Couping Sweet Nothings

As I have tried to make sense of the last two years in global politics, I have been reading Yascha Mounk’s articles and listening to his podcasts for the past year. He has been unapologetic in sounding the alarm about the dangers that democracy faces. To the white nationalist right, he is obviously the worst kind of globalist. A Jew born in Germany, educated in a range of European countries and now installed at Harvard – he might as well be playing Young George Soros in the Steve Bannon-directed, Hatreon-funded biopic. And that cosmopolitan background does come through in his writing for both better and worse but more of that later.

The People vs Democracy is a summary of his research and thinking of the topic of democratic deconsolidation. It’s in 3 chunks.

The first chunk outlines our current predicament. It is the most original part of the book. Mounk’s point is that liberal democracy has historically been sold as a package – the democratic bit (elections and involvement of citizens in decision-making) mutually reinforcing the liberal bit (the rights of individuals and minorities being protected). While this alignment has not been perfect, it has been there. Mounk then observes that this package is coming apart. Populist leaders like those of Hungary, Poland, and the USA claim to embody the democratic will of the people while removing the rights of individuals and demonizing minorities. Meanwhile the institutions like the EU protect individual and minority rights but have cut themselves off from democratic accountability. Underpinning all this, the citizens of the West are falling out of love with democracy. The young view democracy far less favourably than the old – and are more open to extremist positions and military dictatorships. Politicians take an increasingly “win at all costs” approach, ignore norms in pursuit of power and receive no comeback from the electorate.

The second chunk covers the origins of this state of affairs. Mounk identifies three main causes. Firstly, social media has allowed voices that used to be peripheral and groups that used to be divided to connect and mobilize more effectively. Secondly, Western economies grew strongly after WW2 and also shared those gains equitably. Since the 1970s, inequality has risen while productivity has slowed. While we are undoubtedly better off than our grandparents, the sense of economic anxiety has risen. It is not the poorest who run to the populists but those who feel that they have most to lose. The future looks bleak. The third point is that Western nation states have experienced rising levels of immigration and now have significant non-White and non-Christian minorities. Again, this is more a matter of perception and anxiety as cities with high levels of immigration over a period of time tend to have positive views of them.

The third chunk ends with Mounk’s proposals to fix the mess. He proposes domesticating nationalism, making the economy more productive and equal, and restoring the civic faith (mostly through civics lessons). The nationalism chapter starts off with him recounting his own journey from naïve universalist to a deeper appreciation of national difference and its role in identity.

The first chunk is certainly the most original and engaging. The issues that Mounk highlights are real and the survey research is sobering. I’m not a political scientist so I can’t comment on the novelty of the liberal / democratic distinction but it was new to me. What’s missing here is some of the qualitative and contextual background to these views. There are snatches of reportage from populist rallies and conversations with important people but it is largely a dry account of a very wet and messy topic. The second section is much less original. The commentary within it bears repeating because the context of our democratic predicament is often lost in the hot takes of the day. What crazy thing has Donald Trump done or said today? And if we just focus on the surface noise then we are never going to fix any of this. While I agree with the comments on economic and national anxiety and I sort of agree about social media (I think it has been highly visible but smaller in impact than often stated), there are things missing from this account and three stand out.

  • The gap in age and education is mentioned but underexplored. The biggest predictor of voting in the Brexit referendum was university education. Closely followed by age (the two variables are not independent). The post-2008 rise in unemployment has fallen disproportionally on the young.
  • The slow, mutual unconscious uncoupling between electorates and political parties has been more complex than related by Mounk and more consequential. Political parties are both widely loathed by the public and crucially important to democratic function.
  • The associated roles of other vehicles of collective identity (unions and churches) are also alluded to but deserve more focus. Why have they fallen by the wayside and what does this mean for how citizens engage in politics?

I agree with most of Mounk’s policy proposals. And why wouldn’t I? After all, I am also a university educated white man who has emigrated from his country of birth. I am also a globalist. Calling for a fairer society and greater productivity and more education are a motherhood and apple pie statements in our milieu. To give him his due, Mounk does also plead with our globalist brothers and sisters to stop calling those who vote for populists “stupid” and talk in ways that address their anxieties and give them hope. This empathy has to go beyond the occasional broadsheet magazine article that treats Trump voters like they are animals to be observed in a zoo.

However I am not sure that Mounk’s proposals are effective. Some of the more sweeping economic and social proposals will not happen – for now. The civics lessons strike me as counterproductive (just another lesson for kids to sleep through). We can’t just teach people about democracy and political engagement, we have to let them do it. This has to start locally (all politics are local after all). Nicholas Gruen favours sortition and direct democracy. I see that as being one option but there will need to be many.

Mounk identified the slow collapse of democracy of as a multi-causal problem. I would go further and say it is a wicked problem – or even a super wicked problem. It will be solved by multiple interventions and challenges. But it requires a lot of them – and soon.

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Dead History

I have known Matthew Ford for many years. I have been listening to The Dead Prussian podcast (run by Mick Cook) on and off for a year. I don’t know Kim Wagner but I listened to the podcast episode On Debating The Role of Military Historians with interest. A lot of good points are made by the three of them. I want to draw out some things that are hinted at but strike me as important.

