I’ve been reading my way through the New Sun tetralogy again over the last few months. In honour of the day, one of my favourite passages (as the protagonist, Severian descends a cliff, in a world grown so old that the object of ‘mining’ is not to find seams of raw minerals, but instead to discover the relicts of the past and convert them to use).
The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.
Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.
At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.
The efforts of the right to discredit Piketty’s Capital have so far ranged from unconvincing to risible (Chris picked up a particularly amusing one from Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, to which I won’t bother linking). One point raised in this four-para summary by the Economist is that ” today’s super-rich mostly come by their wealth through work, rather than via inheritance.” Piketty does a good job of rebutting this, but for those who haven’t acquired the book or got around to reading it, I thought I’d repost my own response, from 2012.
The coming boom in inherited wealth (repost)
As everyone who has been paying attention knows, the news on inequality is nearly all bad. Not only has inequality increased dramatically in the US, but intergenerational economic mobility is declining. And, where the US leads, the rest of the world looks likely to follow. The top 1 per cent lost more than most during the crisis of 2008-09 but, as Stephen Rattner reports here (drawing on work by Piketty and Saez), that was just a blip. A stunning 93 percent of the additional income created in the US in 2010, compared to 2009, went to the top 1 per cent, and there’s no reason to think things were much better in 2011 – average real earnings have fallen yet again, and employment growth, though positive, was still modest. Wealth inequality is also high, though it has not increased as much as income inequality.
The one bright spot mentioned by Rattner is that ” those at the top were more likely to earn than inherit their riches”. Since I’m already noticing that point popping up in the places you might expect to see it (can’t find a link right now), let me point out that Rattner’s explanation, that “the rapid growth of new American industries — from technology to financial services — has increased the need for highly educated and skilled workers” is wrong, and that there is every reason to expect a boom in inherited wealth.
The fact that currently wealthy Americans have not, in general, inherited their wealth follows logically from the fact that, in their parents’ generation, there weren’t comparable accumulations of wealth to be bequeathed. More generally, starting from the position of relatively (to earlier periods and to the current one) equal income and wealth that prevailed between about 1950 and 1980, growing inequality of income must precede growing inequality of wealth, since wealth is simply the cumulative excess of income over consumption (and US high-income earners have not been notable for restraint as regards consumption).
So, given highly unequal incomes, and social immobility, we can expect inheritance to play a much bigger role in explaining inequality for the generations now entering adulthood than for the current recipients of high incomes. That will include direct transfers of wealth as well as the effects of increasingly unequal access to education, early job opportunities and home ownership.
fn1. More precisely, since intertemporal comparisons are difficult, the chance that a person with parents at the top (or bottom) of the income distribution will end up in the same or a similar position is now higher in the US than in Europe, whereas, until at least the late 20th century there was good reason to think that the oppositewas true.
Call for Nominations: ASHR 2014 Outstanding Dissertation Award, Scott Stroud
Scott Stroud, firstname.lastname@example.org
American Society for the History of Rhetoric Dissertation Award, Call for Nominations
Matthew Yglesias, responding to Tyler Cowen and my critique of same.high levels of income inequality lead to high prices for art. A lot of this reflects higher prices for old paintings by dead artists, but the art market exhibits sufficient efficiency that higher prices also benefit new works by living artists. … The mechanism, basically, is that art-buying is mostly done by very rich people so when very rich people get richer, the price of art gets bid up. When buying power shifts to the middle class they tend to buy more banal things like bigger houses or nicer cars. Whether these price trends are good for the arts is going to depend on a bunch of other questions that the paper doesn’t address. Do higher prices for art works induce artists to become more productive? Does greater output come at the expense of quality? Do people shift into painting from more mass market artistic pursuits (music, movies) or from careers outside the arts? Do higher prices make art less accessible to non-rich art lovers? One can imagine a whole range of different outcomes here. But the evidence that inequality boosts the financial returns to the fine arts — largely by diverting financial resources away from middle class consumption of normal stuff — seems compelling.
By coincidence, I’ve recently finished reading The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor’s wonderful new book on culture and the Internet (Amazon, Powells), which gives a much more jaundiced account of what is happening to art in the age of inequality (see here for an interview which gives some flavor of her thinking).
To be clear, I don’t agree with all of Taylor’s arguments. She disagrees sharply with free culture people, sometimes in highly personalized ways that strike me as unfair (n.b. that I’m friends with some of these people). She sometimes extrapolates a bit too broadly from the experience of the artists and culture makers whom she is most sympathetic to, to a more general public. But these are asides; unlike e.g. Evgeny Morozov with his self-congratulatory apercus at others’ expense, she’s clearly not interested in self-promotion but in tearing down arguments that she believes are weak. She poses the sharpest book-length intellectual challenge to technology-optimists that I’ve read.
The People’s Platform does two things surpassingly well. First, it provides a rich account of the experience of a grouping of people who have been surprisingly underrepresented in debates on culture and the Internet – the makers of culture themselves. Taylor herself is a maker of documentary films (Scott has written lots about her work in the past). She’s also a member of the music community (she’s a member of the currently touring incarnation of Neutral Milk Hotel). Hence, she has extensive experience of an important group of artists and makers of culture; people who are able to piece together some kind of a living centered on making good art, but who do stuff that is unlikely ever to be enormously commercially popular.
These communities are suffering badly in the modern economy. Their members never expected to be rich, but would very reasonably like to be modestly self supporting. That’s no longer an option for most of them. The long tail economy is one where the middle drops out. Bands can’t support themselves through selling their music on independent labels. They can tour, but this is both exhausting and not likely to do more than to break even. The economics of independent documentary making are even tougher. Documentaries have always been made more for love than money. Their economic prospects – in an economy where online sharing is ubiquitous – are becoming ever worse. Unlike Hollywood movies, there isn’t any fat to pare off.
