. Whether or not these charges hold water, the argument I have presented here does not suggest that epistemic injustice itself ought to make everything about class. I have merely aimed to point out that class—despite its vital importance to virtually any social question—has been unjustly overlooked in debates on epistemic injustice. I have furthermore suggested that this oversight—willingly or unwillingly—perpetuates a form of hermeneutical injustice that has been most decisively shaped by neo-liberal propaganda at least since the second half of the 20th century. This hermeneutical injustice consists in the systematically obscuring the incomparable role class plays in shaping the social world, preventing the subordinated classes in particular from forming something like class consciousness, i.e. their belonging to a social group that is subordinated among various social axes due to their socio-economic status.
This difficulty is confounded by the fact that epistemic systems unfortunately tend towards epistemic resilience. And the different intersecting discourses on epistemic injustice and normative social epistemology certainly constitute such an epistemic system. Epistemic resilience is the measure in which a system can absorb resistance or disturbance before enacting structural change (Dotson 2014, 121). Given the conditions of academic discourses in general as determined by middle to upper-class individuals and given the plausibility of standpoint theory argued above, it can be reasonably assumed that the discourse on epistemic injustice is resilient with respect to the omission of class. Luckily, Dotson too proposes a way to overcome epistemic resilience, albeit in a different context. Drawing again on her work, we can conceptualize what a necessary change for the better in this context would look like. Dotson (2018) transfers certain insights from organizational psychology about how organizations can effect change onto philosophical topics. To this end, she cites the idea of a three-tiered change system:
First-order change is the “tacit reinforcement of present understandings” (Dotson 2018, 118).
Second-order change is the “conscious modification of present schemata in a particular condition” (Dotson 2018, 118).
Third-order change “involves developing the capacity to recognize and alter elements” that “preserve organizational schemata” (Dotson 2014, 119).
We can, in turn, transfer Dotson’s argument onto the discourse on epistemic injustice itself. I have previously rejected simply choosing to include class in the discourse by adding this or that example of classism to the umbrella of analyses on epistemic injustice. That would merely constitute a second-order change. It is rather the third-order change that would be necessary for the discourse on epistemic injustice.
If this assessment is correct, what would be the proper way to proceed in debates on epistemic injustice? Such a third-order change, to invoke Charles Mills (1987), would present a basis for reconciling class and race in a manner that renders class still visible in analyses on epistemic injustice. In the same vein, it would be a good start to further nurture the discourse on epistemic aspects of class and classism in the ongoing dialogue between analytic social philosophy and the tradition of critical theory. For example, one could explore the ways in which class determines testimonial injustice insofar as poor people are often less readily believed in court simply due to their socio-economic status as communicated through status markers, e.g. inappropriate clothing or ’incorrectly’ groomed appearance. But simply adding class to the umbrella of epistemic injustice (perhaps by offering a series of such analyses) is not sufficient as it would leave untouched the epistemic harm caused by having de-centred class issues so far.
If the foregoing analysis of the omission of class has merit, it seems that the discourse on epistemic justice—just like other subsegments of scholarship on justice—has a class problem that remains unaddressed. While (tautologically) any kind of classism constitutes a wrong, it is particularly pernicious in the case of the discourse on epistemic injustice since people working on such issues, one could expect, would be especially conscious of different kinds of hermeneutic injustice, including the one outlined here. We certainly cannot and ought not hold individual actors responsible for how the university and the scholarship produced in it reproduces itself as being held in the hands of socio-economically privileged people. Yet, if we are serious about social and epistemic justice, then we ought to take the diagnosis of the classism-lacuna in debates on epistemic injustice seriously. For it is not the case that analyses of class issues are by design wholly alien to epistemic injustice. It is rather the case that class and classism ought to be remembered not only as simply one possible form of oppression that in some way intersects with other forms of epistemic injustice. Rather, in going forward, class ought to be treated as an epistemic injustice in its own right.
Part of the implications of what I suggest here is that the Marxists roots of normative epistemology (in particular standpoint theory and epistemic injustice) are to be re-appropriated in order to break the congenialities with neo-liberalist ideology. Just like some philosophers of language state with Frege that whole statements (and the assertion of them) constitute the “downtown” of language, so too can a Marxist rereading of epistemic injustice reposition class as the “downtown” of oppression. Just like such a move does not make one subscribe to a “monolithic ontology” of language, re-centring class in the manner I allude to here does not force one to subscribe to a “monolithic ontology of social class”, as Fricker decries.
◈ Part I: “The Epistemic Injustice of Epistemic Injustice.”
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 This is an idea sometimes thought to have come into the mainstream through the rags-to-riches motives in the novels of Horatio Alger.
 Chafuen (2018).
 Bandow (2014).
 There might certainly be some influence of Keynesianism here and there, but most think-tanks usually replicate the orthodoxy of neoclassical economy that is also present at (Wester) economics departments.