  1. For many years, military history WAS history. You wrote history about things that you thought were memorable and important and what could be more memorable and important than war. Thucydides is a case in point.
  2. The role of military in society. I think the first point to remember is that in Western world, fewer and fewer people have direct experience of war. The last “Total War” ended in 1945.  Conscription ended in 1963 for the UK, 1972 for Australia, and 1973 for the USA. The changing nature of conflict (localised wars fought far away) and the technology used to wage war changed its workforce demands. In a sense, these changes to the war machine were harbingers of the outsourcing/off-shoring and automation that began to ravage the industrial workforce at this time. Most people in these societies experience war vicariously. This changes the nature of military history that the general public wish to consume. “War” becomes another historical genre – like Jane Austin Regency England or Ancient Rome. Accuracy and insight matters less than entertainment.
  3. The role of historians in society. Academia has become its own world. As a set of institutions, modern academia has been shaped by war directly and indirectly. The GI Bill in the US, the Cold War drive for scientific research, the post-WW2 welfare states set up in the West, all these led to a massive expansion of the higher education sector. Academics in general now write mostly for each other. They use the jargon of their institutions and work for doggy treats publication in top flight academic journals. All three men allude to it in the podcast, most academic writing is not written for the general public, it is written for other academics. Matthew’s book is excellent but it contains a lot of detail about i. gun manufacture and ii. sociology of technology that appeals to two non-overlapping groups of nerds. Populist TV history is a thing but its appeal is centred around two forms. The form of places – the history of a specific (e.g. London) or a general (e.g. The Sea) locale. The second form is of people. Kings and queens are back in fashion but so is people’s history. Families play act being Victorian bakers or Civil War frontiersmen. TV privileges the visual and the personal. Analysis and systems make for less good TV – or rather it takes a truly great director to make them come alive. For books, biography and contained narratives dominate. Tell me a story with a beginning, middle, and an end.
  4. The relationship between the State and Military Historians. Again, our podtagonists* also mention the desire of politicians and military leaders to use history for their own ends and there is some disappointment at the willingness of politicians to do this. I would note that all social scientists seem to suffer from “influence envy”. Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry discusses the role of international relations specialists – and decries their relative unimportance compared to economists. Presumably different economists decry each others influence (“The Monetarists get more time with public servants than us Keynesians, it’s not fair, I’m taking my econometric model and going home”). Academics will never have the influence they think they deserve. And that’s both a good and a bad thing.

*Podcast Protagonist.

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Power Singular And Plural

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Libertarians attract and confound me. I get the whole “individual freedom” thing. I grew up in mundanely repressive religion community where whatever you wanted to do was probably sinful. So a creed that focuses on personal autonomy is enticing.

But I am often disappointed by the limits of libertarian analyses of power. The greatest threat to freedom is “The Government”. Whatever limits the power of the government is good for the rest of us. This analysis is not wholly wrong. Governments can and do attempt to control their subjects and citizens. This is sometimes nakedly predatory but it can also be clothed in paternalistic weeds – “We know what’s best for you. We are simply looking out for you. Let us take care of you.”

However we do not live in the world of Hobbes’ Leviathan – where the sovereign wields absolute power. We live in a world far closer to the quote at the start of this post. It is Ephesians 6:12 and the author writes of not a single “power” but “powers” and “principalities”.  A world with many sources of authority, of power, and of control. The world we live in is the world of Ephesians. It is a world dominated by multi-national corporations, semi-feudal petrostates, technology evangelists who only want the best for you (and the best for you just happens to involve their technology platform). It is a multi-polar, multi-dimensional world.

Are these rulers all dark? Is there only spiritual wickedness in high places? I think that viewpoint is excessively bleak. However the rulers of this world are not so much evil as amoral. Their logics of profit and personal enrichment and growth and influence propel along certain trajectories that may be inimical to others. There’s no malice from the driver to the roadkill. We wrestle not against flesh and blood.

So libertarians rail against the state cramping their style but they have little say about the power of non-government actors. Business people are simply entrepreneurs to admire. And they might just be the ones funding your think tank if you want to lobby for laxer regulations.

The extreme individualism that libertarians evince militates against collective action. Hey. You. Get off of my cloud. Politics is born in the acknowledge of collective interest furthered by collective action. You cannot do it by yourself.

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Cold War Kids

Islam is not a religion. Australian Senator Pauline Hanson says this. Australian newspaper commentator Andrew Bolt says this. Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn says this. Islam is not a religion but rather it is a “political ideology”. Therefore suppressing and excluding its followers cannot be religious discrimination. Rather it is a rational response to an external political threat. Those people in the Mosque on Fridays? They are not praying, no matter what they may think. They are engaging in political subversion.

This claim strikes me as patently false. A religion provides a framework (often based on beliefs that include the supernatural) to understand why I am here, what I should do when I am alive, who I should do it with, and then what happens to me after death. It offers purpose, consolation and release. To quote a noted theologian:

Religion is the general theory of this world… It is the fantastic realization of the human… Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

Islam is clearly a religion. It has supernatural beliefs, moral frameworks, a community of believers and a set of rituals to follow. So why claim that it is not?

There is a nuanced, intellectual response to this. That would be to say that the line between “religion” and “ideology” is blurred – always and everywhere. They both make descriptive and normative claims about the world – this is how it is and how it should be. They both urge appropriate action (e.g. a proletarian revolution, the dismantling of all government regulation, free milk in schools). They both offer a community of fellow believers (which may be the primary pay-off you get for joining in). They both provide rituals. Both tend to rely on canonical texts and figures, enforce orthodoxy, and spawn heretical sects. Religions and ideological intellectuals pen impenetrable works for their peers. The rank and file make do with slogans, camaraderie and, maybe, free milk. Religion may prefer supernatural justifications while ideologies appeal to the authority of science (or something that looks like science in a darkened room with a bright light behind it). But “religion” and “ideology” are more than just good friends.

