Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Banksy smiley coppers policemen smiling old street hoxton london stencil graffiti

Readers are, I presume, as dismayed as I am by the current terms of debate concerning guns and police violence in the United States.

Yes, important points have been made—for example, about guns and profits, the diversity of victims of fatal shootings, and the racial disparities in police shootings. But the more general debate in the United States has largely ignored or overlooked other key issues, such as discourses of inferiority, people’s right to resist violence, and the nature of state-legimitized violence.

Fortunately, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [ht: ja] has weighed in on these topics:

Brad Evans: Throughout your work, you have written about the conditions faced by the globally disadvantaged, notably in places such as India, China and Africa. How might we use philosophy to better understand the various types of violence that erupt as a result of the plight of the marginalized in the world today?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: While violence is not beyond naming and diagnosis, it does raise many challenging questions all the same. I am a pacifist. I truly believe in the power of nonviolence. But we cannot categorically deny a people the right to resist violence, even, under certain conditions, with violence. Sometimes situations become so intolerable that moral certainties are no longer meaningful. There is a difference here between condoning such a response and trying to understand why the recourse to violence becomes inevitable.

When human beings are valued as less than human, violence begins to emerge as the only response. When one group designates another as lesser, they are saying the “inferior” group cannot think in a “reasonable” way. It is important to remember that this is an intellectual violation, and in fact that the oppressed group’s right to manual labor is not something they are necessarily denied. In fact, the oppressed group is often pushed to take on much of society’s necessary physical labor. Hence, it is not that people are denied agency; it is rather that an unreasonable or brutish type of agency is imposed on them. And, the power inherent in this physical agency eventually comes to intimidate the oppressors. The oppressed, for their part, have been left with only one possible identity, which is one of violence. That becomes their politics and it appropriates their intellect.

This brings us directly to the issue of “reasonable” versus “unreasonable” violence. When dealing with violence deemed unreasonable, the dominating groups demonize violent responses, saying that “those other people are just like that,” not just that they are worth less, but also that they are essentially evil, essentially criminal or essentially have a religion that is prone to killing.

And yet, on the other side, state-legitimized violence, considered “reasonable” by many, is altogether more frightening. Such violence argues that if a person wears a certain kind of clothing or belongs to a particular background, he or she is legally killable. Such violence is more alarming, because it is continuously justified by those in power.

The rest of the interview is also worth reading, especially the sections on self-appointed anti-poverty entrepreneurs (who never mention “capital’s consistent need to sustain itself at the expense of curtailing the rights of some sectors of the population”) and “affirmative sabotage” (which involves “entering the discourse that you are criticizing fully, so that you can turn it around from inside”).

As well as Spivak’s conclusion

one must continue to work — to quote Marx — for the possibility of a poetry of the future.


American voters are clearly angry. At least it’s clear to me—for example, as reflected in the success of the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns (and in the evident dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton, Congress, and Wall Street).

But it’s not clear to many economists, who cite rising average incomes, a relatively low unemployment rate, and other aggregate indicators. For them, the economic situation is improving and there’s really no reason for Americans to be angry.*

And then there are the philosophers, like Martha Nussbaum, who think anger is itself morally bad.

You can be dignified, you can protest, you can say this is outrageous, but you don’t have to do it in a way that is angry or seeks payback.

But the fact is, even with slight improvements in the overall economic situation in recent years, many Americans remain financially stressed and are angry that most of the gains that have been achieved since 2009 have been captured not by them, but by a tiny group at the top.

The financial stress underlying the anger is evident in the latest Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015 issued by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (pdf).

The word cloud above is a good place to start. Each cloud includes the 75 most frequently observed words in the description of individuals’ challenges, with the size of the word reflecting its frequency. Thus, for example, among low-income respondents, “bills” and “money” are the most commonly reported words, while for those in the middle, the most common words are “insurance,” “health,” “money,” and “retirement.” For those earning more than $100,000, the emphasis shifts to worries about “retirement.”