This explains Taylor’s impatience with free culture advocates. She’s tired of being told that she ought to work for free. But her impatience isn’t an end – it’s the beginning of analysis. On the one hand, she excoriates free culture advocates for focusing on the problem of distribution at the expense of the problem of production. People like Larry Lessig focus on how to facilitate the dissemination of culture to people without undue restrictions, both so that they can consume it, and (more importantly) put it to new and unexpected uses. Taylor agrees with this up to a point (she’s no fan of the ridiculous excesses of IP and permissions requirements). Her question, though, is straightforward. If there isn’t an economic model for producing culture in some kind of self-sustaining way, will it get produced? Lessig, Benkler and others are big fans of amateurism. Taylor suggests that for some kinds of art, you need semi-pros and pros. More generally, in Taylor’s words:
openness alone does not provide the blueprint for a more equitable social order, in part because the ‘freedom’ promoted by the tech community almost always turns out to be of the Darwinian variety. Openness in this context is ultimately about promoting competition, not protecting equality in any traditional sense; it has little to say about entrenched systems of economic privilege, labor rights, fairness, or economic redistribution. Despite enthusiastic commentators and their hosannas to democratization, inequality is not exclusive to closed systems. Networks reflect and exacerbate imbalances of power as much as they improve them.
Since Taylor very obviously isn’t a shill for Disney and friends, but instead is representing the real experiences of exactly the kind of people whom free culture ought to be setting free, her arguments strike their mark.
This leads into an excellent analysis of the actual political economy of the culture industry. If artistic production isn’t self sustaining, it will have to look to external support of one kind or another. And while it might get such support, it’ll come with a price tag attached. On the one hand are the owners of monopoly platforms like Facebook, Google etc. To the extent that they support artistic production, it’s going to be some kind of sharecropping, where they provide the platform and reap the lion’s share of the profits. Here, think services like YouTube, which simultaneously democratize access, making it possible for anyone with a video camera and Internet access to upload content and share it, but rely on an advertising model where the preponderance of the benefits go to the owner. Taylor has harsh words for tech optimists who identify too closely with the erstwhile ‘insurgents’ like Google. My read is more generous than hers – some technology optimists at least laid their bets on Google, not because they thought that the company was somehow altruistic, but because they reasoned that a company with a business model based on search-engine-plus-advertising would be more likely to preserve a space for open information than proprietary platforms which tried to build walled gardens. This wasn’t a ridiculous argument a few years ago – but (and this favors Taylor), it’s one that is increasingly difficult to sustain now, given Google’s rapidly changing business model.
On the other hand, artists can seek support from marketing companies. They are willing to support artists and even to pay them if they are good, in the hope that their material will go viral. However, the price, obviously, is that the art has to support and spread the brand name.
Taylor stresses that this is driven not so much by technology as such but by the radical inequalities of power that are accentuated by new media. A world in which the owners of a few key platforms – Google, Facebook and their ilk – dominate, will be a world in which previously self-supporting communities of artists will be squeezed ever more. And a world in which artists are increasingly reliant on commercial patrons will be a world of bad, dull art.
the exercise of power is rarely … overt. Instead of directly squelching artistic expression when it’s too brazen – a tactic that can backfire to the artist’s advantage – advertisers and sponsors protect themselves by favoring docile voices in the first place. Thus, they alter the cultural ecology, fostering work that is apolitical and unchallenging, making the innocuously entertaining more plentiful than it would be otherwise.
While Taylor is responding to Internet optimists rather than celebrators of the cultural benefits of inequality like Tyler Cowen, it’s not too hard to extract a clear counter-argument from her ideas. The model for artistic patronage in the new age of inequality is not some munificent and disinterested Maecenas, but businesses, which want to support cultural products that will enhance their brand. Such patrons will not be particularly interested in risky or controversial work, and will certainly not want to support truly challenging art, unless that challenge can be absorbed and appropriately redirected to commercial ends.
Nor does Matt Yglesias’s (admittedly very tentative) “rising tide will lift all art” hypothesis seem to me to be a very plausible one. There’s at least some evidence that the distribution of art prices is highly skewed,1 which suggests that the bulk of the proceeds of increased prices are going to go to a relatively small group of owners of dead artists’ art, and living artists. I would furthermore speculate (and this is speculation, but, I think, grounded speculation) that these tendencies towards skew are going to be substantially accentuated by increased wealth inequality, as very rich people compete over a tiny pool of premier artistic prestige goods, dramatically driving up the prices for this pool and this pool alone, while leaving the middle and the tail of the distribution to languish and stagnate.
This means, as Taylor makes clear in her Post interview, that the relationship is plausibly the reverse of the one that Yglesias postulates. Inequality, rather than benefitting artists, is instead universalizing the artist’s precarious work position, and making it into a general ideology.
In a way artists exemplify the rising inequality of our economy that everyone’s talking about post-Piketty: there are a few art stars and multitudes of starving artists. One must scramble relentlessly against the odds to try to reach the top. … The book examines how more and more of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as artists no matter what our line of work. It’s a way of framing some of the unappealing things about our current economic condition—the lack of stability or of a social safety net—as something desirable and empowering. The ethos of the artist—someone who is willing to work with no guarantee of reward, who will sacrifice and self-exploit around the clock— is demanded of people across the board. For example, I mention a story from 2011 in which Apple Store workers inquiring about wages were told, “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.” There are numerous articles and books that advise freelancers to envision themselves as risk-taking creators.
Buy it and read it. [Also read this piece by Tom Slee, which came out in the interval between drafting this post and publishing it.]
Gordon R. Mitchell, email@example.com
2013 NCA double session on scholarly metrics in a digital age
The full transcript of the first segment of the 2013 NCA double session on scholarly metrics in a digital age, featuring commentary from Academic Analytics founder Lawrence Martin and Professor Carolyn Miller, has been published:
Hartelius, E. Johanna and Gordon R. Mitchell. “NCA-Forum Double Session on Scholarly Metrics in a Digital Age.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 1-29.
Teresa Housel, firstname.lastname@example.org
CALL FOR CHAPTERS
Edited Volume on the Impact of Technology on Interpersonal Relationships
In addition to Kieran’s terrific write-up yesterday on Foucault’s engagement with Gary Becker, I want to recommend Kathy Geier’s very smart treatment of, among other things, feminist critiques of Becker’s theory of the family.
There are many ideas in Becker’s Treatise on the Family (originally published in 1981; republished in a revised version in 1991) that are problematic and/or offensive to feminists. For one thing, there is the assumption that economic actors behave selfishly in markets but altruistically within families — a theory that’s objectionable in both parts. There’s also the matter of how, in the words of Deirdre McCloskey, “the family in Becker’s world has one purpose, one utility function — guess whose? — unproblematically unified in the way that the neoclassical firm is supposed to be.”