However I do not think that this is argument of those who claim that “Islam is an ideology” because, for them, Christianity is obviously NOT an ideology. It is a proper religion. Islam is a political project fomented by foreigners that threatens to destabilize our very society. To these anti-Islamists, it looks very like a political ideology against which Europe, North America, and Western Europe struggled. Islamic terrorists and extremists have been referred to as “Islamofascists”. But fascism is not the model in mind for the “Islam = Ideology” crowd. Instead the model is communism (capitalism, like Christianity, does not count as an ideology). To understand why this is the case, you have to understand how our views of the world and who we are have been shaped by our recent past.

World War 2 was relatively short and it made strange bedfellows of the USA, the UK, and the Soviet Union (Australia had a walk-on part). It was a total war that had massive ramifications for all the nations involved. But it was short. The Cold War went on for over four decades. It created institutions and movements and shaped how those involved saw their place in the world. It was also a war fought within Western societies. World War 2 accelerated the development of welfare states within Western countries. It accelerated civil rights movements that came to fruition in the 60s. It was time of paranoia but also a time of growing material wealth and growing hope. And also the creation of the Right as the movement that we know today. The Right consists of two groups with very different goals.

The first group are Conservatives who want to prevent change – and often actively want to return to a previous golden age. The world is full of moral decay and society is on the verge of collapse. The decade that conservatives talk of with most fondness is the 1950s. Although the thing about nostalgia is that memory can play tricks. Yes, the 50s were a time of strong economic growth and relative social order – and they were also the time when the welfare state was at its strongest. Conservatives are obsessed with order (the touchstone of Conservative philosophy is Burke). They commit to democracy only in so much as the system can guard against change.

The second group are (and I am now going to confuse any US readers) Liberals. And by “Liberals”, I mean those who hew to a “classical liberal” view of the world that focuses on the rights of the individual – esp. the economic rights of the individual. Liberals view the government as inherently predatory and bad. Freedom can be found in reducing laws and cutting red tape. The formative writers of Liberalism (Locke, Mill) were writing in a time where the primary threat to freedom came from either governments or the Church (Liberals tend to have a very narrow understanding of power).

It’s not obvious what these two groups have in common. Conservatives want order and hate change. Liberals want individual autonomy and hate government. The only thing that could bring them together would be an activist government trying to implement social change. Governments like the Soviet Union. Governments like the civil rights driven welfare states of the 1960s. The Right that we see now was as much a product of the 60s as Jimi Hendrix. It was not until the late 70s that they had the opportunity to take power in the US and the UK.

The 80s were the glory years. Rolling back welfare provisions. Smashing organized labour. Blocking civil rights legislation. Denouncing the Evil Empire. And then something unexpected happened. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Quickly. Relatively bloodlessly. Within the space of a few short years, there was no Evil Empire. The 90s were a mixed time for Conservatism. Sure there were gays and brown people to be suspicious of. There was the “Left-Wing Lying Media” But where were the real enemies? The battles of the 80s had all been won. China was still lurking under the radar, having dealt with their 1989 dissidents more ruthlessly and effectively than the Soviets. But nothing brings people together like a common enemy and the tensions between Conservatives and Liberals keep bubbling up (Brexit can be seen as one such argument).

All was not lost. Enter Islamic terrorism. Spectacular acts of horrific violence committed (mostly) by people who don’t look like you. There is a problem with Islamic terrorism though. There isn’t enough of it. There are were 1.5 billion Communists in 1989. The threat from Islamic terrorists is real but they are small and localized. The threat they pose is not existential. So you need something bigger. How about Islam itself? That’s over a 1 billion people. It can be the new ideology. Islamic immigrants within Western societies are just like the Communist infiltrators of the 1950s. We must stand strong against these Islamist nations. Unless we buy oil from them and they only kill their own people rather than ours. In which case, they are fine.

Now this model of Islam-as-Communism is all well and good as a story. But the Sheik-as-Commissar analogy is very shaky. Communism as a belief system was shallowly held within its host nations. Islam is woven into the fabric of many nations. Do the “Islam-as-Ideology” folks really believe that all need to do is topple a couple of governments and everyone will throw away their prayer rugs and headscarves? Communism brooked no competitors. It very possible for a country to be both majority Muslim and secular. Political Islam (which is not the same as Islamic terrorism) is a force but suppressing it does not seem to be working. What it offers (identity, pride, order) must be taken seriously much as what communism and socialism offer (justice, equity, material development for all) must be taken seriously. As George Box famously almost said: All models are wrong, some are useful. This model is not useful.

Some housekeeping:

  • Are you a communist? A. No.
  • Are you a leftie? A. Yip.
  • Are you a Muslim? A. Nope. I am an atheist.
  • Do you think all criticisms of Islam are invalid? A. No. I think many criticisms of it are valid. I am suspicious of the particular point of view I outline above.
  • You constantly bug people to provide data – where is the data here? A. This is a rant. I needed to get it off my chest. I may pull together some data later.
  • Is all of this true? A. Some of it is probably bollocks. That doesn’t seem to stop anyone else so I don’t see why it should stop me.
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Disjointed responses

Neoreaction: A Basilisk – Philip Sandifer

What follows is not so much a review as a series of disjointed responses. It’s not going to do much good under the book on Amazon. It is personal. There is some stuff to process here and this is indulgent. And if you can’t be indulgent on a blog, then where can you be indulgent?

First of all, I’ve been reading Dr Sandifer’s blog for a smidge over 4 years. He used to write essays on Doctor Who – a show that I’d loved as a child before it got cancelled and I hit peak puberty (these two events happened at roughly the same time although there is no causal connection in either direction). Sandifer’s essays are mostly a delight. He has a rare gift for combining the close reading of texts with an appreciation of the wider cultural and social milieu in which they operate. Sometimes he went into overtly experimental territory such as the combination of Borges and Choose Your Adventure that was his meditation on Logopolis. Plus some scathing takedowns of stories that offend him (e.g. The Celestial Toymaker). I’m not part of the broader Dr Who fandom so I’m not invested in these battles but I share some of his aesthetic and political tastes. In general I preferred the pieces that went to the edge of experimentation without going full avant garde while also finding something positive in the source material. Sledging is like a chocolate bar – fun for a bit but unpleasant in large quantities. My interest in the rest of his work is largely predicated in my fondness for the underlying source material – from The Last War In Albion on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (cool!) to Proverbs of Hell on Hannibal (meh).

