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Author Information: Arianna Falbo, Brown University, Arianna_Falbo@brown.edu.

Falbo, Arianna. “Spitting Out the Kool-Aid: A Review of Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 12-17.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40A

The years of far-right rhetoric about Hillary Clinton have formed a real-time theatre of misogyny, climaxing at the 2016 Presidential election.
Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Kate Manne’s Down Girl breathes new life into an underexplored yet urgently important topic. Using a diverse mixture of current events, empirical findings, and literary illustrations, Manne guides her reader through the underbelly of misogyny: its nature, how it relates to and differs from sexism, and why, in supposedly post-patriarchal societies, it’s “still a thing.”[1]

Chapter 1 challenges the standard dictionary-definition or “naïve conception” of misogyny, as Manne calls it. This view understands misogyny primarily as a psychological phenomenon, operative in the minds of men. Accordingly, misogynists are disposed to hate all or most women because they are women.

The naïve conception fails because it renders misogyny virtually non-existent and, as a result, politically inert. Misogynists need not feel hatred towards all or even most women. A misogynist may love his mother or other women with whom he shares close personal relationships. Manne insists that this should not detract from his being an outright misogynist. For example, the naïve view fails to make sense of how Donald Trump could both love his daughter while simultaneously being misogyny’s poster boy. A different analysis is needed.

Following Haslanger (2012), Manne outlines her “ameliorative” project in chapter 2. She aims to offer an analysis of misogyny that is politically and theoretically useful; an analysis that will help to reveal the stealthy ways misogyny operates upon its perpetrators, targets, and victims. Manne argues that misogyny should be understood in terms of its social function: what it does to women and girls.

On her view misogyny functions to uphold patriarchal order, it punishes women who transgress and rewards those who abide.[2] Misogyny is thus selective: it does not target all women wholesale, but prioritizes for those who protest against patriarchal prescriptions. In Manne’s words: “misogyny primarily targets women because they are women in a man’s world…rather than because they are women in a man’s mind.[3]

Chapter 3 outlines, what I take to be, one of the most original and illuminating insights of the book, a conceptual contrast between sexism and misogyny. Manne dubs sexism the “justificatory” branch of patriarchal order: it has the job of legitimizing patriarchal norms and gender roles. Misogyny, on the other hand, is the “law enforcement” branch: it patrols and upholds patriarchal order. Both misogyny and sexism are unified by a common goal “to maintain or restore a patriarchal social order.”[4]

In Chapter 4, Manne discusses the gender coded give/take economy that she takes to be at the heart of misogyny’s operation.[5] Patriarchal order dictates that women have an obligation to be givers of certain feminine-coded goods and services such as affection, sex, and reproductive labour.

Correspondingly, men are the entitled recipients of these goods and services in addition to being the takers of certain masculine-coded privileges, including public influence, honour, power, money, and leadership. When men fail to receive these feminine-coded goods, which patriarchal order deems they are entitled to, backlash may ensue. What’s more, women who seek masculine-coded privileges, for example, leadership positions or other forms of power and prestige, are in effect violating a patriarchal prohibition. Such goods are not theirs for the taking—women are not entitled takers, but obligated givers.

In chapter 5, Manne considers a popular “humanist” kind of view according to which misogyny involves thinking of women as sub-human, non-persons, lifeless objects, or mere things. She turns this view on its head. She argues that: “her personhood is held to be owed to others in the form of service labour, love, and loyalty.”[6] As per the previous chapter, women are socially positioned as human givers. Manne’s contends that misogyny is not about dehumanization, but about men feeling entitled to the human service of women. She pushes this even further by noting that in some cases, when feminine-coded human goods and services are denied, it is men who may face feelings of dehumanization.[7]

Chapter 6, in my opinion, is where a lot of the action happens. In this chapter Manne presents the much-needed concept of himpathy: the undue sympathy that is misdirected away from victims and towards perpetrators of misogynistic violence.[8] She explains how certain exonerating narratives, such as the “the golden boy”, function to benefit highly privileged (normally: white, non-disabled, cis, heterosexual, etc.) men who commit violent acts against women.[9]

In this chapter Manne also draws upon and adds to the growing literature on testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice occurs when a speaker receives either a deficit or surplus of creditability owing to a prejudice on the part of the hearer.[10] Manne discusses how in cases of he said/she said testimony involving accusations of sexual assault, privileged men may be afforded excess creditability, thereby undermining the creditability of victims – there is only so much creditability to go around.[11]

This, she notes, may lead to the complete erasure, or “herasure” as Manne calls it, of the victim’s story altogether.[12] Creditability surpluses and deficits, she says: “often serve the function of buttressing dominant group members’ current social position, and protecting them from downfall in the existing social hierarchy.”[13] Exonerating narratives puff up privileged men and, as a result, deflate the creditability of women who speak out against them. These unjust distributions of creditability safeguarding dominate men against downward social mobility. In a slogan: “testimonial injustice as hierarchy preservation.”[14]

In Chapter 7, Manne discusses why victims of misogynistic violence who seek moral support and attention are regularly met with suspicion, threats, and outright disbelief. Patriarchy dictates that women are human givers of moral support and attention, not recipients (as per the arguments of chapter 4). Drawing moral attention towards women who are victimized by misogyny attempts to disrupt patriarchy’s divisions of moral labour. Manne says that this is “tantamount to the server asking for service, the giver expecting to receive…it is withholding a resource and simultaneously demanding it.”[15]

In chapter 8, Manne explores how misogyny contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss of the 2016 US presidential election. She claims that misogyny routinely targets women who infringe upon man’s historical turf; women who try to take what patriarchal order decrees as the jobs and privileges reserved for men. Overstepping or trespassing upon his territory often results in misogynistic retaliation. Such women are seen as “greedy, grasping, and domineering; shrill and abrasive; corrupt and untrustworthy”[16] or, in the words of the current President of the United States, “nasty.”[17]

Down Girl ends by discussing the prospects of overcoming misogyny. At one point Manne says, as if to shrug her shoulders and throw up her arms in despair: “I give up.”[18] Later, in a subsequent interview, Manne claims she did not intend for this to be a discouraging statement, but a “liberating declaration.”[19] It is an expression of her entitlement to bow out of this discussion (for now), after having said her piece and making conversational space for others to continue.

In my opinion, Down Girl is essential reading for any serious feminist, moral, or political scholar. The proposed analysis of misogyny is lucid and accessible while at the same time remaining acutely critical and rigorous. The text does not get bogged down in philosophical jargon or tedious digressions. As such, this book would be fairly congenial to even the philosophically uninitiated reader. I highly recommend it to both academics and non-academic alike. Moreover, Manne’s addition of “himpathy” and “herasure” to the philosophical lexicon helps to push the dialectic forward in innovative and insightful ways.

Despite being on such a sombre and depressing topic, I found this book to be engrossing and, for the most part, enjoyable to read. Manne has an inviting writing style and the book is scattered with a number of brilliant quips, clever examples, and gripping case studies.  Though, be warned, there are certainly sections that might reasonably be difficult, uncomfortable, and potentially triggering. Down Girl examines some of the most fraught and downright chilling aspects of our current social and political atmosphere; including real life depictions of horrific violence against women, as well as the attendant sympathy (himpathy) that is often given to those who perpetrate it. This is to be expected in a book on the logic of misogyny, but it is nonetheless important for readers to be extra cognisant.

After finishing the book, I have one main concern regarding the explanatory reach of the analysis. Recall that on Manne’s account: “misogyny’s primary function and constitutive manifestation is the punishment of “bad” women, and policing of women’s behavior.”[20] Misogyny’s operation consist in a number of “down girl moves” designed to keep women in line when they fail to “know their place” in a man’s world.[21] She emphasizes the retaliatory nature of misogyny; how it functions analogously to a shock collar: fail to do as patriarchy demands as and risk being shocked.[22]

I worry, though, that this emphasis on punishing patriarchy’s rebels fails to draw adequate attention to how misogyny can target women for what appears to be nothing more than the simple reason that he is dominant over her. It is not only rebels who are misogyny’s targets and victims, but also patriarchy’s cheerleaders and “good” girls. (Though, those who protest are presumably more vulnerable and have greater targets on their backs.)

Perhaps the analogy is better thought of not in terms of him shocking her when she fails to obey patriarchal order, but him administering shocks whenever he sees fit, be it for a perceived failure of obedience or simply because he is the one with the controller. Or, to use another analogy that picks up on Manne’s “policing” and “law enforcement” language, maybe misogyny is characterized best as a crooked cop, one who will pull you over for a traffic violation, but also one who will stop you simply because he feels he can, for he is the one with the badge and gun.

A woman might play her role in a man’s world to a tee; she may be happily complacent, she may give him all of her feminine-coded goods, in the right manner, in the right amount, at the right time, and so on. She may never threaten to overstep historical gender roles, nor does she attempt to cultivate masculine-coded privileges. She may even add fuel to patriarchy’s fire by policing other women who disobey. Even still, despite being on her very best behaviour, she too can be victimized by misogynistic violence. Why? It remains unclear to me how Manne’s analysis could offer a satisfying answer. While I deeply admire the proposal, I am curious of how it captures non-corrective cases of misogyny that don’t aim to punish for (apparent) violations of patriarchal order.

Manne notes that a major motivation for her writing is “to challenge some of the false moral conclusions we swallow with the Kool-Aid of patriarchal ideology.”[23] I came away from this book having learned a great deal about the insidious ways misogyny operates to put women and girls down; many a Kool-Aid has been spit out. Down Girl also plants fertile seeds for future research on misogyny, a topic desperately in need of more careful attention and intelligent investigation.

In the preface Manne says that: “ultimately, it will take a village of theorists to gain a full understanding of the phenomena.”[24] This book makes headway in offering theorists a myriad of conceptual tools and resources needed to facilitate and push the discussion forward. I anticipate that Down Girl will be a notable benchmark for many fruitful discussions to come.

Contact details: Arianna_Falbo@brown.edu

References

Berenson, Tessa. “Presidential Debate: Trump Calls Clinton ‘Nasty Woman’.” Time, 20 Oct. 2016, time.com/4537960/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-nasty-woman-debate/.

Bullock, Penn. “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Taped Comments About Women.” The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2016, nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html.

Cleary, Skye C. “It Takes Many Kinds to Dismantle a Patriarchal Village.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 Mar. 2018, lareviewofbooks.org/article/takes-many-kinds-dismantle-patriarchal-village/.

Davis, Emmalon. “Typecasts, Tokens, and Spokespersons: A Case for Credibility Excess as Testimonial Injustice” Hypatia, 2016.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice Power and the Ethics of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Haslanger, Sally. Resisting Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Medina, José. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary” Social Epistemology, 2011.

Penaula, Regan. “Kate Manne: The Shock Collar That Is Misogyny” Guernica, 7 Feb. 2018, https://www.guernicamag.com/kate-manne-why-misogyny-isnt-really-about-hating-women/.

Yap, Audre. “Creditability Excess and the Social Imaginary in Cases of Sexual Assault.” Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, 2017.

[1] Manne (2017): xxi.

[2] Manne (2017): 72.

[3] Ibid: 69.

[4] Ibid: 80.

[5] At least as it is manifests in the cultures of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, these are the focus of Manne’s analysis. Cf. ibid: fn. 3.

[6] Ibid: 173.

[7] Ibid: 173.

[8] Ibid: 197.

[9] Ibid: 197.

[10] Cf. Fricker (2007), though, Fricker focuses primarily upon creditability deficits. See, Davis (2016), Medina (2011, 2012), and Yap (2017), among others, for discussions of how creditability surpluses can also constitute testimonial injustice.

[11] See Manne’s discussion of Medina (2011) who stresses this point, 190.

[12] Ibid: 209-14.

[13] Manne (2017): 194.

[14] Ibid: 185.

[15] Ibid: 304.

[16] Ibid: 303.

[17] Berenson (2016).

[18] Manne (2017): 300.

[19] Cleary (2018).

[20] Manne (2017): 192.

[21] Ibid: 68.

[22] Cf. Penaluna (2018).

[23] This is from an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books; see Cleary (2018).

[24] Manne (2017): xiii.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40g

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.

References

Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Author Information: Claus-Christian Carbon, University of Bamberg, ccc@experimental-psychology.com

Carbon, Claus-Christian. “A Conspiracy Theory is Not a Theory About a Conspiracy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 22-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yb

See also:

  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Expertise and Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology 32, no. 3 (2018), 196-208.

The power, creation, imagery, and proliferation of conspiracy theories are fascinating avenues to explore in the construction of public knowledge and the manipulation of the public for nefarious purposes. Their role in constituting our pop cultural imaginary and as central images in political propaganda are fertile ground for research.
Image by Neil Moralee via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The simplest and most natural definition of a conspiracy theory is a theory about a conspiracy. Although this definition seems appealing due to its simplicity and straightforwardness, the problem is that most narratives about conspiracies do not fulfill the necessary requirements of being a theory. In everyday speech, mere descriptions, explanations, or even beliefs are often termed as “theories”—such repeated usage of this technical term is not useful in the context of scientific activities.

Here, a theory does not aim to explain one specific event in time, e.g. the moon landing of 1969 or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, but aims at explaining a phenomenon on a very general level; e.g. that things with mass as such gravitate toward one another—independently of the specific natures of such entities. Such an epistemological status is rarely achieved by conspiracy theories, especially the ones about specific events in time. Even more general claims that so-called chemtrails (i.e. long-lasting condensation trails) are initiated by omnipotent organizations across the planet, across time zones and altitudes, is at most a hypothesis – a rather narrow one – that specifically addresses one phenomenon but lacks the capability to make predictions about other phenomena.

Narratives that Shape Our Minds

So-called conspiracy theories have had a great impact on human history, on the social interaction between groups, the attitude towards minorities, and the trust in state institutions. There is very good reason to include “conspiracy theories” into the canon of influential narratives and so it is just logical to direct a lot of scientific effort into explaining and understand how they operate, how people believe in them and how humans pile up knowledge on the basis of these narratives.