Power struggles and conflicts of interest between family members are simply theorized away. The head of the family has a utility function that is supposed to include his own preferences as well as give weight to those of others in the family. But there’s no attempt to deal with the fact that since the head of the house earns the most money, he has the power to exert disproportionate control over the family’s resources. This is a type of problem that plagues neoclassical models generally. Power relations are rarely modeled.
Kathy also mentions this article that Becker wrote in 1997 about the Chicago Boys who worked in or with the Pinochet regime. Becker’s conclusion about that episode?
In retrospect, their willingness to work for a cruel dictator and start a different economic approach was one of the best things that happened to Chile.
No real surprise there. Many free-marketeers, including Hayek, either defended the Pinochet regime or defended those who worked with it.
But the Becker piece reminded me of that infamous Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) conference in Viña del Mar in 1981, about which I wrote at length two summers ago. Founded in 1947, the MPS is an organization of economists, philosophers, and assorted action intellectuals and businessmen dedicated to spreading the free market gospel across the globe. In the late 1970s, at the height of Pinochet’s repression, Hayek and a few grandees in Chile began discussions about holding the MPS’s annual conference in the seaside city where the coup against Allende had been planned. As subsequent reports would demonstrate, the purpose in meeting there was avowedly propagandist. According to the MPS’s own newsletter, the pilgrimage to Pinochet provided participants with an opportunity
for becoming better acquainted with the land which has had such consistently bad and misrepresenting press coverage (and, perhaps for that reason, it was appropriate to have Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media as one of the first speakers in the first session).
Becker was originally targeted or slated to speak in Viña del Mar, on a panel titled “Education: Government or Individual Responsibility?” His name appears on an agenda with a “T” next to it. For “tentative.” But Becker either never confirmed or he pulled out. No matter: Milton and Rose Friedman, along with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, were there to show the flag—and the calculus of their consent.
Screening the Non/human: Animals Representations in Visual Media
Gary Becker, University Professor of Economics and Sociology at the University of Chicago, has died at the age of eighty three. I am certainly not going to attempt an obituary or assessment. But something Tim Carmody said on Twitter caught my eye: “People sometimes talk about ‘neoliberalism’ as a kind of intellectual bogeyman. Gary Becker was the actual guy.” In a somewhat similar way, people sometimes talked about ‘poststructuralism’ as a kind of intellectual bogeyman, and Michel Foucault was the actual guy. It is worth looking at what one avatar had to say about the other. Foucault lectured on Becker and related matters in the late 1970s. One of the things he saw right away was the scope and ambition of Becker’s project, and the conceptual turn—accompanying wider social changes—which would enable economics to become not just a topic of study, like geology or English literature, but rather an “approach to human behavior“. Here is Foucault in March of 1979, for instance:
In practice, economic analysis, from Adam Smith to the beginning of the twentieth century, broadly speaking takes as its object the study of the mechanisms of production, the mechanisms of exchange, and the data of consumption within a given social structure, along with the interconnections between these three mechanisms. Now, for the neo-liberals, economic analysis should not consist in the study of these mechanisms, but in the nature and consequences of what they call substitutible choices … In this they return to, or rather put to work, a defintion [from Lionel Robbins] … ‘Economics is the science of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’. … Economics is not therefore the analysis of the historical logic of processes [like capital, investment, and production]; it is the analysis of the internal rationality, the strategic programming of individuals’ activity.
Then comes the identification not just of the shift in emphasis but also point of view:
This means undertaking the economic analysis of labor. What does bringing labor back into economic analysis mean? It does not mean knowing where labor is situated between, let’s say, capital and production. The problem of bringing labor back into the field of economic analysis … is how the person who works uses the means available to him. … What system of choice and rationality does the activity of work conform to? … So we adopt the point of view of the worker and, for the first time, ensure that the worker is not present in the economic analysis as an object—the object of supply and demand in the form of labor power—but as an active economic subject.
At first glance it seems strange to see Foucault emphasize the “active economic subject” here. A standard—indeed, clichéd—critique of Becker’s approach is that economic agents are calculating robots that bear little resemblance to real human beings and that, furthermore, their disembedded and completely systematic choice-making takes us far away from any sort of first-person point of view of labor in the economy. If we want a proper account of economic action on the ground surely we will have to look elsewhere. Wasn’t Marx supposed to have been doing something like this, for example? But Marx inherited the classical economics of Smith and Ricardo, where economic actors divide quite naturally into great classes—workers, capitalists, and landowners—and the problems for analysis are the determination of prices and the dynamics of its decomposition into wages, profits, and rents. Individuals bob around on the waves created by these much larger forces. They are reduced in the analysis to the price of their labor power and the surplus value that can be extracted from it. Foucault emphasizes how Becker and those like him succeeded in providing an economic approach to labor that allowed for the use of existing tools more usually applied to firms, while preserving the emphasis on a unitary actor:
This breakdown of labor into capital and income obviously has some fairly important consequences. First, if capital is thus defined as that which makes a future income possible, this income being a wage, then you can see that it is a capital which in practical terms is inseparable from the person who possesses it … This is not a conception of labor power; it is a conception of capital-ability which, according to diverse variables, receives a certain income that is a wage, an income-wage, so that the worker himself appears as a sort of enterprise for himself. … [The idea is] that the basic element to be deciphered by economic analysis is not so much the individual, or processes and mechanisms, but enterprises. An economy made up of enterprise-units, a society made up of enterprise-units, is at once the principle of decipherment linked to liberalism and its programming for the rationalization of a society and an economy.
… The stake in all neo-liberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo economicus as partner of exchange with a homo economicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of his earnings. … So, we arrive at this idea that the wage is nothing other than the remuneration, the income allocated to a certain capital, a capital that we will call human capital inasmuch as the ability-machine of which it is the income cannot be separated from the human individual who is its bearer. … In other words, the neo-liberals say that labor was in principle part of economic analysis, but the way in which classical economic analysis was conducted was incapable of dealing with this element. Good, we do deal with it. And when we make this analysis, and do so in the terms I have just described, they are led to study how human capital is formed and accumulated, and this enables them to apply economic analyses to completely new fields and domains.
