Sunday, January 30, 2011

Once more on "evolutionary" psychology

This is a kind of follow-up on two recent posts (here and here) on "sociobiology" and "evolutionary" psychology.

It's obvious to all (and to scientists in particular) that human beings learn from science and act on the basis of scientific knowledge all the time. That is to say, we rationally regulate our conduct on the basis of beliefs grounded in scientific knowledge (e.g. I don't bring a plugged-in toaster in the shower with me because I have the belief that it would electrocute me, a belief that is based on accumulated scientific knowledge about electricity, etc.).

This illustrates the obvious point that we act on the basis of beliefs we hold. The set of beliefs I hold forms the framework within which I act. Beliefs may be considered separately from actions, but actions (in order to be such) cannot ever be made sense of apart from beliefs. For something to be an action at all, apart from a mere event (e.g. physical movement), it must express some belief we hold. It's worth saying a bit more about the distinction between a physical movement and an action in order to drive the point home. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it:

The distinction is obvious if we consider the criteria of identity in each case. The same physical movements may constitute in different contexts quite different actions. So a man may go through the same physical movements involved in signaling his name and be concluding a treaty or paying a bill, which are quite different actions. But is not this man performing the same action in each case, namely signing his name? To this the answer is that writing one's name is never merely by itself an action; one is either signing a document or giving information or perhaps just doodling. All these are actions, but writing one's hand is not. Equally, the same action may be constituted by quite different physical movements. Writing on paper, passing coin, even saying the words may all constitute the same action of paying a bill.

When we talk about explaining human behavior, we sometimes blur this distinction. Because there is no human action that does not involve physical movement we may suppose that to explain the movement is to explain the action... My head nods and I am asked, "why did you nod your head?" If I answer by referring to a nervous tick, I point in the direction of a story about necessary and sufficient antecedent conditions, a story about nerves and muscles and possibly about conditioning in early childhood... But to explain the nod as a nervous tick is precisely to explain it not as something that I do, but as something that just happens. If on the other hand I explain the nod by saying that I had been asked a question and was answering "Yes", then I certain explain the nod as an action. I do so by pointing to the purpose which it serves. This reference to an agent's purpose always carries with it implicitly and often explicitly a reference to some antecedent event or condition... But if I explain my nod of the head as an answer to an antecedent question, I certainly do not refer to a generalization stating some constant conjunction which holds between questions and answers. From the fact that the question has been asked it never follows that it will be given some particular answer or indeed any answer. What makes a reference to antecedent questions part of an explanation of what one was doing is that one is explaining the role of one's nod in carrying through a socially established and recognized practice, that of asking and answering questions. That is, the background to my explanation is formed by the customarily recognized rules of a particular social order". (See MacIntyre (1969: p.56) in Laslett et al. Philosophy, Politics and Society, Oxford: Blackwell)
Something will not have been an action unless some agent undertook it and did so on the basis of a reason. Actions are those "distinct sorts of events for which we may appropriately demand reasons or justifications from subjects whom we take to be responsible for such events occurring."

As MacIntyre makes clear, it is quite obviously true that the beliefs that I am liable to hold are strongly influenced by the available concepts in the society into which I am thrown at birth. I couldn't reasonably have formed beliefs about electricity in the Bronze Age, say, since electricity presupposes all sorts of bundles of complex knowledge and concepts that did not exist at the time. If you want to understand and explain why people act the way that they do, you cannot but include in your explanation the concepts, dominant ideas, theories, culture, etc. that are available to the agent. Without taking such things seriously, you cannot explain human behavior at all. Again, as MacIntyre describes it:
Suppose that a team of Martian social scientists is observing human behavior. What they are watching we should describe as chess-playing, but unhappily they lack the concept of a game. Mars is gameless. They therefore do not discern the rule-governed character of the players' behavior, although they arrive at many statistical generalizations about the movement of small pieces of wood by human beings. What is it that they do no understand when they fail to understand these movements as a game of chess?

They fail of course first of all to grasp the players' action as distinct from their physical movements. It is not that they wrongly explain what is done; rather they fail to identify the actions which are to be explained.... The analogy with a social system is clear. To explain actions within it we have to identify the rules and their connexion with reasonable or unreasonable, true or false beliefs. Thus we cannot explain actions by means of beliefs and not raise questions of truth and falsity, reason or unreason... Thus in any society we shall only be able to identify what is going on if we have identified and assessed the established methods of reasoning and criticism in that society... Explaining actions is explaining choices, and explaining choices is exhibiting why certain criteria define rational behavior for a given society.
So, let us compare all of this with the model of explanation adopted by "evolutionary" psychologists (I use scare quotes because I doubt that such a research program has any serious scientific grounding in the theory of evolution itself).

For these folks, human behavior is explained in mechanistic terms. The lines between beliefs, purposes, reasons on the one hand, and action on the other, are cut. Actions are understood in the same way that mere physical events are understood.

Here's what I mean. Think of the way that a physicist explains events. They observe a lot of events, note the constant conjunction of what appear to be cause and effect, and then, by way of an inductive inference, hypothesize about general laws in light of which such events are to be understood. We have no reason to think that the conditions in which such laws are valid are subject to change anytime soon.

Now, what the sociobiologist does is assume that human actions are just like physical events. They conflate physical movement with action. Thus they can say that there are general laws, like those governing the behavior of gases, that can explain human behavior. They assume that actions are mere events which can be explained by reference to general laws inferred from the constant conjunction of certain variables.

So, for instance, they see, say, men in the United States behave in a certain way (e.g. hit on women at bars) and then say: "might there not be some invariant general law that explains this behavior?". They assume that human beings are mere objects that are caused ("programmed", "hardwired") to act in this way: the only question then becomes what the natural law is that appropriately generalizes from this cause and effect relationship. Finally, they go all-in for the view that the content of such general laws are wholly (or largely) determined by an individual's genetic makeup. The line of causation from genetic makeup to behavior, they think, is one that is opaque to us from the first-person perspective. There's nothing internal here at all: the causal story here has nothing to do with what it's like to be a human agent from the inside. It is purely external, in the same way that we externally explain and observe the behavior of gases.

So there are at least three components to their view: (1) the mechanistic view of human action which says that there are general laws that explain it (analogous to ideal gas laws), and (2) the view that the general laws boil down to facts about genes, and (3) the view that the causal mechanism from genes to behavior is non-rational and external to first-person reasons, intentions, etc.

Let me say why I think (1) is false. First of all, it is absurd to say that we can understand human actions without reference to belief. We cannot even identify an action as such without at least in principle presupposing that some belief is being expressed by it (the MacIntyre examples above make this point clear). The social sciences (or the "human sciences") must therefore study beliefs in order to study human action. But, and this brings me to my second point, studying the beliefs of an agent means studying the available concepts, theories, socially recognized practices, norms etc. in the society in which the agent is located.

But what is a social scientific theory? It is a collection of concepts, beliefs about humans, etc. Sophisticated social theories are continuous with our "naive" beliefs about the society we live in that guide our actions. So this means that social science is part of its own object of study, it is a self-reflexive undertaking. This is not so with physical science. It is not the case that our beliefs, concepts, scientific methods, norms and justification practices are part of the object of study of physical science itself. Such things are external to the object of study of physical science: physical science does not study it's own methods and practices as physical objects: it is not the case that physical science itself is part of the object of study of physical science.

So, physical science is not self-reflexive in the way that human sciences are, and that's fine given its object of study. Raymond Geuss is excellent on this point:
"To treat a belief as if it were about a mere object in nature implies both something about how one can and should investigate it, and about how one can use it to argue, evaluate, and guide action. An inert external object can sometimes be manipulated if I have sufficient knowledge of it. If I discover that the unwieldy sofa has a handle on the other side, I can perhaps grip and shift it, whereas I could not before. In doing this, of course, I need take no account of the beliefs or preferences of the object- it has none... Objectifying thought is especially prone, however, to false universalization for the obvious reason that it will encourage investigators to construe local phenomena as universal... If I think it will rain tomorrow, my belief and the weather are two distinct states of affairs. The weather is what it is regardless of what I might think. My belief itself is completely "external" to it and would not appropriately figure as part of the meteorological report. It is perfectly natural for us to adopt an objectifying attitude towards the nonhuman world of nature. The question is whether it is also appropriate to adopt such an attitude toward a society of which I myself am actually a member... But the beliefs and attitudes people in the society have about themselves and their society are themselves an integral part of the society. If everyone in a society, say, early twenty-first-century Britain thinks that people are universally selfish, then that belief is reflective in a way that my belief about the weather is not. Since it is a belief about people in general, it includes the members of the society in question, and holding it will have an effect on that society."
This is all just to say that beliefs are part of the object of study of the human sciences, and therefore the social/human sciences are self-reflexive. Social theories are continuous with their object of study, and, interestingly, they can therefore play a role in their own falsification and confirmation. If propagating a certain theory causes people to have different beliefs and thus to act in radically different ways, then the data which could confirm or disconfirm this very theory have themselves changed radically. This is not true of the physical sciences. So much for the assumption that human behavior could be studied mechanistically, on the model of the physical sciences. So much for the assumption that human behavior could be explained by reference to invariant physical laws. Human behavior is bound up with beliefs, and the possible beliefs an agent could hold must be explained by reference to a certain social order. And as everyone knows, social orders change and develop over time. Thus, human behavior must be explained and understood in historical context. Throw in the premise that history is political (all history is the history of class struggle), and you have thus reached the conclusion that human behavior is dynamic, plastic and must be understood relative to the configuration of power in that society, the level of material development, etc. This does not mean that human behavior is determined by social/political causes rather than physical ones. It only means that behavior is dynamic, liable to change, and develops in relation to a determinate context.

