Artisanal production, productivity and automation, economic engines

I’m continuing to read Moretti’s The new geography of jobs (2012). Except for the occasional gushing over the revolutionary-ness of some new payments startup, a symptom no doubt of being so close to Silicon Valley, it continues to be an enlightening and measured read on economic change.

There are a number of useful arguments and ideas from the book, which are probably sourced more generally from economics, which I’ll outline here, with my comments:

Local, artisanal production can never substitute for large-scale manufacturing. Moretti argues that while in many places in the United States local artisinal production has cropped up, it will never replace the work done by large-scale production. Why? Because by definition, local artisinal production is (a) geographically local, and therefore unable to scale beyond a certain region, and (b) defined in part by its uniqueness, differentiating it from mainstream products. In other words, if your local small-batch shop grows to the point where it competes with large-scale production, it is no longer local and small-batch.

Interestingly, this argument about production scaling echoes work on empirical heavy tail distributions in social and economic phenomena. A world where small-scale production constituted most of production would have an exponentially bounded distribution of firm productivity. The world doesn’t look that way, and so we have very very big companies, and many many small companies, and they coexist.

Higher labor productivity in a sector results in both a richer society and fewer jobs in that sector. Productivity is how much a person’s labor produces. The idea here is that when labor productivity increases, the firm that hires those laborers needs fewer people working to satisfy its demand. But those people will be paid more, because their labor is worth more to the firm.

I think Moretti is hand-waving a bit when he argues that a society only gets richer through increased labor productivity. I don’t follow it exactly.

But I do find it interesting that Moretti calls “increases in productivity” what many others would call “automation”. Several related phenomena are viewed critically in the popular discourse on job automation: more automation causes people to lose jobs; more automation causes some people to get richer (they are higher paid); this means there is a perhaps pernicious link between automation and inequality. One aspect of this is that automation is good for capitalists. But another aspect of this is that automation is good for lucky laborers whose productivity and earnings increase as a result of automation. It’s a more nuanced story than one that is only about job loss.

The economic engine of an economy is what brings in money, it need not be the largest sector of the economy. The idea here is that for a particular (local) economy, the economic engine of that economy will be what pulls in money from outside. Moretti argues that the economic engine must be a “trade sector”, meaning a sector that trades (sells) its goods beyond its borders. It is the workers in this trade-sector economic engine that then spend their income on the “non-trade” sector of local services, which includes schoolteachers, hairdressers, personal trainers, doctors, lawyers, etc. Moretti’s book is largely about how the innovation sector is the new economic engine of many American economies.

One thing that comes to mind reading this point is that not all economic engines are engaged in commercial trade. I’m thinking about Washington, DC, and the surrounding area; the economic engine there is obviously the federal government. Another strange kind of economic engine are top-tier research universities, like Carnegie Mellon or UC Berkeley. Top-tier research universities, unlike many other forms of educational institutions, are constantly selling their degrees to foreign students. This means that they can serve as an economic engine.

Overall, Moretti’s book is a useful guide to economic geography, one that clarifies the economic causes of a number of political tensions that are often discussed in a more heated and, to me, less useful way.


Moretti, Enrico. The new geography of jobs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.


the economic construction of knowledge

We’ve all heard about the social construction of knowledge.

Here’s the story: Knowledge isn’t just in the head. Knowledge is a social construct. What we call “knowledge” is what it is because of social institutions and human interactions that sustain, communicate, and define it. Therefore all claims to absolute and unsituated knowledge are suspect.

There are many different social constructivist theories. One of the best, in my opinion, is Bourdieu’s, because he has one of the best social theories. For Bourdieu, social fields get their structure in part through the distribution of various kinds of social capital. Economic capital (money!) is one kind of social capital. Symbolic capital (the fact of having published in a peer-reviewed journal) is a different form of capital. What makes the sciences special, for Bourdieu, is that they are built around a particular mechanism for awarding symbolic capital that makes it (science) get the truth (the real truth). Bourdieu thereby harmonizes social constructivism with scientific realism, which is a huge relief for anybody trying to maintain their sanity in these trying times.

This is all super. What I’m beginning to appreciate more as I age, develop, and in some sense I suppose ‘progress’, is that economic capital is truly the trump card of all the forms of social capital, and that this point is underrated in social constructivist theories in general. What I mean by this is that flows of economic capital are a condition for the existence of the social fields (institutions, professions, etc.) in which knowledge is constructed. This is not to say that everybody engaged in the creation of knowledge is thinking about monetization all the time–to make that leap would be to commit the ecological fallacy. But at the heart of almost every institution where knowledge is created, there is somebody fundraising or selling.

