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.

The Establishment Right - Not Dead Yet

I've written several times before on the tensions within the liberal democratic consensus, and how the Great Recession (and Iraq War that preceded it) exposed and aggravated them. Both in my first book (“Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder") and in my writings on my blog, I’ve argued that only democratic socialism offers the possibility of both more 'freedom' and more democracy – while also delivering on the left's other social goals included fairer, more resilient progress. There is, in other words, left-wing populism and it is good.

I've always been interested in the anatomy of right-wing political philosophy, because we on the left have to understand our opponents if we are to defeat them. The purpose of today's blog is to look briefly at the two 'establishment' right-wing liberal philosophies that are still in contention – neoliberalism and right-libertarianism – and see how they're responding to this moment of crisis. My interest in writing about this topic was sparked by a recent episode of Jacobin's "The Dig" Podcast with Daniel Denvir, discussing the history of neoliberalism. Like most leftists of a certain age, I find it both hilarious and gratifying that some people nowadays self-consciously identify as neoliberal (including my old friend @EconoMeager) rather than taking it as the invisible aether in which we all swim.

An anatomy of fools

Neoliberalism and right-libertarianism share common DNA. Philosophically, they are distinct from the various flavours of conservatism: idealist and utopian – neither especially empirical nor pragmatic – right-wing liberalism permits a degree of social and personal freedom that is anathema to the hard right. They are too 'centrist' for reactionaries in the same way that liberal democrats are too 'centrist' for us on the left. Both neoliberalism and libertarianism are committed to the Hayekian consensus of modern economics: that individual autonomy is the only just way to satisfy individual preferences, and that it is also economically efficient if every social actor engages in autonomous self-help in pursuit of those preferences. At a stretch, both may even argue that autonomous free contracting provides the social glue that binds society together and enables peace and prosperity amongst societies. It posits a harmony between individual and collective ends that is, of course, empirically false (because of collective action problems, market failures and a half dozen other factors).

Of the two, libertarianism gives ontological primacy to the autonomous individual. The boundaries of the private – including and especially private property – are sacred in a very literal way. Upholding the negative rights of the individual – the absence of violence or coercion – is the sine qua non of a just society and no violation of that principle can be tolerated. Right-libertarians distrust the democratic state (as do left-libertarians) because of the significant potential threat it poses to those rights. However, because of the primacy of principle, they are blind to the way in which unequal structures of wealth and power are just as much of a threat to individual freedom as the state. Right-libertarianism justifies authoritarianism by neglect – if it's not the state, then it's not exploitation. And it’s for this reason that right-libertarians tend to have the Trump-iest populist politics.  

Neoliberals take a different tack, and here I am relying explicitly on Dan's interview with the economic historian Quinn Slobodian. Neoliberals give primacy to the market as whole. They value the collective ends of efficiency and growth, and therefore are attracted towards the technocratic and utilitarian. For neoliberals, democratic impulses threaten the efficient operation of the market, so the legal institutions of the state must be made immune from popular accountability. Neoliberals are very comfortable exercising state power, but are deeply ambivalent about its democratic form and are prone to actual honest-to-goodness authoritarian behaviour. Neoliberals are less committed to the principle of individual autonomy – although it’s a valuable aesthetic ornament – and as a result may be more sceptical towards private concentrations of power that corrupt market efficiency (for example, they are often committed to breaking up monopolies in the interest of preserving competition). Neoliberals are anti-populists - and are preserving their elite status by standing with the Never Trumpers.

Different narratives, different faults

The Great Recession, therefore, posed a different challenges to neoliberals and right-libertarians. Like the Iraq War before it, the Great Recession showed that the idealistic utopianism of right-wing liberals was no better at economic management and securing international peace than the utopianism of the left-wing communists. But because of the affective weights they place on different elements of their political and economic model, each diagnoses the political threat from populism differently. These different viewpoints will determine their response to the populist moment and affect their short- and long-term political trajectories.

The neoliberals have the same response as always. The cause of the Great Recession was clearly too much state intervention in favour of housing loans, driven by populist visions of expanding home ownership. Put in charge of their own destiny, people vote for idiots like Trump who blindly rip up decades worth of international law and institutions. The state just needs to be run by smarter people, and if the masses cannot be educated, then they can at least have their biases studied and manipulated so they no longer get in the way. Neoliberals are most content with moving in the direction of further liberal undemocracy: while they can tolerate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, they’d much rather live in Xi Jinping’s China than Trump’s America.

