Politics as Struggle

People like the image of struggle to describe the nature of politics, but we should be attentive to its two possible interwoven sources. On the one hand, struggle could imply the need to overcome, i.e. to eat or be eaten, etc. This gives a morbid excitement to politics and both sanctions and lauds actions with the real or imagined pressure of survival. On the other hand, struggle is equally implied by the commonality of what is being decided, i.e. it is precisely the fact that we are discussing our shared life that that our differing visions contend. The difference between these two ideas of struggle is whether it is taken for granted that at the end of the day the other is still there.


On the Necessity of an Ethics of the Meantime

Most political projects that cannot be realized immediately and do not simply seek to preserve the status quo require an “ethics of the meantime” (i.e. how shall I act before the project is realized). It is insufficient to imagine or theorize the end goal and simply say “and in the meantime we will work towards it.” It is insufficient even to theorize about how it will be realized, because carrying on any such project implies the survival of its practitioners at least for a time and therefore the day-to-day demands of life which at first glance extend beyond all but the most religious projects. If one is not attentive to this question of how to act in the meantime one will miss how much power failing to grapple with this question gives to the status quo. Descartes, for instance, makes this explicit in The Meditations (I) when he discusses, however briefly, the nature of his vacation as he pursues his project of radical doubt and reconstruction. That someone who begins from the inadequacy of the status quo and sets out to so radically revise it should so completely reproduce it in his actions is cause for note.
Descartes may be able to respond that because of the contemplative nature of his task his method need not, and indeed could not, be mirrored in his actions. For those pursuing an ethical, social, or political project, however, this explanation is not so readily available.

Between Technocracy and Populism: A Not So Modest Proposal

The Problem
I have heard it said that we are on a precipice between technocracy and populism. That is, that we are at risk of falling prey to the unaccountable discipline of “the experts” or the unchecked whims of “the people” (or at least those who claim to speak for them). If this is in the least bit true, (and to a lesser extent even it is not), what we need is a renegotiation of the relationships between various experts and “the people”.
Both extremes embody a break-down in these relationships as one group turns away from the other and denies it any place in interpersonal or collective decision-making processes. What is needed therefore at the individual, institutional, and societal levels are ways for these groups to become willing and able to turn back to each other, and maintain truly constructive relations.
My Proposal is Nothing New
The breakdown and reconciliation of these relationships are everywhere already under way to different degrees and in different ways. Examples of breakdown include UFOology and anti-vaccination movements (a turn away from scientific experts). Examples of attempts at reconciliation include the renegotiation between women and doctors that took place through the Women’s Health Book Collective (allowing the women to talk back to condescending experts), or the movement to use plain language in government (forcing experts to communicate understandably).
Where to Begin in Principle
Since these renegotiations are already underway, what I am proposing therefore is only that we self-consciously link these disparate reconciliation efforts across medicine, science, policy making, law, economics, and elsewhere and that we ground these reconciliations in common principles. I think this can be done by starting with the difference between the kind of knowledge that entitles experts and the people to a stake in the decision-making, method on the one hand and experience on the other.
Where to Begin in Practice
Andragogy, the methods and principles of teaching of adults, offers a basis for experts and people to both communicate to the other what only they can know and learn from the other what they need to know. If these principles and methods can be practiced, not simply in night schools and continuing education classes, but as a pillar of professional and democratic life everywhere, what I think will be achieved is nothing less than a relational autonomy* on a societal scale.
[If you’ll allow me a momentary grandiose flight of fancy–in so doing, we will be retrieving the promise of the Enlightenment from the clutches of both the tyranny of reason and hyper-individualism.]

More on this to come…

*relational autonomy is the idea that autonomy is not an individual characteristic or something that can be achieved by an individual acting unilaterally. Rather, it is the result of a network healthy and supportive relationships on which we all necessarily depend.

Laptops in Class

I think the phenomenon of taking class notes on laptops (issues of distraction aside) embodies quite well the development of modern social structures of knowledge. It seems that taking notes by laptop may be worse for memory. Yet it obviously lends itself to more sharing, particularly in, for example law school, where some sites are dedicated exclusively to crowd sourcing case briefs. This reflects precisely the trend of modernity in which the individual knows much less about their immediate environment (e.g. their food clothes, house, environment, etc.), but collective knowledge is exponentially more. This led Weber to make to the insight that modern man thinks he knows more not because he actually knows it but feels he could find it out if he wanted. (On why even this is deceptive, see my post “The Teenage Years of the West”)

A Post-Growth Academy?

According to a 2015 article “Prof, No One is Reading You“, the average journal article is read by no more than 10 people. The authors point out that 82% of articles in the humanities, 32% in the sciences, and 27% in the social sciences are not cited once, and even a citation is not an indication that it’s been read in full (roughly 20% of cited articles are read in full). The reason for this is simple: there’s just too much to read. Because of the “publish or perish” mantre and the valuing of output over influence, over 28,000 English-language journals publish more than an estimated 2.5 million articles every year, and this number increases by 3.5% a year. It’s just too hard for the system to digest it all.

Enter the “post-growth” idea.

Post-growth refers to an attempt to envision a prosperous society that does not depend on perpetual growth, usually in the name of living within the finite resources of the planet. Whatever the merits of this idea are for the wider economy, post-growth as an ideal speaks to the very core of the academy’s intellectual indigestion.