A short view on publications registered by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science documents 605 records with “conspiracy theories” as the topic (effective date 7 May 2018). These contributions were mostly covered by psychological (n=91) and political (n=70) science articles, with a steep increase in recent years from about 2013 on, probably due to a special issue (“Research Topic”) in the journal Frontiers of Psychology organized in the years 2012 and 2013 by Viren Swami and Christopher Charles French.

As we have repeatedly argued (e.g., Raab, Carbon, & Muth, 2017), conspiracy theories are a very common phenomenon. Most people believe in at least some of them (Goertzel, 1994), which already indicates that believers in them do not belong to a minority group, but that it is more or less the conditio humana to include such narratives in the everyday belief system.

So first of all, we can state that most of such beliefs are neither pathological nor rare (see Raab, Ortlieb, Guthmann, Auer, & Carbon, 2013), but are largely caused by “good”[1] narratives triggered by context factors (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) such as a distrusted society. The wide acceptance of many conspiracy theories can further explained by adaptation effects that bias the standard beliefs (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, & Carbon, 2013). This view is not undisputed, as many authors identify specific pathological personality traits such as paranoia (Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont, 2008; Pipes, 1997) which cause, enable or at least proliferate the belief in conspiracy theories.

In fact, in science we mostly encounter the pathological and pejorative view on conspiracy theories and their believers. This negative connotation, and hence the prejudice toward conspiracy theories, makes it hard to solidly test the stated facts, ideas or relationships proposed by such explanatory structures (Rankin, 2017). As especially conspiracy theories of so-called “type I” – where authorities (“the system”) are blamed of conspiracies (Wagner-Egger & Bangerter, 2007)—, such a prejudice can potentially jeopardize the democratic system (Bale, 2007).

Some of the conspiracies which are described in conspiracy theories that are taking place at top state levels could indeed be threatening people’s freedom, democracy and even people’s lives, especially if they turned out to be “true” (e.g. the case of the whistleblower and previously alleged conspiracist Edward Snowden, see Van Puyvelde, Coulthart, & Hossain, 2017).

Understanding What a Theory Genuinely Is

In the present paper, I will focus on another, yet highly important, point which is hardly addressed at all: Is the term “conspiracy theories” an adequate term at all? In fact, the suggestion of a conspiracy theory being a “theory about a conspiracy” (Dentith, 2014, p.30) is indeed the simplest and seemingly most straightforward definition of “conspiracy theory”. Although appealing and allegedly logical, the term conspiracy theory as such is ill-defined. Actually a “conspiracy theory” refers to a narrative which attributes an event to a group of conspirators. As such it is clear that it is justified to associate such a narrative with the term “conspiracy”, but does a conspiracy theory has the epistemological status of a theory?

The simplest definition of a “theory” is that it represents a bundle of hypotheses which can explain a wide range of phenomena. Theories have to integrate the contained hypotheses is a concise, coherent, and systematic way. They have to go beyond the mere piling up of several statements or unlinked hypotheses. The application of theories allows events or entities which are not explicitly described in the sum of the hypotheses to be generalized and hence to be predicted.

For instance, one of the most influential physical theories, the theory of special relativity (German original description “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”), contains two hypotheses (Einstein, 1905) on whose basis in addition to already existing theories, we can predict important issues which are not explicitly stated in the theory. Most are well aware that mass and energy are equivalent. Whether we are analyzing the energy of a tossed ball or a static car, we can use the very same theory. Whether the ball is red or whether it is a blue ball thrown by Napoleon Bonaparte does not matter—we just need to refer to the mass of the ball, in fact we are only interested in the mass as such; the ball does not play a role anymore. Other theories show similar predictive power: for instance, they can predict (more or less precisely) events in the future, the location of various types of material in a magnetic field or the trajectory of objects of different speed due to gravitational power.

Most conspiracy theories, however, refer to one single historical event. Looking through the “most enduring conspiracy theories” compiled in 2009 by TIME magazine on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it is instantly clear that they have explanatory power for just the specific events on which they are based, e.g. the “JFK assassination” in 1963, the “9/11 cover-up” in 2001, the “moon landings were faked” idea from 1969 or the “Paul is dead” storyline about Paul McCartney’s alleged secret death in 1966. In fact, such theories are just singular explanations, mostly ignoring counter-facts, alternative explanations and already given replies (Votsis, 2004).

But what, then, is the epistemological status of such narratives? Clearly, they aim to explain – and sometimes the explanations are indeed compelling, even coherent. What they mostly cannot demonstrate, though, is the ability to predict other events in other contexts. If these narratives belong to this class of explanatory stories, we should be less liberal in calling them “theories”. Unfortunately, it was Karl Popper himself who coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s (Popper, 1949)—the same Popper who was advocating very strict criteria for scientific theories and in so became one of the most influential philosophers of science (Suppe, 1977). This imprecise terminology diluted the genuine meaning of (scientific) theories.

Stay Rigorous

From a language pragmatics perspective, it seems odd to abandon the term conspiracy theory as it is a widely introduced and frequently used term in everyday language around the globe. Substitutions like conspiracy narratives, conspiracy stories or conspiracy explanations would fit much better, but acceptance of such terms might be quite low. Nevertheless, we should at least bear in mind that most narratives of this kind cannot qualify as theories and so cannot lead to a wider research program; although their contents and implications are often far-reaching, potentially important for society and hence, in some cases, also worthy of checking.

Contact details: ccc@experimental-psychology.com

References

Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45-60. doi:10.1080/00313220601118751

Dentith, M. R. X. (2014). The philosophy of conspiracy theories. New York: Palgrave.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper [On the electrodynamics of moving bodies]. Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 17, 891-921.

Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731-742.

Grzesiak-Feldman, M., & Ejsmont, A. (2008). Paranoia and conspiracy thinking of Jews, Arabs, Germans and russians in a Polish sample. Psychological Reports, 102(3), 884.

Pipes, D. (1997). Conspiracy: How the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Popper, K. R. (1949). Prediction and prophecy and their significance for social theory. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy, Amsterdam.

Raab, M. H., Auer, N., Ortlieb, S. A., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). The Sarrazin effect: The presence of absurd statements in conspiracy theories makes canonical information less plausible. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(453), 1-8.

Raab, M. H., Carbon, C. C., & Muth, C. (2017). Am Anfang war die Verschwörungstheorie [In the beginning, there was the conspiracy theory]. Berlin: Springer.

Raab, M. H., Ortlieb, S. A., Guthmann, K., Auer, N., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). Thirty shades of truth: conspiracy theories as stories of individuation, not of pathological delusion. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(406).

Rankin, J. E. (2017). The conspiracy theory meme as a tool of cultural hegemony: A critical discourse analysis. (PhD), Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sapountzis, A., & Condor, S. (2013). Conspiracy accounts as intergroup theories: Challenging dominant understandings of social power and political legitimacy. Political Psychology. doi:10.1111/pops.12015

Suppe, F. (Ed.) (1977). The structure of scientific theories (2nd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Van Puyvelde, D., Coulthart, S., & Hossain, M. S. (2017). Beyond the buzzword: Big data and national security decision-making. International Affairs, 93(6), 1397-1416. doi:10.1093/ia/iix184

Votsis, I. (2004). The epistemological status of scientific theories: An investigation of the structural realist account. (PhD), London School of Economics and Political Science, London. Retrieved from Z:\PAPER\Votsis2004.pdf

Wagner-Egger, P., & Bangerter, A. (2007). The truth lies elsewhere: Correlates of belief in conspiracy theories. Revue Internationale De Psychologie Sociale-International Review of Social Psychology, 20(4), 31-61.

[1] It is important to stress that a “good narrative” in this context means “an appealing story” in which people are interested; by no means does the author want to allow confusion by suggesting the meaning as being “positive”, “proper”, “adequate” or “true”.

Author Information: Paul Faulkner, University of Sheffield, paul.faulkner@sheffield.ac.uk

Faulkner, Paul. “Fake Barns, Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 16-21.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Y4

Image by Kathryn via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The Twitter feed of Donald Trump regularly employs the hashtag #FakeNews, and refers to mainstream news outlets — The New York Times, CNN etc. — as #FakeNews media. Here is an example from May 28, 2017.

Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names …

… it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by the fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!

It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.[1]

Lies and Falsehoods

Now it is undoubted that both fake news items and fake news media exist. A famous example of the former is the BBC Panorama broadcast about spaghetti growers on April Fool’s Day, 1957.[2] A more recent, and notorious example of the latter is the website ChristianTimesNewspaper.com set up by Cameron Harris to capitalise on Donald Trump’s support during the election campaign (See Shane 2017).

This website published exclusively fake news items; items such as “Hillary Clinton Blames Racism for Cincinnati Gorilla’s Death”, “NYPD Looking to Press Charges Against Bill Clinton for Underage Sex Ring”, and “Protestors Beat Homeless Veteran to Death in Philadelphia”. And it found commercial success with the headline: “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse”. This story was eventually shared with six million people and gained widespread traction, which persisted even after it was shown to be fake.

Fake news items and fake news media exist. However, this paper is not interested in this fact so much as the fact that President Trumps regularly calls real news items fake, and calls the established news media the fake news media. These aspersions are intended to discredit news items and media. And they have had some remarkable success in doing so: Trump’s support has shown a good resistance to the negative press Trump has received in the mainstream media (Johson 2017).

Moreover, there is some epistemological logic to this: these aspersions insinuate a skeptical argument, and, irrespective of its philosophical merits, this skeptical argument is easy to latch onto and hard to dispel. An unexpected consequence of agreeing with Trump’s aspersions is that these aspersions can themselves be epistemologically rationalized. This paper seeks to develop these claims.

An Illustration from the Heartlands

To start, consider what is required for knowledge. While there is substantial disagreement about the nature of knowledge — finding sufficient conditions is difficult — there is substantial agreement on what is required for knowledge. In order to know: (1) you have to have got it right; (2) it cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong; and (3) you cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. Consider these three necessary conditions on knowledge.

You have to have got it right. This is the most straightforward requirement: knowledge is factive; ‘S knows that p’ entails ‘p’. You cannot know falsehoods, only mistakenly think that you know them. So if you see what looks to you to be a barn on the hill and believe that there is a barn on the hill, you fail to know that there is a barn on the hill if what you are looking at is in fact a barn façade — a fake barn.

It cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong. This idea is variously expressed in the claims that there is a reliability (Goldman 1979), sensitivity (Nozick 1981), safety (Sosa 2007), or anti-luck (Zagzebski 1994) condition on knowing. That there is such a condition has been acknowledged by epistemologists of an internalist persuasion, (Alston 1985, Peacocke 1986). And it is illustrated by the subject’s failure to know in the fake barn case (Goldman 1976). This case runs as follows.

Image by Sonja via Flickr / Creative commons

 

Henry is driving through the countryside, sees a barn on the hill, and forms the belief that there is a barn on the hill. Ordinarily, seeing that there is a barn on the hill would enable Henry to know that there is a barn on the hill. But the countryside Henry is driving through is peculiar in that there is a proliferation of barn façades — fake barns — and Henry, from the perspective of the highway, cannot tell a genuine barn from a fake barn.

It follows that he would equally form the belief that there is a barn on the hill if he were looking at a fake barn. So his belief that there is a barn on the hill is as likely to be wrong as right. And since it is likely that he has got it wrong, he doesn’t know that there is a barn on the hill. (And he doesn’t know this even though he is looking at a barn on the hill!)

You cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. This condition can equally be illustrated by the fake barns case. Suppose Henry learns, say from a guidebook to this part of the countryside, that fake barns are common in this area. In this case, he would no longer believe, on seeing a barn on the hill, that there was a barn on the hill. Rather, he would retreat to the more cautious belief that there was something that looked like a barn on the hill, which might be a barn or might be a barn façade. Or at least this is the epistemically correct response to this revelation.

And were Henry to persist in his belief that there is a barn on the hill, there would be something epistemically wrong with this belief; it would be unreasonable, or unjustified. Such a belief, it is then commonly held, could not amount to knowledge, (Sosa 2007). Notice: the truth of Henry’s worry about the existence of fake barns doesn’t matter here. Even if the guidebook is a tissue of falsehoods and there are no fake barns, once Henry believes that fake barns abound, it ceases to be reasonable to believe that a seen barn on the hill is in fact a barn on the hill.

Truth’s Resilience: A Mansion on a Hill

The fake barns case centres on a case of acquiring knowledge by perception: getting to know that there is a barn on the hill by seeing that there is a barn on the hill. Or, more generally: getting to know that p by seeing that p. The issue of fake news centres on our capacity to acquire knowledge from testimony: getting to know that p by being told that p. Ordinarily, testimony, like perception, is a way of acquiring knowledge about the world: just as seeing that p is ordinarily a way of knowing that p, so too is being told that p. And like perception, this capacity for acquiring knowledge can be disrupted by fakery.

This is because the requirements on knowledge stated above are general requirements — they are not specific to the perceptual case. Applying these requirements to the issue of fake news then reveals the following.

You have to have got it right. From this it follows that there is no knowledge to be got from the fake news item. One cannot get to know that the Swiss spaghetti harvesters had a poor year in 1957, or that Randall Prince stumbled across the ballot boxes. If it is fake news that p, one cannot get to know that p, any more than one can get to know that there is a barn on a hill when the only thing on the hill is a fake. One can get to know other things: that Panorama said that such and such; or that the Christian Times Newspaper said that such and such. But one cannot get to know the content said.

It cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong. To see what follows from this, suppose that President Trump is correct and the mainstream news media is really the fake news media. On this supposition, most of the news items published by this news media are fake news items. The epistemic position of a consumer of news media is then parallel to Henry’s epistemic position in driving through fake barn country. Even if Henry is looking at a (genuine) barn on the hill, he is not in a position to know that there is a barn on the hill given that he is in fake barn country and, as such, is as likely wrong as right with respect to his belief that there is a barn on the hill.