The shifts in focus Foucault picks out here, and the concepts and methods that accompanied them, are why Becker’s influence has been so enormous, why his work has been the straw man in so many social science articles, why his methods allow for such broad application, why the imagery of choice and responsibility that so often accompanies them has proved so politically attractive, why the world is now full of economists who feel empowered to dispense advice on everything from childrearing to global climate change, and why the audience for this advice is so large.
One of the pleasing things about reading Foucault on Becker is the way he refuses to let his Parisian audience settle in to a dismissive reaction. He scolds them about finding an economic analysis of the family amusing by reminding them of Pierre Rivière’s description of his peasant parents’ marriage. (“I will work on your field, the man says to the woman, but on condition that I can make love with you. And the woman says: You will not make love with me so long as you have not fed my chickens.”) And a little later in connection with Becker’s analysis of crime we find this:
In his article “Crime and Punishment” Becker gives this definition of crime: I call crime any action that makes the individual run the risk of being condemned to a penalty. [Some laughter.] I am surprised you laugh, because it is after all very roughly the definition of crime given by the French penal code, and so of the codes inspired by it, since you are well aware how the code defines a criminal offence: a criminal offence is that which is punished by correctional penalties. … The crime is that which is punished by the law, and that’s all there is to it. So, you can see the neo-liberals’ definition is very close.
Here we see Michel Foucault using the work of Gary Becker to remind an audience at the Collège de France about a central insight of Èmile Durkheim. It’s a funny image. But again, he emphasizes the vital shift:
It is very close with, however, as you can see, a difference, which is a difference in point of view, since while avoiding giving a substantive definition of the crime, the code adopts the point of view of the act and asks what this act is, in short, how to characterize an act which we can call criminal, that is to say, which is punished precisely as a crime. It is the point of view of the act, a kind of operational characterization, as it were, which can be employed by the judge … You can see it is the same definition when the neo-liberals say that a crime is any action which makes an individual run the risk of being sentenced to a penalty, but the point of view has changed. We now adopt the point of view of the person who commits the crime … We ask: What is the crime for him, for the subject of an action, for the subject of a form of conduct or behavior? Well, it is whatever puts him at risk of punishment.
You can see this is basically the same kind of shift of point of view as that carried out with regard to human capital and work. Last week I tried to show you how the neo-liberals tried to address the problem of work from the point of view of the person who decides to work rather than from the point of view of capital or of economic mechanisms. Here again we move over to the side of the individual subject, but doing this does not involve throwing psychological knowledge or an anthropological content into the analysis … We only move over to the side of the subject himself inasmuch as … we can approach it through the angle, through the aspect, the kind of network of intelligibility, of his behavior as economic behavior.
More than any other single person, Gary Becker was associated with and responsible for propelling that shift in perspective, and all that has flowed from it for the social sciences and their engagement with the world.
I like this song (“Tous les Mêmes” [corrected, thanks Ezster!]) and video by Belgian musician Stromae. I hope you will also.
I took this about a year ago. Where? (It’s not some obscure location.. whatever that means.)
PS. I know the file name says “FallTrees”. I took it in April ‘13 in the Northern Hemisphere, go figure.
Today is the first of May, a day of international solidarity for the working class and labour movement, and always a day of memory for me. In the mid 1970s when I was thirteen years old, I was sitting with my language exchange partner Pierre in his bedroom in a ground floor flat in Montparnasse. I was leafing through a magazine—Paris Match as it happens—and there were pictures of the May events from 1968. I was absolutely stunned by them. Here, in Western Europe, there had been a street-fighting and a general strike within the past few years? I’d been aware of Czechoslovakia and, indeed, my whole school had chanted “Dubcek! Dubcek!” when the Christmas pudding had been brought out in 68, but of Paris I knew nothing. I resolved to find out more, and when the opportunity arose to choose a school history project, I asked if I could study the May events and produced a longish dossier, complete with photos, newspaper clippings and the rest. A few years later, in 1978—and hence on the 10th anniversary—I joined the May Day parade for myself at the Place de la République, no longer an observer but a participant.
What did May represent for me? There was an element of romantic adolescent attachment to be sure, but also the possibility of another society. In the reconstructed history of the victorious Thatcherites the choice that had to be made was between the marketized West and the gloomy authoritarianism of the Soviet bloc. But May 68 seemed to offer a different way, perhaps (oh dear!) a third way. And in a sense it did, it offered the hope of a non-authoritarian and participatory egalitarianism (and coupled with the Prague Spring, the chance of socialism with a human face). From that flowed a lot of other things, social movements, feminism, ecologism, trends in art and culture (there were other sources for these streams, to be sure). The possibility of rejecting the world of corporate power without embracing dourness and concrete was a liberating thought, some might say a naive and romantic one, to which I say “Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible!”
The memory of May, or at least the memory of the possibility of May, has always been there for me as a nourishing idea like Wordsworth’s Tintern when times have been bad (as they so often have since). It doesn’t have to be this way: vivre autrement. Sadly, when I was talking to a very smart student of left-wing convictions the other day, I mentioned May 68 and she asked “What happened in May 68?” It seems the memory of May is no longer there in the imagination of the left. Time for a revival.
In The Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandin gives us a fascinating history of the phrase “to strike.” Seems like a good story for May Day.
The phrase to strike to refer to a labor stoppage comes from maritime history and is an example of how revolutionary times can redefine a word to mean its exact opposite. Through the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, to strike was used as a metaphor for submission, referring to the practice of captured ships dropping, or striking, their sails to their conquerors and of subordinate ships doing the same to salute their superiors. “Now Margaret / must strike her sail,” wrote William Shakespeare in Henry VI, describing an invitation extended by the “Mighty King” of France to Margaret, the weaker Queen of England, to join him at the dinner table “and learn a while to serve / where kings command.” Or as this 1712 account of a British privateer taking a Spanish man-o’war off the coast of Peru put it: “fir’d two shot over her, and then she struck,” and bowed “down to us.” But in 1768, London sailors turned the term inside out. Joining city artisans and tradesmen—weavers, hatters, sawyers, glass-grinders, and coal heavers—in the fight for better wages, they struck their sails and paralyzed the city’s commerce. They “unmanned or otherwise prevented from sailing every ship in the Thames.” From this point forward, strike meant the refusal of submission.
Not unlike how gays and lesbians owned the word “queer.”
