At the very least, these liberals are no different from the white moderate described by King in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” They prefer a false peace to a just peace; they prefer orderly hand-holding and singing from communities that have been brutalized beyond belief; they prefer a quiet list of demands read out at a press conference, as if that has not already been tried before to little effect; they prefer to focus on the empty (or absent) proclamations of their favorite celebrity punching bags rather than focusing on the lives and humanity of real people who are fighting white supremacy and repression on the ground right now.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

Thankyou note to John Roskam

(Institute for Public Affairs Director John Roskam pulled a quote from one of my columns for the IPA’s latest fund-raising letter. This morning i sent him this note of thanks.)

SUBJECT: Campaign contribution.

Mr Roskam,

Thanks for mentioning my Guardian column in your latest fund-raising letter. You have increased awareness of my brand among the many corrupt property developers, chinless libertarians, young fogies, and elderly racists that compose your membership. Without doubt, there are good times ahead for me.

I note that you do not quote the parts of the column where I point to the IPA’s enduring mediocrity. So in case it wasn’t clear enough, I should emphasise that my contempt for your organisation and its values is bottomless. Fortunately we’ve never met, but I daresay that this also goes for you personally. It certainly extends to the more prominent members of your staff.

It’s difficult to nominate a single reason for this. It could be your willingness to appeal to racial prejudice in campaigns clothed in the raiments of “liberty”. It could be your advocacy on behalf of the manufacturers of products that kill their customers and despoil the planet. It could be the bumptious expectation that your third-hand Hayekian dross will be taken seriously as an intellectual position. Your publicity headshot doesn’t help.

From time to time, some people on the left forget about the moral absence at the heart of your enterprise, and play nice in various forums with a few of the man-children you employ as “research fellows”. Rest assured that I never will.

There wasn’t space in the column to spell out the things that have aided the IPA’s recent ascent from mouldering irrelevance. The ABC’s strange conception of “balance” and the Liberal Party’s intellectual bankruptcy have played a part. So has the admixture of avarice, naïveté and bigotry among your members and fans. Your Institute’s prominence in print and broadcast media has benefited from you and your staff’s willingness to take every public opportunity to venture beyond the small range of your competence.

The future, however, is brighter. I am confident that soon enough, after the current Government inevitably fails to persuade the Australian people of the value of any of your ideas, you’ll once again be enjoying the obscurity you so richly deserve.

Yours in Freedom,

Jason Wilson

Portland, Oregon

PS - Apart from the quote you pulled from my piece, your letter is very poorly drafted. I’d offer my services as an editor, but I have some scruples about who I accept money from. I know that you’re not that fussy, so my attitude in these matters may be something you need to add to the long list of things of you don’t understand.

The IPA’s fund-raising letter.

Post-column post - on Piketty, expertise, etc.

I had something over at The Guardian the other day on how the relationship between politics and expertise has changed. In passing I made a comment about the current celebrity of Thomas Piketty. In hindsight, that may have obscured rather than illuminated the argument, especially for Piketty’s fans . There were reactions on Twitter suggesting as much. I welcome the discussion, of course, but I had trouble addressing it properly due to the presence of some delightful visitors from Australia. But today I have a brief opportunity to expand and — who knows?— perhaps clarify those remarks.

My main concern there was not really with Piketty’s book at all. I was more interested in its reception. I suggested that his audience overlaps with that of other “wonks”. I mentioned a few other writers who have made the analysis and visualisation of quantitative data the basis of a vibrant, seemingly lucrative niche market in political discussion. These writers and their outlets sometimes define against “useless" mainstream punditry and "stupid" ideological politics, emphasising their "post-partisan" rigour. They appeal to a particular dissatisfaction with politics as it stands, one that is essentially nostalgic. In my view it’s also naive.

Wonks explicitly address a yearning for a time when credentialled expertise — the province of the progressive urban middle classes — had a surer kind of political influence. Their audience regrets the loss of the ability of certain disciplines, professions, and expert systems (not least journalism) to authoritatively project themselves into political debate. Wonks self-consciously circulate fragments of the kind of knowledge that used to be beyond dispute.

