We need more Sittlichkeit: Vallier on Picketty and Rawls; Cyril on Surveillance and Democracy; Taylor on Hegel

by Sebastian Benthall

Kevin Vallier’s critique of Picketty in Bleeding Heart Libertarians (funny name) is mainly a criticism of the idea that economic inequality leads to political stability.

In the course of his rebuttal of Picketty, he brings in some interesting Rawlsian theory which is more broadly important. He distinguishes between power stability, the stability of a state in maintaining itself due to its forcible prevention of resistance by Hobbesian power. “Inherent stability”, or moral stability (Vallier’s term) is “stability for the right reasons”–that comes from the state’s comportment with our sense of justice.

There are lots of other ways of saying the same think in the literature. We can ask if justice is de facto or de jure. We can distinguish, as does Hanah Arendt in On Violence, between power (which she maintains is only what’s rooted in collective action) and violence (which is I guess what Vallier would call ‘Hobbesian power’). In a perhaps more subtle move, we can with Habermas ask what legitimizes the power of the state.

The left-wing zeitgeist at the moment is emphasizing inequality as a problem. While Picketty argues that inequality leads to instability, it’s an open question whether this is in fact the case. There’s no particular reason why a Hobbesian sovereign with swarms of killer drones couldn’t maintain its despotic rule through violence. Probably the real cause for complaint is that this is illegitimate power (if you’re Habermas), or violence not power (if you’re Arendt), or moral instability (if you’re Rawls).

That makes sense. Illegitimate power is the kind of power that one would complain about.

Ok, so now cut to Malkia Cyril’s talk at CFP tying technological surveillance to racism. What better illustration of the problems of inequality in the United States than the history of racist policies towards black people? Cyril acknowledges the benefits of Internet technology in providing tools for activists but suspects that now technology will be used by people in power to maintain power for the sake of profit.

The fourth amendment, for us, is not and has never been about privacy, per se. It’s about sovereignty. It’s about power. It’s about democracy. It’s about the historic and present day overreach of governments and corporations into our lives, in order to facilitate discrimination and disadvantage for the purposes of control; for profit. Privacy, per se, is not the fight we are called to. We are called to this question of defending real democracy, not to this distinction between mass surveillance and targeted surveillance

So there’s a clear problem for Cyril which is that ‘real democracy’ is threatened by technical invasions of privacy. A lot of this is tied to the problem of who owns the technical infrastructure. “I believe in the Internet. But I don’t control it. Someone else does. We need a new civil rights act for the era of big data, and we need it now.” And later:

Last year, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said 2015 would be the year of technology for law enforcement. And indeed, it has been. Predictive policing has taken hold as the big brother of broken windows policing. Total information awareness has become the goal. Across the country, local police departments are working with federal law enforcement agencies to use advanced technological tools and data analysis to “pre-empt crime”. I have never seen anyone able to pre-empt crime, but I appreciate the arrogance that suggests you can tell the future in that way. I wish, instead, technologists would attempt to pre-empt poverty. Instead, algorithms. Instead, automation. In the name of community safety and national security we are now relying on algorithms to mete out sentences, determine city budgets, and automate public decision-making without any public input. That sounds familiar too. It sounds like Black codes. Like Jim Crow. Like 1963.

My head hurts a little as I read this because while the rhetoric is powerful, the logic is loose. Of course you can do better or worse at preempting crime. You can look at past statistics on crime and extrapolate to the future. Maybe that’s hard but you could do it in worse or better ways. A great way to do that would be, as Cyril suggests, by preempting poverty–which some people try to do, and which can be assisted by algorithmic decision-making. There’s nothing strictly speaking racist about relying on algorithms to make decisions.

So for all that I want to support Cyril’s call for ‘civil rights act for the era of big data’, I can’t figure out from the rhetoric what that would involve or what its intellectual foundations would be.

Maybe there are two kinds of problems here:

  1. A problem of outcome legitimacy. Inequality, for example, might be an outcome that leads to a moral case against the power of the state.
  2. A problem of procedural legitimacy. When people are excluded from the decision-making processes that affect their lives, they may find that to be grounds for a moral objection to state power.

It’s worth making a distinction between these two problems even though they are related. If procedures are opaque and outcomes are unequal, there will naturally be resentment of the procedures and the suspicion that they are discriminatory.

