The Signal is not the Strategy (It's OK to be hypocritical, Part 3)

This is a blog about “The Discourse”. About ‘free speech’ and persuasion. In my current work, I’m reading about the application of signalling theory to political science, and the theory and practice of cultural evolution. These disciplines make two core observations about political life in social species.

Firstly, a political strategy is comprised of two inter-related elements: behaviour and signal. A behaviour is simply an external action by an agent; a signal is a sub-type of behaviour which carries information content between one social actor and another. Of course, behaviour can act as a signal and a signal is a behaviour, but conceptually we can distinguish between those parts of an action which conveys information between agents and those parts that don’t. When it forms part of a strategy, sending a signal to another social agent has the objective of altering the beliefs of the receiver for the advantage of the sender. A corollary of this is that a signal is only that part of behaviour which is observable and comprehensible to the receiver - it does not include actions or motivations that are hidden from them. Through the written and spoken word, humans have unusually sophisticated ways of signalling one another, which the ‘Machiavellian hypothesis’ proposes was largely evolved for the purpose of manipulating others in social settings.

Secondly, in the sphere of cultural evolution we say that social agents learn by imitating the behaviour of other agents. We imitate the social strategies of others more successful from ourselves, in order to minimise the fitness difference between us. A corollary of this is that we copy pretty blindly - so that if our instructor includes additional steps or rituals which are empirically unnecessary humans will tend to copy those rituals too as if there were essential to the behaviour. What isn’t copied are the reasons or motivations for behaviour - whether our social models and celebrities are Machiavellian manipulators, religious fanatics or eccentric oddballs, if their social strategies work, then we copy them blindly. In other words, we buy the breakfast cereals recommended by our favourite celebrities, even if their choice of product as little or no bearing on their success as an actor, athlete or musician.

What these two observations lead to is this: signals (i.e. speech) can effectively change behaviour - in other words, be persuasive - even if the receiver of those signals does not understand why their beliefs have changed or why others wanted change to occur. By performing that social strategy themselves, and sending the same signal, they create a new social equilibrium without, in the main, conceptually understanding or agreeing with it. So for instance, socialists and Marxists have an enormous body of theory justifying and explaining their economic ideas but if they have only one signal which is persuasive - i.e. “Medicare for All” - then that slogan, that symbol, will be the vector that spreads socialist behaviours.

Taboos

The more time that passes, the less individuals are likely to know the empirical reasons for the behaviour and the more they are likely to treat them as a given, as ‘common sense’. Liberal social contract rights such as universal suffrage and habeas corpus seem so obvious now that they hardly appear worth defending (often to our detriment). But several generations backs, these rights were hard fought gains that responded to very real systematic abuses. Over time, what was once sensible, necessary reform became symbolism and ritual, devoid of meaning - until the time we need to fight certain battles all over again.

This sanctification of politics is most visible in US political discourse, particularly around issues of race. The abolition of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were massive political achievements, hard fought and won with incredible violence. And yet a few generations later, major debates are occurring over the taboo status of particular words and behaviours. But the strength of the taboo is correlated first and foremost with the significance of the civil rights struggle - so much so that performing ‘black face’ can end careers - and not the behaviour itself, so that over time as memories of that struggle fade the ritual power of the taboo appears irrational and disproportionate.

We have seen this most recently in the centre-right (and corporate) response to Steven Crowder’s homophobic harassment of Vox journalist Carlos Maza - which has focused on the appropriateness of Crowder’s words (especially “queer”) and not on the behaviour behind it. What is objectionable about Crowder is the intent behind his crusade to dehumanise and harass another human being on the basis of their personal characteristics, and the broader social harm this causes, not the particular words, phrases and symbols used. The Right has become very good at disingenuously claiming that the signals they send are socially sanctioned - pointing especially to the innocuous use of those signals or symbols by others communities - knowing full well that the motivations behind their actions are almost impossible to prove.

The risk this causes for social progressives is that we might overly focus on the signal, not the strategy, for audiences that are not fully on our side, or theirs. The Right knows that when they use offensive language or symbols their signals have hidden structural meaning for their followers. And because we have studied our enemy, the Left knows what is motivating the right: when we say the Right is racist, homophobic or misogynistic, we’re not kidding. But for a non-informed audience who does not share the same social beliefs as us, we are limited to saying that certain speech has observable racist, homophobic or misogynistic consequences, or violates a social taboo. This then permits the Right to riposte with either ‘science’ (“You haven’t demonstrated the adverse consequences you claim”) or countercultural irreverence (“Stop being such a cultural regressive! It’s cool to rebel against taboos!”).