Similarly, even if the news item that p is genuine and not fake, a news consumer is not in a position to get to know that p insofar as fakes abound and their belief that p is equally likely to be wrong as right. This parallel assumes that the epistemic subject cannot tell real from fake. This supposition is built into the fake barn case: from the road Henry cannot discriminate real from fake barns. And it follows in the fake news case from supposition that President Trump is correct in his aspersions.

That is, if it is really true that The New York Times and CNN are fake news media, as supposed, then this shows the ordinary news consumer is wrong to discriminate between these news media and Christian Newspaper Times, say. And it thereby shows that the ordinary news consumer possesses the same insensitivity to fake news items that Henry possesses to fake barns. So if President Trump is correct, there is no knowledge to be had from the mainstream news media. Of course, he is not correct: these are aspersions not statements of fact. However, even aspersions can be epistemically undermining as can be seen next.

You cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. Thus, in the fake barns case, if Henry believes that fake barns proliferate, he cannot know there is a barn on the hill on the basis of seeing one. The truth of Henry’s belief is immaterial to this conclusion. Now let ‘Trump’s supporters’ refer to those who accept Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media. Trump’s supporters thereby believe that mainstream news items concerning Trump are fake news items, and believe more generally that these news media are fake news media (at least when it comes to Trump-related news items).

It follows that a Trump supporter cannot acquire knowledge from the mainstream news media when the news is about Trump. And it also follows that Trump supporters are being quite epistemically reasonable in their rejection of mainstream news stories about Trump. (One might counter, ‘at least insofar as their starting point is epistemically reasonable’; but it will turn out below that an epistemological rationalization can be given of this starting point.)

Image by Sonja via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Always Already Inescapably Trapped

Moreover, arguably it is not just the reasonableness of accepting mainstream news stories about Trump that is undermined because Trump’s aspersions insinuate the following skeptical argument. Suppose again that Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media are correct, and call this the fake news hypothesis. Given the fake news hypothesis it follows that we lack the capacity to discriminate fake news items from real news items. Given the fake news hypothesis combined with this discriminative incapacity, the mainstream news media is not a source of knowledge about Trump; that is, it is not a source of knowledge about Trump even if its news items are known and presented as such.

At this point, skeptical logic kicks in. To illustrate this, consider the skeptical hypothesis that one is a brain-in-a-vat. Were one a brain-in-vat, perception would not be a source of knowledge. So insofar as one thinks that perception is a source of knowledge, one needs a reason to reject the skeptical hypothesis. But any reason one ordinarily has, one lacks under the supposition that the skeptical hypothesis is true. Thus, merely entertaining the skeptical hypothesis as true threatens to dislodge one’s claim to perceptual knowledge.

Similarly, the fake news hypothesis entails that the mainstream news media is not a source of knowledge about Trump. Since this conclusion is epistemically unpalatable, one needs a reason to reject the fake news hypothesis. Specifically, one needs a reason for thinking that one can discriminate real Trump-related news items from fake ones. But the reasons one ordinarily has for this judgement are undermined by the supposition that the fake news hypothesis is true.

Thus, merely entertaining this hypothesis as true threatens to dislodge one’s claim to mainstream news-based knowledge about Trump. Three things follow. First, Trump supporters’ endorsement of the fake news hypothesis does not merely make it reasonable to reject mainstream media claims about Trump—by the fake barns logic—this endorsement further supports a quite general epistemic distrust on the mainstream news media—by this skeptical reasoning. (It is not just that the mainstream news media conveys #FakeNews, it is the #FakeNews Media.)

Second, through presenting the fake news hypothesis, Trump’s aspersions of mainstream media encourage us to entertain a hypothesis that insinuates a skeptical argument with this radical conclusion. And if any conclusion can be drawn from philosophical debate on skepticism, it is that it is hard to refute sceptical reasoning once one is in the grip of it. Third, what is thereby threatened is both our capacity to acquire Trump-related knowledge that would ground political criticism, and our epistemic reliance on the institution that provides a platform for political criticism. Given these epistemic rewards, Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media have a clear political motivation.

Aspersions on the Knowledge of the People

However, I’d like to end by considering their epistemic motivation. Aren’t groundless accusations of fakery straightforwardly epistemically unreasonable? Doesn’t the fake news hypothesis have as much to recommend it as the skeptical hypothesis that one is a brain-in-a-vat? That is, to say doesn’t it have very little to recommend it? Putting aside defences of the epistemic rationality of skepticism, the answer is still equivocal. From one perspective: yes, these declarations of fakery have little epistemic support.

This is the perspective of the enquirer. Supposing a given news item addresses the question of whether p, then where the news item declares p, Trump declares not-p. The epistemic credentials of these declarations then come down to which tracks matters of evidence etc., and while each case would need to be considered individually, it would be reasonable to speculate that the cannons of mainstream journalism are the epistemically superior.

However, from another perspective: no, these declarations of fakery are epistemically motivated. This is the perspective of the believer. For suppose that one is a Trump supporter, as Trump clearly is, and so believes the fake news hypothesis. Given this hypothesis, the truth of a mainstream news item about Trump is immaterial to the epistemic standing of a news consumer. Even if the news item is true, the news consumer can no more learn from it than Henry can get to know that there is a barn on the hill by looking at one.

But if the truth of a Trump-related news item is immaterial to the epistemic standing of a news consumer, then it seems that epistemically, when it comes to Trump-related news, the truth simply doesn’t matter. But to the extent that the truth doesn’t matter, there really is no distinction to be drawn between the mainstream media and the fake news media when it comes to Trump-related news items. Thus, there is a sense in which the fake news hypothesis is epistemically self-supporting.

Contact details: paul.faulkner@sheffield.ac.uk

References

Alston, W. 1985. “Concepts of Justification”. The Monist 68 (1).

Johnson, J. and Weigel, D. 2017. “Trump supporters see a successful president — and are frustrated with critics who don’t”. The Washington Post. 2017. Available from http://wapo.st/2lkwi96.

Goldman, Alvin. 1976. “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge”. Journal of Philosophy 73:771-791.

Goldman, Alvin 1979. “What Is Justified Belief?”. In Justification and Knowledge, edited by G. S. Pappas. Dordrecht: D.Reidel.

Nozick, R. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Peacocke, C. 1986. Thoughts: An Essay on Content. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Shane, Scott. “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece”. The New York Times 2017. Available from https://nyti.ms/2jyOcpR.

Sosa, Ernest. 2007. A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zagzebski, L. 1994. “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems”. The Philosophical Quarterly 44 (174):65-73.

[1] See <https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump&gt;.

[2] See <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/1/newsid_2819000/2819261.stm&gt;.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment, Part Three.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 32-37.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3VO

Please refer to:

These considerations seem to argue for some type of social-democratic ideal perhaps along Scandinavian lines. This, of course, is not a sure bet. Capital of its very nature will seek to subvert and destroy mixed economies of the social democratic type because it cannot internalize the notion of limit. As such regimes cannot exist without capital they will always be forced to accede to its demands, particularly in a globalized context. Given this a rapprochement between Capital and xenophobic nationalism, Fascism in other words, seems like a strangely logical if, finally, contradictory choice.[1]

A poster from 2012 of Barack Obama as a fascist dictator in the model of Hitler, doubling as an ad for the extremist website Infowars. Image by Madame LaZonga via Flickr / Creative Commons

For those who receive none of the benefits of globalism but bear most of its burdens it may well be a compelling choice. I should point out that in the context of declining public trust in institutions Fascist style myths of national redemption are fatally tempting. Of course neo-liberalism has laid the groundwork for this with its mania for privatizing public assets, often at low cost. These measures, along with ‘austerity’ budgets reduce the efficacy of institutions which can then be portrayed as inept and beyond reform by those who want to profit from their sale.

In this the neo-liberals make strange bedfellows with many radicals who also call for the dismantling of state institutions like the police and military: essentially, both groups take as their target the modern state which one sees as oppressive of economic enterprise and the other sees as oppressive of racial, class and gender difference. Battered from all sides of the political spectrum it is little wonder the state is now an object of general suspicion and contempt. It is little wonder people seek solutions that are radical though radical need not always (or indeed ever) equal progressive.[2]

Here, however, let me address something I think is a crucial error. We are hearing more and more of the ‘weakness of liberalism’ with the disturbing implication that we need something less rather than more liberal to deal with our current crisis. This argument, as it always has, runs like this. Liberalism is committed to the notion of pure tolerance and is thus incapable of opposing the rising tide of extremism. A commitment to pure liberalism will thus destroy liberalism altogether as extremists will use the cover of bourgeois civil rights to subvert the state. This is backed, again as always, with the argument ad Hitleram.

Exactly as the Weimar Republic was ‘too free’ so we are ‘too free’. If only, the argument goes, the Weimar state had been less tolerant and liberal force could have been used to stop the spread of Nazi ideology.[3] Thus, we too, if we are too ‘liberal’, will meet the same fate. This argument is surely balderdash. Firstly, what was it that rendered Nazi ideology a fringe phenomenon for the second half of the 20th century? Why was it that for so many decades, fascism was the preserve of isolated cranks, street thugs and lunatics? Clearly because the post war liberal consensus I have referred to above had widespread support. When did Fascism re-emerge as an option? Precisely when pro-market ideology succeeded in destroying that consensus.

It is simply wrong that Fascism has re-emerged because of excessive liberalism: Fascism re-emerged when liberalism was subverted, when liberals themselves sold out their principles to the emerging class of financiers, speculators and media barons. What is more, this is yet another argument curiously appropriated from the far right: it has been the insistent claim of right wing Islamophobes that ‘Liberalism’ is unsustainable because it entails the tolerance of “Islamists” and those feckless voices on the ‘left’ who undermine the West’s will to fight with their constant critiques of colonial oppression and craven apologies for acts of terror.

Indeed, I find it odd that a rhetorical ploy used so often on the right has now been picked up by the left apparently without anyone noticing. How many times have we been told by Bushes, Blairs and others that opposition to some foreign intervention was ‘appeasement’ because some foreign leader was the next ‘Hitler’? I certainly do think Trump represents a form of Fascism (as I explained above) but it is well to remember that Trump is NOT Hilter. For one thing his movement has nothing like the ideological coherence of the Nazi Party (as noted above) nor has he anything like the shrewdness or determination or even basic competence of its leader. He also leads a country that has a long tradition of anti-authoritarian politics and (for now at least) some functioning checks and balances.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, the Hitler comparison creates the perception of an emergency to which any response is in principle justified: what would one not do to stop the next holocaust? Secondly, this response closes off an important discussion. If the problem with Trump is that he is Hitler then it follows that his supporters are the new Nazis: this dehumanizes them and renders their concerns moot. Politically this is disastrous for many (though not all) Trump supporters are legitimately upset about the failures of the neo-Liberal order. Fascism does not flourish in a vacuum and Trumpism is not reducible to slow witted people deciding to be jerks. Identifying and allaying these underlying anxieties and tensions is the real work of anti-fascists though it involves less than exhilarating things like humility and listening to others.[4]

A memorial statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in eastern Berlin. Image by Joan Sorolla via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Getting this balance right is crucial for the stakes are high. I believe what is at stake is a crucial component of the modern project. I believe that there is more to the idea of globalism than the ghastly parody of the Washington Consensus. I believe the ideal of a catholic and universal human society is a necessary moral challenge and a marvelous opportunity for human growth. Are we really better off retreating into the parochialism of pre-modern societies? Are we better off fearing and scapegoating the other? Are we better off with the old national rivalries and their attendant violence?

I say this in full awareness that supra-national institutions in the past have taken oppressive and imperial forms (such as the Romans and Ottomans or the modern imperialisms of the Americans and British). If there is something to be saved from the ideologies that drove those societies, it is the idea of universality: not of a universal military or commercial hegemony as in the past but of a moral society of all humans. To use Kant’s phrase there is a Kingdom of Ends that is unlimited in scope and illimitable in principle. We now know, due the simple fact of global communications, that the other is not a monster or if he is a monster, is no more a monster than we are capable of being. We have no need to engage in speculation like a Medieval person would have to concerning distant folk such as the Moors.

Given modern technology the other is among us whether we will it or no. The universal society is a simple fact however much we try to deny the moral implications of it. It is a fact that confronts us every day in the form of the world wide web. To use the language of Marx the material conditions of society already point to the necessity of a universal community!

This is reflected even in demographics: no western society currently has any future that does not involve an infusion of workers and consumers from other societies. Moreover, the many people in the west who do benefit from our current economic system will not easily forego new opportunities for consumption: having tried sushi they will not go back to meat and potatoes grown locally.

Lest both my right and left leaning colleagues sniff at the superficiality of the dining classes with their pumpkin lattes and craft beers let me say that there are many who enjoy the liberty of cultural contacts with other parts of the globe who will not give this up either. In other words, every western society contains a cosmopolitan impulse which will have at least some say in any proposed future and these people wish no return to the pristine purity of square dancing and tractor pulls. I do not mean to be flippant here: in small ways as well as in large we are coming to the understanding of Terence that nothing human is alien. This is the ideal that was once embodied in the old notion of Romanitas and persists though the imperial days of Rome are long gone.

It is well to remember that the first wave of political innovation in the West was the revived imperium of Charlemagne, a distant ancestor of our current European Union. Western culture at its best (as opposed to its worst) has never been about elevating the parochial for its own sake. Almost from the beginning (in spite of its wonderful and lively vernacular literatures) it employed the lingua franca of Latin as the universal norm of cultural discourse. This idea of universalism always has and always will meet resistance for openness entails risk and universalist ideals noble in conception have often disgraced themselves in practice. The temptation to turn our backs on this tradition are thus ever present. Yet those on the far right who trumpet ‘European identity’ while betraying everything good that Europe has ever accomplished not only deny the evident social facts of our world but its deepest moral potential as well.

Practically this means working to strengthen such international institutions as now exist and create new ones that can exercise some control over the flow of capital and enforce common labor and environmental standards. This means, and my right leaning readers will not like this, that I am indeed a globalist. As the ravages of unrestrained capitalism and environmental degradation are a global problem they call forth a global solution.