Meanwhile, I first encountered the Neoreactionaries in 2015. The trailer for the new Star Wars movies had been released and I was pondering my son’s Lego X-Wing. I recall searching for Yarvin – as in Yarvin 4 (the moon featured at the climax of the first movie) – and getting a bunch of articles about some right wing dude who was into monarchs. This would be Curtis Yarvin aka Mencius Moldbug. I looked at his blog. There were a lot of words. So many words and so little sense. There were articles about this odd little scene of technologists into monarchy with side orders of racism and misogyny. And among them was a familiar name – Nick Land.

Rewinding even further back to the mid-90s, I was reading a lot of “cybertheory” – trying to fit together my personal interest in the internet, my professional interests as an information manager and my academic background in the history and sociology of science. There was a lot of enthusiastic shouting (yes, Arthur & Marilouise Kroker, I mean you). There was some lefty skepticism (Richard Barbrook). And then there was CCRU. Again I don’t recall when I became fully conscious of them as an entity. It would have been after my single year as a Warwick University employee and before I attended some of the events they ran in Vauxhall in 1999. A mix of performance art, DJing, speeches, discussions – mystifying and sometimes a bit half-assed. I didn’t really get what they were trying to do – the lumps of French theory, and music, and science fiction, and Cabbalistic magic all stitched together. The events seemed to be put on for themselves and when others turned up they didn’t really know what to do with them. Like they’d collectively lost the ability to relate to those outside the world that they had created. That’s not entirely fair – I recall Steve Goodman interacting occasionally – and also a guy called Rob who talked a bit.

Land was there – less a leader than a focal point. Mark Fisher had obvious charisma even then. I read their work voraciously. While Sadie Plant’s work was relatively accessible, Land’s was… fucked. There’s really no other word to describe it. His one book (The Thirst for Annihilation) was memorable as well as being occasionally ridiculous. A quite deliberate mess. His subsequent articles were more contained and some great lines (“Cyberspace Anarchitecture as Jungle-War” being one that I used in my information architecture work). But they weren’t so much advancing arguments as attempts to trigger moods and emotional responses. Apocalyptic. Millennial. A world collapsing. Not very 90s at all.

In hindsight the things that had fueled them through the second half of the 90s – jungle music, the first wave of the world wide web are as a transformative technology – were on the verge of dying. If not, dying then certainly changing into something else unrecognizable. CCRU dissolved into the wider culture. Steve Goodman set up Hyperdub (first an online zine then a record label). The early attempts at “Death Garage” were clumsy but they gradually flowered into the dense vegetation of post-Jungle dubstep, reaching a zenith (or perhaps a nadir given the scene’s obsession with low end bass) when they released Burial’s two albums (Goodman’s own Kode9 releases were pretty good as well).

Mark Fisher wrote the K-Punk blog during the 00s. Initially I was non-plussed. Writing about Kubrick and The Fall, he seemed to have turned his back on the futuristic modernism of the CCRU work to explore the lost futures of that time between the end of World War 2 and the neo-liberal 80s. Over time I came to appreciate the nature of his work – his attempts at salvaging these lost visions. A network of blogs emerged during these years – often with a focus on dubstep and other musical movements but also politics, culture, history. Fisher’s writing career gained new prominence with Capitalist Realism – a more direct engagement with contemporary politics than previously. He faded from view after Ghosts Of My Life in 2014. Then in January 2017, he was dead. I miss his writing. The internet of the 00s of which he was part also seemed to be dead with him.

Meanwhile, Land had faded from view by the middle of the 00s. He seemed a figure of the 90s who had failed to find relevance in the new world. He left the UK for Shanghai. And then, all of a sudden, he was a figure of note in a right-wing anti-democratic internet subculture. This wasn’t that surprising. While his pre-2007 writings were not explicitly fascist (and certainly not conservative) his biggest enemies in the 90s were left-wing humanities academics. He never showed any public interest in concrete political programs. The focus always was transgression. The Thirst for Annihilation is saturated with provocations designed to annoy his colleagues. While the discussions of Derrida and Heidegger would be of no interest to the denizens of 8Chan, the references to killing god and concentration camps would go down well. Land wants to be a very naughty boy.

The Neoreactionaries themselves seem to be a minor part of the Alt-Right stew – although their loathing of democracy and tolerance for racism and misogyny makes them easy allies of others in this world. They also have a link to the triumphalist end of Silicon Valley. Moldbug thought Steve Jobs should be CEO of California and their views find echoes in the public pronouncements of Peter Thiel (billionaire and former Trump fan). So while they are a niche within a niche, they are worthy of some attention.

Back to the book in hand. Neoreaction: A Basilisk (NAB) began as Kickstarter-funded essay that was published in mid-2016. A book version with additional essays came out in December 2017. A lot can happen in 18 months.

