April 24, 2013
Each body has its art, its precious prescribed
Pose, that even in passion’s droll contortions, waltzes,
Or push of pain—or when a grief has stabbed
Or hatred hacked—is its and nothing else’s.
Each body has its pose. No other stock
That is irrevocable, perpetual,
And its to keep.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, “Still Do I Keep My Looks, My Identity…” (1944)
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
- Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B” (1951)
In this article I want to make some critical comments about what has been called the politics of identity and of privilege. I am certainly quite sympathetic to many of the emancipatory projects that are undertaken in its name, and have taken part in a fair number of them myself. At the same time, I have some theoretical as well as personal issues with it, at least in the ways I have often encountered it. This is – one might say ironically – a purely personal experience and reflection on the subject, both in its theoretical and its personal dimensions. It’s driven by both some very bad experiences I have had with the socially corrosive and psychologically destructive effects that ‘privilegetalk’ can have, as well as some theoretical concerns with how it seems to be a somewhat undertheorized kind of language – something that sounds like a theory but is not really a theory.
I may be wrong about this, and to some extent this will no doubt remain a matter of dispute, but my strong feeling is still that the potential universality of its language is the absolute premise of any emancipatory project that goes beyond the subjective, the personal, and its limitations in time and space. It is not a hankering for science in the masculinist-positivist sense of the 19th century (although that amuses me somewhat in Jules Verne and similar books), but it is an Enlightenment desire to go beyond the personal and the particular, however justified one’s ideas are in personal experience, toward the universal and the general as the prerequisite for emancipation. (Of course, this is only one side of the Enlightenment legacy, but it’s the one I think is good.) Without this, I fear, one is forever bound to one or another form of parochialism, solipsism, or a culturally relativist paralysis, which ultimately proves to be much more harmful to real emancipatory causes of all kinds than the alternative. Read the rest of this entry »
March 14, 2013
I used to be rather a fan of Richard Dawkins. Not so much because of his most famous work, his spirited and systematic defense of atheism known as The God Delusion, but rather because of the inspired, eloquent, and sometimes brilliant way in which he has popularized natural science. Being a biologist, he has naturally made defending and explaining the achievements of that discipline a major topic, working up a complex and many-layered theory like evolution by means of natural selection into an intelligent but fairly straightforward narrative. But not just that: he has also emphasized – as must be done by anyone concerned with questions of the relationship between religion and science – the real aesthetic and sublime that can be had from a materialistic understanding of the world, in the philosophical sense. Dawkins famously cited Darwin about evolution that “there is grandeur in this view of life”, and in works such as Unweaving the Rainbow and A Devil’s Chaplain he has rather gone out of his way, unusually so for an Anglo-trained natural scientist, to engage with the sublime of religion and also of literature and art. He has also, not unimportantly for the purposes of this article, taken his time to examine the ways in which people have (rightly in the former case, wrongly in the latter) felt naturalistic philosophy and theory to undermine the experience of this sublime. Although from academia there is often much contempt and sneering to be heard behind closed doors about the colleagues engaged in ‘the public understanding of science’, it is an essential, invaluable, and by no means effortless task. Richard Dawkins has proven particularly adept at it, and has rightly been included not just in the Royal Society for his efforts, but also in the Royal Society of Literature. (In fact, as far as I can tell, he is currently the only living person to carry both the titles FRS and FRSL.)
