Saturday 26 January 2013

US/UK 'Special Relationship', Britain's financial empire

An interesting post at Duck of Minerva on Britain's relations with the US.

It has long been noted that the UK's national interest foreign policy-wise is halfway between the US and the EU. Yet what Brits fail to realise is that our value to the US very much depends on being part of the EU. Actually, I think a lot of the political elites do understand this but the nationalist (or perhaps a better word would be 'sovereigntist') lobby is still very powerful and a lot of parliamentary political fates depend on it, especially for the Tories.

The one major thing that's missing from Stacey's analysis is the UK's financial sector, which has the British political system in its pocket, even now. The Conservative government seem to see Britain's future in its economic and financial empire, connected through its former colonies in the British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, etc. (Britain's "Second Empire", as Ronen Palan calls it.) The overriding national interest, as the right-wing elites see it (though not so much the right-wing electorate -- that's the schism), is to maintain Britain's position within the world's financial networks and to dig in deeper if possible. Hence the austerity agenda isn't just neoliberal ideological madness (though it is that) -- they also intend to strip away as much regulation as possible while choking off the last remnants of social democracy so as to give Britain an edge in the 'race to the bottom' of the barrel of global finance. David Cameron's recent rhetoric on tax avoidance, etc. would suggest the contrary to this but his words are hollow and in no way represent his government's actions or intentions. Because this path is a road to economic -- and consequently political -- ruin for most of the country the real question is whether they can achieve all their goals before the next election, which they look rather likely to lose at this rate.

I don't know as much as I should about Britain's military capabilities but it is remarkable that our government continues to insist (as did the Labour govt. before it) that we still need a so-called independent nuclear deterrent but we can do without the kind of resources that would actually be of use in the 21st century neo-colonial, interventionist style of warfare that seems to be the new norm. Maybe Britain needs to get it's priorities straight. I won't hold my breath.

Anyway, when push comes to shove on the EU I expect Britain's relationship to remain largely unaltered. If renegotiation happens it'll involve getting out of whatever taxes or regulations the EU wants to put on the City of London. Leaving the EU would be generally popular with the public but business has no desire for it and that, as I have mentioned, is where Britain's national interest is seen to reside.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

David Campbell on 'the retreat from reality' / The need for political epistemology

David Campbell has very nice, thought provoking piece on the right-wing disregard for science and evidence generally, particularly in the cases of climate change and gun violence.  He concludes with the following:
Of course, there is – especially for those of us with post-structuralist philosophical commitments – no easily discernible, singular, uncontested reality. There are no facts beyond dispute or arguments immune from contestation. No group has privileged access to the truth. Reality has to be narrated and narratives are inherently constructed. But some stories have more support than others, and the “concordance of evidence” favours some positions over others. When anyone flies in the face of such evidence it’s time to get angry and insist that we won’t stand for such BS.
I have a few comments as I think this raises a whole load of really interesting questions:

While it's true that a nuanced, epistemologically relativist social theory of knowledge does not preclude the kind of hearty, thorough evidentialism that we so desperately need -- no part of scepticism or constructivism necessitates cynicism or nihilism -- I don't see much in the poststructuralist canon (as I understand it) that provides the theoretical resources for such a discussion.  The very notion of evidential 'support' is not a positive concept that I've encountered in poststructuralist writing.  Indeed, the very notion implies the kind of epistemological commitments that such writings go out of their way to avoid.  That isn't to say that poststructuralist writings do not deploy evidence; of course they do, your own work included.  But the theory with which this evidence is articulated tends to be stuck in a critical, narrowly relativist register of admitting that its own account is one theory among many and that it is just 'keeping the discussion going' in Rortyean fashion.  Consequently, such accounts generally claim no greater epistemic authority than being one legitimate voice within the discussion.

In my view, saying that "some stories have more support than others, and the 'concordance of evidence' favours some positions over others" goes beyond merely 'keeping the conversation going' -- it takes us into the realm of epistemology proper and a step or two outside the comfort zone of any acknowledged 'poststructuralist' theory that I've ever read.  This argument does not, of course, invalidate anything but, if it is correct, it imparts a theoretical burden -- it demands that we acknowledge the inadequacy of what we had previously relied upon and endeavour to go beyond it.