Why, then, don’t we talk more about the economic construction of knowledge? It is a straightforward idea. To understand an institution or social field, you “follow the money”, seeing where it comes from and where it goes, and that allows you to situated the practice in its economic context and thereby determine its economic meaning.

Appealing economic determinism (Moretti)

I’ve start reading Enrico Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs and finding it very clear and persuasive (though I’m not far in).

Moretti is taking up the major theme of What The Hell Is Happening To The United States, which is being addressed by so many from different angles. But whereas many writers seem to have an agenda–e.g., Noble advocating for political reform regulating algorithms; Deenan arguing for return to traditional community values in some sense; etc.–or to focus on particularly scandalous or dramatic aspects of changing political winds–such as Gilman’s work on plutocratic insurgency and collapsing racial liberalism–Moretti is doing economic geography showing how long term economic trends are shaping the distribution of prosperity within the U.S.

From the introduction, it looks like there are a few notable points.

The first is about what Moretti calls the Great Divergence, which has been going on since the 1980’s. This is the decline of U.S. manufacturing as jobs moved from Detroit, Michegan to Shenzhen, Guangdong, paired with the rise of an innovation economy where the U.S. takes the lead in high-tech and creative work. The needs of the high-tech industry–high-skilled workers, who may often be educated immigrants–changes the demographics of the innovation hubs and results in the political polarization we’re seeing on the national stage. This is an account of the economic base determining the cultural superstructure which is so fraught right now, and exactly what I was getting at yesterday with my rant yesterday about the politics of business.

The second major point Moretti makes which is probably understated in more polemical accounts of the U.S. political economy is the multiplier effect of high-skilled jobs in innovation hubs. Moretti argues that every high-paid innovation job (like software engineer or scientist) results in four other jobs in the same city. These other jobs are in service sectors that are by their nature local and not able to be exported. The consequence is that the innovation economy does not, contrary to its greatest skeptics, only benefit the wealthy minority of innovators to the ruin of the working class. However, it does move the location of working class prosperity into the same urban centers where the innovating class is.

This gives one explanation for why the backlash against Obama-era economic policies was such a shock to the coastal elites. In the locations where the “winners” of the innovation economy were gathered, there was also growth in the service economy which by objective measures increased the prosperity of the working class in those cities. The problem was the neglected working class in those other locations, who felt left behind and struck back against the changes.

A consequence of this line of reasoning is that arguments about increasing political tribalism are really a red herring. Social tribes on the Internet are a consequence, not a cause, of divisions that come from material conditions of economy and geography.

Moretti even appears to have a constructive solution in mind. He argues that there are “three Americas”: the rich innovation hubs, the poor former manufacturing centers, and mid-sized cities that have not yet gone either way. His recipe for economic success in these middle cities is attracting high-skilled workers who are a kind of keystone species for prosperous economic ecosystems.


Deneen, Patrick J. Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press, 2018.

Gilman, Nils. “The twin insurgency.” American Interest 15 (2014): 3-11.

Gilman, Nils. “The Collapse of Racial Liberalism.” The American Interest (2018).

Moretti, Enrico. The new geography of jobs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press, 2018.

politics of business

This post is an attempt to articulate something that’s on the tip of my tongue, so bear with me.

Fraser has made the point that the politics of recognition and the politics of distribution are not the same. In her view, the conflict in the U.S. over recognition (i.e., or women, racial minorities, LGBTQ, etc. on the progressive side, and on the straight white male ‘majority’ on the reactionary side) has overshadowed the politics of distribution, which has been at a steady neoliberal status quo for some time.

First, it’s worth pointing out that in between these two political contests is a politics of representation, which may be more to the point. The claim here is that if a particular group is represented within a powerful organization–say, the government, or within a company with a lot of power such as a major financial institution or tech company–then that organization will use its power in a way that is responsive to the needs of the represented group.

Politics of representation are the link between recognition and distribution: the idea is that if “we” recognize a certain group, then through democratic or social processes members of that group will be lifted into positions of representative power, which then will lead to (re)distribution towards that group in the longer run.

I believe this is the implicit theory of social change at the heart of a lot of democratish movements today. It’s an interesting theory in part because it doesn’t seem to have any room for “good governance”, or broadly beneficial governance, or technocracy. There’s nothing deliberative about this form of democracy; it’s a tribal war-by-other-means. It is also not clear that this theory of social change based on demographic representation is any more effective at changing distributional outcomes than a pure politics of recognition, which we have reason to believhe is ineffectual.