Janet Vertesi decided that she didn’t want companies and marketers to know that she was pregnant. How hard is that nowadays in the US with so little data privacy protection for consumers? It turns out it’s quite complicated. Not only does it result in lots of inconveniences such as seeming rude to family and friends or having to concoct complicated ways of purchasing things, but it may even make you look like a criminal. Reading about her experiences is thought provoking. She certainly does a good job challenging the idea that not being tracked is as simple as opting out through some simple clicks of a button. While those who think about these issues are well aware of that, many people are not as some of her examples show.
For the last month or so ‘political correctness’ – the term – has been bugging me. Perhaps there’s been a slight uptick in usage on conservative sites and blogs, due to some combination of Cliven Bundy, Brendan Eich and Donald Sterling. But really the problem is chronic.
Why did ‘political correctness’, which is so … Dinesh D’Souza circa 1991 … become an evergreen right-wing complaint?
Conservatives might say: because Bundy, Eich, Sterling – plus Paula Deen and that Duck Dynasty guy. There is one grain of truth to this. A couple posts back I remarked that, if MLK came back from the dead, he would find it weird that that there is – oh, for example: lots of school segregation. Yet rich old white people can get in a ton of trouble just for using the n-word in private. What a crazy old world it’s shaped up to be. This situation is so crazy that you get conservatives deducing the non-existence of racism, generally, from Sterling’s case: “His ugly remarks are proof, as I’ve said before, not that racism is alive and well in America, but rather that racism is on its last leg. The man has been publicly branded a pariah. The American people have made him an outcast. You think any of that would have happened if we really were a racist nation, as some would have us believe?”
But the obvious upside-down and backwards character of this argument just goes to show why these sorts of cases don’t work at all for purposes of alleging a climate of ‘political correctness’. Reason: even the people who are arguing that these sorts of cases are ‘political correctness’ run amok don’t think it’s acceptable to be racist or even homophobic, these days. The real puzzle, then, isn’t why using the n-word is considered unacceptable, given the consensus that being racist is unacceptable. The puzzle is why school segregation is considered fine. Or maybe the puzzle is even: why is racism still considered unacceptable, if school segregation is fine?
In general, there will always be things it is considered unacceptable to say, not for some weird, arbitrary, linguistic reason, but because it is always considered unacceptably bad to be an unacceptably bad person. If you say or do things that make people believe you are a horrible person, people will believe you are a horrible person. (People are illogical, sure, but not usually that illogical.) There is no society in which being an unacceptably unacceptable person is considered perfectly acceptable, hence politically and socially acceptable. Of course, what is considered acceptable changes … but being unacceptable is always unacceptable. It doesn’t seem like we need the term ‘political correctness’ to label the fact that there’s a little Lemongrab in everyone who isn’t a strict moral relativist.
The puzzle, with regard to conservatives, is not that liberals are tying their tongues with arbitrary linguistic bans. The puzzle is why they voluntarily wear an Overton Straightjacket. Conservatives are almost always about one inch from saying something that conservatives themselves agree is totally unacceptable to say. That’s why they often end up saying totally unacceptable stuff. I have my own theories about that. Let’s stick with political correctness.
The problem with the term – ‘political correctness’ – is that, at least since it was born as a right-wing term of abuse, it’s never had to do a day’s honest work in its life. (It’s the semantic equivalent of wingnut welfare.)
So I’m thinking: maybe we could offer it an honest job? Then maybe the good could drive out the bad, in time? (It’s a dream.)
‘Political correctness’ is, in fact, a pretty good name for a highly specific form of fallacious, motivated reasoning that has no accepted name. It’s not, per se, partisan thinking, or tribalism (although these feed it.) Kahneman writes about the general phenomenon of ‘substituting questions’ (not a very snappy name) when we confront a question or problem that’s just too complex or hard.
If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 [fast thought] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution.
I also adopt the following terms:
The target question is the assessment you intend to produce.
The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answer instead.
Anyway, let ‘political correctness’ name the following slip. You are asked to judge the likelihood that P is true. You have no way to do that, with anything like epistemic responsibility, so you substitute: what is the prospect of getting some class of people (possibly your tribe, but perhaps a larger set) to proceed, politically, on the basis that P. You thus get a slider of possible degrees of political acceptability of P, which you fallaciously read as degrees of probability that P. Anything politically unacceptable is treated as false; anything it is politically obligatory to accept is treated as true; anything somewhere in between is treated as some degree of maybe, per its degree of likely acceptability.
This might seem circular, because it effectively reduces ‘political correctness’ to ‘political acceptability’, which might be a synonym. But I hope it’s clear that I’m getting at something non-circular. You are treating the likelihood of being able to induce belief in P, and action on the basis of P, in some group Q, as an index of the probability that P, independent of all that.
Political partisans engage in this sort of thinking all the time, of course. If their side isn’t prepared to act on the basis of the truth that P, it can’t be true. But not all partisan thinking is irrational in this way. You may refuse to give P the time of day, not because you don’t think it is possibly true, but to avoid offending someone in your coalition. Pragmatism is not always irrationality, even though it often involves tolerance for irrationality – or at least touchiness – in others.
Even some irrational partisan thinking is not irrational in quite this way. Not all partisan irrationality is so sensitively crowd-minded as the fallacy I am outlining. Mine is a fallacy for those who think they can pick winners in political horseraces, and mistake this for a more fundamental attunement to reality.
From which it follows: some not especially partisan political thinking will be highly ‘politically correct’.
Politics is the art of the possible. My fallacy is the inadvertent art of mistaking degrees of political possibility for degrees of truth. Not all artful politicians are party loyalists. Hence, moderates and trimmers are just as likely to commit the fallacy of political correctness as fanatics and partisans. Punditry as a whole will have an innate weakness for political correctness.
Just to get us started, here is a piece by Ryan Cooper, arguing that Clive Crook is blinded by political correctness. Crook has no way of judging the degree of risk posed by the threat of global warming. He’s no expert. But he has a way of judging the degree of likelihood that belief that global warming will have serious consequences can be made the basis for political action. The answer is: the likelihood is low. Crook, not noticing that he has bait-and-switched his own question, downplays the risks of global warming, in effect on the grounds that the risks of anyone doing anything about the problem, whether it is serious or not, is low. Which obviously makes no sense.
As Cooper puts it:
Any position called “moderate” with respect to climate science would, at a minimum, engage with the evidence and predictions, which leads straightforwardly to a need for extremely aggressive action as soon as possible. But Crook’s position is political moderation — that is, simply picking a point somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum.
