Category Archives: Politics

nudge / hold / spin

Will Davies at the LRB, reviewing Justin E H Smith’s Irrationality:

Away from the frontiers and mythology of Enlightenment, the meaning of ‘rationality’ (and hence ‘irrationality’) becomes difficult to pin down. You can resort to the otherworldly ideas of logic and mathematics floating free from all politics and culture. But the academic study of ‘rational choice’ makes little sense once diverted from the kinds of strategic problem – war and profit – it has long been tasked with solving. When we reflect on how we actually live, it becomes all the harder to identify what an ‘irrational’ action or choice might be. Smith wonders ‘whether an anthropologist external to our cultural world would, in studying us, be able to make sharp distinctions among the horoscope, the personality quiz and the credit rating’, or even be able to tell ‘whether we ourselves clearly understand how they differ’. Equally, it isn’t clear how one would distinguish between the scientific societies of the 17th century, to which so much subsequent progress is owed, and, say, a website dedicated to picking through the evidence that vaccines cause autism. Understood purely as ‘culture’ or as ‘behaviour’, rationality becomes ritual or (as the nudgers have it) habit, and ‘irrationality’ is just a pejorative term for the habits we consider bad.

Burning the village green in order to save it

Duncan Thomas at Verso:

… the geographical unevenness of neoliberal development, in concentrating wealth in the Southern regions of England, has also seen the Conservative Party retreat to its historic heartlands. Exiled from power during the Blair years, the party clung desperately to its decimated membership and receding support. In doing so, it fostered a petit-bourgeois, “populist” nationalism incipiently hostile to large, international capital, precisely at the moment when the instruments of government through which it might seek a measure of independence from such forces had been cast aside.

As this hostility grew, the previously solid Conservative coalition between large and small capital began to disintegrate. A quarter of small- and medium-sized business owners voted UKIP in the 2014 European elections, with only a very slight majority supporting membership in 2016; over 20% of Conservative members now view big business as exploitative of common people. Rather than alienated northern workers, it was this embittered southern middle class, animated by perceptions of personal and national decline, which primarily drove the Brexit vote.

Not my Titanic, not my deckchairs.

a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist

David Graeber at NYRoB, reviewing Skidelsky’s Money and Government. Graeber’s acid prose is almost always a delight to this household, and this piece has plenty of it — though it is the exact opposite of a hatchet-job review.

On the tautology of monetarism:

The premise that markets will always right themselves in the end can only be tested if one has a commonly agreed definition of when the “end” is; but for economists, that definition turns out to be “however long it takes to reach a point where I can say the economy has returned to equilibrium.” (In the same way, statements like “the barbarians always win in the end” or “truth always prevails” cannot be proved wrong, since in practice they just mean “whenever barbarians win, or truth prevails, I shall declare the story over.”)

On the ideological origins of income tax:

… there’s absolutely no reason a modern state should fund itself primarily by appropriating a proportion of each citizen’s earnings. There are plenty of other ways to go about it. Many—such as land, wealth, commercial, or consumer taxes (any of which can be made more or less progressive)—are considerably more efficient, since creating a bureaucratic apparatus capable of monitoring citizens’ personal affairs to the degree required by an income tax system is itself enormously expensive. But this misses the real point: income tax is supposed to be intrusive and exasperating. It is meant to feel at least a little bit unfair. Like so much of classical liberalism (and contemporary neoliberalism), it is an ingenious political sleight of hand—an expansion of the bureaucratic state that also allows its leaders to pretend to advocate for small government.

And the leakage of economic assumptions into the humanities more broadly:

… by the 1950s and 1960s almost every scholarly discipline in the business of preparing young people for positions of power (political science, international relations, etc.) had adopted some variant of “rational choice theory” culled, ultimately, from microeconomics. By the 1980s and 1990s, it had reached a point where even the heads of art foundations or charitable organizations would not be considered fully qualified if they were not at least broadly familiar with a “science” of human affairs that started from the assumption that humans were fundamentally selfish and greedy.

a house that grows

Paul Dobraszczyk on Graham Caine’s Street Farmhouse eco-structure from the early 1970s:

Even though Caine intended the eco-house to be a model for a new kind of society that embraced self-determination as a fundamental tenet in all aspects of life, it nevertheless failed because of its vulnerability to disorder. The ways in which humans occupy houses is fundamentally unpredictable and thus any regenerative system put in place is at risk of failing. In coming to the conclusion that the only way to be radical is to separate oneself entirely from the corrupt society around you, Caine fell into the trap of seeing self-sufficiency as a strategy for emancipation rather than the reverse. Borrowing his ideas from contemporaneous experiments by NASA to develop space colonies, Caine’s ‘closed-system’ was precisely that – a dead-end of autonomy that could not help but fail because it didn’t allow anything from the outside to enter in. In the end, such connection – compromising and sullying as it undoubtedly is – is in fact vital for a house to grow because, to continue to be healthy, we always need feeding from the outside as much as from within.

Exile sickness

Asylum officers aren’t professionals at anything. They believe themselves to be experts at rooting out lies. They’re not. They routinely ignore the advice of medical and legal professionals, replacing their own biased judgment. They’re incentivized not to save lives but to dig for inconsistencies, some of which are everyday human error, and to reject. The culture inside the US and UK asylum offices encourages caseworkers to turn people away — the officers brag about it to each other. I have seen official asylum reports on which the officer’s annotations include things like, “Loser!” These are not unbiased gatekeepers.

[…] torture survivors are routinely disbelieved, though their bodies bear horrific scars. The UK home office has made up an absurd catch-all excuse called Self-Inflicted Torture by Proxy, which was recently rejected in their supreme court. Refugees escape the hellish conditions of their own countries thinking that in Europe they will find human rights, compassion, and professionals at the gates who are curious, eager to save lives, armed with a reverence for the Geneva Convention and expertise in law, medicine, and global events. This is what we all wish was happening. But it’s not. The people guarding the gates have the equivalent of two-year degrees, they are tired, overworked, mediocre in their powers of logic, badly trained, and unwilling to learn. What makes them more dangerous: they think highly of their own judgment and they enjoy the little power they’ve been given.

Dina Nayeri interviewed at the LARB.