All of this should make clear how absurd it would therefore be to suppose that extant social norms, practices, and human actions could be explained by a collection of facts about our genes. At best, our genes are but one variable in a very complex field. There is no scientific warrant for singling out one such variable, genetic makeup, and supposing that it trumps all others.

The reasons to reject (3) are largely supplied above by the MacIntyre quote. It is patently absurd to say that we could explain actions without reference to beliefs and reasons. That is to say, it's patently absurd to say that we could explain human action without reference to what it's like to be a human agent from the inside. We are the kinds of beings that have identity crises, who are not sure what we should do with our lives, who struggle with hard decisions as to what the right thing to do is. That is because we act on the basis of reasons. We think that the question "what should I be when I grow up?" is a real question, and a genuinely hard one at that. Nobody thinks that "do what will best pass on your genes" is a plausible answer to that hard question. No parent would suggest such a thing to their child. From the inside, internally, we take ourselves to act for all sorts of reasons, the vast majority of which are not explainable in terms of the external function of "passing on one's genes". What the fuck do I care about my own genes anyway? I care about my life going well. I care about love, relationships and people. I care about justice, about fighting oppression, about human emancipation and freedom. It's highly possible that caring about these things puts me at odds with the goal of passing on my genes most effectively. I care about all kinds of things that don't seem at all to me like mere epiphenomena, mere window-dressing for the "unconscious desire" to pass my genes on.

When someone unfairly wrongs me, or breaches norms governing our relationship, I don't think it would be acceptable for them to say "but I'm just passing on my genes" or "I'm just allowing my genetic makeup to manifest itself behaviorally unbenknownst to me". I would hold such a person responsible for what she did. I would resent them in a way that I would not resent a mere object.

I think we should be more than a little suspicious of a theory of human action which is so radically at odds with everything we, as human beings, think about human action. At the very least, the burden of proof on such a theory should be extremely high, given that it should cause us to doubt and revise the vast majority of what it is we think that we're doing when we act.


Who's "We"?

Sholto Byrnes of the New Statesman asks, "If we are in favour of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, how does this fit with our continuing friendly relations with the absolute monarchies of the Gulf?" This framing of the question dominates much of the English-language media coverage of the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

But who is this "we"?

When foreign policy-makers in the back rooms of Washington decide what they're going to do, it has literally nothing to do with the interests or views of the vast majority of ordinary Americans. To be sure, the discussions in the back rooms include conversations about what they can reasonably expect to get away with, so "public opinion" has some (albeit quite small) bearing in the form of a weak constraint. But the priorities and general political trajectory of the foreign policy establishment represents the interests of the most powerful, not the vast majority. The decision calculus used by Washington to determine what should be done has literally nothing whatsoever to do with my views on the matter.

Yet when debates about foreign policy arise in the mass media in the US, the discussion is almost always focused on the nebulous concept, thoroughly steeped in ideology, of the "national interest". Thus we hear talk of "pro-US" forces, or "Western-friendly" groups. But in what sense is a friend of the US ruling class, such as Hosni Mubarak, a friend of mine? This is absurd.

The concept of the "national interest" assumes that all is well here in the US. It assumes that all US citizens, regardless of class divisions, share some core set of interests in the preservation of the status quo. This is "radically false" as Chomsky recently put it:

The whole framework of discussion is misleading. We’re sort of taught to talk about the world as a world of states, which, if you study international relations theory, there’s what’s called “realist international relations theory,” which says there is an anarchic world of states, and states pursue their national interest. It’s all mythology. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same. There are a few common interests, like we don’t want to be destroyed. But for the most part they have very different interests. Part of the doctrinal system in the U.S. is to pretend that we’re all a happy family, there are no class divisions, and everybody is working together in harmony. But that’s radically false.
So, to answer Byrnes's misconceived question, I myself (and 99% of U.S. citizens) have never had "friendly relations with absolute monarchies", so I don't see any difficulty whatsoever in standing behind a mass, revolutionary groundswell that is aiming to throw off a brutal, corrupt oppressor.

Let the ideologists for the ruling class worry about how they'll spin their narrow imperialist interests. Ordinary people need not worry themselves with such nonsense. Our task is to find a way to learn the lessons from the struggles in Tunisia and Egypt (and who knows where else next). Our task is to find ways to apply their struggles to our own conjuncture -and this seems to me to rather clearly suggest that mass struggle from below is needed in order to shut down the U.S. war machine and roll back the coming austerity onslaught that is sure to come from our "representatives" in both major parties. When people get together and say "enough is enough", the ruling order cannot but take notice. When people perpetually acquiesce to the "lesser evil" and write flowery letters to their rulers asking nicely for reform, it's not hard for our "representatives" to turn their backs and bow before wealth and power.

UPDATE: It appears that Byrnes has edited and clarified what he means by adding a parenthesis that didn't appear when I first read the post. Now, it reads: "If we – by which I mean the governments of Europe and North America – come out in favour of popular uprisings that sweep away dictators, how do we justify our past (indeed, our very recent) support for autocrats such as Mubarak?", whereas the bits between the dashes did not appear when I first read the piece. Perhaps he read the post?


Thursday, January 27, 2011

US State Dept: Egypt Not Ready for Democracy

(Hat tip to Lenin's Tomb for this video). Al Jazeera is great. Wow. How refreshing is it to see an anchor actually take a clear look at what's going on in the world.

Yes, doesn't this make it clear just how much of a beacon from "freedom" and "democracy" the US is all over the globe? Every time there has been a progressive uprising anywhere, they have tried to sabotage it or put on the brakes. To tell the Egyptian people that they should take it easy and put on the brakes is beyond offensive, particularly given Washington's relationship with the repressive, autocratic Mubarak regime.

Now, Washington isn't stupid. Of course, Obama will come out and say something vague about the need for reform and blah blah. But the facts are rather clear cut here:

"The U.S. does not want to see the Egyptian regime fall any time soon,’’ Hamid said in a telephone interview. “But people who are protesting, the tens of thousands, do want to see the regime fall some time soon. They are diametrically opposed interests."
It hardly needs repeating that Mubarak has been propped up single-handedly by the US, from whom he receives the tidy sum of $1.3 billion each year (his regime received the annual aid every year since 1979, and he's been president since 1981... you do the math). The US doesn't do that for nothing- and it's not as though they don't already know that the $$ they give to Mubarak has been used to torture and repress the Egyptian people in order to legitimize his autocratic rule. Egypt is the second-largest recipient of military aid from the US behind Israel, and a close third is Colombia, the most right-wing and repressive government in all of South America by a large margin.

It will be interesting to watch how much longer the US foreign policy elite can successfully walk this delicate tight rope of sponsoring Mubarak's repression while appearing to take a "moderate" stance vis-a-vis the protesters who are demanding real democracy and freedom.

Obama has come out and patronizingly admonished the Egyptian protestors to be "peaceful". "Violence is not the answer" he said. It's interesting that someone who has authorized far more drone bombings than Bush is all of the sudden a fan of avoiding violence. It's interesting that someone who gladly has paid for and loaded the weapons being used against the protesters should have the audacity to tell the protesters to "calm down". It's interesting he's all of the sudden for "non violence" given that Obama, "winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has, his first eleven months in office, ordered troop escalations in Afghanistan of 21,000 and 30,000, to effectively double the U.S. fighting force—while military contractors will continue to outnumber those in uniform." As unemployment tears through millions of lives accross the US, Obama still found it in his heart to increase war funding by $100 billion in 2010. That's a lot of money to spend on devices and training devoted to exterminating human beings in a foreign country. Funny that such a person can be taken seriously for suddenly coming out in support of "peace".


Follow-up on "Evolutionary" Psychology

I haven't yet received any feedback on my recent post on sociobiology/"evolutionary" pysch. But I thought I would head off a few obvious objections from folks disposed to accept the legitimacy of such projects.

First, I'm not putting forward some position to the effect that "everything is just socially constructed" and there is not such thing as the "natural". I'm not saying that science, as such, is just mere political ideology (although it is clearly an instrument put in the service ends, and often unjust ends at that). My claim is that the facts about what human beings are like contradict the pseudo-scientific theories that fall under the heading of "sociobiology". My claim is that such projects are bad science.