Similarly, my anarchist readers will also be displeased for I do not envisage the dissolution of the nation state but rather international agreements that will strengthen it as there is little way to enforce common international standards that bypasses national sovereignty. What, for instance, if trade deals between nations were used to buttress labor and environmental standards rather than subvert them? What if corporations that roam the globe looking for the weakest regulations and most immiserated workers were simply shut out of their own markets by newly empowered national governments?[5]

Both right and left envisage a world of spontaneously self-organizing social systems. The first group tell us that these are markets which if left to their own devices will slowly but surely solve all problems. The second group envisage workers organizing into guild like social collectives which can meet all basic needs on a purely local level. Both of these notions belong in the realm of utopian fiction. As Plato long ago pointed out classes emerge from any complex social order: antagonism and difference are grounded in the ineradicable particularity of human experience.

The individual does not merge directly with the collective but must be disciplined by the mediating power of civic institutions to regard the freedom of the other as her own. In other words, evil will always emerge as individuals absolutize their differences and the state (in whatever form it takes) is required to contain and harness these conflicts for good.[6] This banal fact of human experience has long been enshrined in religious and mythic conceptions such as the fall from paradise.

To put it bluntly, the communes envisaged by the anarchists and syndicalists (or any other form of social organization that assumes a direct harmony of interests between human beings) will last as long as it takes for the first love triangle to emerge: for the first individual to oppose absolutely h is subjectivity to another (as in the story of Cain and Abel). On this point at least the existentialist tradition (think of Dostoevsky’s underground man) has a much firmer grasp on reality than the Marxist as it recognizes the necessity of evil and conflict for the emergence of freedom.[7]

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/)

Aeschylus, The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961)

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Doubleday Books, New York, 1958)

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster (Telos Press, St. Louis, 1975)

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978)

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998)

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015)

Eagleton, Terry. Marx (Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London 1997)

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

Frank, Dana. “The Thugocracy Next Door” Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02.

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1967)

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism (Anansi Press, Concord, 1992)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986)

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology (International Publishers, New York, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf)

Pulver, Matthew. “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: How the Clintons Can Apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany (Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005)

[1] In Nazi Germany this contradiction was only resolved by the personality cult of Adolf Hitler to whom, finally, the German nation and all the institutions it contained became expendable. The interests of Capital, the Army and so on were sacrificed to a war of national suicide of which the charisma and will of the fuehrer was the only binding principle. That this will was fundamentally nihilistic is shown by the fanatical orders of Hitler’s last days, orders only subverted by the intervention of Albert Speer.

[2] The easy convergence of these two positions should give us pause. That extremists of the alt-right and anti- fascist radicals on the left closely resemble each other is something readily discerned by anyone not an alt-right extremist and anti-fascist radical leftist. I do not simply refer to their unbending dogmatism or their penchant for reflexive verbal aggression and ad hominem attacks. I refer to the deeper truth that both groups are fundamentally Gnostic/Manichean in outlook. They are the lone voices of reason and integrity in an utterly corrupt world where public institutions need to be smashed instead of reformed and armies and police replaced with private militias culled from the remnant of the saints. In other words, to use a theological vocabulary, their outlook is sectarian not catholic (political errors are often secular transcriptions of theological ones). Indeed, one is reminded of Hegel’s claim that ‘absolute freedom’ finds its logical fulfilment in murderous acts of political terror: “Universal freedom can thus produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed, there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction.” (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604).

[3] The ‘liberal’ character of the Weimar Republic should not be exaggerated, at least in this respect. As the Munich putsch illustrates attempts were made to suppress Nazism both by direct force and the banning of Nazi publications. These ultimately failed because a divided judiciary and army (many of whom were sympathetic to nationalism) were unable or unwilling to back up the fledgling Republic. (see Spielvogel, 36-39) Even so, as George Blum notes: “As economic conditions improved after the mid-1920’s, following a currency reform and the infusion of foreign credits, the prospects of parliamentary democracy were much enhanced. It is quite likely that it would have survived in Germany and Nazism would have remained a boisterous fringe movement if the chaos of the Great Depression had not cut short economic prosperity and social stability.” (8) Perhaps it is not free speech we should avoid but depressions.

[4] Exemplary in this respect is Arlie Russell Hochschild: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump “ (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf). Changing the narrative of Trump voters requires understanding the narrative of Trump voters. Russell Hochschild points out that this narrative is theological at base and very deeply embedded in the thought forms of American Protestantism (688). Appeals to reason will not affect it. Immiserated whites who abandon myth for reason will live in the exact same devastated communities as before and their view of them will only be that much bleaker. If Trump’s base is to be cracked by a progressive political party, incentives will need to be offered to his supporters to trade their despairing ‘deep story’ for a more hopeful narrative. Clinton lost to Trump because she did not offer such an incentive in material, moral or indeed any other form. No doubt she could not make such an offer loudly and publicly without offending the corporate donor class, which is most likely why she did not even campaign in the rust belt states that cost her the election.

[5] Is it inherently irrational to suggest that countries which try undercut other countries by slashing worker’s rights and throwing out health and safety regulations should simply be excluded from trading blocs that agree to enforce common standards in such matters? Corporations, of course, can impose no discipline on themselves in such matters but might they become so worried about the prospects of global capitalism that, like addicts, they agree to have their hands tied by the state?

[6] It is difficult to know why anyone would assume otherwise. The impression Marx leaves is that in a society without class conflict the individuality of each will fall into immediate harmony with the individuality of all which might, for all one knows, be true if it were not that class conflict is just one subset of conflict in general. People on the same side in the class war are quite capable of utter viciousness to each other as anyone can confirm by hanging around Socialists (or workers for that matter) for any length of time. I have spoken elsewhere of the grave loss to self-knowledge that comes from the occlusion of the theological tradition. This is a case in point: without the myth of the fall people have lost a powerful skeptical check on their motives and can, with fatal ease, identify their basest impulses with their highest and most noble aspirations. It is noteworthy that original sin is probably the least popular Christian doctrine though it is the only one capable of %100 empirical confirmation.

[7] And here I must register my fundamental criticism of Marx (at least the utopian Marx) and the point on which he has failed to heed his teacher Hegel. Total freedom can only take the form of absolute tyranny. Thus it is not in fact an accident that Marx, who gives us a wonderful vision of the possibilities of human freedom (see Eagleton, 19-23), has given us also a formula for abject tyranny. Marx of course recognizes dialectical opposition as central to history. This is what the history of class struggle is all about. However, the notion that these tensions will directly resolve themselves once the capitalist state is overthrown is both forlorn and dangerous. Forlorn because it cannot happen (differentiation will inevitably occur) and dangerous because once the ‘individual’ has been reconciled to the ‘collective’ any further assertion of personal will or individuality will simply be a falling off from the good and an object of immediate suppression. The final state can allow no real opposition or difference to emerge as the historical problem will be, supposedly, solved. This is Blake’s warning about the ‘religious’ who seek to dissolve the tensions of history into a bland unity. (MHH 16, 10) This is also the price paid for historicizing a religious symbol (the millennium and the kingdom of God) and attempting to make of it a literal reality. Thus, the utopian strain in in Marx should at very least be an object of reserve and skepticism: it is no longer possible to separate the hope of Utopian thinking from the specter of mass murder.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment, Part Two.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 27-31.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3VF

Please refer to:

On a wall in Montreal, Quebec, on 5 June 2017. Its address was 5317 Waverly.
Image by Fred: via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I am not the person to solve these dilemmas however. I am a philosopher not an activist and my only job is to help clarify our thinking about the mess we find ourselves in. In that spirit I offer the following observations. They take the form of a reflection on Karl Marx whose writing seem to take on new life in the era in which we live. Marx has been gravely disserved by the elevation of his writings into a kind of holy writ.

Though I have deep reservations about certain aspects of his thinking (which I will discuss below) it is surprising to me how accurate a diagnosis he offers of our current crisis. I will not comment here on the strange tension between brutal dialectical realism and hazy utopianism that is the ambiguous legacy of the Marxist tradition. Nor will I be reviving such difficult and contentious notions as the theory of surplus value or Marx’s arcane analysis of Victorian economics.[1]

If Marx is still relevant as a prophet for the 21st century it is not for these things but for his central insight that Capitalism as a system is unsustainable: of its very nature it absolutizes the profit motive and the relentless pursuit of profit at all costs must bring the system itself crashing down. It is clear to me, for instance, that untrammeled markets will destroy the social and ecological capital on which they rest and on this point at least Marxism seems to me correct.

Only a system where the means of production are radically democratized is capable of wielding the instruments of modern technology in a way that is sustainable and broadly fair. Marx got many things tragically wrong but at the beginning of the 21st century we may wonder if he has gotten this one thing right. Not ten years ago this would have seemed a ridiculous question: the consensus surely was that the second half of the 20th century had left Marx’s thought far behind.

However, is it true that current conditions (as so many have claimed) falsify not only the details of Marx’s account but its spirit? The reason for saying so has hitherto been powerful: beginning with the post-depression era and continuing after the Second World War liberal democratic states have been governed by a consensus. Markets have been given freedom to operate on the assumption that in certain key areas Government will intervene to even out the cruelties and inequities of the market place, for example with labor laws, social security systems etc. The true answer to Marx has always been that democratic states have the power and will to balance the demands of the market with basic social goods to a degree sufficient to prevent revolution.[2]

Of course, corporations and their apologists have never really accepted this consensus and, as the post war interventionist state has been fundamentally secular in outlook neither have the people we now call social conservatives. If Marx is right the post war consensus that has hitherto governed us is inherently unstable: corporations who face the imperative of ever improving their bottom line can, indeed must, do so by incrementally chipping away at every aspect of the state that embodies a higher good than the pursuit of individual profit. Since the whole raison d’etre of the liberal state has been to make the world safe for capitalism and the indefinite growth it promises the political class must more and more cede to these demands.

However, man does not live by bread alone: to ensure electoral success corporate interests must align themselves with nationalists, racists, religious zealots and other disaffected groups as these are the one great mass of people outside the corporate sector who regard the post-war state as inherently corrupt. Thus, one sees the strange alliance between evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and the kleptocrats of the corporate elite: both fundamentally hate the progressive state and wish it dismantled, if for diametrically opposed reasons.

On a wall in Paris, France, on 10 June 2017, near Bellevue.
Image by Gullem Vellut via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto will see that Marx understood this dialectic perfectly well: the liberal state will always be threatened by an alliance of Capital with ethnic, national and religious exclusivism, in a word, fascism. As the liberal state is, in its essence, aligned with capital anyway it will inevitably lose this fight, making concession after concession until it is fundamentally toothless and an object of general contempt.

Ironically, given Marx’s notion that the state must ultimately wither away, the Liberal state will weaken itself to a point where it simply becomes expendable. The resultant unfettered pursuit of profit will produce such environmental devastation, such immiseration of what was once the middle class and such a cheapening of core values in spheres such as education and health-care that it will not be sustainable: the question of an alternative economic model will then present itself whether we wish it or not.[3] It is not for philosophers to predict the future or to dictate to practical people what they need to do. I only make the general point that the question of laissez faire economics is one of the handful of human notions on which the data appears to be in.

Yet it is clear too that without markets (of some kind) there is no way to adjust production to the real needs and demands of individuals (markets, after all, long predate capitalism). The grim catastrophe that was international communism was both the triumph and downfall of the technocratic dream: a universal society devoted to the conquest of nature and of chance. I do not simply refer here to ecological disasters such as the destruction of the Aral Sea or nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. I refer to the entire notion of a state that absorbs society in order to subject it to authoritarian technocratic control.

I think the lesson is clear that no party or political movement no matter how well intentioned can absorb the government. No government can absorb society in its economic, cultural or scientific aspects. This is illustrated, for instance, by the utter failure of centrally planned economies to meet the needs of actual human beings.[4] Contingency and difference, whether in the form of an economic market or a ‘marketplace of ideas’ or a culture of criticism and resistance within the state (in the form of a free press, political opposition and so on) are essential to a free society. As Robert Heilbroner points out a free market at very least provides a place where dissidents and non-conformists can earn a living. (69)

I prescind here from the question of whether Marx (who is still as I have noted a major social theorist) is to blame for the fate of Marxism in the 20th century: certainly Marx says some potentially disturbing things about a temporary ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat where the workers, or more disturbingly, people who have appointed themselves as representative of the workers, take on the power of the Hobbesian sovereign.[5] State absolutism seems set as the precondition for abolishing the state.

It is no doubt possible to find a reading of Marx that insulates him from all that has subsequently been done in his name: such a procedure, though, runs the risk of turning his doctrine into a mere idealism, something that should have been a moving force in history but, alas, wasn’t due to Lenin, Plekhanov, the backwardness of the Russian people or what have you. Does Marxism allow any judgment but that of history? Does it not seem to fail its own most fundamental test?

I note however that many of the people who currently flaunt the symbols and language of international socialism are (barring the odd lunatic who still pines for forced collectivization) social democrats at heart or anarchists rather than orthodox Marxist/Leninists. Certainly their concerns over environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples belong more to the progressivism of this century than of the last.[6] Crucial notions for Marx are the technological conquest of scarcity and the full automation of labor and this certainly now looks naive from an ecological viewpoint. It looks increasingly like a Faustian delusion to believe that nature sets no limits on the possibility of abundance and prosperity. To truly eliminate scarcity, we must redefine our wants and needs, boring as that sounds, rather than overwhelm demand with supply.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/)

Aeschylus, The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961)

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Doubleday Books, New York, 1958)

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster (Telos Press, St. Louis, 1975)

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978)

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998)

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015)

Eagleton, Terry. Marx (Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London 1997)

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

Frank, Dana. “The Thugocracy Next Door” Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02.