Early feminists and racial minorities fought for voting and legal rights first because that was the ground on which they could convince those with power in society of the rightness of their cause. And they won. But of course winning legal and political rights wasn’t at the root of their activism - economic and social marginalisation, endemic structural violence and oppression were. But when the newly empowered minority groups use their newly acquired rights to point the broader structural inequality out, the ruling majority says “Hey! This isn’t what we bargained for! We gave you what you asked and now you’re just asking for more [you ungrateful subordinate]!”. Backlash inevitably ensues, and so we keep fighting.

Sex and Gender

We have seen this process play out within our own lifetime over the issue of gay and trans rights. The progressive/liberal position on sex and gender is pretty straightforward: who and how a person has sex, and how they identify with and express their gender, are socially irrelevant facts and everyone should just be able to do whatever they want so long as it respects the rights of others. But as it turns out, you can’t create a social majority for progressive change with that argument - there are simply too many authoritarians who believe that people shouldn’t be able to do whatever they want, and too many social conservatives who believe that how and with whom you have sex are socially important facts.

So the version of the gay rights argument which was successful, and which spread most widely, was the version that appealed to the minimum necessary coalition to achieve social change, which was “Well, people don’t choose to be gay and you can’t judge someone on the basis of a characteristic they didn’t choose”. This argument lets you persuade a wider variety of choice liberals, and even religious individuals. Voila! You’ve changed society; the “Born This Way” narrative which supports the new equilibria isn’t everyone on the Left’s true posiiton, but it’s good enough, so it’s what we went with. But sexuality is fluid and complicated. Bi- and pan- people exist; experimentation and contextual homosexuality is a thing, and not every gay couple wants a marriage, kids and a picket fence. Some want to live in polyamorous, kink-friendly communes. The Left doesn’t care either way, but to the Right, this is just evidence of the Left’s bad faith and endless appetite for social deviancy - and why the Left should always be opposed from the outset.

The trans rights argument is playing out much the same way. This came up in a recent debate between the Twitch streamer Destiny and a self-described ‘gender abolitionist’. The accepted social signal in favour on trans rights mirrors the “Born This Way” argument: trans people are simply born into bodies of the ‘wrong gender’. This is not the position of everyone in the trans community or on the Left, but it’s the signal which is most effective in persuading a minimal viable social coalition. Of course intersex and non-binary people are a thing; individuals may have mixed reasons for adopting a particular gender identity or expression, and those reasons may change over time. The Left doesn’t care: you do you. But by using the metaphysical gender argument, we leave ourselves open to counter-attacks that the male brain/female brain dichotomy is empirically weak (the scientism rebuttal), or ontologically false (it’s just ‘gender ideology’). For the record, I agree with Destiny on this: we should adopt the strategy which is most effective in achieving our goals, and hide our true power levels. Aiming directly for non-binary, luxury gay space communism will get us precisely nowhere.

Social and Economic Justice

To be clear, the signal/strategy dichotomy does not merely apply to cultural issues: it’s also of vast significance in the way we argue about economic and structural inequality. If we make the claim that corporations - or the “millionaires and billionaires” - are uniquely bad and evil people and the working class are uniquely oppressed and virtuous, then our persuasion is exploitable by both empirical and ontological claims that this is untrue. Sadly, Destiny himself has fallen into this trap. For the Marxist leftist, the moral virtue of the capitalist and worker is irrelevant - these are classes performing social roles that are determined by a material structure. In other words, no amount of charitable giving can make the existence of billionaires just - any system which permits individuals and families to accumulate that much wealth off the backs of the labour of others is inherently unjust.

Climate change is another issue where I fear we’ve gone slightly off the rails. Of course, this is not just a left vs right issue - there’s a broad technocratic consensus that something must be done. But by focusing our signalling of the minimal viable level of persuasiveness (i.e. the men in white coats say the world is going to end), we’ve left ourselves open to dissension on grounds of both science (“some scientists disagree; 1.5 degrees isn’t that bad!”) and epistemology (“why should we trust the experts anyway?”). When the Right claims that the Left is being disingenuous about climate change, and thus should be opposed on principle, they have a point. Climate change is an inevitable by-product of the structure of capitalism, and for the Left climate change offers a unique opportunity to democratise and regulate how we produce energy. But if we said that, nothing would be done. So we hide and bide.