The context for this nostalgia is a more confrontational poltics, which is more centred on ideology and identity. You can’t explain the fact that ideology has reasserted itself by pointing to a change in the relative status of facts and values in debate - that just shifts the question. We are on trickier terrain than that, weighing questions of how some branches of knowledge (especially in the social sciences) came to be legitimised as authoritative at certain times, and how and why that acceptance has been eroded.

One factor may be the way in which expertise is cynically and obviously deployed to authorise political decisions that have already been made — the proliferation of post-election commissions of audit, and the decades-long work of the Productivity Commission in legitimating an otherwise contestable political project are good examples. On the other hand, governments often simply ignore inconvenient expert advice in policy formation and delivery, unless the experts happen to be political consultants. Another, more recent factor is the way in which the collection and analysis of social data is more clearly implicated in audacious efforts at social control. People on the right might nominate other examples — the point is that it’s now obvious that in many cases, facts, expertise and data aren’t free-standing things, outside politics, so they become part of the terrain of political struggle.

On a more basic level, we agree on far fewer fundamentals than we used to — formerly uncontroversial institutional and procedural matters are now openly contested (scientific institutions, and their proper role in informing government, might be the clearest examples here). The middle ground of politics is being evacuated. There’s all kinds of evidence for this, including the rise of minor parties in Australia. Political polarisation and fragmentation are not simple phenomena. (Polarisation is likely the wrong word for what is happening now, implying as it does a single continuum upon which all positions and identities can be placed) There are many good reasons for thinking about the broader liberal-democratic consensus of the 20th Century as an exception rather than the rule. That this was a period of broader prosperity and equality is no coincidence. But it is that consensus that the technocratic style in politics relied on. Also important was low-choice media regime, dominated by broadcasting, that was able to channel, constrain and guide debate, and reinforce deference to experts as “primary definers" This has also disappeared. Perennial hopes that new media would lead in the direction of Habermasian ideals of the public sphere are continually disappointed. In our most important debates — climate change, inequality — we frequently encounter agreement on certain facts and impassioned conflict over their meaning and importance.

I tried to hint at the nature of a long historical process in a short op-ed. In any case, the most immediate casualty of the decline of expertise is the kind of centre-left, third-way politics which, in dreaming of a “postpolitical” managerialist government, relied extensively on technocratic policy prescriptions, and especially on an acceptance of mainstream economic doctrine. (On this point, I’d really like to see a convincing refutation of the kinds of criticisms Philip Mirowski has devoted his career to making: that the extent to which the assumptions of neoclassical economics are shared is the extent to which we accept the outlines of an extremely successful antidemocratic intellectual and political project.) More than this, the third way simply doesn’t have much of a constituency. Centre-left parties continually move right in pursuit of a phantasmal median voter, gifting progressive voters to newer parties.

I think the best thing to do is face up to all of this, and even welcome it. This thought is at the heart of all my current projects. It’s not clear to me how deference, nostalgia, an aversion to impassioned conflict, or a hostility to the “cacophony” of popular voice can be useful elements of any left wing project. More than this, I think that the left should treat certain political demands - particularly those for equality - as having their own authority. I am puzzled by the contrast between the official left’s welcoming attitude to Piketty and the often-frosty reception accorded to the Occupy movement. Why did people feel the need to wait for a certain kind of authoritative confirmation of inequality? What opportunities were lost in the interim?

To turn to Piketty specifically, I will say that I am working up something longer on the last quarter of his book that I don’t want to pre-empt that too much. But Matt Cowgill objected to my claim that he stops short of offering radical solutions, asking that if an 80% global wealth tax isn’t radical, what is? It’s true that it’s much bolder than anything that any western social-democratic party has on its agenda (this is also true — at least in the Anglophone liberal democracies — of Piketty’s more modest suggestions, like a greater measure of industrial democracy, and more thoroughgoing transparency in corporate accounting). On the other hand, his big idea about taxation sounds a lot like an earlier phase of French welfare socialism elevated to a planetary scale. (Hence the enthusiasm from the social-democratic left) The difficulty I have is not that this is ‘reformism’ understood in some perjorative sense — the problem is not exactly that the proposal isinsufficiently radical. I’m not measuring it against some other utopia. I do think that it’s curious that Piketty leaves so much unsaid about the enormous gap between our present circumstances and any that might allow us to redistribute the world’s wealth in the way he suggests.