Who do we expect to have power over distributional outcomes in our (and probably other) democracies? Realistically, it’s corporations. Businesses comprise most of the economic activity; businesses have the profits needed to reinvest in lobbying power for the sake of economic capture. So maybe if what we’re interested in is politics of distribution, we should stop trying to parse out the politics of recognition, with its deep dark rabbit hole of identity politics and the historical injustice and Jungian archetypal conflicts over the implications of the long arc of sexual maturity. These conversations do not seem to be getting anyone anywhere! It is, perhaps, fake news: not because the contents are fake, but because the idea that these issues are new is fake. They are perhaps just a lot of old issues stirred to conflagration by the feedback loops between social and traditional media.

If we are interested in the politics of distribution, let’s talk about something else, something that we all know must be more relevant, when it comes down to it, than the politics of recognition. I’m talking about the politics of business.

We have a rather complex economy with many competing business interests. Let’s assume that one of the things these businesses compete over is regulatory capture–their ability to influence economic policy in their favor.

When academics talk about neoliberal economic policy, they are often talking about those policies that benefit the financial sector and big businesses. But these big businesses are not always in agreement.

Take, for example, the steel tariff proposed by the Trump administration. There is no blunter example of a policy that benefits some business interests–U.S. steelmakers–and not others–U.S. manufacturers of steel-based products.

It’s important from the perspective of electoral politics to recognize that the U.S. steelmakers are a particular set of people who live in particular voting districts with certain demographics. That’s because, probably, if I am a U.S. steelworker, I will vote in the interest of my industry. Just as if I am a U.S. based urban information worker at an Internet company, I will vote in the interest of my company, which in my case would mean supporting net neutrality. If I worked for AT&T, I would vote against net neutrality, which today means I would vote Republican.

It’s an interesting fact that AT&T employs a lot more people than Google and (I believe this is the case, though I don’t know where to look up the data) that they are much more geographically distributed that Google because, you know, wires and towers and such. Which means that AT&T employees will be drawn from more rural, less diverse areas, giving them an additional allegiance to Republican identity politics.

You must see where I’m getting at. Assume that the main driver of U.S. politics is not popular will (which nobody really believes, right?) and is in fact corporate interests (which basically everybody admits, right?). In that case the politics of recognition will not be determining anything; rather it will be a symptom, an epiphenomenon, of an underlying politics of business. Immigration of high-talent foreigners then becomes a proxy issue for the economic battle between coastal tech companies and, say, old energy companies which have a much less geographically mobile labor base. Nationalism, or multinationalism, becomes a function of trade relations rather than a driving economic force in its own right. (Hence, Russia remains an enemy of the U.S. largely because Putin paid off all its debt to the U.S. and doesn’t owe it any money, unlike many of its other allies around the world.)

I would very much like to devote myself better to the understanding of politics of business because, as I’ve indicated, I think the politics of recognition have become a huge distraction.

Moral individualism and race (Barabas, Gilman, Deenan)

One of my favorite articles presented at the recent FAT* 2018 conference was Barabas et al. on “Interventions over Predictions: Reframing the Ethical Debate for Actuarial Risk Assessment” (link). To me, this was the correct response to recent academic debate about the use of actuarial risk-assessment in determining criminal bail and parole rates. I had a position on this before the conference which I drafted up here; my main frustration with the debate had been that it had gone unquestioned why bail and parole rates are based on actuarial prediction of recidivism in the first place, given that rearrest rates are so contingent on social structural factors such as whether or not police are racist.

Barabas et al. point out that there’s an implicit theory of crime behind the use of actuarial risk assessments. In that theory of crime, there are individual “bad people” and “good people”. “Bad people” are more likely to commit crimes because of their individual nature, and the goal of the criminal policing system is to keep bad people from committing crimes by putting them in prison. This is the sort of theory that, even if it is a little bit true, is also deeply wrong, and so we should probably reassess the whole criminal justice system as a result. Even leaving aside the important issue of whether “recidivism” is interpreted as reoffense or rearrest rate, it is socially quite dangerous to see probability of offense as due to the specific individual moral character of a person. One reason why this is dangerous is that if the conditions for offense are correlated with the conditions for some sort of unjust desperation, then we risk falsely justifying an injustice with the idea that the bad things are only happening to bad people.

I’d like to juxtapose this position with a couple others that may on the surface appear to be in tension with it.

Nils Gilman’s new piece on “The Collapse of Racial Liberalism” is a helpful account of how we got where we are as an American polity. True to the title, Gilman’s point is that there was a centrist consensus on ‘racial liberalism’ that it reached its apotheosis in the election of Obama and then collapsed under its one contradictions, getting us where we are today.

