Category: politics

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.


managerialism, continued

I’ve begun preliminary skimmings of Enteman’s Managerialism. It is a dense work of analytic philosophy, thick with argument. Sporadic summaries may not do it justice. That said, the principle of this blog is that the bar for ‘publication’ is low.

According to its introduction, Enteman’s Managerialism is written by a philosophy professor (Willard Enteman) who kept finding that the “great thinkers”–Adam Smith, Karl Marx–and the theories espoused in their writing kept getting debunked by his students. Contemporary examples showed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the United States was not a capitalist country whose only alternative was socialism. In his observation, the United States in 1993 was neither strictly speaking capitalist, nor was it socialist. There was a theoretical gap that needed to be filled.

One of the concepts reintroduced by Enteman is Robert Dahl‘s concept of polyarchy, or “rule by many”. A polyarchy is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy, but rather is a form of government where many different people with different interests, but then again probably not everybody, is in charge. It represents some necessary but probably insufficient conditions for democracy.

This view of power seems evidently correct in most political units within the United States. Now I am wondering if I should be reading Dahl instead of Enteman. It appears that Dahl was mainly offering this political theory in contrast to a view that posited that political power was mainly held by a single dominant elite. In a polyarchy, power is held by many different kinds of elites in contest with each other. At its democratic best, these elites are responsive to citizen interests in a pluralistic way, and this works out despite the inability of most people to participate in government.

I certainly recommend the Wikipedia articles linked above. I find I’m sympathetic to this view, having come around to something like it myself but through the perhaps unlikely path of Bourdieu.

This still limits the discussion of political power in terms of the powers of particular people. Managerialism, if I’m reading it right, makes the case that individual power is not atomic but is due to organizational power. This makes sense; we can look at powerful individuals having an influence on government, but a more useful lens could look to powerful companies and civil society organizations, because these shape the incentives of the powerful people within them.

I should make a shift I’ve made just now explicit. When we talk about democracy, we are often talking about a formal government, like a sovereign nation or municipal government. But when we talk about powerful organizations in society, we are no longer just talking about elected officials and their appointees. We are talking about several different classes of organizations–businesses, civil society organizations, and governments among them–interacting with each other.

It may be that that’s all there is to it. Maybe Capitalism is an ideology that argues for more power to businesses, Socialism is an ideology that argues for more power to formal government, and Democracy is an ideology that argues for more power to civil society institutions. These are zero-sum ideologies. Managerialism would be a theory that acknowledges the tussle between these sectors at the organizational level, as opposed to at the atomic individual level.

The reason why this is a relevant perspective to engage with today is that there has probably in recent years been a transfer of power (I might say ‘control’) from government to corporations–especially Big Tech (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple). Frank Pasquale makes the argument for this in a recent piece. He writes and speaks with a particular policy agenda that is far better researched than this blog post. But a good deal of the work is framed around the surprise that ‘governance’ might shift to a private company in the first place. This is a framing that will always be striking to those who are invested in the politics of the state; the very word “govern” is unmarkedly used for formal government and then surprising when used to refer to something else.

Managerialism, then, may be a way of pointing to an option where more power is held by non-state actors. Crucially, though, managerialism is not the same thing as neoliberalism, because neoliberalism is based on laissez-faire market ideology and contempory information infrastructure oligopolies look nothing like laissez-faire markets! Calling the transfer of power from government to corporation today neoliberalism is quite anachronistic and misleading, really!

Perhaps managerialism, like polyarchy, is a descriptive term of a set of political conditions that does not represent an ideal, but a reality with potential to become an ideal. In that case, it’s worth investigating managerialism more carefully and determining what it is and isn’t, and why it is on the rise.

beginning Enteman’s Managerialism

I’ve been writing about managerialism without having done my homework.

Today I got a new book in the mail, Willard Enteman’s Managerialism: The Emergence of a New Ideology, a work of analytic political philosophy that came out in 1993. The gist of the book is that none of the dominant world ideologies of the time–capitalism, socialism, and democracy–actually describe the world as it functions.

Enter Enteman’s managerialism, which considers a society composed of organizations, not individuals, and social decisions as a consequence of the decisions of organizational managers.

It’s striking that this political theory has been around for so long, though it is perhaps more relevant today because of large digital platforms.

mathematical discourse vs. exit; blockchain applications

Continuing my effort to tie together the work on this blog into a single theory, I should address the theme of an old post that I’d forgotten about.

The post discusses the discourse theory of law, attributed to the later, matured Habermas. According to it, the law serves as a transmission belt between legitimate norms established by civil society and a system of power, money, and technology. When it is efficacious and legitimate, society prospers in its legitimacy. The blog post toys with the idea of normatively aligned algorithm law established in a similar way: through the norms established by civil society.

I wrote about this in 2014 and I’m surprised to find myself revisiting these themes in my work today on privacy by design.

What this requires, however, is that civil society must be able to engage in mathematical discourse, or mathematized discussion of norms. In other words, there has to be an intersection of civil society and science for this to make sense. I’m reminded by how inspired I’ve felt by Nick Doty’s work on multistakerholderism in Internet standards as a model.

I am more skeptical of this model than I have been before, if only because in the short term I’m unsure if a critical mass of scientific talent can engage with civil society well enough to change the law. This is because scientific talent is a form of capital which has no clear incentive for self-regulation. Relatedly, I’m no longer as confident that civil society carries enough clout to change policy. I must consider other options.

The other option, besides voicing ones concerns in civil society, is, of course, exit, in Hirschmann‘s sense. Theoretically an autonomous algorithmic law could be designed such that it encourages exit from other systems into itself. Or, more ecologically, competing autonomous (or decentralized, …) systems can be regulated by an exit mechanism. This is in fact what happens now with blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. Whenever there is a major failure of one of these currencies, there is a fork.