The libertarians, too, identify the state as the problem but their response to the current moment of crises has been less coldly calculating and more emotive. For libertarians, the cure for economic inquality and sluggish growth is worse than the disease. Blind to the threat posed to their liberties by private concentrations of capital, libertarians have been eclipsed by the populist right. The true believers remaining are those wealthy or privileged enough to be immune from the consequences of their own ideology. Other [let’s suppose white, working-class] men and women who have been materially affected by the Great Recession are those most likely to follow the siren song of illiberal democracy and right-wing identity politics, trading away the rights and freedoms of others (migrants, women, LGBT communities) so long as they preserve their own slice of the economic pie. It’s only self-interest after all.

What is to be done

I think the left writes off neoliberals at our own peril. Right wing libertarians have always been a fringe movement: well-funded, yes, but incapable of gathering lasting popular appeal outside small groups of narcissists. The defection of most of its voting base into nationalist reaction has shown libertarianism for the paper tiger it always was. But the neoliberals are playing a longer game. When Trump is gone, and the populist moment has passed, they’ll [deservedly] get credit for opposing his free-spending, institution-smashing policies. Moreover, the more they discredit Trumpism, the more they’ll delegitimise the very idea of populist democracy itself. The WTO may be saved by the very people now trying to destroy it. Neoliberals, in other words, retain their considerable social capital amongst elites, and that social capital is going to given them a great deal of political and ideological power in the long-term. If and when right-wing populism fails, it will be up to the left to resurrect the cause of popular democracy.

The alt-lite and Rituals of Provocation

Landing in Australia last week, I found to my chagrin that Canadian alt right-adjacent internet personalities Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were 'touring' with a predictable response of protests, wall-to-wall media coverage and conservative concern trolling over 'free speech' [paywall]. Meanwhile, in the US, the Proud Boys are marching and rioting in famously progressive Portland, and well-funded conservative trolls Milo Yiannopolis, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray and Christina Hoff-Summers are routinely invited onto university campuses by right-wing student groups in order to get media attention and a rise out of their opponents. These provocateurs form an essential tactical bridge between classical (i.e. conservative) liberals, whose anxieties about freedom of speech they prey on, and the fascist alt-right, who rely on the violence these events generate to radicalise and 'blood' their foot soldiers. 

These modern agitators are working in an established tradition. Street violence between fascists and anti-fascists has a long history, dating back to the demise of the Bavarian Soviet in 1920, the Spanish Civil War and the street battles of 1930s Europe. This violence succeeded in convincing many liberal moderates that authoritarianism was a necessary palliative to restore order. The left was more successful in the aftermath of the war, with anti-fascists in the UK and Germany stamping down hard (cf. The Battle of Lewisham) on neo-Nazis and rendering them a (mostly) harmless political joke until Richard Spencer and friends came along and rebranded the alt-right. While political violence is often read as either instrumental, and therefore a product or elite manipulation, or irrational and therefore chaotic and anarchical, the truth is that the alt-lite's trolling shares a strategic form with contests fought along ethnic and religious lines: "Rituals of Provocation" that serve to sharpen and antagonise group identities.

Rituals of Provocation

In the 1990s, anthropologists including Stanley Tambiah, Allen Feldmann and Peter van der Veer undertook detailed studies of pre-conflict tensions between ethnic and religious communities in Northern Ireland, mainland India and Sri Lanka. Their accounts disclose a universal ritual, a shared type of performance common across diverse political and ethnic contexts. In short, processions through disputed territory (think the Orange marches in Northern Ireland) commonly led to riots, which in turn increased the salience of group identities and encouraged armed aggression between them. 

In these marches, the provocateur moves outside the environment of their own community and crosses a boundary demarcating the sacred territory of an opposing group. Marches "transform the [opposing] community into an involuntary audience" for one's own beliefs, and defile the opponent's territory through the aggressive display of political symbols, stereotyped and boastful rhetoric and triumphal music. A key component of such a performance, according to Tambiah, is an "array of triggering actions that are publicly recognised as challenges, slights, insults and desecrations inviting reprisal". In an Indian context, for example, such a procession may conclude with the slaughter of a sacred (or profane) animal in a public space holy to the other side. 