These folks like to talk about "human nature". But there are deep confusions lodged at the heart of this idea. We talk about the idea often enough, but what exactly does it mean? What are we really asking when we ask if human beings are "naturally selfish", say?

It seems to me that we presuppose a mechanistic, objectified picture of human beings when we ask such questions. We assume that we are like computers and we then ask what the programming is like. This metaphor is deeply misleading.

A better way of thinking about our "nature" is a follows. Human beings, because of the way that we are biologically constituted, have certain capacities, natural powers that we can exercise in a variety of ways. We have the capacity for creativity, to ask ourselves questions like "should I have done x?", to reflect on abstract theoretical matters, and so forth. We have the capacity to feel a rich array of different kinds of pleasures and pains. We have a certain degree of plasticity: we can determine who we are in some sense (and this is why the difficult life choice of deciding "who you want to be" is so hard... any theory that suggested such a choice was easy or pre-determined is clearly missing something). We have the capacity to be responsive to reasons, though we often fail for various reasons to be so responsive. Having a capacity doesn't mean it must be exercised.

To be sure, affective impulses and motivations need to be taken into account- but such matters are hardly as simple as having a transparent "desire set" or a collection of "revealed preferences" or whatever. Moreover, any plausible theory of human agency would have to make the distinction between "natural" desires and "conventional" desires. As Raymond Geuss puts it, "it is by no means obvious that the hunger that is satisfied when Neolithic human tore raw meat with their fingers is the same kind of thing as the hunger that is satisfied by dining in a five-star restaurant in 2008." The broader point here, however, is that we have the capacity to not act on desires, whatever their grounding may be, as when the heroin addict decides to buck his overwhelming desire to continue taking the drug in order to begin recovery. To say that there must be some "higher order" desire dictating and mechanistically determining this person's desire to get sober is ad hoc and implausible; nobody working at a rehab clinic would agree that such an assumption makes sense at all. The point is that the addict could relapse, or she could not; the genuine uncertainty is what makes the job of helping addicts get clean so difficult.

Let's take a slightly different tack. To suppose that human behavior is mechanistically determined or predictable is a bit like making the following mistake. Suppose someone gave you a set of oil paints, a brush and a blank canvas and told you that you had to create some art object with only those materials. Now, clearly, there would be constraints on what you could do with those materials. You couldn't, for example, create a marble statue out of them. You couldn't make a film with them. But there is a wide array of possibilities before you nonetheless, as the history of painting makes clear. It would be absurd to say that because you had certain materials with certain physical constraints, that those materials determined (mechanistically) what it is that you would end up painting. It would be absurd to say that the subsequent artwork was predetermined by the materials you used in some law like way. But that is just like saying human beings are determined by their biological constitution. Giving us facts about our constitution doesn't yet say anything about what human agency is like. It's like saying that because you know how my bike is configured and what its function is, you're therefore in a position to say exactly where I'm going to ride on it. Absurd, to say the least.

There is a distinction between having some generative capacity to do something, and being mechanistically caused to do something. Adobe Photoshop, for example, is an open-ended platform that allows users to do a huge array of different things. But it does not follow that each time I use Photoshop that I am just being determined by Photoshop. It doesn't follow that Photoshop mechanistically causes and thus determines whatever I end up doing with it. The same mistake is made when we think about human powers and capacities in a mechanistic way.

So I am by no means ignoring or denying that we're part of the natural world: we have natural powers and capacities in virtue of which we are properly called "human". And I would be the first to say that we should investigate them scientifically and learn more about them. But the fact that we have natural powers and capacities doesn't give us much to go on if we want to understand what human behavior (or human societies, culture, or social norms, etc.) is going to be like in the future. That would be a bit like saying that because I knew you had a brush and a certain set of paints that I could mechanistically determine, from a mere analysis of those artistic materials, exactly what imagine you must end up painting. That is patently absurd. There is no way to draw a valid inference like that from a mere analysis of the paints and brushes. Every one of these pseudo-scientific charlatans should be forced to read Nelson Goodman's excellent 1954 Fact, Fiction and Forecast, particularly his famous article "The New Riddle of Induction".


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Against "Evolutionary" Psychology

There is a tendency these days (anyone teaching in a university setting cannot fail to notice how thoroughly students exemplify it) to assume that anything that aspires to the mantle of "hard science" is therefore legitimate and has something important to tell us about topics as far flung as social justice, economic growth, sexuality, interpersonal relations and the structure of human agency.

What I mean by "hard science", of course, is the paradigm (the characteristic methods, assumptions and so forth) exemplified by Newtonian physics. In Newtonian physics, we're after mechanical explanations of the phenomena about which physics theorizes. As Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, "at the core of the notion of mechanical explanation is a conception of invariances specified by law-like generalizations. To cite a cause is to cite a necessary condition or a sufficient condition or a necessary and sufficient condition as the antecedent of whatever behavior is to be explained." As far as the practical aims of physics are concerned, such methods and assumptions seem to be warranted and justified.

It is not clear that the same is true of the scientific study of human behavior. Whereas a "number of thinkers in the 17th and 18th century" may have been forgiven for transferring the "ideal of mechanical explanation from physics to the understanding of human behavior", there is little excuse for such a mistake today. The material motivations to do so ("scientific" technocratic management practices, business accounting, social control, etc.), however, are important for understanding why the mistake persists. Why, however, is the application of mechanistic explanation to human action a mistake?

There is a lot to say about this, and I wouldn't pretend to be able to give a full answer here. But let us first just take a moment to consider what it would be to understand human action mechanistically. It would mean, first of all, to hold that all talk of "intentions, purposes, and reasons for action" must be entirely eliminated, or reduced to talk, crudely put, of "matter in motion" (or, if you like, of a person's genetic makeup, or her "evolutionary" hard-wired disposition to perform certain behaviors that have the macro-function of preserving the species or whatever).

If merely stating what the view entails isn't enough to convince you of its unsoundness, let me say two further things. First, it is obvious that such theories put forward controversial claims. But from what standpoint are such claims made? They are self-consciously made from the standpoint of a rational human scientist testing the soundness of a hypothesis. But if this human scientist accepts what the mechanistic approach says about human action (namely, that it is causally determined by asocial, non-rational factors reducible to "matter in motion"), what is she to make of her own scientific undertaking? That is to say, what is she to make of herself and what she's up to? What is she to make of what she's doing when she proposes, tests, evaluates, defends and rationally reflects on scientific theories in the scientific community? If her own theory were true, it would clearly undermine the practice of science itself, for what could the scientist herself be doing if not merely expressing, say, her irrational "hard-wired" casually-determined impulse to behave in certain ways? Think about it: what would it be to rationally justify a scientific theory if that were true? That is, if we eliminate all talk of intentions, beliefs, purposes, reasons, etc. then how could we plausibly make sense of the practices of evaluating theories, testing hypotheses, reflecting on the consistency of scientific arguments, etc?

This is all a way of saying that the mechanistic view objectifies, and thus distorts, its object of study (human behavior). Human action, and the complex social formations in which such actions occur, is not like the weather. We have no reason to assume that human behavior is law-like, predictable, and mechanically explainable in the same way that the weather is. In fact, all of the facts about humans about which we are most confident suggest that such assumptions radically misconstrue and distort what human beings are like. The obvious inference to draw, then, is that our methods must be different from those which we use to make sense of weather. Methodology must be appropriate to assaying its object of study. It would be absurd to stubbornly impose inappropriate methods and concepts on some phenomena and expect the phenomena to give way (yet, as an aside, I note that this is more or less exactly what neoclassical economists do).

The second thing I'll say is this. Imagine that you are reflecting on some putatively scientific theory of human behavior. Suppose that you are reflecting on whether or not it is sound, viz. whether or not is the most plausible theory about such matters. Suppose further that the theory you are reflecting about is a mechanistic one, viz. one in which all human behavior is explained in terms of the agent's motivation to "pass on" her genes. Now, in evaluating such a theory, you couldn't take a merely external perspective. You, after all, are a human agent. And any theory of human agency must have something to say about what it's like from the inside, viz. what it's like to be a human agent. So you'd have to ask yourself: have I ever thought about any action I undertook in terms of whether or not it satisfies the goal of "passing on my genes"? The answer that every single human being ever would unequivocally have given to such a question is "no". After all, for most of human history we didn't even have the concept of a gene, and such biological matters weren't even studied until relatively recently. So it can't be that we have always been consciously acting in that way; if the theory were true we'd have to be determined wholesale by forces about which we could have no direct awareness. If true, the theory suggests that something is radically mistaken about all of our ordinary practical concerns, daily reasons for action, (indeed all of our communicative practices in which we offer reasons to others in order to justify the ways in which our action impinges on their lives), etc. In other words, if true, the theory holds that we are all radically mistaken about what it is we're doing when we act in the world.