I’m certainly not the most consistent fan of Slavoj Žižek’s, but his take on Piketty illuminates this issue nicely:

"He accepts, as a good Keynesian, that capitalism is ultimately the only game in town; all alternatives ended up in fiasco, so we have to keep it… All we can do is at the level of distribution… He simply says that the mode of production has to remain the same; let’s just change the distribution by, nothing very original, radically higher taxes…

[But] to do this and nothing else is not possible. That’s his utopia. That basically we can have today’s capitalism, which basically as a machinery remains the same just oh oh oh when you earn your billions oh oh here am I tax, give me 80 percent. I don’t think this is feasible. I think, imagine a government doing this, Piketty is aware it needs to be done globally. Because if you do it in one country, then capital moves elsewhere blabla…. [My] claim is that if you imagine a world organization where the measure proposed by Piketty can effectively be enacted, then the problems are already solved. Then already you have a total political reorganization, you have a global power which effectively can control capital, we already won.” [my emphasis]

To get to Pikettian global redistribution will require something like a revolution; to restore and expanded social democracy, you need to change everything. There are good historical reasons for agreeing that the democratisation of every transnational institution and the creation of new ones would require some dramatic upheavals. It would require a wholesale reorganisation of human affairs, including the effective end of the nation-state. It would also require almost every form of entrenched power to be confronted and tamed. And it’s hard to think of any democratic struggle that hasn’t been confronted with state violence.

Piketty leaves all of this unsaid. Certain things about the book make me think that he is aware of this, and leaves it aside in the interests of ensuring that his work gets a mainstream hearing (again, I can only promise to give more details in this later). Instead, he bears down hardest on the possibility of top-down, policy solutions, even giving short shrift to the role of the labour movement. At the end of his substantial arguments in the last section of the book, we find him in a kind of perplexity about how democratic control of the economy will be bootstrapped into existence.

This, in any case, is what I mean when I say that he stops short of acknowledging all the implications of his argument, and is particularly reticent the fact that anything that significantly reduces inequality will require radical, global political struggle beyond existing political institutions.

To be clear: the value of Piketty’s work in bringing the disparities in global wealth to light can’t be gainsaid. There’s no doubt that it will continue to play a part in the left’s campaigns for equality. It’s greatest influence, I suspect, will be in bringing the centre left to a recognition that their faith in the capacity of markets to lift all boats is catastrophically misplaced. To say that I don’t think it has a place in political arguments simply isn’t correct. But I don’t think work like this can settle political arguments, and I don’t regret that the time has passed when it could. (If you doubt this point, here’s Greg Mankiw essentially agreeing with Piketty’s facts, but comfortably drawing hte opposite conclusion. If you don’t care much about democracy, its subversion by inequality won’t bother you)

And I still think a question, derived from Mirowski, lingers: does the mainstream left’s continued overreliance on mainstream (neoclassically derived) economics deny it the resources to deliver social-democratic outcomes? It’s a question that needs more consideration.

Politics, then, to Aristotle, was something natural, not of divine origin, simply the ‘master science’ among men. Politics was the master-science not in the sense that it includes or explains all other ‘sciences’ (all skills, social activities and group interests), but in that it gives them some priority, some order in their rival claims over the scarce resources of any given community. The way of establishing these priorities is by allowing the right institutions to develop by which the various ‘sciences’ can demonstrate their actual importance in the common task of survival. Politics is, as it were, the market place and the price mechanism of all social demands—though there is no guarantee that a just price will be struck: and there is nothing spontaneous about politics—it depends on deliberate and continuous individual activity.

