Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Abuse of Zimbabwe

Perhaps the only genre of writing more irritating than "The Diseases of Darkest Africa" is "Darkest Africa Shows Why Capitalism is Good."

Here is the most recent entry in this genre. It begins with a fair observation about economic collapse in Zimbabwe:
No one really has any accurate figures about what the GDP of Zimbabwe is these days but reasonable estimates put it down at $600 to $700 a year per capita. That's pretty much the level at which all of peasant humanity from Ur of the Chaldees to the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. In fact, it's poorer than England was at that start of the Industrial Revolution. Effectively, in the modern sense, Zimbabwe doesn't actually have an economy any more.
Fair enough. Mugabe's regime has greatly harmed Zimbabwean citizens. But then things turn ideological:
Venezuela tells us what happens when you destroy the price system and thus the market. A small hint here, everyone becomes much poorer. And Zimbabwe shows what happens when you confiscate all the productive assets from those who were being productive with them. In effect Zimbabwe has had a 100% inheritance tax with the tax revenue distributed to the President's cronies. Which is indeed a bit of a warning to those who complain so much about inherited wealth, isn't it?
This entire article was a setup to whine about Piketty like inheritance taxation schemes. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

# 4 Munslow, Jenkins, and the Tail of Postmodern Thought

Postmodernism diffused through the Anglo-American academy in last quarter of the 20th century. Although it is mostly domesticated, the type of scholarship still informs some researchers in the 21st Century. This legacy is seen in the thought of historians Alum Munslow and Keith Jenkins. For instance, Jenkins, in his popular book Re-Thinking History, says that historians use the idea of truth to support their preferred accounts of the past:
‘truth’ and similar expressions are devices to open, regulate and shut down interpretations. Truth acts as a censor—it draws the line. We know that such truths are really ‘useful fictions’ that are in discourse by virtue of power (somebody has to put and keep them there) and power uses the term ‘truth’ to exercise control: regimes of truth. (1991, 32)
He admits that historians study sources, but adds that
the historian’s viewpoint and predilections still shape the choice of historical materials, and our own personal constructs determine what we make of them. The past that we ‘know’ is always contingent upon our own views, our own ‘present’…. Epistemology shows we can never really know the past; that the gap between the past and history (historiography) is an ontological one, that is, is in the very nature of things such that no amount of epistemological effort can bridge it. (pp. 12, 19)
With this in mind, Jenkins calls for imagination, and repeats a common frustration that orthodox historical studies have an inability (or unwillingness) to address new evidence or new subjects, such as blacks, women, Chicanos, American Indians, immigrants, families, cities. Jenkins says that orthodox historicans proclaim this new evidence or new subjects as
Disjoint[ed] and incoherent[ce]” that lacks “central themes or a framework,” and that does not try to answer any “significant questions” of the kind raised by previous historians.
they presume a unity that is thought to be spurious, because they impose a political identity upon nonpolitical entities (notably race, gender, and class), and because they perpetuate the “hegemony” of the established political elite over all the groups suppressed and oppressed by the old history- women, blacks, Chicanos, etc. It is difficult, moreover, to see how the subjects of the new history can be accommodated in any single framework, let alone a national and political one. For what they are all “clamoring for” is not a place on the periphery of history-that they always had-but at the center, and not intermittently but permanently (665)
Taking this approach, no one subject—political processes, elections, labour—should be a preferred area of study for the historian. Instead, all objects, subjects, processes, events, are legitimate areas of study: None is more or less important to the understanding of life in general, or a period in particular. This can offer a “valuable corrective” (669) to history in so far that it opens avenues for other areas of study that are neglect, slighted, or viewed as insignificant

This is a radical shift for conventional historians and their epistemological approaches, choices, and understanding of the past – the view of highlighting, selecting periods, events and so on and identifying that they are more significant than others, and thus require a more attentive study – instead, deconstructive approaches suggest that merely what historians do is preclude other avenues of meaning making and understanding. This is why deconstructive anthropology seeks to draw attention to unconventional modes of understanding the past; it highlights how ‘conventional’ approach is but one of many and that it is little deserving of privilege.