By racial liberalism, I mean the basic consensus that existed across the mainstream of both political parties since the 1970s, to the effect that, first, bigotry of any overt sort would not be tolerated, but second, that what was intolerable was only overt bigotry—in other words, white people’s definition of racism. Institutional or “structural” racism—that is, race-based exclusions that result from deep social habits such as where people live, who they know socially, what private organizations they belong to, and so on—were not to be addressed. The core ethic of the racial liberal consensus was colorblind individualism.

Bill Clinton was good at toeing the line of racial liberalism, and Obama, as a black meritocratic elected president, was its culmination. But:

“Obama’s election marked at once the high point and the end of a particular historical cycle: a moment when the realization of a particular ideal reveals the limits of that ideal.”

The limit of the ideal is, of course, that all the things not addressed–“race-based exclusions that result from deep social habits such as where people live, who they know socially, what private organizations they belong to, and so on”–matter, and result in, for example, innocent black guys getting shot disproportionately by police even when there is a black meritocratic sitting as president.

And interesting juxtaposition here is that in both cases discussed so far, we have a case of a system that is reaching its obsolescence due to the contradictions of individualism. In the case of actuarial policing (as it is done today; I think a properly sociological version of actuarial policing could be great), there’s the problem of considering criminals as individuals whose crimes are symptoms of their individual moral character. The solution to crime is to ostracize and contain the criminals by, e.g., putting them in prison. In the case of racial liberalism, there’s the problem of considering bigotry a symptom of individual moral character. The solution to the bigotry is to ostracize and contain the bigots by teaching them that it is socially unacceptable to express bigotry and keeping the worst bigots out of respectable organizations.

Could it be that our broken theories of both crime and bigotry both have the same problem, which is the commitment to moral individualism, by which I mean the theory that it’s individual moral character that is the cause of and solution to these problems? If a case of individual crime and individual bigotry is the result of, instead of an individual moral failing, a collective action problem, what then?

I still haven’t looked carefully into Deenan’s argument (see notes here), but I’m intrigued that his point may be that the crisis of liberalism may be, at its root, a crisis of individualism. Indeed, Kantian views of individual autonomy are really nice but they have not stood the test of time; I’d say the combined works of Haberams, Foucault, and Bourdieu have each from very different directions developed Kantian ideas into a more sociological frame. And that’s just on the continental grand theory side of the equation. I have not followed up on what Anglophone liberal theory has been doing, but I suspect that it has been going the same way.

I am wary, as I always am, of giving too much credit to theory. I know, as somebody who has read altogether too much of it, what little use it actually is. However, the notion of political and social consensus is one that tangibly effects my life these days. For this reason, it’s a topic of great personal interest.

One last point, that’s intended as constructive. It’s been argued that the appeal of individualism is due in part to the methodological individualism of rational choice theory and neoclassical economic theory. Because we can’t model economic interactions on anything but an individualistic level, we can’t design mechanisms or institutions that treat individual activity as a function of social form. This is another good reason to take seriously computational modeling of social forms.


Barabas, Chelsea, et al. “Interventions over Predictions: Reframing the Ethical Debate for Actuarial Risk Assessment.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1712.08238 (2017).

Deneen, Patrick J. Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press, 2018.

Gilman, Nils. “The Collapse of Racial Liberalism.” The American Interest (2018).

interesting article about business in China

I don’t know much about China, really, so I’m always fascinated to learn more.

This FT article, “Anbang arrests demonstrates hostility to business”, by Jamil Anderlini, provides some wonderful historical context to a story about the arrest of an insurance oligarch.

In ancient times, merchants were at the very bottom of the four official social classes, below warrior-scholars, farmers and artisans. Although some became very rich they were considered parasites in Chinese society.

Ever since the Han emperors established the state salt monopoly in the second century BCE (remnants of which remain to this day), large-scale business enterprises have been controlled by the state or completely reliant on the favour of the emperor and the bureaucrat class.

In the 20th century, the Communist emperor Mao Zedong effectively managed to stamp out all private enterprise for a while.

Until the party finally allowed “capitalists” to join its ranks in 2002, many of the business activities carried out by the resurgent merchant class were technically illegal.

China’s rich lists are populated by entrepreneurs operating in just a handful of industries — particularly real estate and the internet.

Tycoons like Mr Wu who emerge in state-dominated sectors are still exceedingly rare. They are almost always closely linked to one of the old revolutionary families exercising enormous power from the shadows.

Everything about this is interesting.

First, in Western scholarship we rarely give China credit for its history of bureaucracy in the absence of capitalism. In the well know Weberian account, bureaucracy is an institutional invention that provides regular rule of law so that capitalism can thrive. But China’s history is one that is statist “from ancient times”, but with effective bureaucracy from the beginning. A managerialist history, perhaps.