This is obviously a bit of a problem for any plausible theory of human behavior, for more reasons that I can count. First, such a theory appears to radically distort it's own object of study on the basis of unsupported, unjustified assumptions (i.e. that the exact methods and mechanistic assumptions of physics and natural science are appropriate to the social/human sciences). Second, the theory undermines the possibility of justifying itself, because it undermines the process of offering reasons in defense of beliefs, viz. it undermines the idea that human beings are responsive to reasons. Third, such a theory, in requiring ex ante that its object be predictable and law-governed, sets itself the insurmountable task of explaining how complex and dynamic the development of human history has been. There is more to say, but let us stop there.

So, what has this to do with "evolutionary" psychology? Well, it should be clear that the very form of some of its explanations of human behavior are radically misconceived. Human behavior is an extremely complex phenomenon, and establishing a clear link between certain facts about a person's genetic makeup and their behavior would require a scientific theory more precise, more articulated, and more robust than any "evolutionary" psychologist could reasonably say that they possess. Any sober practician of such a project would surely admit that what they are doing is highly speculative. After all, surely they know about the problem of underdetermination of theories by the data. Or, surely they would concede that some of the behaviors they observe could be overdetermined in important ways: if 17 different variables, 16 of them social/political/historical/etc., contribute to a certain behavior, on what basis can we reasonably attribute sufficient causation to just one of those (putative) variables, namely, someone's genes? This is pure quackery. Rigorous scientists have the modesty to tell us that even the relationship between dog breed and dog behavior is not well understood. But these "evolutionary" psychological zealots sell us trumped-up speculative non-sense as clearly verified fact. That is a crime and a serious detriment to the entire idea of what science is. It distorts the scientific content of evolutionary theory itself. In The Mismeasure of Man (1981) Stephen Jay Gould made this point forcefully in the wake of the re-emergence of eugenics under the name of "sociobiology". But that hasn't stopped ideologists for the existing order from running with genetic-determinism.

But, as I suggested above, we should not assume that the wide currency and popularity of such "theories" is due to some understandable error in reasoning. No, the wide currency of such views has to be explained politically. They are popular because they are discussed so often, and they are discussed so often because they fit cleanly into existing legitimating frameworks. The status quo almost always justifies its myriad inequalities by telling us that they are inevitable and natural (rather than contingent and open to the conscious re-shaping by human beings).

We should be far more skeptical about the findings of psychology. Any fair appraisal of psychology must take seriously the implicit disagreements generated by the disciplines of political science, economics and sociology- all of which ostensibly study similar subject matter. Moreover, any legitimate appraisal would have to answer the objections posed by philosophy as to the methodology and normative assumptions undergirding the practice.

But at the very least, the unsatisfactory paradigms within the discipline itself that have dominated over the last 80 years (from radical behaviorism to introspectionism), should give one pause as to whether to jump on the bandwagon of the latest craze.


How Billionaires Rule Our Schools

The cost of K–12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum? Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck.

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field.
Read the rest here.


Monday, January 24, 2011

How not to criticize Obama

As any reader of this blog could not have failed to notice by now, I do not think that the Obama presidency has been a victory for the Left or progressives. I can't say I ever expected it to be such a victory. I do not think that our society is (in any substantive sense) more just than it was before he took office, although there have been a few marginal improvements, "low hanging fruit" as some would say, here and there. I don't think that the Democratic Party is a force for progressive change, and I think a quick glance at the record of the party since it returned to power in 2006 makes the point rather obvious.

Still, there is a species of (ostensibly) Left criticism of Obama that makes me uneasy. It usually manifests itself in an excessive emphasis on Obama's individual psychology, his alleged weakness of will, or whatever.

I should say I think such analysis is a blind alley. It really is the system, in many important respects, that deserves the emphasis. It's only by ignoring the way our society functions that won could actually be surprised to find out that the Presidency isn't a fountainhead of progressive energy.

One interesting dimension of this misplaced emphasis and excessive criticism of Obama, the person, is the racial dimension.

Many Black people, rightly in my view, are skeptical about these sorts of attacks on Obama. With so many explicitly (or thinly veiled) racist attacks on Obama (for being a "foreigner", a Muslim, anti-colonial renegade, etc.) this skepticism is well placed. Moreover, there are similar "criticisms" of high profile Black men to consider here as well. Think of the way some white people boldly claim that they hate Kobe Bryant or Kanye West or Barry Bonds or Terrell Owens or Michael Vick. We could go on here. To be sure, many of aforementioned men (certainly this is true of Kayne) have done something obnoxious at one time or another. But who hasn't? I'm not convinced that when some white guy confidently declares his hatred for, say, Kobe, that he's saying something that lacks racial content. It sounds to me like a thinly-veiled way of saying the N-word without coming out and saying it. The readiness with which such vitriolic things are said (e.g. Tucker Carlson saying Vick should be executed) speaks to deeper biases.

So a healthy skepticism from the Black community regarding the tone and motivation of certain kinds of attacks on Obama is hardly unjustified. It reflects an awareness of certain patterns of discrimination and racism. As anyone who knows or cares about such matters is well aware, there has been no shortage of criticism of Obama from the Black Left in the US. But social criticism is not the same as obsessive scrutiny of some person qua person. My problems with Obama aren't personal. They're political. To be sure, I do think less of people who are blase, and I think this is true of Obama, about much of the most irredeemable injust on this planet. But that is a political qualm. Nothing but confusion comes from excessively focusing on Obama the person. As a matter of fact, Obama seems like a very likable, extremely swell guy. I have no reason to think that Obama is a despicable person, but that's irrelevant if we're talking politics. As I've argued elsewhere, asking the question "is Obama a progressive at heart?" is a pointless. It is a red-herring. Let's talk about (rather than entirely occluding) things like institutions, social structures, relations of production, exploitation, overproduction, oppression and all the rest of it. Save the individualized psychologizing analysis for another occasion.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Dialectic of Technophobia and Technomania

"Technology can solve all of our problems" exclaim enthusiastic proponents of what is often called the new "Information Age". With the advent of social media technology like Twitter and Facebook, we've entered an inevitable march toward the best of all possible worlds. "What about global warming", you ask? Well, just give Steve Jobs a couple more months and he'll have that technological problem worked out just like that.

On the other side of the coin, rightfully distressed by the irrational, myopic technomania exemplified above, we get the technophobes. Rather than presenting us with new emancipatory possibilities, Facebook and Twitter are unmitigated disasters they tell us. Others, especially some anti-modernist environmentalists, insist that such technologies are inherently evil and rotten to the core. What we need, such forces suggest, is to fetishize the pre-industrial in itself. We need to simply invert technomania, they tell us, in order to free ourselves from the shackles of the status quo.

The head-butting of these two exaggerated and, I should add, implausible views fits cleanly into the ideological framework that dominates understanding in the "authorized" mainstream media. In lieu of such facile analysis, we need a more complex understanding of what's at work.

As Marxists have long argued, ambivalence is the best attitude to strike with respect to Modernity. The same goes for the high level of development of the productive forces (i.e. technologies of various kinds, productive instruments, technically useful scientific knowledge, etc. ) in modern capitalist societies. "Contradiction" (not in the logical sense, of course) is a crucial concept that Marxism brings to the analysis of such phenomena. At the same time that the possibility of eradicating world poverty is brought into existence, the possibility of global destruction at the hands of atomic bombs is brought about as well. The technological capacity of modern industrial societies makes horrors as terrifying as Auschwitz possible at the same time that it provides the potential for a truly just, human society of equals.

Whereas now, for the first time in human history, we have the technological capacity to feed the world's population without working ourselves to death doing it, such potential is not realized. Whereas the high development of technology and scientific knowledge unlocks the possibility of a radically different kind of world, hitherto un-thikable, this possibility is foreclosed by those in power with the help of these very technologies and sets of scientific knowledge.

This should not be surprising. Technology is paradigmatically that which is of only instrumental value. That is to say, it has no intrinsic value in itself. Hammers are not bearers of intrinsic worth; they are valuable to us only in virtue of what they can be used to accomplish. They are valuable only as a mere means to other goals, other things we value. To value a hammer, or an iPhone, as intrinsically valuable would be to fetishize such things, to impute to them an importance which they could not rationally be said to possess.

So when assessing any instrument or piece of technology, the question cannot be whether the thing is good in itself. The question must be: what goals does it help us to accomplish, and are such goals worthwhile? What ends is it put in the service of, and are they worthy ends? Something may be a better or worse means to some end, but there's always a remainder when we ask whether something is an effective means. There's always something left over: what of the ends themselves? What is it that we're trying to do in the most fundamental sense with the technological capacity we have? What are the ultimate goals?

This is the question occluded by the facile debate among technophobes and those enthralled by technomania. For capitalism, the tacit answer to the question of ultimate goals is clear: perpetual growth for the sake of maximization of profit. But is this an answer we should endorse?

If this is a rotten, unsustainable final end (and I think that it is), this should be no stain on technology as such. Rather it is a stain on the uses to which our impressive technological capacities are subjected to under a rotten system.