In other words, rituals of provocation are not about advocating for one's beliefs, or even addressing those beliefs to an audience that disagrees with them. Rather, they are an intentional violation of the sacred - a defilement of the 'safe spaces' of the target community with ritual words and phrases ("there are only two genders") specifically chosen to trigger an emotive and potentially violent defensive response (I've written about Jonathan Haidt's work on the sanctity trigger previously). We all recognise this strategy, whether in the form of al-Qaeda attacking the heart of US financial and military power, ISIS-inspired gunmen shooting up gay nightclubs, or Jesus attacking the moneylenders in the Temple at Jerusalem. The defilement of the sacred sharpens contradictions: the performance forces the 'audience' to choose one identity and take a side, where previously ambiguity and co-existence might have prevailed. Tambiah writes that many mixed communities manage to co-exist peacefully until provocateurs activate the latent fault-lines beneath them. 

In the West, we are used to thinking of ethnic and religious conflict as being in some sense irrational, emotional and performative, and political conflict as a separate sphere that is rational and instrumental, but this is a false dichotomy. The lines between religion, philosophy and political ideology are blurry, and each rely on a universal human psychological substrate to operate their social 'code'. In the Muslim and Christian worlds for example, one might identify with the majority religion while also offering gifts to the ancestors - up until some fundamentalist comes to town and starts tearing down your shrines. But politically too, we may happily profess both our commitment to freedom of speech and opposition to racism until some Nazis show up and use their freedom of expression to advocate the ethnic cleansing of your neighbourhood. 

Back to the free speech wars

The fact that the modern free speech wars centre around public universities is not, therefore, a function of the fact that educational institutions have become uniquely intolerant of divergent opinions. Universities have always been, and remain, some of the most vibrant centres of debate in any society and the idea that they have become Leninist training grounds for "Cultural Marxist warriors is, and always has been, empirically absurd. Rather, universities are being chosen specifically as sites for these rituals of provocations precisely because they are the territory of the young, political active and progressive. In the same vein, kids these days aren't special snowflakes who need protecting from opposing viewpoints: rather, they are being actively and consciously 'triggered' by political provocateurs who know precisely what words and phrases will provoke an emotive and media-friendly backlash. We find it easy to see religious believers as being uniquely vulnerable to manipulation of their sacred symbols, but should recognise it everywhere and amongst everyone. 

Lauren Southern, Stephan Molyneux and their ilk are therefore performing for two audiences simultaneously: on the one hand, they carry out acts of daring transgression that make their opponents appear weak and encourage their own base to engage in more risky and violent behaviour. But for the neutral observer who is not activated by their defilement of the sacred in the same way or to the same degree, their actions stripped of their symbolic meaning can seem reasonable or even defensible, and the emotive and defensive reaction of the target community in turn irrational and unreasonable. Lauren has the 'right' to speak, much as the Orange Order has the 'right to march' or Muslims in India have the 'right' to slaughter and eat beef. A wedge is thereby created between the norms of one community (the liberal moderate) and the norms of another (students who don't want Nazis at their university). 

As far as I can tell, there are few good defences against this strategy. Terrorism and extremism work because it only takes a few radicals in a community to sharpen contradictions and force a majority of citizens, who were formerly happy to ambiguously co-exist, into overt conflict. The history of political, ethnic and religious violence suggests that once activated, conflict is very difficult to damp down absent heavy investment in norm-building, de-escalation and co-existence. Yet I see little sign that the alt-right and their agents want to de-escalate current political tensions - quite the contrary. Perhaps the best we can do, right now, is for both socialists and liberals to recognise the tactics being used against us for what they are, and to consciously work to avoid being manipulated by charlatans, trolls and other bad faith actors. 

Myths of the Old Order: The Tyranny of the Majority

Chapter VI of my book, "Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder" puts forward the leftist case for the central and radical importance of democracy. Democratic socialism is neither a reforming variety of socialist, nor merely a particularly progressive-minded liberal, but rather an ideology that treats both democracy and socialism as equally serious modes of analysis. "Liberal democracy", I write, "is the best set of institutions we've yet created to facilitate cooperative solutions to social problems. . . . If they didn't exist, the left would have to invent them." Liberal democracy represents a stable, if far from ideal, quasi-equilibrium which has proven successful in delivering growth, basic egalitarianism and military security in a diverse range of cultural and strategic environments. 

Yet the association between the philosophy of liberalism and democracy, as a form and structure of government, is neither unproblematic nor automatic. Democracies pre-date liberalism by several millennia, and have employed diverse legitimising belief systems (c.f. for example, the Islamic Republic of Iran). Totalitarian autocracies, including Nazi Germany, the USSR and North Korea, hold elections and elect parliaments. And even if we enforce a stricter definition of democracy focusing on the peaceful transfer of power between competing elites, then the slave-holding and imperialist European limited monarchies of the 18th and 19th century would qualify as democracies despite restricting the franchise to a tiny fraction of property-holding males. The People's Republic of China is no democracy, but upholds the rule of law and market institutions with a fervour that would make American conservatives blush. 