Which makes the second point so unusual: why, given this long history of bureaucratic rule, are Internet companies operating in a comparatively unregulated way? This seems like a massive concession of power, not unlike how (arguably) the government of the United States conceded a lot of power to Silicon Valley under the Obama administration.

The article dramatically foreshadows a potential power struggle between Xi Jinping’s consolidated state and the tech giant oligarchs:

Now that Chinese President Xi Jinping has abolished his own term limits, setting the stage for him to rule for life if he wants to, the system of state patronage and the punishment of independent oligarchs is likely to expand. Any company or billionaire who offends the emperor or his minions will be swiftly dealt with in the same way as Mr Wu.

There is one group of Chinese companies with charismatic — some would say arrogant — founders that enjoy immense economic power in China today. They would seem to be prime candidates if the assault on private enterprise is stepped up.

Internet giants Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are not only hugely profitable, they control the data that is the lifeblood of the modern economy. That is why Alibaba founder Jack Ma has repeatedly said, including to the FT, that he would gladly hand his company over to the state if Beijing ever asked him to. Investors in BABA can only hope it never comes to that.

That is quite the expression of feudal fealty from Jack Ma. Truly, a totally different business culture from that of the United States.

Notes on Deenan, “Why Liberalism Failed”, Foreward

I’ve begun reading the recently published book, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), by Patrick Deenan. It appears to be making some waves in the political theory commentary. The author claims that it was 10 years in the making but was finished three weeks before the 2016 presidential election, which suggests that the argument within it is prescient.

I’m not far in yet.

There is an intriguing forward from James Davison Hunter and John M. Owen IV, the editors. Their framing of the book is surprisingly continental:

  • They declare that liberalism has arrived at its “legitimacy crisis”, a Habermasian term.
  • They claim that the core contention of the book is a critique of the contradictions within Immanuel Kant’s view of individual autonomy.
  • They compare Deenan with other “radical” critics of liberalism, of which they name: Marx, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, Nietzsche, Schmitt, and the Catholic Church.

In search of a litmus-test like clue as to where in the political spectrum the book falls, I’ve found this passage in the Foreward:

Deneen’s book is disruptive not only for the way it links social maladies to liberalism’s first principles, but also because it is difficult to categorize along our conventional left-right spectrum. Much of what he writes will cheer social democrats and anger free-market advocates; much else will hearten traditionalists and alienate social progressives.

Well, well, well. If we are to fit Deenan’s book into the conceptual 2-by-2 provided in Fraser’s recent work, it appears that Deenan’s political theory is a form of reactionary populism, rejecting progressive neoliberalism. In other words, the Foreward evinces that Deenan’s book is a high-brow political theory contribution that weighs in favor of the kind of politics that has been heretofore only articulated by intellectual pariahs.

that time they buried Talcott Parsons

Continuing with what seems like a never-ending side project to get a handle on computational social science methods, I’m doing a literature review on ‘big data’ sociological methods papers. Recent reading has led to two striking revelations.

The first is that Tufekci’s 2014 critique of Big Data methodologies is the best thing on the subject I’ve ever read. What it does is very clearly and precisely lay out the methodological pitfalls of sourcing the data from social media platforms: use of a platform as a model organism; selecting on a dependent variable; not taking into account exogenous, ecological, or field factors; and so on. I suspect this is old news to people who have more rigorously surveyed the literature on this in the past. But I’ve been exposed to and distracted by literature that seems aimed mainly to discredit social scientists who want to work with this data, rather than helpfully engaging them on the promises and limitations of their methods.

The second striking revelation is that for the second time in my literature survey, I’ve found a reference to that time when the field of cultural sociology decided they’d had enough of Talcott Parsons. From (Bail, 2014):

The capacity to capture all – or nearly all – relevant text on a given topic opens exciting new lines of meso- and macro-level inquiry into what environments (Bail forthcoming). Ecological or functionalist interpretations of culture have been unpopular with cultural sociologists for some time – most likely because the subfield defined itself as an alternative to the general theory proposed by Talcott Parsons (Alexander 2006). Yet many cultural sociologists also draw inspiration from Mary Douglas (e.g., Alexander 2006; Lamont 1992; Zelizer 1985), who – like Swidler – insists upon the need for our subfield to engage broader levels of analysis. “For sociology to accept that no functionalist arguments work,” writes Douglas (1986, p. 43), “is like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.” To be fair, cultural sociologists have recently made several programmatic statements about the need to engage functional or ecological theories of culture. Abbott (1995), for example, explains the formation of boundaries between professional fields as the result of an evolutionary process. Similarly, Lieberson (2000), presents an ecological model of fashion trends in child-naming practices. In a review essay, Kaufman (2004) describes such ecological approaches to cultural sociology as one of the three most promising directions for the future of the subfield.