For this reason, it has been a disturbing and disappointing trend to notice Dawkins’ increasing indulgence of lazy, narrow-minded, and often outright racist and imperialist thought, fitting the worst traditions of Oxford contempt. On his Twitter account, he has made numerous absurd statements, often (as many people have pointed out) following a pattern of purposefully insulting and ridiculous rhetorical questions, in order to respond to the ensuing outrage and irritation with a smug dismissal of the public’s inability to understand the rhetorical uses of analogy. Such Oxford debating tactics are elitist and unproductive enough in their own sphere, but with the considerable public audience and scientific prestige Dawkins commands, they are all the more unacceptable. Suggesting (be it rhetorically) that one support Christian missionary activity in Africa because “Islam is such an unmitigated evil” compared to it is not only endorsing imperialism, but also totally inconsistent. His repeated inability to understand the significance of sexism, including within atheist debate and campaigning organizations, is disturbing. He makes profoundly silly comments on abortion and women’s bodies, purposely choosing annoying analogies in the Oxonian style thereby further obfuscating a point intended to discuss late-term abortions in moralistic terms. He continuously engages in equivocation about Islam and Muslims which can serve no useful or scientific purpose. He associates himself systematically with figures like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who share not just a desire to put atheism forward as a political subject, but also immediately integrate this idea into a greater project of ‘reasoned’ Western imperialism. Similar is his coalition with neo-sociobiologists such as the Viscount Ridley, a former director of the failed Northern Rock bank who now pontificates on social darwinist views of the natural liberty of the market, and so forth. All this serves but to reinforce, as many of his political comments generally do, what James Blaut has called ‘the colonizers’ model of the world’. Read the rest of this entry »
October 7, 2011
In his recently published The Puzzle of Modern Economics: Science or Ideology? (1), the historian of economics Roger Backhouse discusses the question of orthodoxy and pluralism in the economics profession. (It’s an interesting fact that economists love calling their field a ‘profession’; one rarely hears about ‘the anthropology profession’ or ‘the zoology profession’.) This is interesting not so much because he says anything new on the topic, but precisely because he does not. Backhouse is a very mainstream economist with very mainstream views anno 2011, but to his credit, he differs from many of his colleagues in having an intellectual interest in the activities of economists of other times and approaches. He authored the Penguin History of Economics (2), which although impeccably mainstream in its analysis, is not at all bad as a popularization and shows precisely its strengths mainly where it comes to a willingness to give space and attention to economic thought outside the usual focus on the postwar era. In any case, his dealings with the strange realms of non-neoclassical thought inevitably force him to consider the question of the ideological nature and content of orthodox economic thought today, an issue which apparently troubled his conscientious mind enough to write a whole book on the subject. Sadly, most of the book deals with discussions of what mainstream economics is today, and some debate about really very minor debates within modern orthodox economics, such as around Keynesianism. Backhouse only comes to the meat of the matter in the chapter entitled “Heterodoxy and Dissent”.
In this chapter, Backhouse gives the most commonly heard responses to the charge of ideological narrowness and dogmatism levelled against the orthodoxy in economics. Because these are so much the standard answers, it is worth using the occasion to criticize them. This is not because Backhouse is particularly worse than other orthodox economists, but precisely because he formulated them so concisely in a book purportedly dedicated to this whole issue. Because of this, he is worth quoting at some length:
Heterodox economists frequently make two charges against their orthodox colleagues. The first is that ignoring their work means ignoring insights that are fundamental to understanding economic phenomena. The second is that the economics profession adopts an excessively narrow view of the methods that should be used in economics and that it needs to be more pluralist(…). The response to both these claims is that ‘insights’ about the economy are rarely useful unless economists also have tools with which to apply those insights. (…) Within the mainstream there is great suspicion of methodological claims that are not backed up by results. (…) It means that arguments about pluralism are more persuasive if they arise from examples of how new insights and methods can solve important problems.
Variations on these answers are what every heterodox thinker in economics is inevitably confronted with when challenging orthodox-minded colleagues. In fact, ‘answers’ of this kind are nothing as much as simply a restatement of the existence of an orthodoxy in a particular field of science; they are the hallmark of the existence of an established method among a large proportion of the practitioners in that field, something often – in fashionable imitation of Thomas Kuhn – called a paradigm. But they fail to convince, precisely because of this tautological nature, despite the frequency with which economists have recourse to them to defend the orthodoxy. The reasons can be explained briefly and in a straightforward manner as follows, as concerns economic theory:
1) The charge that the heterodox theories fail to provide insights which can be transformed into tools for application is easily rebutted. Not so much because they do in fact so provide, but because neoclassical orthodoxy, or any economic theory orthodoxy whatever, also fails to do so. Neoclassical economic theory does not exactly stand out by its immediate predictive value, nor by its ability to give practical tools which have an immediate, traceable, and easily controlled effect on the economy or society as a whole. Since economics is a social science, it is doomed (at least for the time being) like all other social sciences to operate in the realm of the inexact and the general. While there are countless models for economic purposes, from monetary policy analysis by central banks to stock predictors for financiers, none of these have any obvious or immediate relationship to any particular economic theory. Rather, they are generally derivative of applied mathematics, not economic theory proper. This is proven moreover by the fact that such models and systems can be used in virtually any economic and political context, from Gosplan to Lady Thatcher. When it comes to economic theory, one is always dealing with theories about the dynamics of a whole society, and those are inherently so complex, rapidly changing, and affective of the evolution of their subject-matter, that one should not expect to be able to easily pass from theory-building to practical application in any particular case. Neoclassical economics does not in any way obviously perform better at such transferral than do competing theories.