The report offers plenty of additional evidence about the financial stress experienced by many Americans. For example, just under one-third of respondents report that they are either “finding it difficult to get by” (9 percent) or are “just getting by” (22 percent) financially. This represents approximately 76 million adults who are struggling to some degree to get by.


And while individuals are 9 percentage points more likely to say that their financial well-being improved during the prior year than to say that their situation worsened, it is still the case that 46 percent of adults reveal they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

That’s 46 percent! To cover a $400 expense!

So, although there’s been some improvement in recent years when looking at aggregate-level results for the U.S. population as a whole, the fact is most of the improvement has occurred at the top (especially for college-educated, white Americans). The rest of the population (black, white, Hispanic, without college degrees) continues to be financially squeezed. And it’s that difference—between improvement for a few and stress for everyone else—that means lots of Americans are angry right now. And, yes, they want payback.

The mainstream economists and politicians who say that people should not be angry, that they should be content with their lot, are wrong. So are the philosophers who argue that anger and the desire for payback are morally suspect.

As I see it, the American working-class is justifiably angry and they clearly want to see some kind of payback. The real questions are, who is standing in their way (and thus whom should they be angry at) and what kinds of fundamental changes in the economic system are necessary to improve their situation (and thus to achieve the appropriate payback)?


*To be fair, Jared Bernstein himself looks behind the aggregate numbers, which leads him to understand “why some people are unsatisfied with the economy and beyond. Growth hasn’t reached all corners by a long shot, and policymakers have too often been at best unresponsive to that reality and at worst, just plain awful.”



Here’s a second video with Antonio Callari (the first is here)—this one on Marx’s intervention into the arena of philosophy and the idea of freedom as the basis of a Marxian project of transforming the world.


[ht: cwc]


Lou Reed and Arthur Danto couldn’t have been more different. One used music to make us feel the contradictions occasioned by the desperate situations people find themselves in, while the other used philosophical language to make us think about what constitutes a work of art.

But they were also connected, at the very start: The Velvet Underground & Nico was produced by Andy Warhol (in 1967), while Warhol’s Brillo Box was the object that led Danto (in 1967, pdf) to argue that art is whatever the artworld says it is.


I can’t say I was ever fully satisfied by the answers Reed and Danto offered but my encounters with the work of both of them led me to feel and think about life, music, and art in new, unexpected ways. And the world is now a less interesting place without them.


Philosophers’ conceptions of economics are both a symptom of a crisis and an opportunity to exploit that crisis.

OK, that’s a pretty broad thesis (which would require, of course, a great deal of evidence). But I do think it holds in general, and it certainly is an apt characterization in the case of Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain. Their view is that, after the Great Crash of 2007-08, which economists for the most part failed to predict, the idea that economics is a science needs to be abandoned.

But economics has never been able to show the record of improvement in predictive successes that physical science has shown through its use of harmless idealizations. In fact, when it comes to economic theory’s track record, there isn’t much predictive success to speak of at all.

The fact that leading academic economists were completely unprepared for the crisis that broke out six years ago—they didn’t see it coming and, more importantly, failed to even include in their models the possibility that such a crisis might occur—certainly represents a crisis in and of economics. According to the official philosophy of economics, the criterion of success of theoretical and empirical work in economics is the ability (even when the underlying assumptions are unrealistic) to predict both the path of the economy and the effects of implementing different economic policies. On that score, most of mainstream economics has failed miserably.

That crisis of economic thought certainly created an opening for philosophers like Rosenberg and Curtain. If all were well in academic economics, there simply wouldn’t be an opportunity for philosophers of economics to comment on whether or not economics meets the standards of a science.

But it is also the case that philosophers such as Rosenberg and Curtain exploit the opportunity they’ve been offered by providing a particular philosophy of science, one that emphasizes prediction (a standard they consider to be satisfied elsewhere, like physics), and arguing that economics actually follows a different model.