The contradictions are paralyzing. Rather than put technology in the service of reducing menial labor and eliminating all forms of poverty and devastation... technology is more often put in the service of producing new weapons and means of exterminating human beings. Soberly grasping such contradictions must be part of any serious analysis of the social and political function of technology in contemporary societies. Any attempt to evaluate new technology under the fetishistic banners of technophobia or technophilia are bound to generate nothing but confusion. Any attempt to break out of the ecologically disastrous trajectory of existing societies must also eschew such facile polemics. Put in the service of worthier goals, certain technologies would have to be part of any sustainable world. But adjusting the goals in this radical way requires a radical transformation of the basic economic structure of contemporary societies. It means rejecting some technologies outright and reconfiguring social life in a way that doesn't depend on planned obsolescence, automobile-scale development, and the profitable wastefulness of capitalism.


How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)

Here are couple of quotes from the excellent How to Eat Your Watermelon, a documentary about the life and work of Melvin Van Peebles (filmmaker, actor, director, screenwriter, playwright, novelist, etc.):

"I was sick and tired of always seeing black people walking into a lynch mob with a hymn and a bible. I wanted to make a movie that black people could walk out of standing tall."

"I read an article about how blacks could move into the mainstream, if they'd only remember their manners, etc... So I wrote an article, guy wouldn't publish it, called "How to eat your watermelon in the company of white people (and enjoy it)"... that sort of Judo was one of the major elements of Sweetback. I took every stereotype and stood it on its head."

"All my life I had seen X-rated movies, if X-rated means damaging to young minds. Well, there was Tarzan, there was King-Kong, there was Mantan Moreland, etc. etc. and I couldn't find in my mind, anything more devastating to the psyche of a young African-American than those things. If you don't call those things X, then I think you've lost your credibility to judge."
I highly recommend the documentary. Trailer below.


Police, Firefighters and National Guard Join Protestors


Friday, January 21, 2011

Confusions About Class/Race/Gender Intersectionality

No honest, reflective person would tell you that the relationship between race and class, or gender and race, etc. was a simple and straight-forward matter. It doesn't mean that there aren't better and worse views about how different oppressions are related to one another. It doesn't mean that there are "no right answers" here, or that things are so difficult that there's no hope of making headway. But it does mean that things are often more complex than a simple slogan or one-liner would have us believe.

Now having said that, I think there is something that should be extremely obvious, politically speaking, even in the absence of a fully articulated theory of how racial subordination, class exploitation, gender domination (and other modes of oppression) are interrelated.

In order to even be on the Left at all, you have to oppose unjust subordination and oppression wherever you find it. There is no excuse for anyone on the Left to be sanguine about racism or sexism. To be on the Left is to oppose class domination, sexual oppression and racism all at once, even if you lack a systematic understanding of how these are all interrelated.

Thus, there should be no confusion or hesitation about why Leftists must defend even people like Sarah Palin from sexist attacks. The reason is simple: the problem with Palin is quite obviously not that she's a woman, the reason to criticize her is that she stands for reactionary politics. Leftists cannot sit comfortably while she is criticized merely for her gender. To tolerate sexist attacks against her is to tolerate oppression, something no self-respecting Leftist could do.

Similarly, no Leftist could sit calmly while someone leveled racist slurs at Thomas Sowell or Michael Steele. Again, the problem with Sowell and Steele is that they are Right-wingers, not that they are black! No genuine Leftist could possibly sit calmly while someone called Sowell racist slurs. Confusing criticism of his politics with a criticism of his qua black person is an ugly mistake indeed, one which absolutely brushes entirely against the grain of what Leftist fight for.

Finally, consider a poor, White racist man. It is obvious that Leftists must criticize such a person for his racist views. Poor or not, racism as such can never be tolerated. But a Leftist should feel uneasy about criticisms of such a person which impugned him only insofar as he is poor. Snickering about holes in his clothes or his malnutrition is not material for a Left-wing critique. Likewise, it would certainly not be a Left criticism of such a person to say that his low wages and long hours at, say, Wal-Mart were entirely his own fault. The problem with such a person is just that he is a racist, and no apologies whatsoever should be made for criticizing him as such. No socialist would deny that sections of the White working-class have been quite racist and xenophobic indeed. What socialists could not tolerate, however, are bourgeois slanders to the effect that some are born to be poor and exploited and therefore deserve their lot.

Even in the absence of agreement on a systematic theory that explains the relations between sexism, racism and class domination, the need to avoid the above confusions should be obvious.


Obama lurches even further to the Right

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — President Obama, sending another strong signal that he intends to make his White House more business-friendly, traveled to this industrial city on Friday to appoint a prominent corporate executive as his chief outside economic adviser, and to spotlight his efforts on job creation, in advance of next week’s State of the Union address.
Read the rest here.

I'm fine with saying that this is a lurch to the Right, but let's be clear about one thing. The Obama Administration has not really done anything, ever, that seriously brushed against the grain of the "business friendly" agenda. His entire cabinet was packed full of Goldman Sachs from the very beginning. It seems, rather, that he is just packing it full of people from different factions of the ruling class. They've been ruling class all along.

Still, the post-November shakedown in Obama's cabinet has represented a further right-ward shift. Whereas before Obama might have at least paid limited lip-service to the idea of challenging Business, now he refuses to even do that. The Administration now appears to want even its public identity to be staked on a high-profile love-affair with Big Business. Whereas before Obama talked big about change (while doing his best to prevent it from happening), now he doesn't even do the big talking.

This makes the Tea-Baggers' tendency to moan and whine about "socialism" even more absurd. Obama's Administration has so much continuity with Bush's, it's obvious to anyone with their head on straight that the heaving and hawing about "excessive change" is complete bullshit.

But we know that the Tea-Baggers' refrain about "socialism" has nothing much to do with socialism as such. It is merely an empty signifier for them, used for the purposes of saying what some of them don't want to say in public. What precisely is this content that they want to pack into the empty pejorative shell that "socialism"? I suspect that the content they have in mind is, basically, every racist slur you can imagine. Like I say, some of them use the charge of "socialist" against Obama as a round-about way of saying "(n-word)", but others are comfortable coming out and make their racist fantasies explicit. I also suspect that when they accuse him of being Muslim, precisely the same motives are in place. They take labels that they think everyone should find pejorative (e.g. being a "foreigner" or an immigrant, being a Muslim, being a socialist, being against colonialism, etc.), and then use them to underhandedly assert racist filth.

The frustrating truth is that what we desperately need is a robust socialist politics in the US, but the most high-profile figures accused of being socialists are, in fact, capitalism's most devout defenders who, any rational person can see, pursue virtually identical policies to those pursued under previous Republican Administrations.


Is there a plan to have states default on public employee pensions?



Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robert Pollin: "Back to Full Employment"

Read his generally excellent Boston Review article here.

This is a much-needed corrective to the consensus among Democrats and Republicans regarding the "need" for austerity and tax gifts for the rich. Pollin also does nice job of ridiculing the heinously flawed neoclassical analysis of employment (e.g. the neoclassical view that "it is a fundamental posit of our theory that all unemployment is necessarily voluntary").

But there are problems. He rightly notes that the obstacles to full-employment aren't merely technical or economic, but political. That is, he rightly says that the class compromise needed to make Keynesian social-democracy work is politically unstable, because capital eventually gets upset and breaks the pact as the political and economic confidence of workers increases.

For me, this is the single most important objection to social democratic politics. Yet, having made this important point, Pollin strays from it and suggests elsewhere that "healthy profits can be made" under such an arrangement. There is a question of how to read this claim: is he merely making certain kinds of moves to try to win over those who aren't yet ready for the claim that capitalism as such is the problem?

He is also a bit naive about Sweden I think. He basically gets things right, but underestimates the role of capital in thwarting the class compromise and he misses a more general point. That point is this: an inherently unstable system that only functions when capital is happy with it's rate of profit is a recipe for disaster. Even if capital continues to play nice for a while and maintain the class compromise, there are other sources of instability that threaten to upset capital. Inflation is only one example. To be sure, Pollin does point to the global political pressure on Sweden to adopt a neoliberal model, but the fact that such a move looked reasonable to Swedish policy makers speaks to an unjust configuration of class power on the one hand, and the contradictions of premising all economic well-being on decent profits for capital on the other. In other words, Pollin appears to have an unduly sanguine picture of what's possible within the confines of the capitalist state on the one hand, and doesn't take seriously enough the internal contradictions of capitalism as a system on the other.

Still, this is the kind of debate I'm happy to see in public as compared with what we usually have to stomach (e.g. Democrats asking each other "how much should we screw workers and cut services?"). We should be having more debates like this: between Keynesian left-liberals and more radical critics of capitalism. So it is more than a little frustrating that the "forum" put together by Boston Review to discuss Pollin's argument appears to have no serious Left critics at all. Though Pollin spends time discussing Marx and the left-wing arguments against achieving full-employment under capitalism, it doesn't appear that any of the participants in the forum will be defending such a position. This is a shame.