As the 19th century oligarchies (and the hypocrisy of the liberal philosophers who supported them) demonstrate, there is an underlying tension between liberals and the expectations of universal, participatory democracy. I've written before about elites' irrational fear of 'populism', unleashed by the rising tide of right-wring authoritarians and the return of socialists who seek to roll fascism back. Across the world, self-identified liberal centrists are more sceptical of democracy, less likely to support elections, and more supportive of authoritarianism than either the self-identified left or right. Centrist politics - often self-avowedly liberal - has an underlying distrust of public opinion in a way that is only being amplified by the ever-increasing popularity of behavioural economics, evolutionary psychology and social media. This blog is about the myth(s) which undergirds that scepticism: the 'tyranny of the majority'. Why do liberals mistrust democracy, what does it lead to, and should we be concerned?

Two origins, two myths

There are essentially two variants of the 'tyranny of the majority' myth (one individualist, one group-centred or utilitarian), which serve different purposes in the overall canon of liberalism depending on the outlook of the audience. Each represents a point where liberals limit their enthusiasm for popular, nationalist or revolutionary projects: yes, emancipation from feudalism and empire is great, but popular democracy cannot be allowed to go too far, else we end up in Revolutionary France or the Soviet Union. The mythological tyranny of the majority *is* for all intents and purposes the Terror: the repression of individuals and minorities by 'democratic' governments that embody the will of the people. This potential for abuse existed in classical liberalism because neither Hobbes' Leviathan state, Locke's universal 'human nature', nor Rousseau's 'general will' conceived of the diversity of the modern democratic electorate. 

For John Stuart Mill, the tyranny of the majority was "tendency of society to impose  . . . its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own." In order to limit this threat, it is necessary that the only "the only purpose for which [democratic] power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Mill, in other words, was advancing a social theory of individual rights (rather than a natural or divine law theory like many of his predecessors): liberal rights are necessary when individuals contract with a democratic government because that government poses a threat to their interests which does not exist in a state of nature. In order to protect the freedom of individuals, the entire liberal democratic apparatus of the separations of powers, the independence of the judiciary and human rights necessarily follows.

Chapter VII of my book essentially endorses Mills' individualist viewpoint. But there is a second (chronologically older) take on the tyranny of majority, which is more utilitarian and consequentialist in character. In Federalist No. 10, future US President James Madison wrote about the origins of inequality as arising "[f]rom the  . . .different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, [such that] the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results." Since inequality is the "most common and durable" driver of class conflict, a democratic majority might give in to the temptations of a "a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project." Liberal institutions, therefore, are a necessary check on democracy in order to preserve the 'exacting impartiality' required of proper economic governance, the priorities of which are [obviously?] the solvency of the national debt and the protection of private wealth. 

The pro-market consequentialism inherent in Madison's argument - that the contentious nature of democracy impairs good governance and that liberal institutions are a necessary check on the passion and self-interest of the mob - is found in almost all utilitarian and capitalist screeds against democracy. It underlies the appeal of authoritarian governance to centrist politicians and big business alike. Democracy, in this view, is unnecessary in a liberal society so long as it's well governed and protects property rights. It is this Madisonian fear of majority rule, particularly influential among the American right, that lies at the faultline between liberals and democracy. It is why independent, technocratic institutions - at both the national and international level - are seen as an ideal bulwark in defense of the status quo order. 

Illiberal Democracies and Liberal Undemocracies

The partnership between liberalism and democracy, therefore, is dynamic and potentially vulnerable to changing environmental circumstances. Under pressure from anaemic global growth and authoritarian challenger states, we start to see slippage, the tectonic plates on which our governments rest sliding past one another. Whereas we’re used to thinking of liberal democracy as a unitary concept, now there are mutations: illiberal democracy and liberal undemocracy (which we'll just call liberal oligarchy for the sake of clarity). As the inheritor of the Madisonian argument, neoliberalism served as the handmaiden of the current crisis of democracy: self-avowedly apolitical and technocratic, liberal oligarchy aimed to place the levers of economic and social power beyond the reach of the mob. Expanding the reach and privilege of property rights was seen as the keystone unlocking economic growth. 