Political moderation on climate change is many things, but perhaps the most important one is that, as we’ve seen, it is incredibly risky.
To conclude: ‘politically correct’ is currently a term with no meaning, but regular use. I propose my definition as a meaning that will enable the term, henceforth, to acquire at least occasional, more respectable employment. Conservatives are, of course, perfectly free to seek and find examples of leftists engaging in politically correct thinking, on this new, solider semantic basis. I’m quite sure it’s quite common. People are often inclined to conflate judgments of the factual likelihood of P with the likelihood that some political faction, or coalition, could be induced to proceed on the basis that the factually of P is likely.
Rightwing tribalism seems to be the topic du jour, or maybe I’m noticing it more having just done a long-planned post on the topic. Here are some recent examples
Over the fold, I’ve reprised the piece (from a 2007 review of Clive Hamilton’s book Scorcher) when I first realized the central role of tribalism, as opposed to ideology or economic self-interest, in contemporary rightwing politics. Rereading it, I’m happy with most of the analysis, though obviously, with my characteristic over-optimism and shortening of time-frames, I did not anticipate the full tenacity of rightwing resistance on this issue.
What can be done about rightwing tribalism? There’s no point in traditional strategies of compromise and bargaining. The right don’t hate policies, they hate the people and groups they see as proposing those policies. So, as Bouie observes, the moment Obama adopts a policy favored by the right, they turn against it.
The strategy of trying to frame issues in rightwing terms, pushed by Lakoff and others, is similarly hopeless: it’s not the issues, but the people that are the problem. There’s one big exception to this: if they issue can be framed as Big Government vs the little guy, as in the cases of NSA surveillance and, more interestingly, of attempts by utilities to suppress rooftop solar power using ALEC-backed legislation, it’s possible to make common cause with at least some on the right, who hate “the guvment” even more than liberals and environmentalists. But that’s only true of a minority of the right, and a handful of issues.
Most of the time, none of these strategies will work. The only thing that will work is persuading rightwing tribalists to abandon their tribal identity, and persuading non-tribalists of conservative inclinations that they should not ally with this group. And of course, waiting for time and demography to take their course, as has already happened to a substantial extent.
In 1997, the Howard government came away from the Kyoto negotiations on climate change with a double triumph. First, despite opposition from many green groups and European governments, the resulting Kyoto Protocol relied primarily on the market-based policy of ‘cap-and-trade’ under which rights to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would be limited in total quantity, and tradeable between users and countries. This idea, pioneered in the United States, contrasted sharply with the policy of direct ‘command-and-control’ over individuals sources of emissions seen by many in the green movement as the only acceptable way of controlling pollution.
The case for emissions trading, pushed strongly by the Australian and US delegations rests on a simple economic argument. With a trading system, there is an incentive to find the lowest-cost way of reducing or offsetting emissions. The SO2 scheme in the US is estimated to have reduced compliance costs by 75 per cent. This is an impressive demonstration of the power of market mechanisms.
The second triumph came at the bargaining table, when targets for emissions reductions were being negotiated. By pursuing hardline bargaining tactics Australia secured the most generous emissions target of any developed country, allowing an increase of 8 per cent over 1990 levels when most other countries committed to reductions of 6 to 8 per cent. Even more strikingly, the agreement allowed Australia to meet its target entirely by restrictions on land clearing which were on the way in any case.
Ten years later, though, the government is floundering on the issue. Although the Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2005, Australia has yet to ratify it. And on the core issue of emissions trading the government has literally turned 360 degrees, rejecting the idea for years before scrambling to regain its original position under pressure from the Labor opposition, the states and much of the business sector.
The report of the Task Force on Emissions Trading provides the government with a last chance to deal itself back into the game. But the fact remains that, having started as one of the early advocates of emissions trading, the government now finds itself in the position of a last-minute, and rather dubious, convert.
How did all this come to pass? In large measure, it can be explained by the presence, within the Australian policy elite of an influential group of politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, think tanks and commentators determined to stop any significant action that would reduce CO2 emissions. In his new book, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change Clive Hamilton calls this group the ‘greenhouse mafia’ (a name he says they use themselves) and gives a critical description of its members and activities.
The first official reference to global warming turned up by Hamilton’s research is a 1981 memo from the Office of National Assessments (interestingly, addressed to a Mr J. Howard). Concern over the issue developed gradually during the 1980s, culminating in the 1992 Earth Summit, which led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a body established to assess the huge, and rapidly growing, body of research on the science of climate change, the likely impacts on societies, economies and ecosystems, and the possibilities for mitigation and adaptation. At this stage, the Hawke government had announced a commitment to the ‘Toronto targets’ calling for a 20 per cent reduction in emissions, but had taken no action to achieve this goal beyond the provision of research funding and some voluntary initiatives.
As the Howard government came into office, the pressure was mounting to match words with actions. The government’s main concern was with the Kyoto negotiations. As Hamilton shows, the government’s negotiating team, led by Meg McDonald of DFAT, treated Kyoto as a typical trade agreement, where the objective was to get as much, and give as little, as possible, an objective that was pursued with remarkable success.
It is after 1997 that the story becomes interesting. With the Kyoto agreement signed, a substantial section of the business community wanted to take advantage of Australia’s favourable position to participate in global emissions trading markets, take a lead in energy conservation and develop renewable sources of energy such as wind power. This group included much of the financial sector, the gas industry (energy from natural gas is less carbon-intensive than from coal) and even substantial elements of the energy sector, including BP, which had broken from the main international anti-Kyoto organisation, the Global Climate Coalition (after losing more members, the Coalition shut up shop around 2000).
A smaller, but more determined group, centred on the coal-mining and aluminium industries, emerged in opposition. Despite having congratulated the government on its success at Kyoto, this group rapidly emerged as vociferous opponents of the deal. Although they were motivated by concerns about the political and economic consequences of Kyoto, their chosen battleground was the science of climate change, which, they argued, was at best uncertain but more commonly the product of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive the public.
The most prominent public face of the greenhouse mafia has been the Lavoisier Group, which described Kyoto as ‘the greatest threat to our sovereignty since the Japanese Fleet entered the Coral Sea in 1942’ Hamilton notes, the Lavoisier Group was one of a string or similar organisations, the first being the HR Nicholls society, set up by then CEO of Western Mining Corporation, Hugh Morgan, and his executive officer Ray Evans.