What is being de-privileged and deconstructed is not only history as traditional historians have understood it but the past as contemporaries knew it. Contemporaries may have thought that their history was shaped by kings and statesmen, politics and diplomacy, constitutions and laws.

Given these five points, postmodernists argue that historical accounts are merely reflections of discursive priors. These preconceptions thus render a certain set of mechanics to fulfill the role required by the theory. For this reason, Jenkins suggests that we ought to “forget history” and instead turn towards the “imaginaries provided by postmodern type theorists” (1999, 12).

The second line of argument against empiricism stems from postmodernists questioning the evidence itself and the use of source material. Keith Jenkins remarks that
the historian’s viewpoint and predilections still shape the choice of historical materials, and our own personal constructs determine what we make of them. The past that we ‘know’ is always contingent upon our own views, our own ‘present.’ (1991, 12)
Epistemology shows we can never really know the past; that the gap between the past and history (historiography) is an ontological one, that is, is in the very nature of things such that no amount of epistemological effort can bridge it. (1991, 19)
Jenkins two points illustrate postmodernists suggest that the use of evidence is informed by social conversions and personal interests influenced by cultural dispositions not by methodology. Historians have objected to this characterization, and have responded by saying that informed critique by other historians dampers the bias brought by convention and interest.

This brings attention to a third and related line of argument. As the majority of the evidence that historians use is text based – letters, newspapers, documents and so on – historians do not in fact correspond the texts they write to events in the past. Instead they refer to other texts. Hence, the meaning of the historians’ text does not correspond to the meaning of an event, but to the meaning of another text. Additionally, due the “death of the author” thesis, there can be no single and limited intended meaning of a particular text. Hence the ambiguity of meaning requires that historians give believing that the texts to which the refer mirror events that occurred in the past.

One impact of this thought is to view the historical interpretation as a process of invention, imagination, creation through a selection between conjectures based upon the known and the unknown. To unravel these histories, one must decode or deconstruct the process of historical interpretation. Or as Foucault does, turn on the decoders themselves and decode the decoders. This rupture, Bentley remarks, the postmodern was an “inestimable good in shaking one of the more conservative disciplines to its foundations and giving rise to much innovative and intelligent writing.” Bentley continues to add that “rarely has a generation had the opportunity of the current cohort of students to rethink what history means” (Bentley 1998, vii).

Due to the nature of historical writing there are opportunities where for the sake of brevity and narrative, historians make use of generalizations or summery interpretations to convey their point. For the classic paradigm of historiography, key criteria to apply to these generalizations and interpretations is that they ought to prove to be ‘credible, fair and intelligible.’ (Behan McCullagh 2004, 138), in other words there are good reasons for thinking that these generalizations and interpretations are true. Generalizations are also employed because they vitally assist effort to synthesis large amounts of data and evidence as well as assisting in providing a causal analysis.

However, in a very strict sense, most historical generalizations are false because their scope present many opportunities for important exceptions and anomalies. Additionally, unless they are bounded by qualifications, most generalization are become meaningless. However, qualifying generalizations makes them less general and so less useful.

Given this, postmodernists disagree that generalizations and interpretations can in fact be true. They merely state that these narrative devices are but one form of description, and that as there is no adequate method to assess the various descriptions that can be made, there is no basis to believe that the particular generalizations and interpretations on offer are more accurate than others. As Frank Ankersmit writes “generalizations do not express any truths on the nature of (socio-historical) reality; they only reflect regularities in how we have actually decided to conceptualize reality” (1983, 160). And keeping in mind one of his main arguments (‘the past itself has no narrative pattern or structure’ [1983, 110]), it is likely that Ankersmit would agree that generalization hide more than they enlighten, and in doing so enable social projects to use generalizations and summary interpretations to pursue projects that are false and misleading at best, and disastrous for humans at worst.