My point in bringing all this up is not to critique the way the left has done things. I am a Whiggish historian and generally do think the Left has won and will continue to win most of thesd battles. But I don’t think it’s sufficient for us to rebut the Right by pointing out that they obviously argue in bad faith, because on some level the Left is also acting in bad faith. By calibrating political messaging to appeal to a broader coalition than would actually subscribe to our underlying philosophy, we have to be aware that the hypocrisy is baked in. This creates two problems: first of all, when you’re trying to persuade another person of your position, don’t believe your own talking points. It may be that you are genuinely committed to those points, because you - although a committed and passionate progressive - don’t understand the full consequences of the position you’re taking. Only by immersing yourself in the theory can we recognise, and therefore own, our own bullshit.

Secondly, we should strongly resist the urge to moralise and ritualise our persuasive strategies. We should be aggressive as we possibly can be in convincing other people to support a new social equilibrium, but also flexible and acknowledge that these positions are often hypocritical and adopted in response to temporary political alignments that will continue to change in the future. Don’t uncritically defend the ritual and symbolic importance of certain words, because taboos are merely tools for a political end and their symbolic value is merely a social construct. What we really care about is the social harm that those words licence. Don’t bother debating Rights about the reality of sex or racial differences because these are not things that matter to us and wouldn’t change our position. Know how to argue the science, because we need to rebut our opponents and persuade those in the middle. But never engage the Right on them directly, because they’re not being honest about their true position and neither are we.

The Culture War is about Liberalism

One of the frames I employ in my first book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder” is the [not original] hypothesis that there’s a statistical correlation between progressive economic values and libertarian social views, and a corresponding correlation between conservatism and authoritarianism. So, at least in the modern Anglo-Saxon social equilibrium, an economic progressive is more likely than not to also be socially liberal, and a laissez-faire capitalist is more likely than not to be socially conservative. I suggest that this correlation is driven by the question of interpersonal trust: progressives believe that other people will look out for both their own best interests and the those of others.

But correlation is not deterministic, so there’ll be a significant minority of voters on the Left who are economically progressive but socially conservative, and a significant minority of voters on the Right who are ‘fiscally conservative’ but socially liberal. In order to win a majority, each side’s base (i.e. the economic and social progressives vs the economic and social conservatives) must cobble together a coalition from the minority factions - so both the Left and Right aim to sway a mix of working-class conservatives and socially liberal capitalists. Since the 1980s, the global Right has won this battle overall - in my view, largely because parties of the centre Left gave up on offering genuine economic alternative. We’ll return to the question of who really ‘won’ the neoliberal era later.

The Stupidpol Nexus

I’ve been reading [the late] Mark Fisher lately, as well as a little bit of Zizek. Both are cynical philosophers, deeply critical of capitalism. Their work represents the kind of writing that could inspire a movement like “Occupy Wall Street” but not offer a blueprint for the future. Today’s Left is a lot more optimistic about the potential for transformative economic change. Both Fisher and Zizek, though, sometimes let their critique of neoliberal capitalism seague into a critique of the liberal project more broadly. Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” is one of the seminal texts of what later became the anti-Identity Politics Left and Zizek has been such an effective foil against the Intellectual Dark Web-types largely because he’s a quasi-Marxist who agrees with their some of their criticisms of feminism, queer theory and immigration.

As I’ve written before, the correct Left take on identity politics is that we like it, but recognise that it doesn’t offer a blueprint for meaningful structural change. It’s a tool for perfecting liberalism, not transforming it.

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Which brings us to the inspiration for this week’s blog, the 100th episode of the “Red Scare” podcast, guest starring Angela Nagle. I don’t normally listen to Red Scare for reasons I’ll explain shortly, but horrifying prospect of Sailor Socialism and Nagle offering an unfiltered look into the minds of anti-IdPol Left was too fascinating to pass up. Red Scare is a dirtbag left-adjacent podcast whose co-hosts flirt openly with the ‘Strasserite’ label. Nagle, who rose to fame as one of the foremost experts on the online extreme right, has in recent years raised questions about how must sympathy she has for her subjects, and provoked firestorms with takes such as “The Left Case Against Open Borders” which openly employed right-wing anti-immigration narratives [Zizek loved it]. Both are rapidly pro-Bernie, but largely for the same reasons the liberal-Left hate him: his understatement of race and gender issues, scepticism about open borders and opposition to US foreign policy.