The public activity of the Lavoisier Group was matched by effective behind-the-scenes organization by bureaucrats, lobby groups and individual politicians. Hamilton notes that many of the most effective lobbyists, such as Dick Wells of the Minerals Council, are former senior bureaucrats.
All of this activity was cheered on by a substantial section of the commentariat, and particularly The Australian newspaper. In much of the Australian media, there was a striking inconsistency between news coverage, which generally reported the findings of mainstream science, and the opinion pages which accepting the framing of the issue as a political dispute in which balance required equal time for both sides. The only real exception to this was The Australian, where both the news and opinion pages were dominated by views hostile to mainstream science.
Responding to this the Howard government adopted a set of positions that seemed to work well for some time, despite their inherent contradictions. The government officially accepted the science of climate change, but gave key portfolios to vocal skeptics. While refusing to ratify Kyoto, it promised to meet the Kyoto targets for emissions reduction. And having been among the leading proponents of market-based policies it set up the AP6 group, based on the claim that purely technological solutions were needed.
Hamilton’s final two chapters deal with the collapse of the government’s position over the last few years. In this period, the public debate was reshaped by the success of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Research, the release of the Stern Review of the economics of climate change, and in 2007, the progressive release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Over the same period, the occurrence of record temperatures, catastrophic bushfires and one of the worst droughts in history convinced ordinary Australians that the time for delay was past.
In retrospect this seems inevitable. By the time of the IPCC Third Assessment Report, released in 2001, the science was already fairly clear-cut. The fact that the earth was warming was well-established, and remaining concerns such as the discrepancy between surface and satellite measurements were approaching resolution (both data sets now show similar rates of warming). The evidence that human activity was responsible for the observed warming was not yet conclusive, but it was strong and getting steadily stronger as alternative hypotheses fell by the wayside. The Third Report concluded that the probability of human-caused global warming was between 66 and 90 per cent. The recently-released Fourth Report gave a probability of at least 90 per cent.
Of course, 90 per cent isn’t perfect certainty, but it is comparable to the scientific evidence we have to go on, for example, when we decide whether to allow the introduction of new drugs or genetically modified crops. In these circumstances, as many critics of extreme environmentalism have pointed out, insistence on absolute certainty is a recipe for paralysis.
Moreover, the remaining uncertainty surrounding global warming does not help a case for inaction. The core projections put forward by the IPCC exclude the small probability that warming will turn out to be the product of a natural cycle, but they also exclude various low-probability catastrophic scenarios, involving runaway feedbacks, collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and so on.
The most likely outcome of improvements in scientific knowledge is an increase in the confidence with which the mainstream IPCC model is held. But even if that does not happen, the news is just as likely to be bad as good.
So it seems that the critics of Kyoto, by focusing their attacks on the science of climate change, were backing an almost-certain loser in the long run. The obvious question is, Why?
For most of the book, Hamilton presents the methods, motives and successes of the greenhouse mafia as an example of effective delaying tactics, undertaken by well-organised interest groups particularly in the coal and aluminium industries. He sees the government’s stance as one of protecting short-term economic interests at the expense of our long-term national interest, not to mention those of the world as a whole.
This is certainly part of the story, But this analysis seems unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. Energy companies in Europe and elsewhere have had few problems in adapting to the new environment. Indeed, as Hamilton notes the intransigence of the Australian branches of Alcoa and Rio Tinto contrasts sharply with the positions of their corporate parents. And even Western Mining seems to have decided in the end that the campaigning fervour of Morgan and Evans was a distraction from their core business rather than a political asset.
But the most striking problem with the interest group explanation is its failure to account for the extraordinary ferocity of the climate change debate. As Hamilton notes at a couple of points in the argument, the rancour of the greenhouse mafia reflects a deep-seated hostility to environmentalism that goes beyond any calculation of corporate interests, or even the interests of the market system.
In fact, the dispute is not so much ideological as tribal. For the mining executives who lead the group, the retired engineers who typify the rank-and-file, and the culture warriors who push its case in the Murdoch press, greens or “enviros” are natural enemies. If they wear suits, turn up at business meetings and use the rhetoric of the market, that only makes them more subtle and dangerous threats.
And those who speak with the authority of science are disliked and distrusted even more. The most prominent recent statement from the greenhouse mafia, Ray Evans’ Nine Lies About Global Warming asserts that ‘If the IPCC were a commercial corporation operating in Australia, its directors would now be facing criminal charges and the prospect of going to jail’. Even normally sober commentators like Alan Wood, economics editor of The Australian, make free use of use of terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘fraud’ to discuss the main body of climate science supporting global warming theory.
Green activists and scientists alike are presented, in the rhetoric of the greenhouse mafia, as irreconcilable enemies of markets and freedom. Yet, Kyoto did not mark a triumph of anti-capitalist greens. Rather it signified the acceptance by the mainstream environmental movement that capitalism is here to stay, and that catastrophic climate change can only be prevented through the use of market mechanisms. Faced with a choice between pursuing fundamental social change and saving the planet, environmentalists have opted for the latter.
Serious advocates of capitalism have long recognised this. At meetings like the annual Davos conference and its Australian offshoot, the need to act on global warming is taken as given. The central issue is not the political fight over Kyoto and alternative proposals, but the opportunities for individual businesses and the business sector as a whole to take a leading role in the process.
Overall, the story told by Scorcher is one of a series of tactical victories for the greenhouse mafia leading to what appears certain to be a massive strategic defeat. The end of the Bush Administration will almost certainly signal the abandonment of the policies of denial and delay for which the ‘skeptics’ have fought so hard. The adoption of some form of emissions trading is inevitable, and the resulting political dynamic will ensure the adoption of long-term targets requiring large reductions in emissions. The only outcome of a decade of delaying tactics will be to increase the costs of the inevitable adjustment.
With its early advocacy of market-based policy, the Howard government, and the political right in Australia, could now be challenging the lock on environmental issues held by the left. Instead, having painted themselves into a corner by denying the plain evidence of science, they now find themselves scrambling to regain credibility and relevance.
Clive Hamilton, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne 2007, 266+vi pp.
Tyler Cowen on inequality and the arts.
Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.
Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.