What would a post-growth academy look like? The Slow Professor offers an initial vision. Transforming publishing to an opt-in rather than opt-out (or, more accurately, no escape) system is a simple way to ensure that when something does get published, there was some kind of reason for it beyond external pressure. In the mean time, professors would not be idle, but be able to devote more time to non-productive activities like teaching, thinking, and making the work they do choose to publish go further, i.e., engage with the current literature in greater depth, and go farther, e.g., by spending more time speaking to the public and reaching out directly to those who could benefit from the research.

Of course, this romantic ideal is not without its dangers. Defenders of the current system can always argue that it is necessary to write 1000 obscure articles to produce even one revolutionary article and that one cannot decrease the former pool without decreasing the latter. Furthermore, an article may languish in obscurity for many years but always has the possibility of being discovered and it only takes one such meaningful discovery to justify its existence. Finally, it is very difficult to know ahead of time which articles are really “worth publishing”. There is no reason to think that authors will be better judges than editorial boards are currently.

These are potent cautions for an uncompromisingly post-growth vision of the academy. Nevertheless, we are facing a serious problem in one of society’s central institutions and some imagination is called for. The post-growth academy may not be a silver bullet but it offers a thought-provoking and focused foil for our current academy worthy at least of a little discussion.

They’re All the Same

I sometimes hear people complain about party politics along the lines of “they’re all the same anyway so why does it matter who I vote for?” Besides the fact that attention to detail yields considerable differences that affect the lives of millions, these complainant is right that there is broad consensus. The irony is that because of this broad consensus, political parties feel the need to take reactionary positions on issues they may even more or less agree on, or otherwise purely symbolic issues just to set themselves apart. The result is hollow marketing instead of any genuine exchange of ideas between parties.
I would like therefore to point out a principle of genuinely productive, i.e. collaborative rather than competitive, debate:

Productive debaters look to agree with one another as much as possible so as to discover the points of real contention and focus their energies entirely on those.

Counter-productive debaters look to disagree as much as possible so as to distance themselves from each other and undermine whatever the other says.

The productive debate is really about what’s being debated, whereas counter-productive debate is about who is debating. But make no mistake, there is nothing productive about pursuing consensus for its own sake. The productive debater does not change their position for the sake of agreement, but rather looks for the points of agreement that are already there as a starting point from which to address the points of real disagreement.

Where does this leave the disenfranchised voter? Perhaps their complaint is not really about the fact of consensus so much as it is about what that consensus is.

Of Experts and Laymen

The ideal relationship between the expert and the layman is where both can share what only they can know and are capable of learning from other what they cannot know by themselves. This is true both at the interpersonal level (e.g. doctor and patient, lawyer and client, driver and mechanic) but also at the political level (legislature and civil service).

The Trouble With Changing Anything

I think a lot about juggling. Not because I juggle (although I used to a little, my sister is much better), but because it is the eternal metaphor for time management. We’re all “juggling” a lot, probably more than we can keep in the air.
This metaphor is troubling enough at the personal level, but it becomes more troubling at the interpersonal level. If I have an idea of something more that needs to be done or a better way to do things, for the most part I am throwing more balls into the mix without them even having a chance to put their balls down. So it is little wonder that even with the best of intentions, so many attempts at social innovation fail. Indeed, if you have ever juggled you probably know that even carrying on a conversation about adding new balls makes juggling the balls you do have more difficult. Little wonder so few people return my emails!
But what are we to do? In my limited and largely untested experience, I have found that the first thing is to study the person or institution’s current pattern intensely. There are often openings, however small, in which minor switches and/or additions can be made (e.g. somebody new entering a position, the end of a project, etc.). Secondly, it is easier to habitualize than it is to proceduralize. Why? Because habits succeed by building on what is already there, whereas procedures seem to necessarily get people’s back up against the wall. All this is still interpersonal, to make it institutional, I need to learn how to scale habits and transmit them. Finally, it’s important to realize that there is probably a pretty heavy inherent limit on the extent and kind of change this can produce. Nevertheless, if something needs to be done, it is worth using every strategy available.

Administration as Science

The nature of an institution is to facilitate coordinated action over large groups and across time. Consequently, the stronger an institution is the more cohesive, and therefore cumulative its activities will be. By cumulative, I mean that as individuals develop solutions to particular demands (e.g. relationship forming, process development, drafting a text, etc.), these solutions will continue to be used, built on, and refined by peers and successors to meet other demands.
This is not simply institutional memory. These facts, techniques, and assets must not only be held in common but collectively developed. Practically speaking, in the strongest institutions, information is not simply saved but saved in such a way as to be readily usable in the future. Members of the institution must be trained (and socialized!) to want to use and contribute to this storehouse of information and know how. This may seem obvious but it has sweeping implications that require serious effort to put in place.
Practically speaking, this means doing things like caring a lot about how you name your files and taking the time to show new members where to find things, and habitualizing them to look first at what has already been done when they embark on a new project or face a seemingly new problem. This requires more than a workshop, but an institution-wide attitude of appreciation of and deference to that collectively held pool (to say nothing of the societally-held pool that is the internet).
Failing to actively foster this attitude among even (perhaps especially) the most enterprising of new members may result in them regarding the institution’s most precious resource as so much outmoded inefficiency. These members will want to go their own way and likely be impatient about explaining it to others. In the strongest institutions, young enterprising minds must respect the pool enough to turn to it and prize it enough to want to contribute to it.

It is worth noting that this is ideally something like a scientific process, since it involves working from particular tasks, to isolating key variables (in the form of templates and samples), and manipulating them to the desired effect through repeating the activity. The difference, of course, is that all this is not done in order to find out what will happen. It is done for some other purpose. Nevertheless, it couldn’t hurt to learn.