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1967)

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism (Anansi Press, Concord, 1992)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986)

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology (International Publishers, New York, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf)

Pulver, Matthew. “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: How the Clintons Can Apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany (Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005)

[1] Of course fundamental challenges exist to Marixist economics and the anthropology underlying it. Of particular note here is Jean Baudrilliard, whose Mirror of Production castigates Marx for failing to question the principles of ‘political economy’ as defined in the 18th Century and making a fetish of Bourgeois notions of ‘labor’ under the all- encompassing sign of ‘production’. Thus, Marxism, far from being a radical critique of Capitalism simply reproduces its underlying logic. I cannot weigh in on this critique here but simply note its importance. I will say, however, that confronting Marxist notions of labor and productivity with, say, the ontologies of indigenous peoples shows just how dependent they are on the theoretical foundations of bourgeois Liberalism. Indeed, the Lockean stance towards nature, expropriation as property through productive labor, does not disappear from Marx but is simply socialized. The capitalist expropriation of the surplus value of labor disappears to make the social expropriation of land, “waste lands” as the Manifesto puts it, proceed apace. (54) Progressive advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples will have to rethink fundamental aspects of the Socialist tradition if they are serious about accommodating the indigenous viewpoint on land and ecological responsibility.  

[2] Or complete ecological collapse. Whatever the consequences to the planet corporations have made it clear that they wish to exploit fossil fuels until they are gone: one can only conclude that they prefer death to the intolerable burden of ecological responsibility. So far no national government or coalition of national governments has been able to tell them no. Of course a government that cannot tell private interests no is no government at all. So far, the liberal state has been failing one of its most significant tests and to that extent playing in the general rhetoric that states are useless anyway and might as well be replaced by private corporations or anarchist communes.

[3] We do not suffer from a lack of such models but from an excess. Trying to pick one’s way through the proposals of participatory economists, anarchists, mutualists, syndicalists, anarcho-feminists and so on is rather like trying to decide which of a hundred sects of Protestantism represents the true religion. I offer no opinion on whether social forms like these may play a role in a post capitalist order. For all this author knows they might have many useful things to contribute. They do seem, however, to embody one principle which is surely erroneous: that the community will never have to exercise sovereignty over the will of individuals. As will be pointed out below the most anarcho-syndicalist of communes will still have to function in some minimal sense as a state. I point this out because the utopian notion that the human being can, in her immediate natural will, embody the will of the community is a dangerous delusion which lays the groundwork for 20th century totalitarianism. One way of reading the current essay is as a critique of the utopian impulse as it afflicts both Capitalist and other societies. The problem with all these suggestions is that, for now at least, they are merely ideal and do not reflect forces immanent in the world, a thing Marx himself deprecated.  

[4] Ironies abound here. Robert Heilbroner notes: “As citizens of the former Soviet Union are discovering to their consternation, a market system means the end of the long queues for bread that were a curse of life under a system of centralized command, but it also means the introduction of a queue which did not exist formerly- namely, standing in line at employment offices and looking for work.” (73-74) The curse of a command system is the inability to provide goods in sufficient quantity as and when people actually need them. If bread runs low the command system cannot pivot and continues producing other items (like the notorious black lamps) for which there is no demand at all. The curse of Capitalism is its inability to supply a sufficient amount of meaningful and non-exploitive work for its citizens: one accepts ‘structural unemployment’ and alienated labor rather as the Soviet citizen made due without toothpaste.    

[5] Communist Manifesto pp.53-54. Of course, barring Cincinnatus of early Roman times, no ‘dictatorship’ has ever been temporary by choice. A realist like Marx ought surely to have known that power does not renounce itself. Of this section of the Manifesto Jacques Barzun comments: “Nowhere does Marx’s imaginative weakness and inconsequence appear more clearly than in this mishmash of bloody revolution with reformism.” (Darwin, Marx, Wagner, 188) This may be harsh but there is a grain of truth to it nonetheless. Barzun deftly points up the naiveté underlying Marx’s apparent worldliness: “One therefore wonders by what secret mechanism he expected that in this case (i.e. the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie) men goaded to destruction and sadism would settle down into artisans of peace and order.” (187) In any violent revolution you will have men with guns and men with guns do not readily give them up. Most likely they will then become a militant clique who appoint themselves as representatives of the proletariat assuming its dictatorial function. This clique will already be criminalized by a long standing habit of identifying ethics with political expediency. A revolutionary general (in a depressingly familiar pattern) then becomes the next autocrat after killing or jailing his rivals. A new autocracy is the result and as Eagleton points out: “…a Socialism which fails to inherit from the middle class a rich legacy of liberal freedoms and civic institutions will simply reinforce that autocracy.” (43) Perhaps it is this dynamic of armed insurrections, rather than supposed ‘material conditions’ in Russia or elsewhere that vitiated 20th Century Communism. We might then judge the insurrectionist approach to be largely a failure.

[6] Assimilation of indigenous peoples (so called ‘futureless societies’) was as firm a part of Soviet doctrine as of Canadian or American Liberalism. Indeed, what could it possibly mean to be an indigenous person in the universal technocracy envisaged by Marx and his followers? A person who claimed and expressed indigeneity would be, from this perspective, clinging to outmoded forms of life (i.e. forms of life that do not reflect current modes of production) and would, for that reason, be counter-revolutionary (see German Ideology, 44 for Marx’s dismissive account of indigenous societies). At any rate nothing could be further from the scientific character of Marxism than the mania for ad hominem attacks and personal invective typical of certain contemporary radicals. Whether a capitalist is a loving father or steps on puppies is perfectly irrelevant. Marx is concerned with how institutions affect the perceptions and attitudes of the people who inhabit them. Capitalism is not oppressive because individual capitalists are bad people. A capitalist system run by kindly old grandfathers would not be a whit less oppressive. To be fair though, this contradiction is in Marx himself who never reconciled the vituperative rhetoric of Marxism with its actual substance.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment: Part One.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 70-75.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3UZ

Please refer to:

Art by Tom Blackford of Shoreditch, UK. Image by Duncan C via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I, like many worried about the rise of Fascism in America, thought Hilary Clinton would, by however modest a margin, buy us a few years to confront it more effectively. Now that I have been disabused of this hope it is time for sober reflection. Clinton has lost an election now she would otherwise have lost in four years. The populist wing of the Republican Party would simply have found a slicker, more intelligent candidate who is not a walking gaffe machine. 2020 was going to be theirs anyway. The extra time would have been nice but the reckoning has come now instead of later. So be it.

A populist politics of racial and ethnic resentment has triumphed; xenophobic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of institutions and the rule of law.[1] This politics either points towards or currently embodies a Fascist ideology depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.[2] Here are some reflections I have prepared on this crisis and though academics generally hate to be proven wrong I sincerely hope (for once) that most of what I say is unduly pessimistic.

The west, it seems, is having its ‘Weimar’ moment: its feckless elites are incapable of resisting the rising tide of right wing authoritarianism. This is not an American problem; it is a global problem. This is so firstly because America’s problems are ipso facto the world’s problems. There is no place to hide from chaos in the U.S. unless one disengages from the global economy completely. Secondly, the forces that have propelled Trump to success in the United States are active in Europe as well and no doubt his victory will only encourage the forces of reaction there.

If a renascent Fascism wins electoral success in both the US and Europe will Canada hold out long as the lone island of sanity? Our own Conservative party will no doubt learn its lessons from Le Pen and Wilders if they or their ilk follow Trump to electoral success. Indeed, when in 8 to 10 years the Liberal Government has run its natural course there will be no stopping them. They will succeed in the way extremist parties always succeed: by waiting for a protest vote to sweep them into power. Fascism (proto or otherwise) will then come to Canada too.

It is hard to feel sorry for the Clintons, Blairs and Bushes who have made this possible. They and the neo-liberal doctrines they shilled for are now in the place that Orthodox Communism was in the 1980’s. They have no credibility with the people they govern and cannot move them a millimeter towards the good. Who really wanted another Clinton in the White House? Who wanted more trade deals, more ‘humanitarian’ military interventions, more bailouts and bloated profits for the financial sector? Who wanted more ‘restructuring’ and ‘rationalization’? More wage stagnation and the continued decline of the middle class? The main pillars of the New World Order, trade liberalization, privatization, and perpetual austerity summon as much enthusiasm now as the Soviet Union’s last five- year plan.

Of course these things were never meant to be political or subject to democratic control. That is why they were enshrined in international agreements and enforced by the IMF and World Bank. Politics, indeed history itself, was supposed to be over and done with as people like Fukayama assured us in the 90’s. Clinton, a child of this era, would never have done anything ‘political’ in the sense of disturbing these global economic and security arrangements. She would have simply administered them (one suspects fairly competently) while trying to sell the results to an increasingly alienated public. However, anyone who thinks this kind of bland administrative talent benign should study the ugly history of the Clintons’ dealings with Haiti and Honduras, those whose appointed station in the Global order is to provide cheap, immiserated labor in perpetuity. [3]

This system, of course, will not change under Trump, it will only become more chaotic. The neo-liberals at least offered some measure of order and predictability along with basic constitutional guarantees (unless of course you happen to be young, male and Muslim or a Black victim of police violence). Trump however faces a task even less manageable than Clinton. Capital under Trump will be more aggressive and unfettered than ever. Ordinary people will be poorer and unhealthier than ever. To keep the latter engaged increasingly ugly racial rhetoric will be necessary. At the same time Trump will not have the gift of another Clinton in four years. He will have to keep certain aspects of the post war liberal consensus in place to please independents.

Image via Thierry Ehrmann via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The result will be a farrago of mismatched policies. There will be great pots of money for homeland security, police and the military. At the same time there will be ‘fiscal responsibility’ promised house Republicans. Abortion may be out but gay marriage will be in. Muslims and Hispanics will be subject to various forms of legal (or extra-legal) harassment but corporations who benefit from them will be given their open borders and cheap migrant workers. Infrastructure will be massively expanded but of course there will be tax cuts for all. A gifted politician might pull this off for a time but of course Trump is in the White House precisely because he is a political innocent.

As a result, Trump is unlikely to please the constituencies whose expectations he has raised. His ramshackle transition team of racists, millenarian weirdos, neo-con creeps and corporate hacks already embodies every aspect of this incoherent program. When the inevitable disappointment sets in will Trump’s base decide that he has been co-opted by the system he was elected to shake up? Will they decide that they simply did not elect someone radical enough? If so, should we prepare for David Duke in 2020?[4]

As some context for understanding this however we might try to define the idea that runs through Trump’s and other far right movements: this idea might be labeled ‘particularism’ which gets at the common core of the far right more than comparisons to Hitler, Franco, Mussolini or whoever (illuminating as these might sometimes be). This idea is based on the failure of two cosmopolitanisms: that of Neo-Liberalism and international Communism. In place of this it offers nationalism and ethno-identity politics as the third way.

Of course, this is nothing new. The wars in the Balkans have already showed us ethnicity is a powerful force in contemporary politics. Far right movements have existed for decades in the United States and Europe even after the defeat of Germany. However, it is now clear that the same forces have moved from the periphery into the heartland. The United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain are the new Balkans in that fundamental questions of the nature of politics are now mooted there rather than in the hinterlands of Europe. So, where Neo-Liberalism saw universality embodied in a vision of as humans as consumers and Marxism saw universality embodied in a vision of humans as producers the new right emphasizes humans as embedded in relationships and identities that are fundamentally local or at most national.

Thus, it rejects any effort to globalize trade and invokes the virtues of protectionism. As it opposes the free flow of capital so it opposes the free flow of people: refugees are now ‘economic migrants’ (read ‘moochers’) at best and terrorists at worst.[5] As in the old European right there are no ‘rights of man’ but rather rights of Englishmen, Frenchmen and Americans. Thus ‘others’ of various kinds can freely be tortured, denied habeas corpus and so on. At the extreme end this rejection of a universal moral language of rights becomes a narcissistic celebration of ‘whiteness’ or ‘European identity’. At its most benign (if one can call it that) it expresses itself in a nostalgia for old national identities perceived to be under threat form ‘globalism’ and ‘multiculturalism’.

On the face of it this all seems grossly unfair: if capital can migrate about the globe seeking the best deal why can’t workers do the same? Moreover, much of the current refugee crisis can be laid at the feet of Western nations and their blundering ‘humanitarian wars’ which have created chaos and displaced multitudes. At any rate such people show no awareness that the reason people emigrate to the West is that our current global power arrangements ensure that the West is the site of economic privilege and that most people who aspire to a higher standard of living have to move to attain it. One might as well battle the tides as try to stop labor from going where money and opportunity reside: again we have accepted this proposition with respect to corporations so why not workers?

I doubt the far right would be impressed by this plea however: after all, they seem to think neither labor nor capital should go anywhere. They would no doubt say Globalism in any form must be dismantled and national identities along with national institutions must be reinforced. Many on the left share this vision at least where buttressing the nation state is concerned. At the same time though they still envisage a post-modern fluidity where identity is concerned oblivious to the fact that globalized economic and political institutions are the lynchpin of any such vision and that to restore the nation state is to restore the ethnic, cultural and perhaps even sexual identities that underwrite it. It is the resurgent right that shows more consistency here as at the core of their vision lie not the rights of persons but the rights of citizens understood, as in antiquity, in an exclusionary sense.[6]

Here we are then, with our political options reduced to three nostalgias. We can invoke the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher though the ecological and social externalities of neo-liberalism are not manageable. We can turn back to the ghastly regimes of international socialism and view them through a haze of false nostalgia. Finally, there are ‘identity politics’ and ‘victim culture’ invented by the left but now fully and freely appropriated by the right.[7] This movement (in its current form) would restore the nation state as an ethnic, cultural and economic monolith and at its extreme looks back to the fascist movements of the 20’s and 30’s. Are we really so out of ideas? Is there no viable future but only increasingly desperate revivals of a failed and discredited past?