The Right response to the Pollin piece is nauseating and not even worth responding to. Reihan Salam's response is typical neo-classical garbage. He begins by acting skeptical about the idea "neoliberalism" suggesting that it is not a real historical phenomenon but a bit of a left-wing boogey-man. He is so far off-base in understanding how the world works, it's hardly worth reading what he thinks should be done to fix it. His argument seems to be that we need to "remove barriers" so that workers will get up off their "lazy" butts and go get a job. I don't really know what to say to that. Where does one begin? I sort of just want to ask Salam if he's ever heard of this place called "earth". Seriously, how many times over does this tripe have to be refuted and discredited before we stop wasting our time. To put it in a slightly klunky Marxist way, the only reason it still gets a hearing is because of its functional utility in maintaining unequal relations of power.

Thus, the best way to make sense of the neoclassical stuff is not to take it as a set of serious arguments, because in many ways that's not what it is. The best way to make sense of it is to understand it as an ideology, in the Marxist sense. There are numerous dimensions in which such an approach is fruitful: from remarks in the Grundrisse regarding ideological types of abstraction, to arguments to the effect that neoclassical economics merely expresses the point of view of the capitalist, i.e. that neoclassical economics is merely a commentary on a capitalist firm's financial accounting practices. Allowing the neoclassical view to assert itself as a "reasonable" participant in the debate is a bit like tolerating "intelligent designers" in scientific discussions.


Tunisian Ruling Party Was a Member of the SI

As though we needed more reasons to think less of the tepid, soft-neoliberal Socialist International, it has recently come out that the repressive ruling party of Tunisia, Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) was a member of the organization until they were recently expelled. I find this unsurprising, given imperialist, neoliberal tilt of other member parties like Labour Party in Britain, the German SPD, the French PS, etc.

Sarkozy and the French Right, of course, are already trying to use this to deflect (entirely legitimate) criticisms of their own imperialist stances toward Tunisia. Though the deflection is clearly an illegitimate move on the part of the French Right, there is more than a grain of truth to their accusation that the French "center-left" is similarly guilty. This is no stain on socialist politics as such- on the contrary, this is just another indication of what we already knew: that the neoliberal French Parti Socialiste is a bankrupt and politically conservative force in France. Their perpetual triangulating overtures to the Right make it hard for one to even make the case that they ought to reasonably included within the socialist tradition at all. The genuine socialist tradition consists neither in the opportunist, class-collaborationist politics of Social Democracy, nor the bureaucratic, top-down trajectory of Stalinism.


Richard Seymour on Southern Racism and Capitalism



Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Two Correctives on China

There's a lot of "clash of the superpowers" talk amidst Hu Jintao's visit to Washington (e.g. see here). The anxieties about "decline" and the dispassionate matter-of-factness with which global domination is discussed in the articles is sickening. The confusion about how the US has "democracy", but may, in fact, be worse off for it is equally sickening since it both distorts the meaning of democracy (suggesting that the US already has it in full) and then proceeds to devalue it (e.g. "maybe democracy isn't important since China is doing fine"). So here are two correctives (I'm sure there are others) to all of this non-sense:

First, see this interview with Noam Chomsky. Below is a bit of what he had to say:

There’s a lot of talk about a global shift of power: India and China are going to become the great powers, the wealthiest powers, and so on. Again, one should be pretty reserved about that. For example, there is a lot of talk about the U.S. debt, that China holds so much of the U.S. debt. Actually, Japan holds more of the debt. There have been occasions when China passed it, but most of the time, and right now, Japan holds most of the debt, which shows you just how powerful a weapon it is. The sovereign wealth funds of the Emirates, when you put them together, they probably hold more debt than China.

Furthermore, the whole framework of discussion is misleading. We’re sort of taught to talk about the world as a world of states, which, if you study international relations theory, there’s what’s called “realist international relations theory,” which says there is an anarchic world of states, and states pursue their national interest. It’s all mythology. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same. There are a few common interests, like we don’t want to be destroyed. But for the most part they have very different interests. Part of the doctrinal system in the U.S. is to pretend that we’re all a happy family, there are no class divisions, and everybody is working together in harmony. But that’s radically false...

...So it’s not a novel insight to say that power—now it’s not in the hands of the merchants and manufacturers, but in those of financial institutions and multinationals. But it’s the same. And they have an interest in Chinese development. So if you’re, say, the CEO of Wal-Mart or Dell or HP or whatever, they’re perfectly happy to have very cheap labor in China working under hideous conditions and no environmental constraints. If they have what’s called economic growth, that’s fine.

Furthermore, China’s economic growth is a bit of a myth. China is an assembly plant. China is a major exporter, but while the trade deficit with China has gone up, the trade deficit with Japan, Singapore, and Korea has gone down. The reason is, there is a regional production system developing. The more advanced countries of the region, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, send advanced technology, parts, and components to China, which uses its cheap labor force to assemble it and send it out. And U.S. producers do the same thing: they send parts and components to China, those guys assemble it, they export it. Within the doctrinal framework, that’s called Chinese exports, but it’s regional exports, including the United States exporting to itself.

Once we break out of the framework of national states as if they’re unified entities with no internal divisions within them, then there is a global shift of power, but it’s from the global workforce to the owners of the world, transnational capital, financial institutions, and it’s global. So, for example, the share of working people in national income has by and large declined in the last couple of decades, but apparently in China it’s declined maybe more than anywhere, more than most places. There is certainly economic growth in China and India, hundreds of millions of people live a lot better than they did before. But then there are another couple of billion who don’t. In fact, it’s getting worse for them in many ways...
Next, see this excellent LRB piece by Perry Anderson. He nicely skewers the complimentary imperialist ideologies of "sinomania" and "sinophobia". Here's an excerpt:
Too far away to be a military or religious threat to Europe, it generated tales not of fear or loathing, but wonder. Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay, fixed fabulous images that lasted down to Columbus setting sail for the marvels of Cathay. But when real information about the country arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, European attitudes towards China tended to remain an awed admiration, rather than fear or condescension. From Bayle and Leibniz to Voltaire and Quesnay, philosophers hailed it as an empire more civilised than Europe itself: not only richer and more populous, but more tolerant and peaceful, a land where there were no priests to practise persecution and offices of the state were filled according to merit, not birth...

...Respect gave way to contempt, mingled with racist alarm – Sinomania capsizing into Sinophobia. By the early 20th century, after eight foreign forces had stormed their way to Pekin to crush the Boxer Uprising, the ‘yellow peril’ was being widely bandied about among press and politicians, as writers like Jack London or J.H. Hobson conjured up a future Chinese takeover of the world.
I think Chomsky is right to say that "the who framework of discussion is misleading". Almost every article I read encourages me (as a citizen of the US) to adopt a "hard" realist conception of international relations and cheer for "my team". And the "soft" view is every bit as nauseating. Often, those who defend China from superpower chauvinism in the US merely accept this whole misleading framework and side with the other "team". This is often how the "sinomaniac" position gets articulated: "China is the future", "we [i.e. the US ruling class] have a lot we can learn from China [i.e. the Chinese ruling class]", etc. If we refuse to look critically at how power is actually configured in China, if we refuse to see the exploitation lodged at the heart of economic system, then we dull our capacity to see it everywhere else as well. It's entirely possible to reject the imperialist gaze cast by Washington without identifying with the ruling class in China.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Equality, Not Civility

In the wake of the horrifying shooting in Arizona, there seems to be a wide mainstream consensus that we need to "clean up our political discourse" and try to be more "civil". Civility could be the word of the week.

Terrible though the shooting was, it would be naive to think that it caused any serious shifts in the ways that our system functions. Obama and the Democrats, who've favored narratives about "coming together", "bipartisanship", and "reaching across the aisles" for many months, have now found the perfect opportunity to trumpet their favored ideological maneuver. Make no mistake- when this awful event happened, somewhere there was a meeting called about how Obama should respond to the event, what "narratives" he should lean on, how he should sell himself, etc. Nothing he says on Television is random. It's all manicured and fitted to the political strategies agreed upon in the Administration.

Likewise, the Republicans responded in a similar fashion. They thought long and hard about what they should say in mass media outlets, and crafted their rhetoric accordingly. The interpretation of this horrific event is political.

To be clear- my beef is not that such moves were political. I'm not decrying the "politicizing" of putatively apolitical phenomena. My point is that such moves cannot but be political- the only questions is: which politics? In other words- who are the interested parties involved? what are the relations of power among them? what is their narrative about how their present power is legitimate? in light of this what do they aim to accomplish? and so forth.