The original essay is a Rube Goldberg machine. Sandifer takes the work of Land and Moldbug as well as Eliezer Yudkowsky – and mixes in Eugene Thacker, Alan Turing, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Ligotti, and, above all, William Blake. Stylistically, it is closest to literary criticism, perhaps philosophy, not sociology or journalism. The early chapters outline the writing of his three literary antagonists (and antagonists they are) with different tones – a wary respect for Land, contempt for Moldbug, and something akin to pity for Yudkowsky. Yudkowsky is not a Neoreactionary but rather a minor member of the broader Silicon Valley tech milieu who is obsessed with “rationality” and artificial intelligence. Yudkowsky is also associated with the Basilisk of the title (Roko’s Basilisk) – an AI thought experiment. As the essay proceeds, the other writers are brought in to challenge and transform the positions of the core trio. Sandifer’s mode is to argue by association and insinuation. A series of offers are made. It is a mode of improvisation. To criticize its arguments seems a little beside the point. As with all improvised performances, the audience decides whether they buy into it or not. Personally, I switched off during the lengthy discussion of Blake’s mythology. Not that Blake is bad, I just don’t share Sandifer’s enthusiasm for Blake as a writer. Whereas many of the earlier improvisations in the essay provided insight – and if not insight, then entertainment.

The essay is not without its own provocations. First line: “Let us assume that we are fucked”. The world may be beyond saving. The tone is often one of mordant glee (the essay is explicit about its own aims to be a work a horror). Sandifer ends with a call for empathy between humans as a response to the dry domination proposed by the Neoreactionaries. It’s not a bad place to end (and his observations about his antagonists are largely correct) but the essay is much less about the ending than the journey. Perhaps the whole thing is not a basilisk but a different kind a monster – a shaggy dog. As for its purpose, it feels like an essay that Sandifer had to write to maintain sanity. It may get a broader audience but its focus on a niche within a niche and the hermetic pleasures of its text limit its ultimate impact. It is what it is.

There are thematic links but also a stylistic division between NAB and the other essays in the book. They tend to more straightforward – discussing phenomena such as Gamergate, TERFs, Austrian Economists or, er, David Icke. The breadth here is good but stylistic uncanny valley is noticeable. The Essay on Trump does find a new way of discussing an overdone topic (by rooting him in the physical geography of New York) while the final essay on Peter Thiel is a massive, angry denunciation of its subject. In many respects, I agree with Sandifer about Thiel but Sandifer is at his best with an antagonist he respects not one he merely wants to dismiss.

NAB and the essays around it push Sandifer from being a cultural commentator informed by politics to a political commentator informed by culture – shifting the balance in his Force (although he’d reject that distinction). While I have a bunch of different responses to NAB, I would definitely like to see where his pursuit of idiosyncratic, mixed up texts like this will lead.

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The Expertise Squeeze?

2016 was the year of surprises. One of those surprises was Brexit. It was a surprise for David Cameron. It turns out that if you spin the referendum roulette wheel often enough, your luck will run out. Based on their preparation for the consequences, it was also a surprise for Leave campaigners. While many shocking things were said and done during that campaign, one sticks out for me. On the 3rd of June 2016, a few weeks before the referendum day itself, Michael Gove was interviewed by Faisal Islam, a Sky journalist. Islam had just listed a series of authorities – including the leaders of the US, India, Australia, CBI, IMF, NHS and unions – that had counselled against Brexit. Gove responded:

“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations.. from acronyms.. saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

Gove went on to say that those experts “have a vested financial interest in the European Union” and that this interlocutor was “on the side of the elites”. In turn, his interviewer labelled him “Oxbridge Trump”.

And speaking of the US president, two months earlier, the Real Donald Trump had said at a rally in Wisconsin:

“You look at what China’s doing in the South China Sea, and they say, ‘Oh, Trump doesn’t have experts,’ Let me tell you, I do have experts but I know what’s happening. And look at the experts we’ve had, OK? Look at the experts. All of these people have had experts. You know, I’ve always wanted to say this—I’ve never said this before with all the talking we all do—all of these experts, ‘Oh we need an expert—’ The experts are terrible.”

Trump has gone on to govern with the same erratic attitude to competence that characterised this utterance – every few months, he will come out with a similar statement about a policy area: “Who knew that healthcare / North Korea / (insert policy issue here) was so complicated! Who knew!” Who knew? Who indeed. Experts are only one group among many singled out for attack by Trump so it seems almost unfair to mention this event.

The Australian government does not quite have an equivalent of a Gove or a Trump “expert” statement. While the likes of One Nation promote all kinds of strange ideas and say all kinds of outrageous things, they remain a fringe phenomenon. Meanwhile the current Coalition government may often be at odds with experts on topics as diverse as asylum seekers, energy policy and taxation but this is not unusual in a democracy. However there was an utterance by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that came close to Trumpian heights of absurdity. It relates to the regulation of cryptography:

“The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Excluding Australia from the realm of mathematics is certainly an… innovative move (and Turnbull has assured us that he is all about innovation). This is unlikely to end well. If mathematics is pitched against the fear of terrorism then mathematics is sure to lose. Maths may have Number Theory but Fear has the actual voter numbers. When even mathematics is politicised (a field of endeavour at once immensely powerful and often wilfully disengaged from the quotidian), you have to wonder what remains out of bounds.

The public expert-bashing has yielded a number of responses. At least three books have been published with the title “Post Truth” this year (spoilers: the authors are not in favour of it) and US academic Tom Nichols has published a book called The Death Of Expertise. Nichols posits that the general public have turned against experts and now arrogantly glory in their own ignorance. The claimed causes of this are higher education, the internet and the media. The expansion of higher education and the proliferation of low quality learning institutions has led to a graduate glut of ill-educated individuals who believe that their near worthless degrees give them the same standing as ivy league professors. The internet makes available a wide variety of content, only a minority of which is actually true. The credulous can easily find “evidence” to support their viewpoints no matter how bizarre. Finally, the media used to be a mainstream environment focused on truth and has now become a fragmented, partisan free-for-all where experts are chosen for their ideological purity rather than their subject matter competence. Experts become mere technicians called on to fix problems rather than sources of insight and authority for the populace.