For these reasons Lyotard has renounced generalization or metanarratives in The Postmodern Condition. His attack is twofold. The first is to undermine the credibility of knowledge, while the second illustrates how well known historical generalizations are false. He concludes by advocating that no historical generalization can be true. Instead generalizations are considered legitimate based on the preferences of language games and little more. And considering that language games are merely an expression of power, there is no need to respect the claims of previously legitimated generalizations. What is implied is that generalizations and narratives come to support power. Which this is mind, Lyotard’s recommendation for historians therefore seems to be that they should confine themselves to specific and local studies, not necessarily those of any general consequence, and refrain from making general statements.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Politics in the Security State

Worldwide there is a tendency for state security forces to intervene in elections, through intimidating citizens, disrupting campaign rallies, or the like. This is a feature of the broader ‘democratic recession’ (Diamond 2015) that is occurring in the early part of the 21st century; a tendency that the United States has greatly contributed to, and now suffers from.

This kind of intervention can be illustrated by the recent actions of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey. Four months after the conclusion on an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server whilst she was Secretary of State—and for which he did not recommend pressing charges—Comey issued a supplementary letter to the US Congress eleven days before the 2016 US election. He indicated that “the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the [Clinton] investigation.” Accordingly, he was taking “appropriate investigative steps,” but was not yet in a position to “assess whether or not this material may be significant” (FBI 2016). 

While off-the-record interviews and leaks revealed these emails pertained to an investigation into Anthony Weiner (Goldman and Rappeport 2016), the damage was done: Vagueness allowed distorted readings which fueled already existing reactionary narratives that Clinton should be indicted and incarcerated. #lockherup trended. Indeed, the media firestorm reminded people that Clinton had once been under investigation. Naturally, Trump’s faltering campaign ruthlessly exploited the news, suggesting that Clinton acted dishonourably and so did not have the integrity to be President of the United States.

At best, Comey was guided by the presumption that Clinton was assured the presidency and so he was being thoroughly prudent in exercising an abundance of caution. However, his decision received bipartisan condemnation. That former Attorney Generals Alberto Gonzales and Eric Holder agreed on the matter is telling, while press reports seem to indicate then Attorney General Loretta Lynch also questioned the judgement (see Perez and Brown 2016). Moreover, the good faith argument cannot easily explain why Comey withheld information about Russian cyber-espionage until after the election. So prima facie the case for prudence is weak.

Rather it appears Comey released the letter for maximum political effect. Clinton alluded to this duplicity when campaigning:
I’m sure a lot of you may be asking what this new email story is about and why in the world the FBI would decide to jump into an election with no evidence of any wrongdoing with just days to go. That is a good question. (Clinton as cited by Salaky 2016)
Nate Silver’s (2016) polling analysis indicated that this event “produced about a 2-point swing against Clinton.” The Princeton Election Review’s analysis concurred: “Opinion swung toward Trump by 4 percentage points, and about half of this was a lasting change. This was larger than the victory margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin” (Wang 2016). For reference, Clinton lost in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by 0.22%, 0.76%, and 0.72% respectively.

In rehashing these events, the point is neither to pardon nor berate Clinton for her career or campaign. Rather, I think the Comey letter offers a useful case study of discretionary law enforcement to trace some of the evolving undercurrents in the American political formation. To me this is less about Clinton herself and more about norm erosion in the liberal order, what Corey Robin (2017) describes as “the slow delegitimation of American national institutions since the end of the Cold War.” In this line, I offer two observations on gender and the state, and then suggest for what this might mean for a radically oppositional politics rooted in anti-oppression and anti-exploitation principles.