I’m not sure what’s going on with all these references to Talcott Parsons. I gather that at one time he was a giant in sociology, but that then a generation of sociologists tried to bury him. Then the next generation of sociologists reinvented structural functionalism with new language–“ecological approaches”, “field theory”?

One wonder what Talcott Parsons did or didn’t do to inspire such a rebellion.


Bail, Christopher A. “The cultural environment: measuring culture with big data.” Theory and Society 43.3-4 (2014): 465-482.

Tufekci, Zeynep. “Big Questions for Social Media Big Data: Representativeness, Validity and Other Methodological Pitfalls.” ICWSM 14 (2014): 505-514.

What happens if we lose the prior for sparse representations?

Noting this nice paper by Giannone et al., “Economic predictions with big data: The illusion of sparsity.” It concludes:

Summing up, strong prior beliefs favouring low-dimensional models appear to be necessary to support sparse representations. In most cases, the idea that the data are informative enough to identify sparse predictive models might be an illusion.

This is refreshing honesty.

In my experience, most disciplinary social sciences have a strong prior bias towards pithy explanatory theses. In a normal social science paper, what you want is a single research question, a single hypothesis. This thesis expresses the narrative of the paper. It’s what makes the paper compelling.

In mathematical model fitting, the term for such a simply hypothesis is a sparse predictive model. These models will have relatively few independent variables predicting the dependent variable. In machine learning, this sparsity is often accomplished by a regularization step. While generally well-motivate, regularization for sparsity can be done for reasons that are more aesthetic or reflect a stronger prior than is warranted.

A consequence of this preference for sparsity, in my opinion, is the prevalence of literature on power law distributions vs. log normal explanations. (See this note on disorganized heavy tail distributions.) A dense model on a log linear regression will predict a heavy tail dependent variable without great error. But it will be unsatisfying from the perspective of scientific explanation.

What seems to be an open question in the social sciences today is whether the culture of social science will change as a result of the robust statistical analysis of new data sets. As I’ve argued elsewhere (Benthall, 2016), if the culture does change, it will mean that narrative explanation will be less highly valued.


Benthall, Sebastian. “Philosophy of computational social science.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 12.2 (2016): 13-30.

Giannone, Domenico, Michele Lenza, and Giorgio E. Primiceri. “Economic predictions with big data: The illusion of sparsity.” (2017).

The therapeutic ethos in progressive neoliberalism (Fraser and Furedi)

I’ve read two pieces recently that I found helpful in understanding today’s politics, especially today’s identity politics, in a larger context.

The first is Nancy Fraser’s “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump–and Beyond” (link). It portrays the present (American but also global) political moment as a “crisis of hegemony”, using Gramscian terms, for which the presidency of Donald Trump is a poster child. It’s main contribution is to point out that the hegemony that’s been in crisis is a hegemony of progressive neoliberalism, which sounds like an oxymoron but, Fraser argues, isn’t.

Rather, Fraser explains a two-dimensional political spectrum: there are politics of distribution, and there are politics of recognition.

To these ideas of Gramsci, we must add one more. Every hegemonic bloc embodies a set of assumptions about what is just and right and what is not. Since at least the mid-twentieth century in the United States and Europe, capitalist hegemony has been forged by combining two different aspects of right and justice—one focused on distribution, the other on recognition. he distributive aspect conveys a view about how society should allocate divisible goods, especially income. This aspect speaks to the economic structure of society and, however obliquely, to its class divisions. The recognition aspect expresses a sense of how society should apportion respect and esteem, the moral marks of membership and belonging. Focused on the status order of society, this aspect refers to its status hierarchies.

Fraser’s argument is that neoliberalism is a politics of distribution–it’s about using the market to distribute goods. I’m just going to assume that anybody reading this has a working knowledge of what neoliberalism means; if you don’t I recommend reading Fraser’s article about it. Progressivism is a politics of recognition that was advanced by the New Democrats. Part of its political potency been its consistency with neoliberalism:

At the core of this ethos were ideals of “diversity,” women’s “empowerment,” and LGBTQ rights; post-racialism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These ideals were interpreted in a specific, limited way that was fully compatible with the Goldman Sachsification of the U.S. economy…. The progressive-neoliberal program for a just status order did not aim to abolish social hierarchy but to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women, people of color, and sexual minorities to rise to the top. And that ideal was inherently class specific: geared to ensuring that “deserving” individuals from “underrepresented groups” could attain positions and pay on a par with the straight white men of their own class.