Resistance is heartening and it is largely to the political left that we must look for opposition to what is perhaps the most corrupt Oligarchy in the history of the planet. It would be equally heartening to think the left is ready to undertake this task. Alas I am not fully convinced it is. The only left leaning party in North America (outside the fringe parties) is the Canadian New Democratic Party, and it is shackled to the centrism imposed by electoral politics. Nor can it seem to mobilize the urban and rural poor who are among its natural allies. There are more radical elements of the party but many of these are composed of current or former student leftists who are as much a hindrance as a help. Students go to university to find and forge identities and so it is natural that they will tend to form cliques (a tendency magnified ten-fold by social media). They will stake out stark positions and uncompromising attitudes, issue unconditional demands rather than working proposals, and use jargon culled from the social sciences to reinforce in-group identity.

The point of a political club is to be small and confer a sense of status on those who belong. However, the point of a political movement is the exact opposite: its task is to be large and this is incompatible with cocksure dogmatism and a censorious tone that turns off potential allies. Growing a movement entails brokerage, forging alliances with people NOT our immediate allies to organize rallies, sit ins, mass strikes, defections and so on. This is not an activity for a self-righteous minority who, of course, want only to distinguish themselves from less enlightened folk. What works in Graduate school does not necessarily work outside the academy.[8]

This sectarian attitude reaches its peak among the proponents of ‘black bloc’ tactics: encouraging private militias and paramilitary violence is an idea so devastatingly misconceived that it is astonishing to still have to argue the point. It is also an idea beloved of the far right who use the exact same language to justify it. As the sole resistance to the current unsustainable regime the Left more than ever has to put its childhood things away and resist the romanticized and fake glamour of ‘revolutionary’ violence.[9]

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/)

Aeschylus. The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961.

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner. New York: Doubleday Books, 1958.

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975.

Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978.

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015.

Eagleton, Terry. Marx. London: Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 1997.

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Frank, Dana “The Thugocracy Next Door” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02).

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Harper Torchbook 1967.

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism. Concord: Anansi Press, 1992.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf)

Pulver, Matthew “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: how the Clintons can apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005.

[1] Whether or not individuals who voted for Trump did so for these motives or not they voted for a movement which embodies them. All extremist parties really need to succeed is a base and one other chunk of voters, fellow travelers, who simply want to ‘throw the bums out’.

[2] By Fascist I here refer to a populist movement which sees its will as thwarted by constitutional and legal restraints and embodies that will in a demagogue who promises to overthrow them, usually as part and parcel of some myth of national redemption. I think this applies rather well to the Trump movement. Others may differ but I will not quibble over a word. Trump is a destructive figure whether he can be successfully categorized as a Fascist or not. Thus, how closely his Fascism maps onto other historical Fascisms may be left to specialists to determine. There are, however, grave dangers to the ‘Hitler’ analogy which will be noted below: for this reason, it is well to note that Trump’s ‘Fascism’ is very much his own.

[3] For starters see Edwige Danticat “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015), Dana Frank “The Thugocracy Next Door” http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02). Matthew Pulver “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: how the Clintons can apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies” (http://www.salon.com/2015/05/06) In fact the Clintons critics on this matter include the Clintons themselves: “”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/).

[4] Since I wrote these words it has become clearer that plutocrats and interventionists are the most likely winners of the ideological struggle going on in the Trump regime. What will happen to the populist movement he courted when this becomes too plain to deny is anyone’s guess. More hopefully though the far right, for now at least, has been checked in France and Holland.

[5] Of course in the real world poverty and violence go hand in hand rendering the supposed distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘genuine refugees’ pretty much meaningless.

[6] Perhaps this is less than fair to the ancients: after all the rights of strangers and exiles were the province of Zeus Xenios and were hedged with the complex etiquette of the guest/host relationship (see Aeschylus, The Suppliants). Similar notions of sanctuary in the contemporary world are, alas, the object of contempt on the far right.

[7] If some implied moral privilege is attached to victimhood, then of course everyone will claim to be a victim. There is nothing at all to prevent Christian Fundamentalists or campus conservatives from casting themselves in this role once the narrative has been established. Further, even the perception of a double standard in these matters will only re-inforce their conviction. None of this is to say that there are no victims or that ‘identity politics’ has not improved overall civility in many crucial ways: anyone who remembers the eighties blushes at certain things that were routinely said. Everything, though, is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

[8] Current discussions surrounding ‘white privilege’ illustrate this point. When activists invoke this concept they think, naturally enough for university educated people, that they are conveying the denotation of the phrase: an unearned social advantage adhering to a particular race. As advertisers are aware, however, the general public hears connotation as much or more than denotation and ‘privilege’ alas connotes posh schools and delicate lace tea cozies. As these things are part of the experience of a tiny minority even of white people the phrase is dead on arrival. Rhetoric (in the ancient sense) needs to be attended to as much as social science.

[9] And here, to be frank, I must confront what I call ‘performative’ leftism: the notion that policing simple everyday speech acts somehow is the revolution, or at least an easy way to put one’s commitment to it on constant public display. The North American left is obsessed with words, no doubt as befits a movement whose milieu is the university, but apart from some real (though modest) gains in civility what have we gained from this obsessive focus but a spate of brutal neologisms? Environmental devastation and income inequality are getting worse not better and splitting hairs over vocabulary will not alter that fact. It may be the case (though in fact I doubt it) that linguistic usage embodies in a straightforward way current oppressive social structures (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon ones!) but I see no evidence at all that altering the former will have any significant effect on the latter. I support any linguistic change that makes for more civil or respectful interchange (obviously we are well quit of words like ‘retard’ or ‘faggot’) but focusing on this should never be confused with manning the barricades and becomes contemptible as a self-righteous display.

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, robert.frodeman@unt.edu

Frodeman, Robert. “The Politics of AI.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 48-49.

The pdf of the article provides specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3To

This robot, with its evocatively cute face, would turn its head toward the most prominent human face it could see.
Image from Jeena Paradies via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been a cheerleader for technology for decades. He begins an early 2018 column by declaring that he wants to take a break from the wall-to-wall Trump commentary. Instead, ‘While You Were Sleeping’ consists of an account of the latest computer wizardry that’s occurring under our noses. What Friedman misses is that he is still writing about Trump after all.

His focus is on quantum computing. Friedman revisits a lab he had been to a mere two years earlier; on the earlier visit he had come away impressed, but feeling that “this was Star Wars stuff — a galaxy and many years far away.” To his surprise, however, the technology had moved quicker than anticipated: “clearly quantum computing has gone from science fiction to nonfiction faster than most anyone expected.”

Friedman hears that quantum computers will work 100,000 times faster than the fastest computers today, and will be able to solve unimaginably complex problems. Wonders await – such as the NSA’s ability to crack the hardest encryption codes. Not that there is any reason for us to worry about that; the NSA has our best interests at heart. And in any case, the Chinese are working on quantum computing, too.

Friedman does note that this increase in computing power will lead to the supplanting of “middle-skill and even high-skill work.” Which he allows could pose a problem. Fortunately, there is a solution at hand: education! Our educational system simply needs to adapt to the imperatives of technology. This means not only K-12 education, and community colleges and universities, but also lifelong worker training. Friedman reports on an interview with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who told him:

“Every job will require some technology, and therefore we’ll need to revamp education. The K-12 curriculum is obvious, but it’s the adult retraining — lifelong learning systems — that will be even more important…. Some jobs will be displaced, but 100 percent of jobs will be augmented by AI.”

Rometty notes that technology companies “are inventing these technologies, so we have the responsibility to help people adapt to it — and I don’t mean just giving them tablets or P.C.s, but lifelong learning systems.”

For that’s how it works: people adapt to technology, rather than the other way around. And what if our job gets outsourced or taken over by a machine? Friedman then turns to education-to-work expert Heather McGowan: workers “must reach up and learn a new skill or in some ways expand our capabilities as humans in order to fully realize our collaborative potential.” Education must become “a continuous process where the focused outcome is the ability to learn and adapt with agency as opposed to the transactional action of acquiring a set skill.” It all sounds rather rigorous, frog-marched into the future for our own good.

Which should have brought Friedman back to Trump. Friedman and Rometty and McGowan are failing to connect the results of the last election. Clinton lost the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by a total of 80,000 votes. Clinton lost these states in large part because of the disaffection of white, non-college educated voters, people who have been hurt by previous technological development, who are angry about being marginalized by the ‘system’, and who pine for the good old days, when America was Great and they had a decent paycheck. Of course, Clinton knew all this, which is why her platform, Friedman-like, proposed a whole series of worker re-education programs. But somehow the coal miners were not interested in becoming computer programmers or dental hygienists. They preferred to remain coal miners – or actually, not coal miners. And Trump rode their anger to the White House.

Commentators like Friedman might usefully spend some of their time speculating on how our politics will be affected as worker displacement moves up the socio-economic scale.

At root, Friedman and his cohorts remain children of the Enlightenment: universal education remains the solution to the political problems caused by run-amok technological advance. This, however, assumes that ‘all men are created equal’ – and not only in their ability, but also in their willingness to become educated, and then reeducated again, and once again. They do not seem to have considered the possibility that a sizeable minority of Americans—or any other nationality—will remain resistant to constant epistemic revolution, and that rather than engaging in ‘lifelong learning’ are likely to channel their displacement by artificial intelligence into angry, reactionary politics.

And as AI ascends the skills level, the number of the politically roused is likely to increase, helped along by the demagogue’s traditional arts, now married to the focus-group phrases of Frank Luntz. Perhaps the machinations of turning ‘estate tax’ into ‘death tax’ won’t fool the more sophisticated. It’s an experiment that we are running now, with a middle-class tax cut just passed by Congress, but which diminishes each year until it turns into a tax increase in a few years. But how many will notice the latest scam?

The problem, however, is that even if those of us who live in non-shithole countries manage to get with the educational program, that still leaves “countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, China and India — where huge numbers of youths are already unemployed because they lack the education for even this middle-skill work THAT’S [sic] now being automated.” A large cohort of angry, displaced young men ripe for apocalyptic recruitment. I wonder what Friedman’s solution is to that.

The point that no one seems willing to raise is whether it might be time to question the cultural imperative of constant innovation.

Contact details: robert.frodeman@unt.edu

References

Friedman, Thomas. “While You Were Sleeping.” New York Times. 16 January 2018. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/opinion/while-you-were-sleeping.html

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Conservatism: The End of An Idea.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 7-16.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3R9

Image from Carnaval.com Studios via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I recently noticed that conservatism as a political stance is definitively dead. Truth is it has been on life support for decades. This has not stopped all sorts of people from using the term both positively and negatively. All sorts of people proudly proclaim themselves to be conservatives while others angrily denounce people as conservatives. The death of conservatism means, for starters, that neither group fully grasps of the term they are using. The word has become utterly detached from the thing. Another thing it means is that an individual may have conservative opinions but only in the sense that an individual may worship the goddess Artemis in her back yard or live like a 17th Century Puritan. It is a private eccentricity with no public institutional reality. The death of conservatism is then something like the death of God.

A New Classification of Politics: Three Ideologies

There is no significance to taking any public stand as a conservative. This is for one basic reason. This reason is that the victory of ideology in contemporary politics is now total and that conservatism is not an ideology.[1] Our political discourse is now divided between three ideological stances: the progressive, the neo-liberal and ethno-nationalist stances. So called social conservatives used to exist but they have utterly disappeared into the third stance as is plain with the rise of Trump in the United States and the rise of similar populists elsewhere.[2] There are now no social conservatives of any note who are not also ethno-nationalists and indeed primarily ethno-nationalists.

This is absolutely evident from their obsession with a purported clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. By and large Muslims share the values of social conservatives when it comes to things like family, modesty, the centrality of religion and so on. Yet social conservatives despise and fear Muslims all the same making it plain that by family values they mean white Anglo-Saxon family values and by piety they mean white Anglo-Saxon piety. That is the core of the ethno-nationalist position: that western Christian values are cherished not for their supposed universality but as the foundation of a tribal identity. From time to time the neo-Liberal stance is classified as ‘conservative’ though for no reason I can fathom: as Marx pointed out predatory capitalism rips the veil form all traditional pieties by reducing everything to a cash value. The proposition that limitless accumulation is the aim of life and indeed the primary duty of a citizen is consistent with no ancient wisdom I know of religious or otherwise.

Conservatism then is no more. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is hardly my place to say: conservatism itself advises us that like all human constructions it is finite and imperfect. However, at this point the reader may well be waiting, impatiently, for a definition of conservatism. What is it that I say has died?

I will proceed to offer if not a definition then an account of what conservatism is in the root sense of the word: an attitude to the world which seeks to conserve or protect those principles, values or institutions on which genuine human flourishing has always and will always rest. It will then be evident that people who use the term most loudly haven’t the faintest interest in conservatism or conservative values and perhaps never have. Of course, I run the risk of baffling people (both boosters and knockers) who will not recognize their version of conservatism in anything I say. I ask such people to be patient until I finish my exposition.

How Were We Able to Drink Up the Sea?

I said above that conservatism is not an ideology: from writers labelled ‘conservative’ it would be difficult to cull a doctrinal statement. This means that it has no definition in the sense of a core statement of doctrine or set of prescriptive demands: it is, if like, the position which is not a position but rather an attitude and a practice. However, I can give you a living example of it from a much despised source.

I find an excellent description of conservatism as a life stance expressed in the five pillars of the Islamic faith.[3] Soi-disant ‘conservatives’ who are shocked and angered by this should ask themselves why as these values seem to me core to any conservative stance towards the world. The first of these pillars is the shahada or profession of faith: There is no god but god and Mohammed is his prophet. Now conservatism does not inherently care about the latter part of this assertion: it is happy to recognize a multitude of other prophets who have taught in other parts of the world such as Siddartha, Jesus, or Confucius.

The first however is essential: conservatism is theocratic in orientation. Humans are first and foremost unconditionally responsible to a divine order: to the standards which are ultimate because they are founded in the unchanging nature of God. No human being is to place any finite value, such as family, clan, party in the place of God. The regard the finite as infinite in value and as an absolute end is to commit the arch-error of shirk. On this basis conservatism attaches only a qualified value to the goods of this world: it does not absolutize the relative. No movement, no passion, no interest which is merely human or temporary can trump our duty to god and his sovereign will. Order is prior absolutely to freedom and in fact it is true freedom to recognize this.