2) Secondly, the whole phrasing deeply begs the question. For the insights of competing theories to be able to convince the mainstream of their ‘results’ and ‘solving problems’, there needs be agreement to a very large degree as to what constitutes the problems of the field in the first place and what sort of theoretical outcome or scientific product would count as a result towards solving them. In many fields of science, this is indeed the case: not just in most of natural science, but this is also broadly true for history, anthropology, archeology, (historical) linguistics and so forth. Economics is particularly remarkable precisely for the absence of such an agreement, whether now or in the past; as Backhouse himself points out repeatedly elsewhere in the book, many mainstream economists in their day also disagreed strongly on major questions relating to these without being thereby out of the mainstream per se. The fact the discipline reinvents not just its methods, but its entire purpose every couple of decades is unusual in social science as much as in the natural sciences it has tried so hard to imitate.
That being the case, one cannot reasonably expect there to be any way that an Austrian economist or a Marxist economist could produce results for problems that a neoclassical economist would be inclined to recognize, even one as relatively interested in heterodoxy as (say) Brad De Long, simply because there is no agreement about what the problems are and the methods used differ too much to allow much agreement over results either. A neoclassical economist thinks he has achieved a result when he has used mathematical techniques to derive a particular equilibrium outcome in, say, a fictional and simplified labor market. A Marxist economist thinks he has achieved a result when he has demonstrated a particular crisis phenomenon to be reducable to a fall in the rate of profit in value terms. While there is sufficient overlap in methods for it to be perhaps hypothetically possible, it is in practice not at all easy to see how there could be any meaningful communication between the two as to which counts as a result to which problem, and why the other should care.
3) Nor is it immediately clear why the insights proffered by the heterodox economist should be new. While one always strives for progress in science, this can only be measured by prevailing notions about results and problems, and by concrete changes in real phenomena effected by application of theory. The latter we have dealt with already. The former changes much more often in economics than elsewhere, as mentioned, perhaps with the exception of ethical and aesthetical disciplines. What’s more, to the eye of many of the heterodox, the history of economics from at least WWII onwards, if not WWI, is actually a history of a science going backwards rather than forwards. If one perceives economics as dealing primarily with questions of value, production, distribution, and trade, as both functions of whole societies and a historically woven social fabric they are made of, it is not at all clear that the development of economics between roughly 1918 and 2000 has avoided sheer retrogression on issues previously considered long dealt with.
Orthodox neoclassical economics, being the use of applied mathematics to solve problems of interactions between stylized individuals in modelled equilibrium settings, will appear to an economist interested in the questions debated in the century before as utterly inadequate to making any progress in the tasks at hand, if not outright ridiculous. The presumption that the insights of the heterodox economist should follow newly upon the already established current foundation already tilts the scale in favor of the orthodoxy. This is exactly because economics has not only changed significantly in agreed-on methods and its notions of problem and result, but that this in turn is the product of a larger change: a change in the subject matter. This is even more unusual in other sciences, but one does not do the historical record much violence to state that in the 19th century, economics (political economy) was generally regarded as dealing with economic production and distribution processes as social phenomena, and in the 20th century, economics was generally regarded as dealing with the interaction of individuals’ preferences in monetary transactions between them. Even a very naive undergraduate in social sciences will immediately observe that this involves a very significant shift in the actual subject of the discipline, never mind all the attendant ideas about what the problems of the day are.
Perhaps this century will see yet another such shift – one could plausibly hypothesize an economics of this century revolving around the relationship between personal identity (psychology) and revealed preferences in experimental and observed social exchange more broadly, pushing the field away again from mathematics and in the direction of anthropology. But each of these three economics disciplines deal in their own way with interesting and relevant subjects, and none of them are likely to produce methods and questions that would be of much help for each of the others. This is very strongly an argument, therefore, in favor of supporting a pluralistic, interdisciplinary and open-minded approach, rather than an approach based on orthodoxy wedded to novelty.
1) Roger Backhouse, The Puzzle of Economics: Science or Ideology?. Cambridge 2010: Cambridge University Press.
2) Roger Backhouse, The Penguin History of Economics. London 2002: Penguin.
3) Backhouse 2010, p. 163.