Now, when someone tells you that something is apolitical, look out. That is a classic way of trying to cover up latent conflicts and unequal social relations while silencing the grievances of the oppressed. Let us not forget why the feminist slogan "the personal is political" was so important: it confidently rejected the patronizing dismissal of patriarchal definitions of what politics is and isn't, and declared that a large (hitherto unscrutinized) sphere of modern life was worth thinking about politically. The point was that "personal" relationships, the family and gendered divisions of labor were part of a political system, they were part of unequal power relations that were institutionalized at home, in workplaces, churches, etc.. As such, the feminist claim was that they weren't merely "individual problems", problems with particular women "not being able to cope", or whatever. They were social and political problems that required collective solutions. In this way, feminists began to undermine the dismissive patriarchal refrain that such "private" issues were not political, that they did not deserve to be discussed publicly, etc. Light was thus thrown upon previously hidden domination and hierarchy.

Something similar is going on right now. We're being asked to forget about everything political and embrace a putatively apolitical injunction to be "civil". But what is civility? Why is it supposedly important?

If we take the mainstream media at its word, civility is merely a way of talking. The injunction to be civil, then, means don't talk in a "mean" way towards others. Given the apolitical character of this injunction, it could very well be interpreted to mean: "Sure, be a racist in private if you like, but just talk in a friendly way when in public". "Tolerance" is another buzzword here: but what is it we are supposed to tolerate? Universal tolerance is itself an incoherent idea: surely endorsing it means you can't tolerate intolerance. After all, those pedaling the virtues of tolerance and civility have some target in mind when they pedal it, that is, there is some element of our discourse that they see as intolerable. For my part, I agree with them that the violent, racist fantasies and metaphors commonly used among the Right are intolerable. I agree that our society should not take lightly the fact that the xenophobic, racist Right believes that Obama isn't "American", and I'm given chills by the fact that gun sales jumped up 50% upon Obama's election victory in 2008. As Gary Younge notes:

Polls last year revealed that a majority of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim and a socialist who "wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government" while two-thirds of Republicans either believe or are not sure that the president is "a racist who hates white people", and more than half believe or are not sure that "he was not born in the US" and that he "wants the terrorists to win".
Or, as Richard Seymour has put it:
Palin is often quite explicit when she wants an enemy of the 'real America', the pristine white America of lore, to be assassinated. So is Pat Robertson, you may recall. Assassination is as American as the hackneyed patriotic schtick that often seems to motivate it. This isn't about the gallows humour of the Republican right which consists precisely of knowing, wink-wink in-jokes (gun-sight imagery, 'Reload', and so on) about the barbarism that already exists, and which they have done so much to cultivate. It's about what the jokes advert to. The problem is not whether and how to domesticate political language, as some have wrongly assumed, but how to fight back against the political forces that are fomenting this bilious filth.
The rise of this hard-right, racist and nationalist political tendency in the US is a social/political phenomenon that must be taken seriously. It is not a matter of the words used in our political culture. And neither is it a matter of excessive "polarization" that a vague call for unity could mitigate. This is an institutionalized, well-funded political movement that is built on racism, prejudice, "gun rights" and "angry white man" furor. The problem with this movement isn't that it isn't sufficiently "civil" in how it expresses itself. The problem with it is that it exists at all. The problem is that it is built upon racism and hatred all the way down. If we lack the public language to articulate this fact politically, we leave racism and far-right hatred unchecked and unchallenged.

Imagine you are a Muslim-American, or that you are an undocumented immigrant, drawing the fierce ire and hatred of these violent Tea-Bagger-type groups. How would you feel if you were told that the problem was simply that you weren't civil enough towards such right-wing elements, that you should seek to tolerate such hate? How would you feel if you were told to tolerate and embrace the quasi-fascist Minutemen vigilantes and the politicians who back them? Surely such tolerance would most certainly fall under the heading of Marcuse's felicitous phrase: "repressive tolerance".

I want no part of this. I believe in full equality and solidarity, not civility. I don't want more civil and friendly oppressors, I want for there not to be oppressors lording over us at all. I don't want a more friendly ruling class that speaks in more compassionate tongues, I want for there to be no ruling class above us at all. What I (and the socialist Left) stand for is a robust notion of equality. The kind of equality that resists anyone placing their boot on someone else's neck. The kind of equality that brushes against the grain of the most unequal society on the planet. The kind of equality that stands opposed to all forms of domination, oppression, exploitation and intimidation. The kind of equality that is only possible when power is distributed widely and equitably, when the groundwork is laid for relations of reciprocity and respect (as against the competitive, atomized, antagonistic social relations encouraged under capitalism). I'm talking about the kind of equality based on the belief that an injury to one is an injury to all. When we say "no human being is illegal" and stand uncompromisingly with every single person "sin papeles", we do so on the basis of a strong belief in the value of equality. When socialists say "another world is possible", this is what they're talking about. None of this has the least bit to do with bourgeois civility. I'll be civil once we have genuine equality. But as long as some subordinate others to their arbitrary will, whether its through racist oppression, sexism, neo-colonial ventures, international financial institutions, or class domination, I don't think there's a good reason to mince words when describing such phenomena for what they are. If you stand for reciprocity and solidarity- you can't be silent or neutral. You have to stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves and demand that they be liberated.

As Harold Pinter once put it:
There exists today widespread propaganda which asserts that socialism is dead. But if to be a socialist is to be a person convinced that the words "the common good" and "social justice" actually mean something; if to be a socialist is to be outraged at the contempt in which millions and millions of people are held by those in power, by "market forces," by international financial institutions; if to be a socialist is to be a person determined to do everything in his or her power to alleviate these unforgivably degraded lives, then socialism can never be dead because these aspirations will never die.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Palin and Right-Wing Violence

Dave Zirin has a chilling piece at SW about Sarah Palin's defense of using violence in political rhetoric from last March. He quotes an online piece she wrote about the March Madness basketball tournament last year in order to point out how common violent metaphor is in sports. Apparently, this is justification for using violent metaphor in politics.

To the teams that desire making it this far next year: Gear up! In the battle, set your sights on next season's targets! From the shot across the bow--the first second's tip-off --your leaders will be in the enemy's crosshairs, so you must execute strong defensive tactics. You won't win only playing defense, so get on offense! The crossfire is intense, so penetrate through enemy territory by bombing through the press, and use your strong weapons--your Big Guns--to drive to the hole. Shoot with accuracy; aim high and remember it takes blood, sweat and tears to win. Focus on the goal and fight for it. If the gate is closed, go over the fence. If the fence is too high, pole vault in. If that doesn't work, parachute in. If the other side tries to push back, your attitude should be "go for it." Get in their faces and argue with them. (Sound familiar?!) Every possession is a battle; you'll only win the war if you've picked your battles wisely. No matter how tough it gets, never retreat, instead RELOAD!
Zirin points out how overstated these metaphors are. Though he concedes that there is often military-language in sports, notably football, he notes that he has never seen such an array of metaphors before to describe college basketball. He also points out how much white privilege she has to invoke violent imagery in politics. If she were a Muslim woman, he remarks, nobody would tolerate this from her.

I would also add that it is patently absurd that violent metaphor in sport would excuse violent metaphor in politics, since, you know, politics are really serious business that people have historically been moved to violence by. This happens much more rarely in sports, especially American sports.

Yesterday, Palin defended herself against accusations that these metaphors of violence have been causes of the massacre in Arizona. Most absurdly, she declares, "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them." Now certainly this cannot be true. She would certainly never say that the acts of 9/11 hijackers begin and end with them. No, rather, they begin with something called Islamofascism and end with the invasion and occupation of multiple countries. How can any act of violence begin and end with the invidual who committed it? We're not allowed to note any social context that may have made the violence possible or even encouraged it?

Now, rhetoric like Zirin points out from Palin is being cited by many as a potential cause of the Arizona shooting, as contributing to a political atmosphere in the state that leads to a violent massacre. I think it's fair to say this rhetoric has contributed to a heightened state of aggression in U.S. political discourse, and whether there are connections between Palin's rhetoric in particular and this Loughner guy's decision to shoot people is yet to be determined by deeper investigation into his political views and motives. But to claim that the violent actor in this case is solely responsible for his violence defies logic, as well as her own previous assertions about terrorism.


Reject austerity, tax the rich

At least one state seems to be recognizing the screaming logic of dealing with budget crises by raising taxes, as the NYT reports, "Illinois Legislators Approve 66% Tax Increase":

Under the legislation, the income tax rate would, at least temporarily, rise to 5 percent from its current rate of 3 percent. Lawmakers had talked about an even steeper increase, but set that aside as the hours went by and the debate grew increasingly emotional. The rate for corporate taxes would rise to 7 percent from its current rate of 4.8 percent. As part of the deal, the state’s spending growth would be limited from one year to the next over the next four years.

Gov. Patrick J. Quinn, a Democrat whose signature would be needed to make any rate increase final, has indicated in the past he believes a tax increase is necessary.