Essentially what you seem to be calling for is what Latour (who isn't generally understood to be a 'poststructuralist', although his thought is certainly related) calls 'political epistemology.'  All epistemology, for Latour, is political because epistemology isn't just about how or why we believe what we do -- it's not a neutral theory about the basic mechanics of knowledge; rather, it's about what we should believe and how we can make others believe what we think is right (in every sense of the word).  The most obvious kind of political epistemology is the 'demarcation criteria' of scientistic philosophers of science -- of what gets to count as science (and thus be valid) and what doesn't (and what is consequently invalid).  But it runs far deeper than that.

As I see it, you can't have 'evidentialism' without a discussion of what does and (importantly) does not count as evidence and this requires active endorsement of particular standards -- a political epistemology or 'political metrology,' if you will.  It requires the progressive institution of a collective epistemological reality.  This reality is inevitably contested -- indeed, scepticism and contestation are its very conditions of possibility -- but it must also be built up, endorsed, promoted, reinforced, rationalised, validated -- not just cut down, scrutinised, picked apart and deconstructed.  It must be active -- in that it creates, circulates and promotes new ideas and instruments -- and not just reactive -- in the sense of picking up on existing discourses and subjecting them to scrutiny.  And this brings us to perhaps the biggest challenge for poststructuralism: the need to interrogate the purposes and the limitations of 'critique' and 'critical theory' in general -- of the need for something besides and beyond (or in addition to) these practices.

Latour's new book, coming out in English soon, on 'modes of existence' talks about the need to rediscover trust in institutions, such as science.  That is basically the issue: evidentialism requires a kind of epistemic institutionalism, a collective epistemological project based not just on scepticism but also on trust, on belief.  This institution needn't be 'scientific' but it needs to be definite and exclusive.  It needn't dispense with 'anything goes' as such but it needs to recognise that such epistemic anarchism is but an initial step, logically prior to a more formal sorting process that includes and excludes, legitimating some knowledge claims and delegitimating others.  It can no longer be enough to just 'keep the conversation going' by adding one more voice to the mix.  That plays straight into the hands of the climate denialists and the gun fetishists, etc. who relish, embelish, exaggerate and exploit epistemic division and uncertainty so as to extract political advantages.  Unvarnished epistemological relativism -- in the sense of rendering all knowledge claims formally equal -- is incapable of issuing the necessary clarion call for 'evidence' because what evidence is requires a definite idea of what it is not, which implies an exclusionary distinction.

So, perhaps it's time to reconsider those fusty old epistemology-obsessed modernists who undoubtedly gave us the wrong answers but were nevertheless asking the right questions...  They were wrong in arguing that epistemological validity -- i.e. 'Truth' -- was singular, universal and transcendent but they were right in understanding the political need for socially validating some knowledge claims over others.  They were wrong in making the validation criteria -- 'Reason, Science,' etc. -- abstract and accessible only to the elites but they were right in understanding that such epistemological criteria are politically indispensible.

We live in an age of 'cynical reason,' as Sloterdijk put it; or, in Latour's words, we live in an age where critique has been 'miniaturised' -- that is, perfected, instrumentalised and woven into the fabric of everyday life such that we scarcely even notice it.  The tools and techniques that were constructed for the struggle against power have been internalised by the powerful and turned against resistance itself, hitting it square in its very conditions of possibility.  For both these guys this political fact indicates the inadequacy of poststructuralist theory, as received.  I tend to agree.

I know that David has been over similar ground in his arguments in print with Colin Wight et al.  As I recall he argued then that epistemic validation should be found in ethics rather than epistemology, strictly speaking.  I'll shut up now since this is already more essay than comment, but I think it suffices to say that I don't think that 'ethics' alone does the job.  The concept of political epistemology seems to me to be a more fruitful avenue, precisely because neither half of the phrase is reducible to the other -- it must be both political and epistemology.  If 'evidence' is to have meaningful, positive political force within a poststructuralist understanding of the world, something like Latour's 'institutions' (or perhaps Badiou's 'Truths') are called for.  I see room for them within poststructuralism in general but it is just that -- room, empty space yet to be filled.