Even knowing what I was getting myself into, I was appalled. Egging each other on, the episode was shockingly reactionary. Flirting ironically [or not so ironically?] with ‘national socialism’, openly contemptuous of both political correctness and cosmopolitanism, Nagle and the hosts openly praised communitarian philosophy (and leaders such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro) in opposition to an ethic of individual freedom. Red Scare’s central thesis is not just that liberal identity politics is philosophically and political weak, but that it is actually harmful [to the left]. One could make the argument they mean this tactically (as in: “we need to win back white working-class men”) - but I suspect Nagle at least sees liberalism as actualy corrosive to her idea of society, which may be socialist but is definitely communitarian and exclusionary. In this, the progressivism that Nagle represents is far closer to the European Left as embodied by people like Melenchon, who combine radical politics with a hefty dose of cultural chauvinism.

It’s for this this reason that the r/stupidpol crowd often find itself agreeing with the ‘anti-SJW’ Right. The centre-Right are so incapable of agreeing to any socialist policies that Nagle and the views she represents seem like a revelation. But to the smarter neo-Nazis, such as Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, they represent an opportunity. True fascists have no compunction against economic resdistribution, so long as it favours their chosen in-group. What matters to fascists is destroying liberalism - with its emphasis on personal freedoms, its open and multicultural societies and social experimentation. And in the communitarian Left, they see willing accomplicies in achieving this goal.

The New Right crumbles

Coincidentally, I’ve also become aware of an emerging culture war split on the American Right, as embodied by the David French v Sohrab Ahmari debate. I don’t pretend to even remotely follow right-wing discourse and everything I know about the situation comes from summaries by other writers. In essence, there seems to be a sense that William Buckley’s New Right coalition of the pro-capitalist and socially conservative wings of the Right is coming under strain [we saw some analogies to this in Australia under the recent troubled Prime Ministerships of Tony Abbot and Malcolm Turnbull]. Despite the manifest success of this electoral strategy, there seems to be a growing view from the Right’s socially and economically conservative base that they no longer need the neoliberal/libertarian technocrats in suits - that, coupled with the populist [Trumpian] outreach to the socially conservative working class, a permanent socially reactionary majority is attainable.

In this, the hard Right has the same complaint about their alliance with right-wing liberals that the anti-IdPol Left has about their alliance with left-wing liberals. For social conservatives, pro-market liberalism is not just a philosophically and politically weak movement, but is actually harmful [to the right] and their desired society. And they have a point. “Woke Capitalism” may be dysfunctional and inegalitarian, but it‘s proved more than willing to accommodate movements for social change that don’t challenge capitalism, to integrate and even cater to minority populations, and to prioritise the interests of capital when it comes to migration over any communitarian concerns about social and cultural cohesion. Rather than seeing the last forty years as a history of unparalleled right-wing political dominance, the far right sees a series of cultural setbacks (particularly on gay rights and women’s reproductive freedom). Liberal political values of secularism and cultural pluralism are a meaningful roadblock to the communitarian kind of societies they want to build. Of course, they’re deluded - abortion is on the chopping bloc in the US and not as secure elsewhere as we might like, and the backlash against feminism and queer movements remains vicious and culturally powerful. But that’s their theory.

Liberal Socialism

Here then, is my central thesis. As I began at the top of this bog, dominant political coalitions tend to bring in at least some of the minority perspective of the other side. For the hard Right, the bipartisan coalition between laissez-faire economics, social progressivism and social conservatism incudes too many social progressives for their liking. For the Left, the coalition between social progressives of all stripes, economic justice and neoliberalism has included far too much accommodation of the neoliberal perspective. The very coalitions each side needs to win power include sufficient moderating forces to prevent them from becoming entirely hegemonic.