The first observation concerns the rhetorical function of ‘dishonour.’ Emerging from literary scholarship, Laura Gowing describes the concept as encapsulating a rhetoric that has a double movement:
Honour has generally been conceptualised as one of the means by which standards of behaviour and social relations between men and women were regulated. Insults to honour had their effect by shaming people into conformity.
Dishonour was far more than a threat that could be pressed into service to order social relations; it could be an active, disruptive process in which shame dislocated relationships and hierarchies. (1996, 225)
In these passages, Gowing indicates that ‘dishonourable actions’ threaten the prevailing social order, but also shift it. I would like to suggest that Clinton’s election was norm eroding in the second function; that it would be a ‘disruptive process’ which would ‘dislocate relationships and hierarchies’ thereby inverting the script of female conformity and supplication.

As a result of the work just reviewed, it is possible to generate a reading where Comey’s letter pursued the first function. By employing gendered tropes to signal to Clinton that her presumed election, while path-breaking, Comey asserted that she would nevertheless have to abide by the agenda set by the security state. Much like Obama had to kneel and flatter the military to preserve his rule, so Clinton’s public dishonouring foreshadowed how she would have to govern with the interests of the security state at the forefront of policy agenda, simply because they play an outsized role in regulating and reproducing that rule.

The second point revolves around Clinton being the epitome of the liberal order. Backed by conglomerate media, Wall Street, and SuperPACs it was rumored that she had more funds at her disposal than Barack Obama in 2012.  For these groups, and arguably for most of the ruling class, it was assumed Clinton was the natural successor to the presidency. Given her experiences as a Senator and then Secretary of State where she aided and abetted the increased scope of the security state, plus her realist foreign policy agenda, one would have presumed that she had duly cultivated the support of the security state cluster too.

That Comey believed that he was in a sufficiently strong position that he could revert the script to ‘dishonour’ Clinton, a major stalwart of the liberal order, indicates the extent to which these agencies have greatly increased their power in the early 21st century. It also underscores the extent to which state agencies mediate gendered violence and subordination. 

While things like the Snowden files have helped with a forensic rubbing of the contours of the security state, one must not overstate this intelligibility nor suggest that we have a full understanding of their politics. That said, it appears likely that the various security apparatuses now constitute an estate with sharp elbows and high aspirations, whose politics can even negate the democratic will to elect Hillary Clinton.

If this is discouraging, it is worth remembering that the security state is not a monolithic entity—different agencies may advance different practices and visions of state functioning—while its intervention into social life is uneven, if omnipresent. So it remains important to attend to divergences between agencies as it provides space for movement that activists, organizers, and advocates can exploit. Efforts of this sort will be important given the dark clouds gathering on the horizon of the post liberal order.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

#3 Why Does Flyvberg Matter?

In the third installment of this blog series, Theory in the 21st Century, I turn to Brent Flyvberg's Making Social Science Matter. Inspired by Aristotle, he seeks to carve a distinctive kind of investigation of values, interests, and practice that does not aspire to replicate the universalism of the natural sciences. The main target of this argument is the cargo cult scientism so prevalent in American social studies.

Flyvberg argues that the kinds of items social science investigate do not lend themselves to this agenda and therefore will likely always fail to realize that aspiration. Basically, these are not equivalent realms of inquiry, so it is foolish to reproduce a particular kind of inquiry. Doing so is to make the single-analysis fallacy, that is, the faulty belief that one kind of analysis is suitable for all kinds of investigation regardless of subject matter. Rather than being content with demarcating the boundary of social scientific enterprise, Flyvberg presses on to suggest that epistemic efforts actually hinder genuine attempts to gain insight into the realm of human affairs.

Invoking the Dryfus model of learning, Flyvbjerg supports his contention by arguing that the cumulative, prediction, and systematization that characterises what he calls the episteme approach yields only partial knowledge about the complexity of the human condition. This is for four reasons. First, there are limits to rationally mapping, explaining, and predicting the wide range of human practices and motivations. Second, the neglect of context misses the specific kinds of plural, local, and unique intentions at guide human actions. By inference, this means that social science is not a stable body of knowledge. Yet another reason is that naturalism deliberately avoids normative evaluations. Lastly, it is easy to claim that one must make tacit knowledge and interests explicit; it is another to actually accomplish it.