The tax hike irked Republicans in Springfield, the state capital, and business owners around the state. Again and again, Republicans argued that the state needed to make significant spending cuts to solve its deficit before it even began considering a tax increase.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Equality, Hierarchy and Political Organization

Socialists are egalitarians. They put heavy emphasis on the value of equality. But what exactly does that mean? It means that socialists oppose social relations that are exploitative and oppressive. It means that socialists aim to bring about conditions in which all people can interact on terms of equality and respect.

Being a socialist means being prepared to struggle against class domination, gendered hierarchies, racial subordination, the oppression of LGBT people, and so forth. Socialists aim to secure equal freedom for all persons by liberating them from the arbitrary will of an oppressor (whether it's a capitalist, a colonial administrator, a Stalinist bureaucrat, a racist police officer or an abusive, patriarchal head of a family).

This means that for socialists there is a presumption against social hierarchies. But, anarchists will complain, socialists do not believe in completely horizontal forms of organization when it comes to political activism. The classic anarchist complaint against socialists who organize themselves in a roughly "Leninist" or "democratic centralist" way is that socialists aren't radical enough in their assault on hierarchy since "democratic centralism" is itself hierarchical in certain respects. Some more resolutely "horizontal" alternative, usually consensus-based decision making, is then typically held up as a more egalitarian and democratic way of organizing.

But is this objection sound? I don't think so. I think it is motivated by values that I share, but it fails to make crucial distinctions that any plausible theory of liberation must make.

As Elizabeth Anderson has argued, egalitarians, and socialists in particular, are hostile to at least three types of social hierarchy: (1) hierarchies of standing, (2) hierarchies of esteem, and (3) hierarchies of command.

(1) Hierarchies of standing are those in which oppressors are entitled to make claims on the oppressed, "to enjoy rights and privileges, while those below are denied rights or granted an inferior set of rights and privileges, and denied voice to make claims on their own, or given an inferior forum in which to make their claims." (2) Hierarchies of esteem are those in which those at the top "command honor and admiration, while those below are stigmatized and held in contempt, as objects of ridicule, loathing or disgust". (3) Hierarchies of command obtain when those at the "top issue orders to those below, who must defer and obey."

But this is not the whole story. As Anderson points out, whereas it seems reasonable to absolutely oppose hierarchies of standing, the same is not true of the other two types of hierarchy. After all, it doesn't seem inherently unjust to hold different persons in different degrees of esteem. We tend to think that there are cases in which some persons are praiseworthy and deserving of high esteem, whereas others are not. Some people are rightly worthy of contempt and loathing.

Moreover, though socialists believe in equality, would not say that all participants in a bicycle race are equally entitled to win the gold medal. So we need a further distinction here. What socialists really oppose is not hierarchy of esteem as such, but unjust hierarchies of esteem. That is, socialists oppose hierarchies of esteem based on race, class or property ownership, birth right, caste, etc.

Hierarchies of command are tricky as well, and getting clear on them is particularly relevant for adjudicating between socialists and anarchists on the question of organization. Where socialists and anarchists can agree is that there should always be a presumption against social hierarchy. That is, hierarchies are never self-justifying, are always prima facie suspicious, and we should want to have as little of them as possible. But whereas some anarchists would draw the problematic conclusion that no hierarchy is ever justified, socialists would again draw an intuitive distinction between just and unjust hierarchies.

What exactly is suspicious about hierarchies of command? According to Anderson,

"to be subject to another's command threatens one's interests, as those in command are liable to serve themselves at the expense of their subordinates. It threatens subordinates' autonomy, their standing as self-governing individuals. Without substantial controls on the content of legitimate commands, subjection can also be degrading and humiliating. Even when superiors permit subordinates wide scope for acting, the latter may still live at the mercy of the former. Such a condition of subjection to the arbitrary wills of others is objectionable in itself, and has further objectionable consequences: timidity and self-censorship in the presence of superiors -or worse, groveling and self-abasement".
I think Anderson is right on target here, and I think anarchists would agree. But, and I'm with Anderson on this point, she doesn't think that all hierarchies of command are unjust. It depends on the function of the command:
"Where commands regarding a particular action are not needed to coordinate conduct among different persons, egalitarians hold that adults should be free to make decisions for themselves, without having to ask anyone else's permission... But the solution of letting each choose for herself, however, cannot be generalized to the case where commands are needed to coordinate conduct among different persons. Anarchists hoped that it could be generalized. They hoped that effective coordination would arise from the spontaneous mutual aid of independent persons (Kropotkin 1906). Anarchy, however, has not proven to be a reliable arrangement for securing stable, peaceful cooperation on terms of equality among large numbers of people... some command relations are needed to secure cooperation."
In Anderson's view, and, I think, in the view of genuine socialists, the solution is that "when commands cannot be eliminated, the idea is to ensure that command relations are reciprocal, with everyone participating in making the rules that govern" such relations. That is, when commands are functionally required in order to coordinate actions, such command relations should be determined democratically. Those in a position to issue certain sorts of commands must be democratically elected by all and recallable at any moment. Also, what Anderson calls the "person/office distinction" must be respected. That is, command relations only mean that "subordinates owe obedience to their superiors in virtue of relations of office (as documented, say, in an organizational chart) rather than in virtue of obligations of personal loyalty to named superiors. Individuals thus enjoy powers of command only in virtue of their office... when a superior acts outside the color of her office, she has no authority over in civil society, superiors and employees meet as formal equals...". Also, command relations should be granted only on the basis of merit, not because of nepotism or cronyism. Such positions cannot ever be "for sale". Finally, the command powers granted to such an office must never be unlimited. They must be constrained by a publicly agreed upon and democratically sanctioned set of rules (e.g. a constitution or platform).

For example, consider the sorts of relations necessary to run an effective rapid transit system in a major city. We would need certain hierarchies undoubtedly, but it's not as though the mere fact that you occupy a certain office in the transit system entitles you to boss people around in the grocery store or in a public park. No, your command powers would only be legitimate within a certain specific institutional setting, and even then such powers would be circumscribed by rules of various kinds.

Importantly, we must be able to prove that need for certain command relations is strictly speaking necessary. But are any such relations really necessary? I think it's rather difficult to answer this question in the negative. I'm with David Harvey, for example, in being uneasy about the prospect of power plants being run by consensus-based anarchist communes. Moreover, I'm with Anderson in thinking that the production of the sizable social surplus we need to have a just society requires the coordination of many wills by means of some limited hierarchies of command (e.g. some division of labor and coordination within, say, a factory would be necessary even in a worker-controlled and governed system). The existence of some such relations will be necessary in any large, complex society in which the productive forces are highly developed. After all, "the infeasibility of large-scale, fully-participatory democracy led Rousseau to insist that republics remain very small... but this restriction comes at grave costs".

One of those costs, I would argue, is that going small in all cases means squandering some of the potential of highly developed productive forces to eradicate all sorts of need and poverty. Socialists are thoroughly modern: we do not aim to turn the clock back to pre-agricultural societies. We want to use the high development of the productive forces to create a sustainable system that meets human needs, rather than a destructive, wasteful system that subordinates human beings and the natural environment to the iron laws of profit accumulation. All sorts of poverty and suffering are not objectively necessary in the way in which they were in, say, the Bronze Age. The technological advances we've made since then create the possibility of eradicating all poverty and want if put in the service of the public good, rather than private greed. Moreover, the high development of productive forces in modern societies has made possible all sorts of cultural production and creative expression that would not otherwise have been possible.

So where does this leave the question of political organization and the debate between anarchists and socialists? It should be clear by now that the inflexible anarchist prohibition on all hierarchies is implausible. The question, given that some hierarchies are necessary, is which hierarchies are just and which are unjust. To be sure, it might be difficult to know whether specific hierarchies are necessary or not. The only way to know is to experiment and see. Thankfully, history provides radicals with some evidence here about what works and what doesn't.

For socialists, the question of whether some hierarchies are needed must always be answered contextually. Sometimes consensus-based decision making is the best way to go. Sometimes, for instance when a strike is about to be called, consensus-based decision making is not appropriate. Similarly, in the context of a very small, local struggle, perhaps the best form of organization is one in which there are no institutionalized offices or hierarchies of command. But when you talk about putting together a national, or even international, struggle against exploitation and oppression, you need ways of coordinating action that are quite different from those required in smaller struggles. In order to be effective against a highly organized and potentially brutal ruling class, socialists must be organized and able to coordinate widely and generalize from local struggles.

In advanced capitalist societies, electing leadership and dividing up labor and roles is essential. The only question is how best to do it, and what constraints need to be in place to prevent abuses, unnecessary bureaucratization, ossification, and all the rest of it. Here, I'm inclined to think that the best way of combating these problems is to keep leadership fluid and to cultivate leadership capacities in everyone. In the context of a political organization, this means giving newer and less experienced members opportunities to lead so that they can develop the skills and experience necessary to grow and develop. It also means opposing stable, inflexible divisions of labor that leave someone, or some group, perpetually in a subordinate or relatively powerless roles. The expectation must be that every single member in a socialist organization is a potential leader, and that expectation must followed through. Anything less is a disservice to the socialist tradition.