Corey has argued that this passage displays a Nietzsche-meets-Hayek logic under which the idle rich serve (and should serve) as cultural taste-setters for the rest of us. Tyler would very likely disagree. But if he were to disagree, I think he’d have to state why it is better for culture that only the independently wealthy and their intimate dependents enjoy this kind of liberty. Cue George Scialabba, in a recent post on the history of Partisan Review.
There’s a reason why a lot of modern culture was produced by people living on a shoestring, from the New York intellectuals to all those poets and painters starving in their fabled garrets. It’s time-consuming to do something original; it requires bad manners, or at least a lack of automatic deference for received wisdom; and it helps to have an abundance of low-paid but undemanding jobs around–mailman, night watchman, librarian, clerical worker–that one can drift in and out of, as well as a few cheap urban neighborhoods where like-minded artistic riff-raff can congregate. (Russell Jacoby’s description, in The Last Intellectuals, of the ecology of the freelance intellectual has never been bettered.)
This scruffy, relaxed, undisciplined lifestyle–which rested on a political economy of full employment, free education, generous public services (including, let’s not forget, a fully funded postal service not handicapped by the current huge giveaway of practically free service to the credit-card industry), decent urban mass transit, and public subsidies for culture–is just what a business-dominated society makes it increasingly difficult to achieve, or even aspire to. Globalization, tight money, slashed government budgets, the destruction of unions: the result of all these and the rest of the corporate agenda is pervasive insecurity.
If you want to argue that Piketty (and other critics of inequality) fail to appreciate how inequality fosters the “dynamic productivity” of culture, you really need to show how culture is more dynamic under high inequality than it is under conditions of low inequality. Otherwise, your argument is beside the point (if all that you’re saying is that high inequality has some cultural payoffs while admitting that low inequality has greater payoffs, your criticism is probably not worth articulating in the first place). More precisely, you want to show that confining cultural production to a small minority of independently wealthy individuals (or those who can be supported by wealthy families or patrons) is better than allowing a larger, and much more heterogenous group of people the necessary freedom “from the immediate demands of the marketplace” to produce art and culture. Otherwise, your argument for the cultural benefits of high inequality undermines itself. If freedom from the marketplace is a good thing for culture, then, as per George’s discussion, it surely should be spread around among a wider variety of people.
I’ve just finished Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky sequence (Powells, Amazon). It’s fantasy, based around a rough analogue to Central-Asia-plus-China-plus-bits-of-Rus, in which pasty skinned Westerners are weird and occasional aberrations. It’s also enormous fun. It’s also technically impressive in its grasp of how feudal and tribal societies actually work. Bear really gets the consequences of imperfect information sharing in pre-modern societies and uses it as a core engine of plot. Rather than the usual fantasy model of ‘bunch of disparate comrades united on a single heroic quest,’ it goes for the far trickier ‘bunch of disparate comrades who split up and go in many different directions, most of the time with only the vaguest idea of what the others are doing.’ It pains me to think how much work she must have done to keep track of who knows what at which point, but it pays off. The really nice part is that the villain (who bears a strong resemblance to Hassan-i Sabbāh) is not a commander of the usual armies of mindless hordes. Instead, he mostly has to work through treachery, dissimulation and manipulation of collective knowledge. His magics (which are costly) mostly involve better communication, which allow him both to work more easily with subordinates, and to spread disinformation so that it takes hold quickly, forestalling some alliances while encouraging others.
All this is strongly reminiscent of Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book (which is one of the genuine classics of sociology, and far less frequently read and assigned than it deserves). Gellner’s account of pre-modern society stresses how ‘sword wielders’ (rulers and their warriors) have to come to terms with ‘script users’ (religious leaders and clerks). Coalitions between the two classes govern most pre-modern societies.1 The former are specialists in violence. The latter are specialists in communication, and over the time, the power of the second constrains and shapes the power of the first.
In any one single encounter, there is of course no question of any equality of strength: he who has, and knows how to use, the sword, need brook no nonsense from the penpusher, and is indeed most unlikely to tolerate any opposition from him. To understand the manner in which pen-pushers nonetheless can and do effectively oppose and overcome swordsmen, we need not invoke or overestimate some mysterious power of superstition in the hearts of the swordsmen, which would compel them to bend their knees to the upholders of legitimation and truth. … Each member of the warrior class controls his own stronghold and band of armed followers … These local lords are … loosely organized in a kind of pyramid …
The main point about the loose and fluid congeries of lords of diverse rank is that they are indeed loose and unstable. There are diverse reasons for this. For one thing, they are prone to conflict and warfare simply in virtue of their pervasive ethos: violence is their honour, their specific skill, and they are in effect required to demonstrate, almost perpetually, their competence at inflicting and resisting it. There are also other reasons. The balance of poewr that keeps the peace between thugs and coalitions of thugs is unstable. The power of a lord high up on the scale, of a king in effect, depends on how many lower level thugs he can organize. The availability, the “loyalty”, of a lower level thug will in practice depend on his private assessment of the strength of the king, and so, indirectly, on the lower-level thug’s assessment of the loyalty of other lower level thugs. They are all tacitly watching each other. … in civil strife, potential supporters of rival claims to legitimacy are swayed not so much by their own assessment of the real merits of the case, but by their private, unavowed prediction of the loyalties of others. If the [organization of pen-pushers] has the authority to ascribe legitimacy, and is endowed with the machinery for disseminating and publicizing its verdict, this confers great indirect power on it. It can crystallize the consensus which then brings together the larger units. … The pen is not mightier than the sword; but the pen sustained by ritual does impose great constraints on the sword. It alone can help the swordsmen decide how to gang up to the greatest advantage. (pp.95-99)
It’s unlikely (though of course far from impossible) that Bear has read Gellner. Furthermore, her imagined universe is one in which divine authority is real and can provide legitimation without the mediation of earthly intermediaries (the skies of the steppes reflect the temporal order below). Yet her ideas push in a not dissimilar direction. In pre-modern societies, the power to communicate is key. Gellner emphasizes how communication and legitimation reinforce the power of traditional religious organizations. Bear emphasizes the vulnerability of these arrangements to disruption by canny manipulation of information. Her books are a very nice example of how a clear thinking writer can use straightforward sociological insights to reinforce the power of her fiction.
Trevor Parry-Giles, NCA National Office, email@example.com
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