The neoliberals were wrong. Not only were they incapable of sustaining economic growth for more than a few years at a time without recurrent financial crises, but their indifference towards the interests of those in the electorate who missed out on the boom times bred a crisis of legitimacy in government itself that we are now seeing play out all over the capitalist world. In response, social movements on both the right and left are arguing that a more democracy would be a necessary corrective: more accountability, more responsiveness and a greater willingness to get our hands dirty to bring the market back into line. These movements differ *vastly* and significantly in what democracy means to them: for the left, democracy means fulfilment of the liberal promise of the equal dignity of all humanity, for the right, more democracy means satisfaction of conservative and nationalist grievances. But both are committed to the position that liberal oligarchy is neither desirable nor sustainable. 

Left-wing populism demonstrates that there is no necessary conflict between liberalism and more democracy - depending, of course, on what variant of liberalism we want. But Cas Mudde, amongst others, has made the argument that more populism means a society *must* move in an illiberal direction. But this oppositional understanding is only true if either a) liberalism means, in the strictly Madisonian sense, capitalist economic governance, or b) more democracy threatens individual rights and the corrosion of liberal institutions that protect those rights. All 'populisms' are not the same: it is right-wing populism that threatens the rights of individuals and minorities, that seeks to weaken the independence of the judiciary and other checks on the power of the executive (sense (b)). Anyone (right or left) who supports of Mills' account of individual liberty can see how right wing populism can lead to illiberal politics. However, in order to see an equivalent threat from the left, your understanding of liberalism must be strictly (sense (a)) Madisonian, pro-capitalist and utilitarian. 

Fascism - right-wing populism - is a form of cancer that preys on the body of liberal oligarchies which face a crisis of legitimacy and loss of faith in democratic institutions. In seeking a more authentic nationalist democracy, fascists are more than happy to sweep away the 'decadent' liberal order; all too often, liberal oligarchies facilitate this process by deliberately courting illiberal politics in order to enhance their legitimacy and stave off decline. Elites falsely believe that in order to make their rule more democratic, it needs to become more illiberal. It's straightforward to indulge in the chauvinistic tyrannies of the majority for an election cycle or two, particularly if those tyrannies can be directed at migrants, non-citizens, minorities and other marginalised groups. Why not pay that price in order to preserve the liberal economic order? 

Looking to the future by working with the past

As a democratic or libertarian socialist, I see no fatal conflict between the institutions of liberal governance and the quest for a more just social and economic order. But historically, I must admit, left wing populism is not immune to an illiberal impulse. Marx & Engels were famously dismissive of 'bourgeois' democracy, and the temptation to 'cheat' the system and press for faster, more radical change is always present. Modern monetary theory, I suspect, gains much of its appeal from seeming like an end-run around the existing economic order. But the revolutionary appeal of doing away with liberal institutions at will is illusory and dangerous: change must be made, and rules and norms can be bent to do so. But we would break them at our peril. Globally, the Left has been down that road and did not like where it took us. I would encourage, therefore, populists of the left-wing variety to be willing and able to argue the case why more equality and more democracy is consistent with (and in fact, reinforces and defends) a free and open liberal society. That, more than any other, is the central theme of my book. 

Politics for the New Dark Age on the David Pakman Show

On 11 July, David Pakman invited me on his internationally syndicated radio show to talk about my book, "Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amdist Disorder", and the Intellectual Dark Web. David came across my article "On Reputation: Or, how and why bad ideas need rebranding" and wanted to discuss my hypothesis that Harris, Peterson & Co. are more interested in protecting their personal reputations than in promoting free speech. It was a good conversation, and went in some interesting directions. You can find the podcast here (interview starts at at the 29:45 mark). The YouTube version of the clip is embedded here:

Are the Intellectual Dark Web snake oil salesmen?

During the show, David advanced the thesis that the Intellectual Dark Web are akin to charlatans who inflate their social reputations during eras of uncertainty in order to spread ideas of dubious value. I actually wrote a piece advancing a similar metaphor a few months back, which you can find here: "The Omnivore's Dilemma Redux: Understanding Anti-Vaxxers". For the record, the IDW seem to me to be the inverse of that phenonmenon: they're not promoting new, bad ideas by exploiting uncertainty about their personal reputation, but rather propagating old, bad ideas by defending the reputation they already have as a result of their high social status. If we're looking at a nineteenth century medical paradigm, the IDW are not snake oil salesman selling miracle cures in fake lab coats, they're the existing establishment getting huffy when new science shows that bloodletting and treating the humours were never effective in the first place.