Of course this whole position is pointless if we do not know God’s will. Fortunately, it is of the nature of god to reveal himself in scriptures, historical events, the exemplary deeds of prophets and saints and so on. God is present and active in the world. His will is manifest in the sacred teachings and philosophies (the philosophia perennialis) of the world as in the depths of our own conscience.[4] Indeed, his will is present even in those conscious non-believers who nonetheless enshrine the eternal verities (the good, the beautiful and the true) within their hearts.

For this reason, the second pillar enjoins us to prayer. Humans must remember and acknowledge both internally and externally the absoluteness of God. This is important because it cuts against the grain. Our tendency is to lose focus in the midst of the world’s distractions. We wander away from our final end and our ultimate good. We put wealth, or lust, or power or anger at the center of our lives instead of the union with god we all intrinsically long for. We miss our happiness by seeking it in things that cannot, of their very metaphysical nature, supply it.

This is why prayer, both personal and liturgical is central to a well lived life for in prayer we re-collect our ultimate aim, the peace that comes of divine union. This peace is the aim of all prayer even when expressed in its lowest manifestation which is petitionary prayer. Conservatism calls us to recollect those spiritual values that make for true fulfillment against everything faddish and temporary. It calls to put the eternal always before the merely modish and to this extent prayer is one of its liveliest manifestations as it a call to remember god in the midst of this world.

A Union of Materialism and Faith

Yet our lives are in this world too. Conservatism rejects the pessimism of the millenarian and gnostic. It does not long for an immanent millennium to destroy the present world order but waits patiently for the fulfillment of things in the fullness of time. Thus, when faced with the worldly Gnosticism of the secular revolutionary or the religious despair of those who simply wish to be raptured into eternity as the world burns it counsels skepticism. Thus, as our status in the next world is determined by how we live in this one our duty to god is also our duty to community. Almsgiving is then a conservative value. Wealth exists to be shared. It is not an idol and not an end. It is a means to community and those who are blessed with it in turn bless others. Wealth selfishly hoarded is not wealth at all and thus zakat is enjoined on all believers.

This is especially important as we tend to the selfish and misguided view that our wealth is the deserved result of our special virtue whereas in truth all good things come from god and god alone. As it comes from god it is given back to god as god is present in the neediness of our neighbors and the needs of our community. How vulgar then is the so called ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by certain Christians who claim to have Jesus in their hearts when they do not even have Mohammed! There are many displays of vulgar wealth in the Islamic world as in ours. People in the East and the West need constant reminding that the needs of the community outweigh the wants of the individual.

This is part of our human fallibility, our tendency to forget our ultimate end for merely proximate ones. The principle of almsgiving is, however, particularly salutary for those of us living in the Christian west as our societies have made the endless accumulation of personal wealth their over-riding principle even at the expense of the very soil we live on and the air we breathe. I should note though entirely in line with conservatism zakat assumes that differences between people entail differences in wealth and that this will not be abolished but equalized through giving.

The fourth pillar counsels fasting on the sound conservative principle that we do not live for the gratification of the senses but for the fulfillment of the spirit. Fasting reminds us that the primary struggle in life is with ourselves and that the demands of the moral and communal life are at odds (often) with the gratification of the senses. Indeed, there is no substitute for the feeling of hunger as those who never feel it have no conception of the suffering of those who do. This is why great wealth so often goes with poverty of the spirit and why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Yet fasting is only one letter away from feasting. As there is a time to curb the senses there is a time to release them particularly in the context of communal celebration. As Aristotle said long ago, proper self-control involves not just self-denial, knowing when to say no to our desires, but also knowing when to indulge them: one does not gorge at a funeral or fast at a wedding. Still, as giving free rein to our desires must be choice and not compulsion our moral training will tend to focus on self-denial so that our indulgence may be unconstrained by evil habit.

Finally, the fifth pillar enjoins on us pilgrimage to Mecca and why not as life itself is a pilgrimage? T. S. Eliot prays: “help us to care and not to care” and this is the core of the notion that we are pilgrims in this world. The world of time and space we inhabit is both affirmed and transcended. We give ourselves over to finite ends yet leave the fruit of our action in the hands of providence. The finite passes over to the infinite as we give over our worldly projects and passions, releasing them into the eternal will of God.

On practical level this is a powerful inoculation against despair as the world does not bear all the weight of our expectations (which of its creaturely nature it can never bear). Consider as an example the old expression “better dead than red”. Those who uttered this expression meant that the Western Bourgeois form of freedom was freedom absolute and that its potential loss justified the nuclear annihilation of the planet. Of course, Western Bourgeois freedom (though admirable in many ways) is a provincial form of freedom. It does not exhaust every possibility of human good. Only a whig-history-on-steroids view of western institutions as the inevitable and only culmination of human history could justify such nihilism.

Conservatism will have no truck with this sentiment. History is an arena of struggle subject to advances and retreats. Yet possibilities for good remain in the darkest of times and the insanity of history can never destroy or even affect in the slightest the eternal essence of God source and ground of all good. In a godless universe, where this world is the only locus of good, history becomes a battleground in which the stakes are absolute and compromise unthinkable: hence the vicious ideological battles of those who think they have solved the riddle of history and claim to be bringing about the final human good.

When Opposition to the Radical Falls Away

Of course it can be objected that conservatism as I have described it here has no more been tried than Christianity or communism. Conservativism, one might say, has never really existed outside the elegant, wistful prose of conservatives. There is much truth to this charge yet it is, of course, true of all moral stances that their instantiations are very far indeed from their archetypal forms. Hence we get the characteristic vice of the conservative: the tendency to forget fundamental values for external privileges and the inability to identify what it is that ought, in fact, to be conserved.

Still, on the plus side of the ledger, the conservative might well ask whether his or her own view is comprehensive of all its rivals. Conservatives share with progressives a concern for justice and equity especially for the poor and marginalized. Conservatives share with ethno-nationalism a concern for the particularities of language and culture over against the homogenizing tendencies of globalism and technocracy. Conservatives even share with neo-liberals a suspicion of totalitarian power, planning and control.

However, conservatism, in the west at least, may well be dead for a more fundamental reason. This is because there is a powerful alternative to the conservative tradition and that is the radical tradition. All three of our contemporary ideologies have their roots in radicalism and are closer to each other than they can readily imagine given their current conflict. For the radical tradition the constraints imposed by tradition are in almost all cases artificial. What the conservative tradition would constrain the radical tradition would release. Radicalism envisages a flowering of human diversity, a host of new avenues in which self-hood can be explored beyond the stale platitudes of convention. This radical principle has routed conservatism (much of which expressed itself as cheap nostalgia anyway) and is the default position of all North Americans.[5]

This spirit can express itself as radical egalitarianism or its opposite. For instance, among ethno-nationalists it is assumed that the will of the demos embodies the wisdom and good sense of the people. This wisdom would readily express itself were it not for the constraints imposed by various ‘elites’ whose abstract intellectualism has lost touch with the community and indeed with reality. These elites constantly invoke the authority of science, or education or expertise or data against what ‘simple folk’ can see with their own eyes. When the demos seeks to express its will this is declared ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘against the rule of law’ by lawyers or advocacy groups or other ‘elite’ institutions.

The demos however, holds all such institutions in contempt and seeks to impose its will through a ‘great leader’ who is willing to flout them and indeed is willing to flout moral convention altogether (even moral conventions like marital fidelity to which the demos remain sentimentally attached). Thus, we have a kind of direct democracy outside of constitutional and legal constraints such as conservatism has forever warned against. That these radicals sometimes espouse ‘conservative’ seeming policies or points of view is irrelevant as they espouse them lawlessly and in a manner contemptuous of the very traditions they claim to value.

Why, for instance, is it conservative to despise the opinions of the educated and even pour contempt on the intellect itself? Such things are an expression of a rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit. The demos trusts only in its collective judgment and not only rejects but actively despises any other principle. That this attitude is over-determined by socio-economic factors is plain but that does not make it any easier to deal with on a day to day basis especially as the scapegoating of immigrants, prisoners and others is high on the populist wish-list and the populace resents institutional constraints on its will to revenge especially.[6]

There is of course the other side of this coin and that is the populism of progressive movements such as the occupy movement, black-bloc radicals and so on.[7] These movements, it must be said, have aims that seem overall nobler and better than the beefs and resentments of populists. However, this is a weakness as much as a strength: as I said above every stance struggles with its shadow. Noble ideals are a proven danger when not accompanied by political and moral pragmatism and relentless self-examination. Moral crusaders have a distressing tendency to fumble badly when actually called upon to run things: this is because sweeping moral denunciations are a form of cheap grace while actual governance (self-governance included) is slow, patient work.

Return to Innocence Lost (or Imagined)

There is also a false innocence that can maintained simply by never facing the temptations of power. William Blake (a far deeper radical) was a persistent critic of any form of abstract moralism. For him no political or theological order could be the basis of freedom that did not overcome the problem of self-righteousness: our tendency to identify ourselves with an abstract principle of goodness and others (inevitably) with an abstract principle of evil. In a powerful image he tells us that blood sacrifice and war are the culmination of the moral law, the categories of good and evil unrelieved by charity, solidarity, or forgiveness.[8]

Moralism is for Blake a form of violence. (see for instance plates 47-51 of Jerusalem) Our care must embrace the ‘minute particulars’ of humanity: no ‘humanism’ can be liberating that puts an abstraction like ‘Humanity’ before flesh and blood human beings. We all have encountered people who virtue signal on every conceivable ‘issue’ but have little but venom in their hearts: one danger of the progressive stance lies, then, in the monsters of self-righteous zeal that it breeds.

At any rate, such people envisage (after some difficult to specify revolutionary event) a world in which a host of sexualities, ethnicities, personalities and identities flourish without constraint and (though this is surely impossible) without mutual contradiction.[9] As the economic discipline of Capitalism lies behind all other forms of oppression the current economic order must be overthrown. The suggested alternative is often some form of anarchism.

Like the populists, anarchists distrust and despise constitutionalism which after all only serves to protect the oppressors. Indeed, the anarchists despise traditional civil liberties as a form of constraint and mock those who espouse them as ‘liberals’. In particular, they resent the fact that such liberties prevent them from waging all-out war against their eternal adversary the populists. The populists heartily agree. Both sides fantasize about epic street confrontations or cyber battles that will issue in a final rout of the forces of evil. In other words, they are secular (and indeed religious) millenarians.

Each believes in a great battle, an apocalyptic convulsion that will only happen if liberals and other idiots get out of the way. A significant minority of each group considers this not just as a ‘culture war’ but as a ‘war’ war with brickbats, fires and vandalism of property. At any rate both agree on the Manichean position: the world and everything in it is hopelessly vitiated and corrupt and must be purged by fire whether this be the literal fire of Armageddon or the flames of secular revolution.

Finally, we have the technological dreamers. They do not dream of an unconstrained populist will or an unconstrained flowering of genders and sexualities but of the unconstrained power of technical and economic innovation. The enemy is, again the state and its institutions. Regulation of industry and common sense controls over heedless technological advancement are as bizarre and repellent to them as constraints on abortion or sexuality are to progressives. They, after all, represent the creative energy behind all forms of human advancement, all growth and prosperity. Technological or business imperatives cannot be questioned without questioning prosperity and progress themselves: the two things which for this ideology are non-negotiable. Such people see nothing ironic or odd in the fact the demands of progress and the spread of prosperity never conflict with their own self-interest.

The self- interest of the entrepreneur or innovator is the interest of the community. In a seeming parody of the Marxist utopia where the freedom of each is the freedom of all the neo-liberals and libertarians do not see the economic freedom of the individual as ever conflicting with the good of the community. This is, of course, the dream of anarchists as well: that individual wills can exist in immediate and natural harmony once the power of the state is gone. The technophiles go even further however: for them this harmony can be achieved and maintained in the midst of unrestrained competition.

The magic of the market will smooth out all inequities and bring prosperity and balance to all (or, if the libertarian leans also to vengeful populism, to the deserving). At any rate the neo-liberals have one ace in the hole that it is difficult to imagine anyone overcoming: this is the fact that almost all acts of rebellion can be appropriated and monetized. This is particularly true of physical vandalism. Capitalism does not fetishize physical property the way some anarchists think it does: burn a bank to the ground and you will find only that stock in private security companies has gone up.

Liberation as Consuming Fire

For all three groups the enemy is clear as is the goal: the repressed must be liberated. The demos must be free to enact its vengeful fantasies on immigrants, prisoners or gays. The libertarian must be free to innovate and make more money than anyone can find a use for. Sexual and ethnic minorities must be free to express their forms of life to whatever limit logic implies. All must be free and all must be free especially of the enemy of freedom, the state and its laws and institutions.[10] This is the core of each position quite apart from the fact that within each there may be many demands reasonable in themselves.

This indicates that the radical stance is the stance where our politics is concerned. Everything must be liberated though conservatives may warn again and again that liberation may mean the freedom of everything awful as easily as the freedom of everything good. Lamentation however is pointless (with apologies to Canada’s lamenter-in-chief George Parkin Grant!). This is because the radical principle is our principle and is, indeed, along with conservatism, a fundamental human option. Moreover, it has great achievements to its credit even as conservatism has many disgraces.

At the same time radicalism imposes its own constraints: most of us would rejoice if anti-vaxxers stopped being such fools yet they are acting on an impeccable radical principle, that of personal autonomy, as well as a suspicion of institutionalized medicine that many of us share. In fact, this example raises a vexing problem: vaccination can only be carried out on a population, all must buy into it for it to work. How would an anarchist society founded on a principle of radical freedom (whether anarcho-communist or right wing patriot) handle a question of this sort? Will radical stances license such appalling disorder that conservatism will become a living option? Are Clinton and Trudeau after all the best we can hope for?