Social and political philosophers have helped us answer this question, and so understand what economics is really all about. Since Hobbes, philosophers have been concerned about the design and management of institutions that will protect us from “the knave” within us all, those parts of our selves tempted to opportunism, free riding and generally avoiding the costs of civil life while securing its benefits. Hobbes and, later, Hume — along with modern philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick — recognized that an economic approach had much to contribute to the design and creative management of such institutions. Fixing bad economic and political institutions (concentrations of power, collusions and monopolies), improving good ones (like the Fed’s open-market operations), designing new ones (like electromagnetic bandwidth auctions), in the private and public sectors, are all attainable tasks of economic theory. . .

For the foreseeable future economic theory should be understood more on the model of music theory than Newtonian theory. The Fed chairman must, like a first violinist tuning the orchestra, have the rare ear to fine-tune complexity (probably a Keynesian ability to fine-tune at that). Like musicians’, economists’ expertise is still a matter of craft. They must avoid the hubris of thinking their theory is perfectly suited to the task, while employing it wisely enough to produce some harmony amid the cacophony.

In the end, Rosenberg and Curtain let mainstream economics off the hook, in the name of designing better institutions and fine-tuning the economy. That’s because they take the goal of economics as a given: to fix market imperfections.

What they don’t understand is that economics is not a singular science, with a singular object, but rather an agonistic field made up of a variety of theories and objects. There is neoclassical economics and Keynesian economics and Marxian economics, all of which have different objects. Economists who use those theories literally see different economies and associated economic problems and solutions. Economics is therefore a battleground and no amount of fine-tuning or craft serves to pick out the correct theory or approach. It is still the case that any attempt to “produce some harmony amid the cacophony” on the part of a neoclassical or Keynesian economist (e.g., by implementing rules-based monetary policy or supporting fiscal stimulus) presupposes an economy in which one group of economic actors appropriates the surplus created by another group. No amount of fine-tuning or craftsmanship solves that particular problem.

It is merely exploiting the current crisis in economics to argue otherwise.

As I explained back in April, I often suggest to students they read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It is particularly important for economics, a discipline in which many practitioners—both mainstream and heterodox—fetishize science and suffer from physics-envy.

John Naughton explains why, even though paradigm shift is “is probably the most used – and abused – term in contemporary discussions of organisational change and intellectual progress,” Kuhn’s book remains important as a challenge to Whig versions of the history and philosophy of science.

Kuhn’s version of how science develops differed dramatically from the Whig version. Where the standard account saw steady, cumulative “progress”, he saw discontinuities – a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual. The fact that his version seems unremarkable now is, in a way, the greatest measure of his success. But in 1962 almost everything about it was controversial because of the challenge it posed to powerful, entrenched philosophical assumptions about how science did – and should – work.

Naughton, in contrast to many commentators, notes the importance of incommensurability in Kuhn’s approach:

But what really set the cat among the philosophical pigeons was one implication of Kuhn’s account of the process of paradigm change. He argued that competing paradigms are “incommensurable”: that is to say, there exists no objective way of assessing their relative merits. There’s no way, for example, that one could make a checklist comparing the merits of Newtonian mechanics (which applies to snooker balls and planets but not to anything that goes on inside the atom) and quantum mechanics (which deals with what happens at the sub-atomic level). But if rival paradigms are really incommensurable, then doesn’t that imply that scientific revolutions must be based – at least in part – on irrational grounds? In which case, are not the paradigm shifts that we celebrate as great intellectual breakthroughs merely the result of outbreaks of mob psychology?

In my experience, the idea that different paradigms or discourses (to use the Foucauldian term) are incommensurable—such that, for example, neoclassical and Marxian economic theories are radically different and literally incommensurable ways of looking at the world—challenges and undermines traditional ways of doing and teaching economics.

In that sense, Naughton is wrong: at least in economics, Kuhn’s approach to the history and philosophy of science is still remarkable.