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).
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.