A less academic, more Wall Street Journal reading member of the commentariat might be more comfortable with the terms “fiscal conservativism” and “social liberalism”. And indeed, Fraser’s argument seems mainly to be that the hegemony of the Obama era was fiscally conservatism but socially liberal. In a sense, it was the true libertarians that were winning, which is an interesting take I hadn’t heard before.

The problem, from Frasers perspective, is that neoliberalism concentrates wealth and carries the seeds of its own revolution, allowing for Trump to run on a combination of reactionary politics of recognition (social conservativism) with a populist politics of distribution (economic liberalism: big spending and protectionism). He won, and then sold out to neoliberalism, giving us the currently prevailing combination of neoliberalism and reactionary social policy. Which, by the way, we would be calling neoconservatism if it were 15 years ago. Maybe it’s time to resuscitate this term.

Fraser thinks the world would be a better place if progressive populists could establish themselves as an effective counterhegemonic bloc.

The second piece I’ve read on this recently is Frank Furedi’s “The hidden history of t identity politics” (link). Pairing Fraser with Furedi is perhaps unlikely because, to put it bluntly, Fraser is a feminist and Furedi, as far as I can tell from this one piece, isn’t. However, both are serious social historians and there’s a lot of overlap in the stories they tell. That is in itself interesting from a scholarly perspective of one trying to triangulate an accurate account of political history.

Furedi’s piece is about “identity politics” broadly, including both its right wing and left wing incarnations. So, we’re talking about what Fraser calls the politics of recognition here. On a first pass, Furedi’s point is that Enlightenment universalist values have been challenged by both right and left wing identity politics since the late 18th century Romantic nationalist movements in Europe, which led to World Wars and the holocaust. Maybe, Furedi’s piece suggests, abandoning Enlightenment universalist values was a bad idea.

Although expressed through a radical rhetoric of liberation and empowerment, the shift towards identity politics was conservative in impulse. It was a sensibility that celebrated the particular and which regarded the aspiration for universal values with suspicion. Hence the politics of identity focused on the consciousness of the self and on how the self was perceived. Identity politics was, and continues to be, the politics of ‘it’s all about me’.

Strikingly, Furedi’s argument is that the left took the “cultural turn” into recognition politics essentially because of its inability to maintain a left-wing politics of redistribution, and that this happened in the 70’s. But this in turn undermined the cause of the economic left. Why? Because economic populism requires social solidarity, while identity politics is necessarily a politics of difference. Solidarity within an identity group can cause gains for that identity group, but at the expense of political gains that could be won with an even more unified popular political force.

The emergence of different identity-based groups during the 1970s mirrored the lowering of expectations on the part of the left. This new sensibility was most strikingly expressed by the so-called ‘cultural turn’ of the left. The focus on the politics of culture, on image and representation, distracted the left from its traditional interest in social solidarity. And the most significant feature of the cultural turn was its sacralisation of identity. The ideals of difference and diversity had displaced those of human solidarity.

So far, Furedi is in agreement with Fraser that hegemonic neoliberalism has been the status quo since the 70’s, and that the main political battles have been over identity recognition. Furedi’s point, which I find interesting, is that these battles over identity recognition undermine the cause of economic populism. In short, neoliberals and neocons can use identity to divide and conquer their shared political opponents and keep things as neo- as possible.

This is all rather old news, though a nice schematic representation of it.

Where Furedi’s piece gets interesting is where it draws out the next movements in identity politics, which he describes as the shift from it being about political and economic conditions into a politics of first victimhood and then a specific therapeutic ethos.

The victimhood move grounded the politics of recognition in the authoritative status of the victim. While originally used for progresssive purposes, this move was adopted outside of the progressive movement as early as 1980’s.

A pervasive sense of victimisation was probably the most distinct cultural legacy of this era. The authority of the victim was ascendant. Sections of both the left and the right endorsed the legitimacy of the victim’s authoritative status. This meant that victimhood became an important cultural resource for identity construction. At times it seemed that everyone wanted to embrace the victim label. Competitive victimhood quickly led to attempts to create a hierarchy of victims. According to a study by an American sociologist, the different movements joined in an informal way to ‘generate a common mood of victimisation, moral indignation, and a self-righteous hostility against the common enemy – the white male’ (5). Not that the white male was excluded from the ambit of victimhood for long. In the 1980s, a new men’s movement emerged insisting that men, too, were an unrecognised and marginalised group of victims.

This is interesting in part because there’s a tendency today to see the “alt-right” of reactionary recognition politics as a very recent phenomenon. According to Furedi, it isn’t; it’s part of the history of identity politics in general. We just thought it was
dead because, as Fraser argues, progresssive neoliberalism had attained hegemony.