If this weren’t depressing enough for experts, a group of cognitive scientists and technologists including Gary Klein, Ben Shneiderman, and Robert Hoffman identify a completely different set of threats. For them the threats against the validity of expertise come from researchers and practitioners in the fields of the sociology of knowledge, decision research, heuristics and biases, evidence-based performance and information technology. While some of these viewpoints have little sway outside academia, some of the others are having a major impact in government and business. Evidence-based performance attempts to replace the judgment of professionals with “best practice” – perhaps documented in a checklist. Decision research replaces expert judgment with simple (“linear”) statistical models. Information technology goes further and claims that human beings can be completely replaced by artificial intelligence, big data, and automation. The promises made on behalf of cognitive computing, machine learning and big data are extensive. An often-quoted University of Oxford study puts 47% of US employment at risk of automation – that includes professionals such as insurance underwriters as well as filing clerks. These threats do not come from the plebian masses that concern the post-truth crowd. Instead they come from above, from the organisations that hire and develop experts.

Why are attempts to displace experts attractive to organisations? Well, the place of experts in organisations is an ambivalent one. On the one hand, experts are often the public face of these organisations. Companies and public bodies may compete to hire the most prestigious in their field. They won’t necessarily use them wisely once hired but bragging rights count for a lot – at least until the initial ardor fades and someone new comes along. On the other hand, experts are expensive and fragile. If they genuinely add a great deal and become indispensable then managers are presented with a significant risk. People get sick or depressed or distracted by family problems or tempted by the offers of competitors. So the thought of getting the benefits of your experts without vulnerability to their downsides is deeply attractive. Hence the investment in the original expert systems that promised to replace experts but largely failed. Some of the new Machine Learning (ML) approaches will likewise end badly but others are already displacing professionals. The large accounting firms take on far fewer graduates than they used to. They no longer need armies of 20-somethings with clipboards to audit companies – much of the work can be done by sucking data out of finance systems and running statistical tests over it to detect malfeasance. The junior auditors have been weighed in the balance (sheet) and found wanting.

So it appears that experts face pressures from two directions. On the one hand, an ignorant public (and the populists who court them) wish to eliminate experts and even the notion of expertise while technologists and managers wish to replace them with machines. Squeezed into irrelevance – who would want to be an expert?

In considering these claims about the death of expertise, we should take a step back and look at some data (we should not use populist methods to investigate populism). Does the public see all experts as the same? Has trust in experts collapsed in recent years? Roy Morgan’s annual survey of the image of the professions actually indicates rising trust in doctors, university lectures and engineers over the last 40 years. It’s not gold stars all round however. Bank managers and ministers of religion have seen significant falls over the same period. Politicians do better than used car salesmen (the lower limit of trust it would seem) but only just. A recent poll by Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science shows that the overwhelming majority of the public believe that doctors, scientists and engineers both contribute to the wellbeing of society and should be considered prestigious professions. CSIRO studies on public attitudes towards climate change indicate that the most trusted sources of information on the topic are university scientists and the least are oil companies (although for those that don’t believe climate change is happening, their most trusted source is their family and friends). While the Edelman Trust Bar discusses low and decreasing trust among Australians for government, media and business; academic and technical experts are seen as the most credible spokespeople that the survey considers – higher even than “a person like yourself” and way higher than government officials or businesspeople.

The overwhelming message from this range of sources is that the public does not view all authority figures as equal and that trust in experts has not collapsed – in fact it some areas it has risen.The fall of the clergy is likely caused by the decline in religious observance and exacerbated by the ongoing child abuse scandals. If your business is morality and care then carelessly and immorally protecting predators is fatal. Bankers seem to have traded public trust for profits and wealth. It will be fascinating to see what happens if the profits run out and they are thrown back on the goodwill of the public. Overall, however, none of this implies a widespread rejection of expertise although it does indicate that a number of key social and economic institutions have become disconnected from the population at large.

Now there is a difference between simply saying you respect someone and actually following their advice. Looking at the example of medicine, almost four out of five Australians say that they use the internet to research health information (compared to a third in 2012). More than half of Australians say that they look up information about health conditions on the internet to avoid seeing a medical professional. On the other end of the stethoscope, a fifth of GPs report that “patients dictating their treatment” is an issue (about the same number as answered “maintaining electronic system” – technology can be as much a challenge as an enabler). This behaviour begs the question of what patients want from doctors – medical advice, access to a prescription pad, someone to talk to? We are not about to give up our relationship with our doctors but that relationship may change – as we shall see later.

If one issue has crystallised debates about medical expertise, health information and public safety, it is vaccination. In the 1990s, British doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed to have discovered a link between the widely-used Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, bowel disease, and autism. Over the following 20 years, medical authorities found his research fraudulent and he was struck off the UK medical register. Wakefield moved to the US where his ideas have been championed by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy. N.B. There is no reliable evidence that vaccines cause autism or that not getting vaccinated is better for you than getting your shots. In Australia, until relatively recently anti-vaccination groups have been given media time in the interests of balance – but they are now effectively pariah organisations.

How have these debates resonated with the public? A survey of parents carried out in 2012 indicated that 94% of parents support vaccination of children, 90% believed vaccination was safe and 83% of parents obtained information from their GP. However, there were were other results that complicated matters. The internet was the third most widely used information source for information. Avoiding or delaying vaccination was related to seeking advice from an alternative health practitioner. Significant numbers of parents had concerns about vaccines weakening their child’s immune system or potentially causing autism. Doctors have to operate in world full of competing information but they start from strong position of trust. There is a risk that in focusing on the small number of parents who refuse vaccination, the broader concerns and disconnections with parents are lost. These concerns can only be partially assuaged with facts. Parenting is an intensely emotional (and only occasionally rational) activity. The broader question is whether health professionals have both the skills and the time to work through these parental concerns that may undermine this important program.