In other words, the Culture War that is consuming the intra-factional politics of both Left and Right is about how each side should adopt and incorporate elements of the liberal political and social programme, which at least in the modern era is the hegemonic, centrist status quo against which other ideologies contend. My own position on this is clear: socialism is the natural heir and development of classical liberalism and the libertarian Marxist tradition’s emphasis on both political and economic freedom and self-development is the obvious next step in human cultural evolution. Stripped of its commitment to bourgeois liberal values, socialism has historically become extremely communitarian, rigid and dare I say Stalinist. In other words, I am a firm proponent of the alliance between social progressives and egalitarians of all stripes.

I also think it’s in the Left’s best interest to encourage and widen the split between cultural conservatives and economic liberals. We already see the foundations of this in Europe and Australia, when the pro-business Greens and pro-gay marriage Liberals constitute a genuine political threat to the conservative heartland - which in turn in moving in an ever-more populist direction. The worst possible thing the broader left could do in response to these trends is to jump exclusively on the cultural bandwagon, and become committed to urban, white-collar liberalism. Our commitment to social justice is secondary to our commitment to structural economic change and we have to make sure we win back the working class vote. In doing so, the Left’s base has to be bridge-builders not mere followers - convincing working class conservatives that social liberalism poses no threat to them if it also secures the material basis of their their way of life, and urban liberals that higher taxes and economic redistribution is the only route to action on climate change and true personal freedom.

The new right is not what you think. It's worse.

I said in my interview with the Connect & Disaffected podcast last year that following the collapse of the neoliberal consensus both left and right were casting around for new or previously discarded ideologies to help us make sense of the world. The faultlines of modern politics are being shaped by familiar historical struggles as socialism and fascism modernise themselves in response to the manifest recent failures of liberalism. I wrote recently on the more mainstream right-wing liberalisms and recognised them as a sort of 'honourable enemy', noting their respectable philosophical roots and still significant political base.

Today's blog on the other hand concerns the new right. I am not here referring to the Trumpian 'new right' nexus as it's commonly used as a term in US-facing news media. The constellation of  alt-right, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim xenophobes, the traditionalists, neo-reactionaries and paleo-conservatives who have rallied around Trump's presidency reflect an easy-to-understand conservative impulse – the right rummaging through its graveyard of dead and discredited ideologies.  

The real 'new' right, the ones who represent a genuinely innovative response to the crisis of liberalism, are the so-called 'intellectual dark web' (IDW). Although IDW like to label themselves 'classical liberals', it's not accurate to see them as a simple resurrection of some form of Victorian British liberalism [although there are certainly superficial similarities, which we’ll return to]. Nor is it sufficient to understand the IDW purely in terms of what motivates them – their [white] [male] Gen X grievance and fear of loss of relative status. There are features of the IDW – most notably their hostility to universalist liberalisms, their deep commitment to Santa Barbara-style evolutionary psychology, general support for UBI schemes and flirtations with race realism – which they share in common with the alt-lite and which suggest a different perspective on archetypal liberal universalism. If the IDW are neo-Victorians, then they believe in social Darwinism on steroids. 

Michael Brooks is right on this. The IDW are laying the seeds of a new political narrative – a narrative that seeks to supplant the discredited rule of the neoliberals and co-opt the resentment of the alt-right, while outliving them both. The left is building its own counter-narrative, quite successfully so. But we need to know our opponents, and pay attention to what they're saying, because if the popularity of the Petersons and Harrises of the world is any guide, IDW-like ideas are finding an audience on YouTube and Twitch and spreading into a mass consciousness.

 A thesis statement

Which brings us to the motivation for today. The race realist Winegard science bros have a new piece on Quillette "The Twilight of Liberalism?", laying out the clearest thesis statement for the IDW I've yet encountered. To be clear, the Winegards are trash. So is Quillette - which is essentially the house rag of the IDW. The Winegards latest piece hits all their usual tropes – cultural Marxism, the authoritarian left, IQ fetishism and the cult of automation. But buried in the piece are hints of something honest about the IDW.

“[I]t is not the abstract logic of liberalism that is flawed,” they write, “but rather the attempt to apply it to fallible humans. Like communism, liberalism conflicts with immutable human characteristics.” Immediately, we encounter a pessimism that is at odds with the liberalism tradition, which is fundamentally optimistic about human nature and grounds its conception of natural rights on axiomatic suppositions about the universal human experience. The Winegard bros dismiss this outright in terms that are familiar to critics of capitalism on both the right and left: classical liberalism as an ideology was adapted to a social world still rooted in a traditional social order, which provided the social reproduction necessary for the capitalist mode of production to take off. Their critique - shared by many communitarians - is that as it matured, capitalism eroded the social foundations on which it relied and what it offered in exchange (universal equality, unlimited freedom, and ‘hedonism’) was a poor substitute.