Buried deep into the piece is arguable Furedi’s most controversial and pointedly written point, which is about the “therapeutic ethos” of identity politics since the 1970’s that resonates quite deeply today. The idea here is that principles from psychotherapy have become part of repertoire of left-wing activism. A prescription against “blaming the victim” transformed into a prescription towards “believing the victim”, which in turn creates a culture where only those with lived experience of a human condition may speak with authority on it. This authority is ambiguous, because it is at once both the moral authority of the victim, but also the authority one must give a therapeutic patient in describing their own experiences for the sake of their mental health.

The obligation to believe and not criticise individuals claiming victim identity is justified on therapeutic grounds. Criticism is said to constitute a form of psychological re-victimisation and therefore causes psychic wounding and mental harm. This therapeutically informed argument against the exercise of critical judgement and free speech regards criticism as an attack not just on views and opinions, but also on the person holding them. The result is censorious and illiberal. That is why in society, and especially on university campuses, it is often impossible to debate certain issues.

Furedi is concerned with how the therapeutic ethos in identity politics shuts down liberal discourse, which further erodes social solidarity which would advance political populism. In therapy, your own individual self-satisfaction and validation is the most important thing. In the politics of solidarity, this is absolutely not the case. This is a subtle critique of Fraser’s argument, which argues that progressive populism is a potentially viable counterhegemonic bloc. We could imagine a synthetic point of view, which is that progressive populism is viable but only if progressives drop the therapeutic ethos. Or, to put it another way, if “[f]rom their standpoint, any criticism of the causes promoted by identitarians is a cultural crime”, then that criminalizes the kind of discourse that’s necessary for political solidarity. That serves to advantage the neoliberal or neoconservative agenda.

This is, Furedi points out, easier to see in light of history:

Outwardly, the latest version of identity politics – which is distinguished by a synthesis of victim consciousness and concern with therapeutic validation – appears to have little in common with its 19th-century predecessor. However, in one important respect it represents a continuation of the particularist outlook and epistemology of 19th-century identitarians. Both versions insist that only those who lived in and experienced the particular culture that underpins their identity can understand their reality. In this sense, identity provides a patent on who can have a say or a voice about matters pertaining to a particular culture.

While I think they do a lot to frame the present political conditions, I don’t agree with everything in either of these articles. There are a few points of tension which I wish I knew more about.

The first is the connection made in some media today between the therapeutic needs of society’s victims and economic distributional justice. Perhaps it’s the nexus of these two political flows that makes the topic of workplace harassment and culture in its most symbolic forms such a hot topic today. It is, in a sense, the quintessential progressive neoliberal problem, in that it aligns the politics of distribution with the politics of recognition while employing the therapeutic ethos. The argument goes: since market logic is fair (the neoliberal position), if there is unfair distribution it must be because the politics of recognition are unfair (progressivism). That’s because if there is inadequate recognition, then the societal victims will feel invalidated, preventing them from asserting themselves effectively in the workplace (therapeutic ethos). To put it another way, distributional inequality is being represented as a consequence of a market externality, which is the psychological difficulty imposed by social and economic inequality. A progressive politthiics of recognition are a therapeutic intervention designed to alleviate this psychological difficulty, which corrects the meritocratic market logic.

One valid reaction to this is: so what? Furedi and Fraser are both essentially card carrying socialists. If you’re a card-carrying socialist (maybe because you have a universalist sense of distributional justice), then you might see the emphasis on workplace harassment as a distraction from a broader socialist agenda. But most people aren’t card-carrying socialist academics; most people go to work and would prefer not to be harassed.

The other thing I would like to know more about is to what extent the demands of the therapeutic ethos are a political rhetorical convenience and to what extent it is a matter of ground truth. The sweeping therapeutic progressive narrative outlined pointed out by Furedi, wherein vast swathes of society (i.e, all women, all people of color, maybe all conservatives in liberal-dominant institutions, etc.) are so structurally victimized that therapy-grade levels of validation are necessary for them to function unharmed in universities and workplaces is truly a tough pill to swallow. On the other hand, a theory of justice that discounts the genuine therapeutic needs of half the population can hardly be described as a “universalist” one.

Is there a resolution to this epistemic and political crisis? If I had to drop everything and look for one, it would be in the clinical psychological literature. What I want to know is how grounded the therapeutic ethos is in (a) scientific clinical psychology, and (b) the epidemiology of mental illness. Is it the case that structural inequality is so traumatizing (either directly or indirectly) that the fragmentation of epistemic culture is necessary as a salve for it? Or is this a political fiction? I don’t know the answer.