As an alternative, Flyvbjerg would prefer social scientists to adopt humanistic-inspired investigative principles. This means, that they would look “at what people actually do” so as to “focus on practices rather than discourse or theory” ultimately to conduct a normative evaluation. This epistemological and disciplinary reorientation, he imagines, will create a relevance that will “help restore social sciences to its classical position as a practical, intellectual activity aimed at clarifying the problems, risks, and possibilities we face as humans and societies.” The potential consequences of a phronetic approach, he believes, would acknowledge it is distinctive, valid, and legitimate kind of knowledge production as epistemic approaches, as well as better positioning it to make interventions into everyday affairs.

An unsympathetic reading might conclude that Flyvberg simply marries the terrible dichotomy of C. P. Snow’s Two Culture Thesis with Max Horkheimer’s division between Traditional and Critical Theory (favouring the latter), all in an effort to tar and feather those who service existing powers at the expense of advancing human flourishing. But this kind of reading fails to consider that Flyvberg is justifying a methodological operationalize of neo-Aristotelian concepts. In this sense, he is trying to restore an Aristotelian distinction between investigations of nature and art and to my mind this matters most to a communicative approach to justice.

As with almost all neo-Aristotelian studies practical reasoning carries the bulk of the conceptual weight. In Flyvbjerg’s project this manifests as phronesis, which is contradistinguished from episteme and techne. As rough contemporary equivalents, episteme is akin to propositional knowledge, techne is akin to technical knowledge, while phronesis is akin to practical knowledge. As Flyvbjerg defines it, phronesis is “a true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man.” We can infer that covers wisdom and prudence, experience and thoughtfulness. Using these distinctions, Flyvberg argues that
The purpose of social science is not to develop theory, but to contribute to society’s practical rationality in elucidating where we are, where we want to go, and what is desirable according to diverse sets of values and interests. The goal of the phronetic approach becomes one of contributing to society’s capacity for value-rational deliberation and action.
Flyvbjerg suggests that universal predictive theory is not attuned to context. But, as Robert Adcock suggests, it is better to push the question the other way; that is, how many social scientists do aspire to universal predictive theory? Laitin, in weighing in on this point, argues that not even many natural scientists aspire to prediction. And as Schatzki writes, most social scientists tend to be concerned with explanation, and not necessarily with the core traits of episteme as Flyvbjerg understands it.[viii] In sum, as Adcock points out, Flyvbjerg has neglected to examine the actual practice and context of social scientists. In trying to make an argument regarding the distinctions between episteme and phronesis, it better to examine how suitable either phronesis or episteme might be for the task at hand. In some cases, certain species thereof can be complementary. If they are to be complementary however, a phronetic inquiry cannot claim propriety ownership over unique insights into the mechanics of power.

The value of phronesis can be found in what Adcock terms the “fundamental problem of context.” Adcock describes it as “what is it that distinguishes ‘contexts’ from one another?” Key here is that differences in the tacit knowledge of the participants of their context, their cohabitants, and their practices, which cannot be easily explicated to form generalizable and propositional rules. As Giddens has said,
It is right to say that the condition of generating descriptions of social activity is being able in principle to participate in it. It involves “mutual knowledge,” shared by observer and participants whose action constitutes and reconstitutes the social world.
However, explicating this knowledge often proves to be unsatisfying, and when done often fails to capture the rich texture of plural intentions which motivates encounters. As a way to accommodate plural intentions, Flyvbjerg qualifies that all interactions are “context dependence.” What he means by this is that practices are best understood as “an open-ended, dependent relation between contexts and actions and interpretations that cannot be brought under rule-based closure.” This is certainly an aporetic dialectics.

At stake, is as Robert Adcock points out, that there should be a distinction between “explicit systematic theories” and “general practical maxims.” This is basically the difference between propositions and prescriptions. But this division neglects that prescriptions themselves rely upon a set of propositions. For instance, a Marxist critique of capitalism is a result of metaphysical propositions about the ideal nature of human beings. So it seems that episteme and phronesis are intimately connected: decisions over what is to be done rests on what we know and our ability to anticipate and predict the consequences. Basically, to use Rorty’s terms, science can give us a vision of the future. This presentation of context allows for explanatory endeavours, as well preserving a role for interpretive communities.