The Winegards propose an ‘evolutionary mismatch’ between the ideology of capitalism and features of the human mind - or at least the minds of most people - that is as a severe as the supposed mismatch between utopian socialism and human nature. Determining whether a cultural technology is in fact maladapted is notoriously difficult. And it ignores the fact that biology and culture co-evolve. But as a thesis statement, the idea that [some] people cannot adapt to modern social life unites the misogyny of Jordan Peterson to the racial pontificating of Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris, to the elitism of Steven Pinker, and the cultural conservatism of Ben Shapiro and Christina Hoff Summers. It dichotomises the ‘cognitive elite’ - the genteel folk of the IDW who can calmly philosophise and make a living from Patreon - and the masses who engage in manual labour and require a firmer hand. The ‘cognitively inferior’ include women, of course, but also non-whites, cultural Muslims, trans men and women, the poor, the young, the religious and the irreligious alike. Some people simply aren’t morally equipped to be ‘free’.

There are precedents for these beliefs, of course. The Winegards are barely disguising their re-purposing of the Bell Curve, and Murray has long argued that his argument in that book is all about meritocracy and its totally not his fault at all that cognitive differences happen to be racialised. Sure buddy. But this worldview is also implicit in much of behavioural economics and the ‘authoritarian libertarianism’ of Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein’s ‘nudge’ approach to public policy. Neoliberals, drawing on mid-twentieth century views of the Mont Pelerin society, have long believed that society needs to be governed with a firm hand to deliver outcomes that are optimised for the greater good. The wrinkle that the IDW add is that some [Westernised men] can govern themselves free from the state, but that others [largely women and non-Westerners] are categorically incapable of doing so.

The IDW are therefore critics of liberalism, but critics who think we cannot possibly improve upon it. The theory is not wrong, it just has the wrong subject. Classical liberalism is therefore an ideology by and for the ruling elite - and not for everyone else. Liberty for me but not for thee. The various members of the IDW have different emotional reactions to the burdens of rule - the Weinsteins and more centrist-leaning adherents look upon the ‘cognitive inferiority’ of humanity with regret, but treat benevolent rule as the white man’s burden [recall Brett Weinstein’s incredibly patronising response to the Evergreen controversy]. Those of a more conservative inclination, including Shapiro, Peterson and the Winegard bros, believe strongly in the need for order and discipline of the masses, lest they ‘slump into an empty and unsatisfying hedonism that is ruinous to communities and to society more broadly.’

It is for this reason that the IDW are properly categorised as a right-wing movement. Their reverence for order and hierarchy puts them in good company amongst conservatives. The alt-right, neoliberals and libertarians all serve the interests of power and hierarchy in different ways. Fascists do so consciously, libertarians by neglect and neoliberals behind a veneer of technocratic governance. The IDW are the apologists of domestic empire. If fascism can be thought of as the application of the tools of colonial rule to the metropolitan population, then the IDW narrative is the justification of imperialism and the ‘tutelage’ of ‘inferior’ peoples brought home to justify dominion over the majority of the population.

Unlike their neoliberal colleagues like Pinker, who tend to believe that with the right combination of education and public policy, the masses can [eventually] mature to enjoy the full right and privileges of liberal citizenship, the IDW are pessimists who are prepared to write off the vast bulk of humanity as a burden upon the white man’s pursuit of a glorious future. As best, the masses are to be pensioned off with a UBI so they no longer disturb the peace - at worst, as Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House fears, they are rhetorically preparing for a future in which their ‘cognitive inferiors’ are either permanently enslaved or fenced off and left to die on the doorsteps on the enclaves of the elite as climate change burns the world down around them.

It is for this reason, also, that the IDW serve as such a gateway to the actual alt-right. It’s not fair to call a fan of the IDW a fascist. But they are certainly travelling on the same road, because their diagnosis of the crisis of liberalism is the same [including their complete and utter aversion to any consideration of a socialist solution]. An IDW-rationalist looks at the cognitive divide and thinks they’re going to come out on top; a supporter of fascism probably recognises they aren’t going to. At the leadership level, the two movements probably share 99 per cent of their beliefs, but unlike the Richard Spencers of the word, the writers at Quillette are unwilling to lower themselves to engage with the MAGA cultural wasteland. It remains to be seen which is the more effective political strategy.