Now it is often thought that for this ‘master-science’ to function, there must already be in existence some shared idea of the common good, some ‘consensus’ or consensus juris. But this common good itself is the process of practical reconciliation of the interests of the various ‘sciences’, aggregates or groups which compose a state; it is not some external and intangible spiritual adhesive, or some allegedly objective ‘general will’ or public interest. These are misleading and pretentious explanations of how a community holds together; worse, they can even be justifications for the sudden destruction of some elements in the community in favour of others—there is no right to obstruct the general will, it is said. But diverse groups hold together, firstly, because they have a common interest in sheer survival, and, secondly, because they practice politics—not because they agree about ‘fundamentals’, or some such concept too vague, too personal, or too divine ever to do the job of politics for it. The moral consensus of a free state is not something mysteriously prior to or above politics: it is the activity (the civilising activity) of politics itself.

– Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

The project to institute markets in pollution permits is a neoliberal mid-range strategy, better attuned to appeal to neoliberal governments, NGOs, and the more educated segments of the populace, not to mention the all-important FIRE sector of the economy. In effect, this strategy is an elaborate bait-and-switch, where political actors originally bent upon using state power to curb emissions are instead diverted into the endless technicalities of the institution and maintenance of novel markets for carbon permits, with the not unintended consequence that the level of emissions continues to grow apace in the interim. Furthermore, professional economists are brought in to shill for this strategy, largely because they enjoy conflicts of interest in this area of a magnitude commensurate with those they have nurtured with the financial sector in general.

– Philip Mirowski (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown London: Verso.

We need to talk about all the guns

I drove my wife to the airport this morning. As we got closer we noticed a lot of police and ambulance vehicles travelling in the opposite direction on the freeway. I assumed they were heading for a car accident. But as I pulled away from the departures terminal I heard on the radio that there was a “shooter” at Reynolds high school in Troutdale. I pulled over into the cellphone waiting area for a few minutes to listen to the fact-free swirl of alarm at another school shooting, the 74th since all of those small children were killed in Littleton in 2012.

Reynolds High is only 20 minutes drive from me, but it is in the “other” Portland, out past the Interstate, near Gresham, where many displaced by Portlandia’s gentrification are ending up. As I write no names have been released, but one student is dead, along with the gunman, reportedly himself a teenager. A teacher was also injured. It’s terrible — shameful — that one of the first things that occurred to me is that it could have been so much worse. That guy in Santa Barbara a few weeks back didn’t stop at one murder.

Now and again, in Australia, you hear the half-baked opinion that this is just the way America is, because some inclusive “they” are crazy, or natural born libertarians, or congenital gun nuts. But none of that is true. This is a vast country, divided against itself on every question of consequence. The current arrangements are a result of concrete social and political choices that have been and continue to be contested. Since Littleton at least a plurality of Americans, and frequently the majority, have wanted tighter gun control. The question, in a nation riven by patchwork of state and federal constitutions and laws, is what that might mean.

Undeniably a great many people are happy with things the way they are; a smaller number want things to be looser still. But the main obstacle to any prospective reform of gun laws is not the American people. It is the political class who are most keen on the citizenry’s right to bear arms. Not coincidentally, guns are tied up with powerful special interests. The National Rifle Association and weapons manufacturers are prepared to spend a lot of money in nailing down the political influence which ensures that, at minimum, the status quo is maintained. Current gun laws are not a failing of democracy, but a natural outcome of oligarchy.

As usual, a significant obstacle to clearing this up is the way in which opinion and public discussion are abstracted into manageable, programmatic chunks by pollsters and the media. Certain questions asked in certain ways define the parameters of discussion before it can start. This means that that gun control is removed from its proper context: the weaponisation of everyday life. I am distrubed as anyone accustomed to Australian life would be to see Armalites advertised alongside fishing rods in sporting goods catalogues. But you could melt down every assault rifle in private hands tomorrow, and the country would still be saturated with lethal military technologies.

This is nowhere more evident than in police work. Urban police departments have themselves long used assault weapons, along with helicopters and drones. SWAT teams are deployed sooner rather than later, often in questionable circumstances. In LA I’ve seen cops in khakis and flak jackets checking rail tickets. Now, the detritus of a decade of imperial wars is washing up in small town sheriff’s departments. Peaceful rural and provincial communities are being offered armoured vehicles, grenade launchers, and other cast-offs from Iraq and Afghanistan, gratis. By and large they don’t need them, but in an atmosphere of shrinking resources and endemic risk aversion, they find it difficult to refuse. How is it that all of this is so often left out of account in stories of American violence?