Lastly, an important component of phronesis is that it must be orientated to engage with non-academic audience, and provide fuel for public deliberations over distributions of goods. He writes that “dialogue with groups outside of academia” is “at the heart of phronetic social science.”[xv] However, it is too callous to claim that good ideas are without value unless they are accepted and implemented. Conversely, do ideas which aspire to, but do not find purchase in public dialogue less phronetic? What about ideas that do not aspire so public value, but nevertheless find purchase?[xvi] These questions are unanswered by Flvybjerg, let alone thoughts regarding intended consequences. In sum, the means does not guarantee the end.

Further there remains unresolved inconsistency. Flyvbjerg cannot claim that social scientists seek episteme for reasons of status, and then not counter claim that they organise their work as internal deliverables marked for one another, for if that were the case, then is would not matter that this work had to be cloaked in episteme terms. While other moves are open, the likely possibility is that there is almost no difference between the final goals of episteme and phronesis approach: both seek to matter in a wider fashion.

In short, if reception is to remain as a key attribute, one should at least acknowledge that basic academic research often does not have a definitive horizon; that is, it is impossible to know when certain courses of action might yield dividends. Rather research matters not because of epistemic or phronetic orientation and aspirations, but because it aims to avoid the snares of systematic or unintentional distortion. In other words, things matter because they are developed under an ethical accord. This leaves open the possibility for items to matter in different ways. Flyvbjerg seeks to ask us to make work matter to the public at large, and in that way, to matter differently than epistemic approaches. In this case Flyvbjerg is asking us to make research democratically accountable. We should however note the success in the public up taking of this research, or it coming to bear upon policy, planning, or practice, is not an indicator of accomplishing phronesis inquiry.

The reason I have discussed Flyvbjerg at length is because it is counter-current to most social scientific methodologies which claims that “case stud[ies] cannot provide reliable information about the broader class,” and “have such a total absence of control as to be of almost no scientific value.”

But, as Flyvbjerg shows, the aforementioned current is to misunderstand the epistemological potential and contribution of case study research. Case studies can be differentiated into four kinds, intrinsic, instrumental, collective, and critical. The first kind is undertaken for reason of illustration, the second kind for unique insight, the third kind seeks refinement of principle to be applied more generally, while the forth kind. While the first three kinds lend themselves to Communication Studies, the forth kind is less vulnerable to quibbles about representative sampling and selections as the first and second are respectfully. The only justification the fourth kinds requires is the how suitably it lends itself to generating illuminating principles for ideals and practice.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Intentional Homicides in Trinidad and Tobago

Using World Bank data, I plotted a graph of the murder rate in Trinidad and Tobago. (Here is a link to a better quality version.)

In 2016 there were 462 murders in Trinidad and Tobago. This is 34.4 per 100'000, up from 2015, and roughly equal to the murder rate in South Africa.

2017 is not shaping up to well either, with 65 intentional homicides to date (10th February). Naturally there is outrage. This recent rise is against a backdrop of broken trust between citizens and the police force due to the latter's abuse of power. So it is unlikely that a more aggressive police presence will be an effective long term solution.

Other factors, like organized crime and narcotic trafficking can explain the rise in the murder rate, but social inequality is certainly a factor. There are been some local studies, but they are dated, and so cannot tell us as much as we would like about wealth, class, and local uneven development. While helpful to get a better sense of the social structure in Trinidad and Tobago, recent UNDP reports do not break down the distribution of wealth. I hope I am incorrect, and there needs to be more investigation from my side, but these knowledge gaps are terrifying. Meantime, the inflation of food is quickly increasing...

Until there is a forthright attempt to register how material inequities foster resentment and violence, the public discourse will political gestures and moral pleading, both of which are insufficient attempts to address this social problem.