Of course Michael Gove was not berating doctors in his broadside against experts (although the relationship between his government and the UK medical profession has not always been cordial). He was specifically picking on the economic experts of the “acronym organisations” (e.g. IMF, ECB) who are associated in the minds of many of the public with the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Eurozone Crises of 2010. These were supposedly the smartest guys in the room and yet the world almost collapsed. Millions of people have lost their jobs or their pensions as a result of fraud and incompetence on the part of these experts.

Gove has been roundly condemned by many commentators for his “experts” comment and its implied anti-intellectualism. However Gove’s jibes have weight because the authorities that he challenges have made serious mistakes. This is not to say that Gove is right (I happen to believe the UK has made a mistake around Brexit) but that he is not wholly wrong. Gove’s attacks deserve to be taken seriously especially where he identifies the limits of expertise and the dangers of technocracy.

Firstly, the limits of expertise. If not all experts are trusted equally by the public then not experts perform equally well. Many people call themselves them an “expert” (just as many of us call ourselves “attractive” or claim a “GSOH”). Some fields seem more amenable to developing expertise than others. Whereas weather forecasters and physicians can develop reliably high performance, clinical psychologists and intelligence analysts are restricted in their abilities and stockbrokers do no better than chance. Psychologist James Shanteau calls these “domain differences”. Some fields are more mature than others in terms of their understanding but also some phenomena are more tractable than others. There are some domains where our expertise is likely always to be limited. Managing complex modern economies will be one such domain. Therefore those claiming expertise in this field require humility and the ability to simultaneously realise that they are probably wrong on any number of issues while still acting where they need to. Like consumers of alcohol, experts should know their limits.

The other risk that Gove alludes to is technocracy – removing political decisions from the hands of the public and elected officials and placing them in the hands of unelected experts. While proponents of rule by expert goes back at least as far as Plato, Technocracy as a movement with that name arose in the early years of the 20th century. American engineers such as Howard Scott proposed a society based on efficiency and engineering insight – where money was replaced by energy certificates with energy as the key metric of value (echoing some of our current energy debates). Technocracy as a public movement hit a peak of popularity at the start of the Great Depression – at about the same time that anti-democratic populist movements reached the peak of their popularity in Europe. Technocratic and anti-intellectual populist movements can be seen as differing but related responses to the failure of democracy.

While they have been portrayed as opposites, both offer something similar – the promise of subduing the mess and tumult of democratic life with order. Order through personal authority and charisma for the populist. Order through the authority of knowledge for the technocrat. Populist and technocrat are two sides of the same coin and we should not be surprised to see the emergence of politicians that attempt to wield technocracy and populism at the same time. Indeed, this is what Trump claimed he was going to do – fill government positions not with time-serving Washington insiders but with brilliant business people whose expertise in deal-making and running organisations would transform government and bring it closer to the people. This does not seem to be what has actually happened in practice (as might be expected from Trump’s earlier comments on expertise). Instead he has selected right-wing ideologues and several very wealthy executives whose experience has not transferred well to their new environments. It turns out that the State Department is not that similar to an oil company (although international trust may also be a non-renewable resource).

It should be noted that technocratic governments do not necessarily need to be led by engineers. In Europe, the technocrats are generally economists and financiers (often with a Goldman Sachs pedigree). The balancing of interest rates, employment, exchange rates, debt, taxes, investment, etc are seen as the primary work of government. However in China, the political elite are “traditional” technocrats in that they have degrees in engineering. The last three presidents of China were trained as a chemical engineer, a water conservancy engineer and an electrical engineer. At the same time, the Chinese state combines its technocracy with populism – promoting a heavily nationalist worldview that is happy to demonise those who are not Han Chinese inside and outside its borders.

There is a great danger of technocracy by itself or the muddier variants of technocratic populism and that is due to the previous problem – the limits of expertise. As we saw earlier, some problems are just not that tractable. The big challenges that societies face are “wicked problems”. Problems like climate change and inequality do not have neat technical solutions, they are fundamentally messy, they are ambiguous, they change dynamically and they require a collective will to action. Experts cannot provide this collective action by themselves. They cannot prevent climate change or reduce inequality. They can engage and contribute but they cannot solve these solutions in an individualistic, heroic fashion.

While wicked problems highlight the limits of experts, they also provide them a way to escape the squeeze. The current generation of artificial intelligence systems are not designed to handle complex problems that require unpredictable engagement with human beings. Humans will need to engage with each other to find solutions to our challenges (although they may use information technology to investigate these solutions). However this means that experts need to be willing to work at communication and engagement to ensure that their expertise has an impact. I am not suggesting that experts should be become politicians (that would be self-defeating – and the world has enough politicians already). Rather that their future will involve a broader skill set than they have been previously used to. Not all of these wicked problems will be dealt with at the most rarefied levels of state (in fact, one of the characteristics of a wicked problem is that it needs to be dealt with at multiple levels) . Working with someone to help them lose weight or manage a chronic condition like diabetes or persuading them that their kids won’t be hurt by their vaccination shots can be a complex task where dispassionately relaying the facts is not enough. Much of the technical detail may be outsourced to machines with more a comprehensive and up-to-date knowledge base however the professional will still need have a broad understanding of the field, will still need to spot where the detail of the context needs to be taken into account and will still need to guide another human being through difficult and traumatic choices.