Some will argue that police need this against a heavily armed population. (Already today Portland police have been congratulated for their swift and forceful response) But at some point we really ought to turn this question around. Police weapons kill people, so whose safety are we protecting? How much does an intrusive, militarised security state contribute to the fears of those who stockpile weapons in advance of developments they are sure will culminate in martial law? How much, in turn, does this lend to the political muscle of the NRA? Why is militarisation accelerating even as levels of violent crime are declining? It looks like a war, so who are we fighting against? Because if school shooters are mostly white, an awful lot of military hardware, along with the rest of the machinery of law enforcement, is directed at black men in poor neighbourhoods.

As a newcomer, I find paramilitary policing just as disconcerting as the easy availability of guns. If the real problem is the presence of deadly weapons in civilian life, why isn’t it possible to think about it holistically? Without doing this we risk the worst outcome: that violence, of the kind that happened today at Reynolds High, but also that of SWAT teams and armoured cars, begins to seem routine, even in Portland.

The oligarchs, their experts and ideologues managed to find the explanation for this misfortune, in fact the same one they find for every disruption to the consensus: if science did not impress its legitimacy upon the people, it is because the people is ignorant. If progress does not progress, it is because of the backward. One word that all the clerics incessantly chanted captures this explanation: ‘populism’. The hope is that under this name they will be able to lump together every form of dissent in relation to the prevailing consensus, whether it involves democratic affirmation or religious and racial fanaticism. And it is hoped that a single principle will come to be ascribed to this thus-constituted ensemble: the ignorance of the backward, the attachment to the past, be it the past of social advantages, of revolutionary ideals, or of the religion of ancestors. Populism is the convenient name under which is dissimulated the exacerbated contradiction between popular legitimacy and expert legitimacy, that is, the difficulty the government of science has in adapting itself to manifestations of democracy and even to the mixed form of representative system. This name at once masks and reveals the intense wish of the oligarch: to govern without people, in other words, without any dividing of the people; to govern without politics. And it enables the expert government to rid itself of the old aporia: how can science govern those who do not understand it?

– Ranciere, Jacques. Hatred of Democracy. Verso Books, 2005

With the growth of market individualism comes a corollary desire to look for collective, democratic responses when major dislocations of financial collapse, unemployment, heightened inequality, runaway inflation, and the like occur. The more such dislocations occur, the more powerful and internalized, Hayek insists, neoliberal ideology must become; it must become embedded in the media, in economic talking heads, in law and the jurisprudence of the courts, in government policy, and in the souls of participants. Neoliberal ideology must become a machine or engine that infuses economic life as well as a camera that provides a snapshot of it. That means, in turn, that the impersonal processes of regulation work best if courts, churches, schools, the media, music, localities, electoral politics, legislatures, monetary authorities, and corporate organizations internalize and publicize these norms. It also means that active state policies are needed to produce this result. It is this imperative of neoliberalism that has helped to create culture wars in each country where it has gained a major presence. That combination of elements also helps one to grasp what I mean when I say that neoliberalism is a form of biopolitics that seeks to produce a nation of regular individuals “even as its proponents often act as if they are merely describing processes that are automatic and individual behavior that is free. Neoliberalism must become an ideological machine embedded deeply in life in order to produce the submission and self-constraints its putative success demands; it is not merely a camera that takes a snapshot of processes humming along without it.

– Connolly, William E. The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Friedman thus promotes formal limits to state action, but his market ideology promotes such an appearance because of the brevity of statements he makes about the rules of state intervention. This allows a Friedmanite to both demand extensive state support for the system he admires and to pretend that it could flourish by reducing the scope of the state, if only the state introduced market principles into more and more aspects of life. That duplicity creates a nice political formula for electoral campaigns, as it shields from view the draconian disciplines needed to adjust behavior to market imperatives.

– Connolly, William E. The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism. Durham: Duke University Press.

We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation-all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls “forms of life.” Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is diffi­cult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying.

– Stanley Cavell, “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy”, in Must We Mean What We Say? Oxford: OUP.