What is to be done?

I’ve said many times that the first step of any socialist movement is to defend and uphold liberal democracy. Without upholding the basic principle that every citizen is entitled to equal dignity and equal say over the decisions that affect their interests, we cannot argue that a materially unequal society is one that does not uphold the social contract. Mere rejection of the IDW is not enough however. The IDW are very, very good at propaganda and are learning how to package misogyny, racism and transphobia under a veneer of scientific and philosophical legitimacy that is superficially persuasive to many people.

The left is getting better at countering these narratives - but there’s a disconnect between the very online progressive movements who are the ground troops of this war of stories and the movement activists who are seeking and contesting power. It doesn’t help that many of the [white, male] writers and academics who naturally support this movement enjoy socially privileged positions and access to expert knowledge. For many serious politicians, the IDW may be beneath their notice. But its cultural influence should concern us. We won’t be able to enact our agendas if the narrative ground has been disappeared beneath us.

Listen to my talk at NIBS

A couple of weeks ago, on 2 April, I gave a talk on my first book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder” at the New International Book Store in Melbourne. For those not able to be there, there are now two recordings of the talk available online:

Firstly, via the podcast of NIBS itself here.

Secondly, there’s a slightly edited version available in the first half hour of the 6 April episode of 3CR’s Solidarity Radio here.

Utilitarianism, Intersectionality and Epistemic Injustice

I’ll be talking about my first book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder” at the New International Book Store (NIBS) at Trade’s Hall in Melbourne at 7pm on Tuesday 2 April 2019. If you’d like to come and hear me speak about how we got here and where we go next, check out NIBS’ Facebook page here. Hope to see people there!

In Chapter IV of my book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder”, I diagnose the inherent authoritarianism of the technocratic, utilitarian mindset thus:

“Authoritarians believe their actions are for the good of all, as they see it. Anyone who [believes] that people should behave in certain ways or that their answer to a social problem is the right answer for all people is acting in an authoritarian mode; as is anyone that attempts to limit personal choice – even ‘wrong’ choices. Authoritarians are motivated by a desire to prevent unfavourable outcomes, including (or especially) outcomes that will primarily affect others. . . . An authoritarian world view is often synonymous with . . . .[u]tilitarianism, [which] as a philosophy or system of ethics, reduces politics to the actions of an idealised dictator who weighs up the balance of interests of society and makes decisions as if those interests were his own.”

Utilitarian calculus inherently relies on a universal accounting of interests and preferences - or more realistically, a process of deciding which interests and preferences are really important and those that aren’t. Oddly enough, it often turns out that the interests that utilitarians value serve the purposes of the powerful and the wealthy, and the link between technocratic impulses and authoritarianism and hierarchy has been a consistent theme of my writing.

I’ve also tried, over the last eighteen months on this blog, to come to an understanding of the politics of identity, solidarity and recognition - a topic I explicitly avoid in the book. In that self-examination, the strongest endorsement I could offer to Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of ‘intersectionality’ is that it represents good progressive tactics. Useful, in other words, but temporary. Necessary, but not sufficient. As I write in the “Introduction” to the book, “[O]nce victories have been secured . . .there’s no guarantee that every minority voter will remain a leftist. Indeed, there is a very good reason to assume the exact opposite: that minority communities contain approximately the same distribution of political beliefs as the rest of society.”

This blog is yet another effort to correct and improve upon that record. I’ve come to the conclusion that my dismissal of utilitarianism already includes within it the philosophical case for intersectionality and the equalisation of subjective epistemology (i.e. personal ways of knowing). This conclusion is of vital importance to the modern left, because pretensions of utilitarian universalism and the rejection of the subjective experience and axieties of the working class, women, racial minorities and especially trans individuals are the sina qua non of the modern ‘classical liberal’, i.e. devotees of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW).