As Atul Gawande (surgeon, public health policy wonk and possibly the greatest writer on medicine and humanity living today) said about the difficult conversations that doctors need to have with their patients (esp. about end of life issues): “One reason there’s more surgery and less discussion is that the health system will pay a doctor a lot for doing a surgery and basically nothing for having a frank, sensitive, hard conversation about end-of-life choices… we really reward me for being a surgeon and this debate about whether we are going to make it possible for people to be rewarded for being really good at these human sides of the skills”. As someone who has had to either work with or manage experts throughout my career, I would observe that the incentives for experts are not just financial. For many experts, their sense of identity and self-worth is intertwined with what they know and what they can do. They have invested time and energy into developing these parts of themselves (and have been rewarded with money and respect for doing so). Some have also developed wonderful communications skills as well – but many have not. And those skills of communication, engagement and mobilisation will only become more important for them. The force of automation will change the shape of expert knowledge.

The impact of machines on experts will not uniform and neither is there only one possible response to them. Richard and Daniel Susskind identify seven different models for the future of professions – ranging from the traditional “trusted adviser” model to through to increased work undertaken by para-professionals, and the embedding of expert knowledge into machines. Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby present different options for those facing technological displacement including becoming a manager of the technologies, focusing on activities that technologies do not cope well with (see the previous comments about conversations) or designing the technological systems themselves. The options open to a professional will vary not only by professional but by the various specialities within that profession. It will change the tasks that experts undertake.

It will change the attitude of the public as well. The Susskinds talk about the rise “quasi-trust” and “trusted solutions” displacing the present notion of the professional as “trusted adviser”. When people are replaced by products, we no longer rely on the moral characteristics of professionals but on the reliability of the solution. I think they have a valid point but this won’t be uniform. While it is true that you only worry about your car being evil if you’re in a Stephen King novel, there are some actions that we will feel comfortable leaving to a machine and some that we will not. While I might be happy to get a robo-generated will, I might not be happy to discuss end of life care with a machine.

The expertise squeeze is real although its extent is exaggerated by pessimists. The squeeze will change the shape of experts – in terms of how they learn, what they need to know and how they must engage with others. The squeeze will change the shape of society – the shifting fortunes of different professionals is tied to the perceived value they add to our lives and the ability of the institutions they represent to handle scandal and bad decisions. The challenge for the rest of us (non-experts) will be our willingness to engage with, and sift through, different sources of advice. In a world brimming with information, knowledge is no longer power. Discernment and judgement come to the fore. We must choose wisely.

Sources & Further Reading

Tom Nichols – Death of Expertise –

Klein et al – The War On Experts –

Future of Employment:

CPAS poll:

Roy Morgan Image of the Professions:

Climate Change  Survey;

Edelman Trust Barometer – Australia:

Medical & patient behaviour:,-beliefs,-behaviours-and-concerns-towards-childhood-vaccinations-in-australia-a-national-online-survey/

Why task domains (still) matter for understanding expertise –

Only Humans Need Apply:

The Future of the Professions:

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Situation: Normie

One can imagine an alternative reality where Kill All Normies (KAN) had a different reception. Where Trump narrowly lost the 2016 election and the alt-right remained a curiosity – albeit a disturbing one. KAN would be a long pamphlet / short book aimed at the audience of a leftish, academicish publisher (the kind of readership that know who Gramsci is). It would be fiercely debated within those narrow circles for a few weeks and then disappear.

But that is not the world it was published into. Instead Trump is president and it’s OK to be a public racist again. It is unlikely that the alt-right were instrumental in Trump’s victory – but they have profited from it. In attempting to chart the rise of the alt-right, it is therefore an Important Book. Even if it wasn’t meant to be.

Angela Nagle’s book is not quite ethnography, not quite journalism, not quite political argument. The book is short and reads as a series of articles joined together. It feels grossly underedited – many sentences need adverbs removed or clauses broken up. The flow of chapters is unclear (the later, better chapters feel like they belong earlier on) and enough evidence is presented to support the author’s point but little more. I only got a partial sense of what the alt-right is, who makes it up and how they operate.

Instead the book is more concerned making some provocative points within its leftish, academicish milieu. The notion that the alt-right are Gramscians is an intriguing one. The observations that transgression does not always lead to liberation is a valid one but unoriginal. Nagle draws on books like The Sex Revolts to make this argument. The comparison is not always flattering – that book was exhaustively and exhaustingly researched in way that KAN isn’t.

I am not a fan of call out culture but I was unconvinced by the argument that the alt-right is a direct reaction to Left Tumblr. The 4chan nerd ragers seem to be triggered more by what they see in mainstream culture rather than SJW niches (and they tend to exaggerate the power of these niches much as some on the left exaggerate the power of the alt-right). It’s possible to argue that similar social forces drive the emergence of these niches but some teasing out of their similarities and differences would be beneficial. As critics have noted, Nagle has major beefs with identity politics that get prosecuted here. These are not given the space to be thoroughly explored so they sometimes come across as crude putdowns.

The final chapters that discuss the misogyny that underpins much of the alt-right and its raging elitism are genuinely interesting (and I wish they would have gone further and deeper). Likewise the criticism of those who promoted sites like 4chan as a source of anarchic social good is well-aimed.

The book has also weighed on current shitfight about the role of identity politics and the future of the left – which has given it prominence but not ways that lead to its arguments being considered in a measured manner. I suspect there is more Dr Nagle’s work than this one, slim book. I also suspect that I have more in common with her perspectives than indicated here – esp. looking at the abstract for her PhD thesis.

The alt-right developed in its own shadowy world and its exposure to mass publicity has not been to its benefit (as Nagle recently documented). Likewise, wider exposure has not necessarily been to this book’s benefit. There is still a gap in the market for an thorough exploration of this phenomenon.

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