We might ask: what would happen if procedures were transparent and outcomes were still unequal? What would happen if procedures were opaque and outcomes were fair?

One last point…I’ve been dipping into Charles Taylor’s analysis of Hegel because…shouldn’t everybody be studying Hegel? Taylor maintains that Hegel’s political philosophy in The Philosophy of Right (which I’ve never read) is still relevant today despite Hegel’s inability to predict the future of liberal democracy, let alone the future of his native Prussia (which is apparently something of a pain point for Hegel scholars).

Hegel, or maybe Taylor in a creative reinterpretation of Hegel, anticipates the problem of liberal democracy of maintaining the loyalty of its citizens. I can’t really do justice to Taylor’s analysis so I will repeat verbatim with my comments in square brackets.

[Hegel] did not think such a society [of free and interchangeable individuals] was viable, that is, it could not commadn the loyalty, the minimum degree of discipline and acceptance of its ground rules, it could not generate the agreement on fundamentals necessary to carry on. [N.B.: Hegel conflates power stability and moral stability] In this he was not entirely wrong. For in fact the loyal co-operation which modern societies have been able to command of their members has not been mainly a function of the liberty, equality, and popular rule they have incorporated. [N.B. This is a rejection of the idea that outcome and procedural legitimacy are in fact what leads to moral stability.] It has been an underlying belief of the liberal tradition that it was enough to satisfy these principles in order to gain men’s allegiance. But in fact, where they are not partly ‘coasting’ on traditional allegiance, liberal, as all other, modern societies have relied on other forces to keep them together.

The most important of these is, of course, nationalism. Secondly, the ideologies of mobilization have played an important role in some societies, focussing men’s attention and loyalties through the unprecedented future, the building of which is the justification of all present structures (especially that ubiquitous institution, the party).

But thirdly, liberal societies have had their own ‘mythology’, in the sense of a conception of human life and purposes which is expressed in and legitimizes its structures and practices. Contrary to widespread liberal myth, it has not relied on the ‘goods’ it could deliver, be they liberty, equality, or property, to maintain its members loyalty. The belief that this was coming to be so underlay the notion of the ‘end of ideology’ which was fashionable in the fifties.

But in fact what looked like an end of ideology was only a short period of unchallenged reign of a central ideology of liberalism.

This is a lot, but bear with me. What this is leading up to is an analysis of social cohesion in terms of what Hegel called Sittlichkeit, “ethical life” or “ethical order”. I gather that Sittlichkeit is not unlike what we’d call an ideology or worldview in other contexts. But a Sittlichkeit is better than mere ideology, because Sittlichkeit is a view of ethically ordered society and so therefore is somehow incompatible with liberal atomization of the self which of course is the root of alienation under liberal capitalism.

A liberal society which is a going concern has a Sittlichkeit of its own, although paradoxically this is grounded on a vision of things which denies the need for Sittlickeiit and portrays the ideal society as created and sustained by the will of its members. Liberal societies, in other words, are lucky when they do not live up, in this respect, to their own specifications.

If these common meaning fail, then the foundations of liberal society are in danger. And this indeed seems as distinct possibility today. The problem of recovering Sittlichkeit, of reforming a set of institutions and practices with which men can identify, is with us in an acute way in the apathy and alienation of modern society. For instance the central institutions of representative government are challenged by a growing sense that the individual’s vote has no signficance. [c.f. Cyril’s rhetoric of alienation from algorithmic decision-making.]

But then it should not surprise us to find this phenomenon of electoral indifference referred to in [The Philosophy of Right]. For in fact the problem of alienation and the recovery of Sittlichkeit is a central one in Hegel’s theory and any age in which it is on the agenda is one to which Hegel’s though is bound to be relevant. Not that Hegel’s particular solutions are of any interest today. But rather that his grasp of the relations of man to society–of identity and alienation, of differentiation and partial communities–and their evolution through history, gives us an important part of the language we sorely ned to come to grips with this problem in our time.

Charles Taylor wrote all this in 1975. I’d argue that this problem of establishing ethical order to legitimize state power despite alienation from procedure is a perennial one. That the burden of political judgment has been placed most recently on the technology of decision-making is a function of the automation of bureaucratic control (see Beniger) and, it’s awkward to admit, my own disciplinary bias. In particular it seems like what we need is a Sittlichkeit that deals adequately with the causes of inequality in society, which seem poorly understood.

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