Blake certainly painted a dark vision of the hellish cycle of rebellion and reaction: the perpetual alteration between sanguinary radicalism and stultifying conservatism. Is this our future? Philosophy, alas, does not deal with the future. It counsels only that we temper hope as well as fear and judge all things sub-specie-aeternitatis. It is with this stoic sentiment, as boring as it is true, that I will conclude. We seem at an impasse though the author would certainly be happy to learn from others that he is unduly pessimistic about the world.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristophanes. The Clouds trans. C.D.C. Reeve, from The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002)

Blake, William. Complete Poems ed. Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Classics, 1978.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning trans. J.G. Williams. (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. trans. J.B. Baillie. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967.

Reno, Robert “Why I Am anti-anti-TrumpFirst Things. Retrieved from https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/05/why-im-anti-anti-trump.

Smith, John Huston. The World’s Religions New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

[1] A fundamental problem with conservatism is that as soon as it defines itself vis a vis its ideological rivals it itself becomes an ideological construct rather than an assumed form of life. At that point conservatism turns into reaction. This problem was noted as long ago as Aristophanes the Clouds. One ace in the hole of the radical tradition is that as soon as traditional norms are questioned and have to be self-consciously defended the conservative standpoint is lost. At that point conservatism becomes a position duking it out with the other positions scoring the odd victory here and suffering the odd reverse there.

[2] The fatal weakness of social conservatism as a political movement was that it never articulated a positive vision of society leaving this work first to neo-liberals and now to ethno-nationalists. Its politics was simply oppositional: devoted to blocking actions against abortion or homosexuality or other things deemed decadent, conflicts that were and are unwinnable. On this basis it forged its foolish alliance first with corporate kleptocracy and then with strident populism culminating in ludicrous defenses of Trumpism from previously reputable conservative publications like First Things. (e.g Robert Reno https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/05/why-im-anti-anti-trump  

[3] For a rich introduction to Islam and indeed to other major faiths see The World’s Religions by John Huston Smith.

[4] This notion of a ‘perennial philosophy’ is central to writers we might place on the conservative spectrum from traditionalist writers like Rene Guenon to more eclectic figures like Aldous Huxley or Simone Weil who, while influential in some conservative circles, defy easy categorization. These metaphysically inclined thinkers contrast with the more pragmatic strain of conservatism stemming from the tradition of Burke and Swift. The American Russel Kirk may be taken as one of the last influential exponents of this view. One can add to this list the disciples of Leo Strauss (a far deeper thinker than Kirk), Canadians like George Grant as well as pure reactionaries in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre. What any of these figures would have thought of Donald J. Trump, a wealthy vulgarian straight from the pages of the Satyricon, one can only guess. Ironies abound here however: Guenon, a western convert to Islam, seems to have influenced the volcanic anti-Islamic rage of Steve Bannon. The paleo-conservatism of the genteel Russel Kirk also spawned the nativism of Pat Buchanan. Every stance has its shadow, the embodiment of its darker tendencies and ethno-nationalism seems to stand in this relation to conservatism.

[5] Any defense of a conservative principle in politics and society in the west can only be a highly qualified one for the reason that there are (in my view at least) a plurality of moral languages with claims on our attention and one of these is indeed that of the radical tradition. For Westerners this problem is acute for, as far as I able to determine, the roots of radicalism are in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul. These are not Conservative documents in my reading of them precisely for their doctrine of radical solidarity with the poor which undermines the binaries on which traditional human societies are built (and sometimes subverts those texts themselves). It was not for nothing that the Emperors of Rome thought Christianity a fundamental threat to civilized standards. In the West, then, the radical principle is already present in its primary theological constitution (however much it tries to ignore or forget that fact).

[6] Indeed, conservative Christianity is, with some honorable exceptions, becoming a pharisaical revenge cult. Behind all the rhetoric around ‘security’ (Canada remains one of the securest societies on planet Earth where terrorism is concerned) and the ‘Muslim threat’ one will find the simple will to retaliate in kind against anyone who represents the hated ‘other’ no matter how guilty or how innocent.

[7] I have before me the online Anarchist Library compiled by the Green Mountain Collective. (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/anti-racist-action-the-green-mountain-anarchist-collective-black-bloc-tactics-communique). These sources give the inescapable impression of an abstract ideological rage consuming itself in an intellectual and historical vacuum: pretty much as Hegel saw the French revolutionaries. (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604) Talking to proponents of these views online (if talking is quite the word for it) only deepens this impression. Perhaps I am being harsh however: if the reader is curious, she may peruse Hegel’s chapter ‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’ and judge for herself if the comparison is apt. Those curious as to why the revolution always eats itself and why revolutionaries must at last turn on themselves may find Hegel’s analysis helpful.

[8] That ‘progressives’ will verbally disembowel each other over ideological differences barely discernible to outsiders shows that they are far from immune to the mimetic violence described by René Girard (2001; 24-31) Just as Blake said, moral abstraction enacts ritual violence. Progressivism is far from alone in this of course and indeed the ethno-nationalist stance is even more Manichean and violent. Still, the fact that it is over all the most humane of the current stances only makes the trap deeper: without what theologians once called a sense of sin it is difficult to imagine any politics escaping the scapegoating impulse and the self-righteous violence it manifests. Considering the ridicule and anger one provokes from many progressives by defending a stance of non-violence things do not seem hopeful.

[9] This is a deeper problem than many realize. The total liberation of one standpoint is the suppression of another: unconditional solidarity with ALL standpoints at once seems a chimerical notion. This is why in practice progressives (for instance) must always favor some oppressed people over others: aboriginal people in Guatemala, say, over outlandish folk like the Copts in Egypt. This why the radical stance may, for all protestations to the contrary, be implicitly totalitarian. Consider the following problem: A adopts the deep narrative about himself that he is the one true prophet of God. A desires not only the liberty to adopt this self-description but demands the universal recognition of this deep description by others. It is, to him, a fundamental denial of his personhood should anyone question his foundational narrative as, in his mind, he IS this narrative. However, trouble arises if B also adopts the deep story that SHE is the one true prophet of God as others cannot offer unconditional affirmation of both narratives. Here is where the currently much maligned standpoint of liberalism steps in. The liberal defers the eschaton by imposing articles of peace on A and B while each prosecutes their claim to be the one true prophet. With this peace imposed A and B come to the realization that, whatever differences divide them, they share a common nature as rational agents. They can now differ on each other’s deep story, neither one need be forced to accept the other because neither party is reducible to their narrative. With that they can go about their affairs. The alternative is playing the zero sum game of establishing my narrative as the dominant one through the suppression of the other contrary narrative. A simply destroys B. This is the totalitarian stance. Its dangers are evident yet the liberal stance costs as well. By entering that stance, we forgo universal recognition for the sake of peace and subordinate our deep story to the common good, at which point we cease to be simply our story, we assume a common public narrative as our own somewhat as we give up our private religious perceptions to join a church. I tend to think that is a cost worth paying though others may differ.

[10] This is why the most embattled principle of all is the centrism espoused by the Democratic party in the U.S. and the Liberal Party in Canada. As in the thirties it seems “the center cannot hold” (to quote W.B. Yeats). The basic problem seems to me that no centrist government can impose discipline on the fossil fuel-industry. Nor can it impose any discipline on the speculators and financiers who hoard badly needed funds offshore: a miserly activity contrary to the very nature of the capitalism they are said to espouse. That said, if there is anything which can be said to be ‘conservative’ in the current context it is belief in a social democratic state with traditional civil liberties protected by a strong constitutional framework. This, if I would hazard a guess, would be the best polity currently on offer. I have given short shrift to the phenomenon of political centrism in this piece, a deficiency I hope to make up in a subsequent essay.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Fuller, Steve. “Counterfactuals in the White House:  A Glimpse into Our Post-Truth Times.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 1-3.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3z1

Image credit: OZinOH, via flickr

May Day 2017 was filled with reporting and debating over a set of comments that US President Trump made while visiting Andrew Jackson’s mansion, the ‘Hermitage’, now a tourist attraction in Nashville, Tennessee. Trump said that had Jackson been deployed, he could have averted the US Civil War. Since Jackson had died about fifteen years before the war started, Trump was clearly making a counterfactual claim. However, it is an interesting claim—not least for its responses, which were fast and furious. They speak to the nature of our times.  Let me start with the academic response and then move to how I think about the matter. A helpful compendium of the responses is here.

Jim Grossman of the American Historical Association spoke for all by claiming that Trump ‘is starting from the wrong premise’. Presumably, Grossman means that the Civil War was inevitable because slavery is so bad that a war over it was inevitable. However well he meant this comment, it feeds into the anti-expert attitude of our post-truth era. Grossman seems to disallow Trump from imagining that preserving the American union was more important than the end of slavery—even though that was exactly how the issue was framed to most Americans 150 years ago. Scholarship is of course mainly about explaining why things happened the way they did. However, there is a temptation to conclude that it necessarily had to happen that way. Today’s post-truth culture attempts to curb this tendency. In any case, once the counterfactual door is open to other possible futures, historical expertise becomes more contestable, perhaps even democratised. The result may be that even when non-experts reach the same conclusion as the experts, it may be for importantly different reasons.

Who was Andrew Jackson?

Andrew Jackson is normally regarded as one of the greatest US presidents, whose face is regularly seen on the twenty-dollar banknote. He was the seventh president and the first one who was truly ‘self-made’ in the sense that he was not well educated, let alone oriented towards Europe in his tastes, as had been his six predecessors. It would not be unfair to say that he was the first President who saw a clear difference between being American and being European. In this respect, his self-understanding was rather like that of the heroes of Latin American independence. He was also given to an impulsive manner of public speech, not so different from the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Jackson volunteered at age thirteen to fight in the War of Independence from Britain, which was the first of many times when he was ready to fight for his emerging nation. Over the past fifty years much attention has been paid to his decimation of native American populations at various points in his career, both military and presidential, as well as his support for slavery. (Howard Zinn was largely responsible, at least at a popular level, for this recent shift in focus.) To make a long and complicated story short, Jackson was rather consistent in acting in ways that served to consolidate American national identity, even if that meant sacrificing the interests of various groups at various times—groups that arguably never recovered from the losses inflicted on them.

Perhaps Jackson’s most lasting positive legacy has been the current two-party—Democratic/Republican—political structure. Each party cuts across class lines and geographical regions. This achievement is now easy to underestimate—as the Democratic Party is now ruing. The US founding fathers were polarized about the direction that the fledgling nation should take, precisely along these divides. The struggles began in Washington’s first administration between his treasury minister Alexander Hamilton and his foreign minister Thomas Jefferson—and they persisted. Both Hamilton and Jefferson oriented themselves to Europe, Hamilton more in terms of what to imitate and Jefferson in terms of what to avoid. Jackson effectively performed a Gestalt switch, in which Europe was no longer the frame of reference for defining American domestic and foreign policy.

Enter Trump

Now enter Donald Trump, who says Jackson could have averted the Civil War, which by all counts was one of the bloodiest in US history, with an estimated two million lives in total lost. Jackson was clearly a unionist but also clearly a slaveholder. So one imagines that Jackson would have preserved the union by allowing slaveholding, perhaps in terms of some version of the ‘states rights’ or ‘popular sovereignty’ doctrine, which gives states discretion over how they deal with economic matters. It’s not unreasonable that Jackson could have pulled that off, especially because the economic arguments for allowing slavery were stronger back then than they are now normally remembered.

The Nobel Prize winning economic historian Robert Fogel explored this point quite thoroughly more than forty years ago in his controversial Time on the Cross. It is not a perfect work, and its academic criticism is quite instructive about how one might improve exploring a counterfactual world in which slavery would have persisted in the US until it was no longer economically viable. Unfortunately, the politically sensitive nature of the book’s content has discouraged any follow-up. When I first read Fogel, I concluded that over time the price of slaves would come to approximate that of free labour considered over a worker’s lifetime. In other words, a slave economy would evolve into a capitalist economy without violence in the interim. Slaveholders would simply respond to changing market conditions. So, the moral question is whether it would have made sense to extend slavery over a few years before it would end up merging with what the capitalist world took to be an acceptable way of being, namely, wage labour. Fogel added ballast to his argument by observing that slaves tend to live longer and healthier lives than freed Blacks.

Moreover, Fogel’s counterfactual was not fanciful. Some version of the states rights doctrine was the dominant sentiment in the US prior to the Civil War. However, there were many different versions of the doctrine which could not rally around a common spokesperson. This allowed the clear unitary voice for abolition emanating from the Christian dissenter community in the Northern states to exert enormous force, not least on the sympathetic and ambitious country lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who became their somewhat unlikely champion. Thus, 1860 saw a Republican Party united around Lincoln fend off three Democrat opponents in the general election.

None of this is to deny that Lincoln was right in what he did. I would have acted similarly. Moreover, he probably did not anticipate just how bloody the Civil War would turn out to be—and the lasting scars it would leave on the American psyche. But the question on the table is not whether the Civil War was a fair price to pay to end slavery. Rather, the question is whether the Civil War could have been avoided—and, more to the point of Trump’s claim, whether Jackson would have been the man to do it. The answer is perhaps yes. The price would have been that slavery would have been extended for a certain period before it became economically unviable for the slaveholders.

It is worth observing that Fogel’s main target seemed to be Marxists who argued that slavery made no economic sense and that it persisted in the US only because of racist ideology.  Fogel’s response was that slaveholders probably were racist, but such a de facto racist economic regime would not have persisted as long as it did, had both sides not benefitted from the arrangement. In other words, the success of the anti-slavery campaign was largely about the triumph of aspirational ideas over actual economic conditions. If anything, its success testifies to the level of risk that abolitionists were willing to assume on behalf of American society for the emancipation of slaves. Alexis de Tocqueville was only the most famous of foreign US commentators to notice this at the time. Abolitionists were the proactionaries of their day with regard to risk. And this is how we should honour them now.