Epistemic Injustice

Steven Pinker has been at it again this week, this time [where else?] on the pages of Quillette offering a defence of his most recent book, “Enlightenment Now”. Pinker’s descent into to “house wonk” status amongst the IDW has been inevitable for sometime now, and in this article his prejudices are in full force - alongside his otherwise excellent prose. Between essentially conceding the point that his book is not actually about the real historical enlightenment (but rather Pinker’s idealised notion of it), and repeated bizarre Rousseau bashing (which he seems to have possibly picked up via Hannah Arendt), Pinker devotes most of the article, and I presume his book [full disclosure: I haven’t read it] to proving that the subjective experience of poor or declining quality of life is untrue, and that empirically human life is improving. To the extent that people disagree, it’s either because of their irrational biases, ignorance, or the unequal distribution of knowledge.

Pinker’s data project has obvious strengths and weaknesses, and I’m not here to challenge it on those terms. Rather I take aim at the technocratic epistemological worldview of which he is a part: that happiness can be measured, that experts and think tanks agree on how to measure it, and that this elite consensus on the meaning of happiness is the only basis on which we could, or should, make public policy. Pinker’s style of thinking is typical of right-wing liberalism in all its positive and negative manifestations. It’s good to believe, as Enlightenment thinkers largely did, that we can improve the world through reason. But reason also serves to justify privilege. Why not support the slave trade (like Locke and Jefferson) since it objectively improved welfare, as least as far as it could be measured in the 18th century? And why believe women’s experiences about #metoo when, objectively speaking, women have never had it better in the workplace? Why believe African-Americans who tell us they experience systematic harassment and discrimination in their everyday lives, when the data shows they’ve never been better off? And perhaps most tellingly of all, why believe trans people about their experience of gender dysphoria when science says there are only two sexes and transgenderism is a mental disorder?

As should be clear by now, the worldview which Pinker and the IDW represent is one which systematically devalues the knowledge and experience of those not in positions of power and authority. Not only is the testimony of minority groups systematically discounted, but those groups do not have access to the same tools of influence and persuasion to make their case even if they were potentially going to be listened to. The English philosopher Miranda Fricker has in recent years termed the phrase “epistemic injustice” to describe this phenomenon, and it’s certainly a framework that was being made growing use of in academia during my recent studies in Switzerland. Epistemic injustice is simply the observation that knowledge - and perhaps more importantly, ways of knowing - are not equally distributed in society and that some viewpoints, such as Pinker’s, are systematically privileged by the current structure of power.

Utiliarianism is Epistemic Injustice

Intersectionality, then, in the sense of listening to and taking as authoritative others’ subjective experience of their own social position and resisting the temptation to impose our own knowledge and narratives on their lives, is the first step towards remedying epistemic injustice. It’s not a total solution of course - no permanent social change can be effected solely at the level of the individual and insisting that it can be serves only to demoralise people who can’t perform perfectly (i.e. everyone). Just as individual awareness of our impact on the environment will hopefully form the basis for structural economic change to fight climate change, so to can intersectional personal interactions lay the groundwork for structural political change that ends the unequal distribution of knowledge.

My book offers a robust defense of the democratic form of socialism in particular because I am firmly of the view that democracy is deeply under threat from the liberal technocrats who claim to be it’s champion. I’ve written before that right-wing liberals have a long history of distrust of popular democracy, and if democracy [in the abstract] is to mean anything at all, it is that the people most affected by group decisions should participate in the making of that decision. Liberal technocrats distrust real democracy because at their core they do not believe that real groups of people possess sufficient knowledge to make decisions in their own self-interest. Sure, an idealised Republic of white, male philosophers might all be able to deliberate together and agree on the ‘right’ thing to do, but the degree of social inclusion or material redistribution required to extend the right of democratic deliberation to everyone is unworkable, undesirable - and consensus may be impossible even on those terms.

Utilitarian public policy making, therefore, is inherently unjust from an epistemic viewpoint. Who gets access to knowledge about the world, whose experiences matter, and who possess the social capital to make their case most persuasively - these are questions whose answers are not distributed fairly. The only solution to this unfair epistemology, as with all things, is socialised democracy. Real democracy - in which everyone regardless of their socio-economic status, gender identity, ethnic or religious background gets to meaningfully participate in the public decisions that affect their interests as they themselves define those interests. The first step is always going to be getting recognised as a group of individual that has a stake. Now, I’m no utopian. No society is ever going to deliver on a perfectly equally distribution of knowledge. But like all aspects of the socialist project, I’m confident in saying that we can do better than we are right now, and we know what direction to start the journey in.