Monday 21 January 2013

More on Agency, Millennium Conference

A bit of background might help elucidate how and why I arrived at my last post on things and agency.  I was suddenly compelled to write about it by Jeremy's post but I'd been thinking about it for a while.

Until quite recently I too was quite happy to use 'agency' in the more-or-less Latourian fashion (as a catchall term for 'causal efficacy' of any sort) and considered any objection to it to be simply reactionary.  It was attending the Millennium journal's conference on 'Materialism in World Politics' a few months ago that changed my mind.  The conference itself seemed to be split down the middle to some degree in terms of the theoretical persuasion of the attendees: half were dyed-in-the-wool historical materialists of one sort or another; the other half were acolytes of materialism after the fashion of Latour, Connolly, Bennett, Haraway, etc.  I found it interesting that the to-and-fro of the argumentation between the two camps eventually ended up orbiting around one issue in particular: that of the 'agency' of things.

Some, Colin Wight and David Chandler for two, argued strongly against the attribution of agency to things.  Another person even called it 'fascist' since it 'eliminated the difference between people and things.'  This objection is, of course, totally reactionary.  Granting 'agency' to things doesn't destroy the difference between humans and other kinds of things; it makes the difference one within a plurality rather than across a duality and ontologically secondary rather than primary.  However, some objections were more nuanced.  The argument that really persuaded me was that the concept of political agency is a hard-won spoil of ideological conflict and that it mustn't be taken for granted because many political ideologies deny the notion of human beings in general having the capacity for reflexivity, self-consciousness and intentional, purposive, intelligent action.  We see this today with the creeping technocratisation of governance in Europe, disguised and rationalised by economics and the cult of There Is No Alternative, for example.  Such ideologies are real today and they were even more so in the past.

This made me realise that agency in science and in politics are quite different things.  In science human agency, conventionally defined, has been granted far too much but in politics this is not the case; in politics the very capacities that were so overstated in scientists need to be cultivated, nurtured and promoted.  What in one instance was so hyper-abundant as to be a pest in the other is, if not endangered, not in overwhelmingly good health.

We certainly need to understand the impurity and complexity of politics in terms of the massive proliferation of things qua 'issues' (as in 'dingpolitik') and we need to be rid of the myth of naked humans talking amongst themselves but we also need to recognise that there is an enduring truth in the various theoretico-political myths of 'humans amongst themselves' -- that there are specificities to human being that require special theoretical terms.  Human being may not be unique in type but it is singular in importance and so we need to be careful when we are taking apart the concepts with which its specificity has hitherto been captured, even if we are justified in performing such disassembly work in general.

So, I don't pretend to have any answers here.  I'm not saying that the old humanist version of agency must necessarily be preserved.  I'm largely won over by Levi's articulation of agency as gradational and to be attributed in its varying forms on the basis of empirical evidence rather than a priori.  Jeremy's splitting of the term into three works well too.

I suppose what I'm trying to say programmatically is that a lot of work has been done un-bifurcating nature, flattening ontology, pluralising duality, post-ing humanism and so on and a large part of this has involved dethroning the naked human Subject.  However, that, for any social or human science, can only be an initial, critical move; an earth-clearing exercise.  The attribution of 'agency' to things worked well at that stage but it has become dehistoricised and ANT has become known as 'the theory that things have agency' -- as ANT quietly steamrollers its way through the human sciences this claim becomes gradually indissociable from everything else anyone has ever said about it.  A far greater degree of nuance than this is now required

It seems that Levi and Jeremy are both well ahead of me on this but I met numerous people at the Millennium conference who were still very much stuck with the impression that the claim that 'things have agency' is very much the insight of Latour, ANT, etc.  I now think that this is not the important insight so much as it was one way of articulating a broader point in a way that worked analytically, polemically and philosophically in that particular context (science studies in the 1980s) but that is less than adequate now.

I suppose this is ultimately just a 'baby and bathwater' argument: I think that 'agency' as traditionally defined has some conceptual and political importance, despite its flaws, so we should be careful when redefining it, though redefine it we must.