Sometimes traffic on this blog draws attention to an old post from years ago. This can be a reminder that I’ve been repeating myself, encountering the same themes over and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because I hope to one day compile the ideas from this blog into a book. It’s nice to see what points keep resurfacing.

One of these points is that liberalism assumes equality, but this challenged by society’s need for control structures, which creates inequality, which then undermines liberalism. This post calls in Charles Taylor (writing about Hegel!) to make the point. This post makes the point more succinctly. I’ve been drawing on Beniger for the ‘society needs control to manage its own integration’ thesis. I’ve pointed to the term managerialism as referring to an alternative to liberalism based on the acknowledgement of this need for control structures. Managerialism looks a lot like liberalism, it turns out, but it justifies things on different grounds and does not get so confused. As an alternative, more Bourdieusian view of the problem, I consider the relationship between capital, democracy, and oligarchy here. There are some useful names for what happens when managerialism goes wrong and people seem disconnected from each other–anomie–or from the control structures–alienation.

A related point I’ve made repeatedly is the tension between procedural legitimacy and getting people the substantive results that they want. That post about Hegel goes into this. But it comes up again in very recent work on antidiscrimination law and machine learning. What this amounts to is that attempts to come up with a fair, legitimate procedure are going to divide up the “pie” of resources, or be perceived to divide up the pie of resources, somehow, and people are going to be upset about it, however the pie is sliced.

A related theme that comes up frequently is mathematics. My contention is that effective control is a technical accomplishment that is mathematically optimized and constrained. There are mathematical results that reveal necessary trade-offs between values. Data science has been misunderstood as positivism when in fact it is a means of power. Technical knowledge and technology are forms of capital (Bourdieu again). Perhaps precisely because it is a rare form of capital, science is politically distrusted.

To put it succinctly: lack of mathematics education, due to lack of opportunity or mathophobia, lead to alienation and anomie in an economy of control. This is partly reflected in the chaotic disciplinarity of the social sciences, especially as they react to computational social science, at the intersection of social sciences, statistics, and computer science.

Lest this all seem like an argument for the mathematical certitude of totalitarianism, I have elsewhere considered and rejected this possibility of ‘instrumentality run amok‘. I’ve summarized these arguments here, though this appears to have left a number of people unconvinced. I’ve argued this further, and think there’s more to this story (a formalization of Scott’s arguments from Seeing Like a State, perhaps), but I must admit I don’t have a convincing solution to the “control problem” yet. However, it must be noted that the answer to the control problem is an empirical or scientific prediction, not a political inclination. Whether or not it is the most interesting or important question regarding technological control has been debated to a stalemate, as far as I can tell.

As I don’t believe singleton control is a likely or interesting scenario, I’m more interested in practical ways of offering legitimacy or resistance to control structures. I used to think the “right” political solution was a kind of “hacker class consciousness“; I don’t believe this any more. However, I still think there’s a lot to the idea of recursive publics as actually existing alternative power structures. Platform coops are interesting for the same reason.

All this leads me to admit my interest in the disruptive technology du jour, the blockchain.

On achieving social equality

When evaluating a system, we have a choice of evaluating its internal functions–the inside view–or evaluating its effects situated in a larger context–the outside view.

Decision procedures (whether they are embodied by people or performed in concert with mechanical devices–I don’t think this distinction matters here) for sorting people are just such a system. If I understand correctly, the question of which principles animate antidiscrimination law hinge on this difference between the inside and outside view.

We can look at a decision-making process and evaluate whether as a procedure it achieves its goals of e.g. assigning credit scores without bias against certain groups. Even including processes of the gathering of evidence or data in such a system, it can in principle be bounded and evaluated by its ability to perform its goals. We do seem to care about the difference between procedural discrimination and procedural nondiscrimination. For example, an overtly racist policy that ignores truly talent and opportunity seems worse than a bureaucratic system that is indifferent to external inequality between groups that then gets reflected in decisions made according to other factors that are merely correlated with race.

The latter case has been criticized in the outside view. The criticism is captured by the phrasing that “algorithms can reproduce existing biases”. The supposedly neutral algorithm (which can, again, be either human or machine) is not neutral in its impact because in making its considerations of e.g. business interest are indifferent to the conditions outside it. The business is attracted to wealth and opportunity, which are held disproportionately by some part of the population, so the business is attracted to that population.

There is great wisdom in recognizing that institutions that are neutral in their inside view will often reproduce bias in the outside view. But it is incorrect to therefore conflate neutrality in the inside view with a biased inside view, even though their effects may be under some circumstances the same. When I say it is “incorrect”, I mean that they are in fact different because, for example, if the external conditions of procedurally neutral institution change, then it will reflect those new conditions. A procedurally biased institution will not reflect those new conditions in the same way.

Empirically it is very hard to tell when an institution is being procedurally neutral and indeed this is the crux of an enormous amount of political tension today. The first line of defense of an institution blamed of bias is to claim that their procedural neutrality is merely reflecting environmental conditions outside of its control. This is unconvincing for many politically active people. It seems to me that it is now much more common for institutions to avoid this problem by explicitly declaring their bias. Rather than try to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of defending their rigorous neutrality, it’s easier to declare where one stands on the issue of resource allocation globally and adjust ones procedure accordingly.

I don’t think this is a good thing.

One consequence of evaluating all institutions based on their global, “systemic” impact as opposed to their procedural neutrality is that it hollows out the political center. The evidence is in that politics has become more and more polarized. This is inevitable if politics becomes so explicitly about maintaining or reallocating resources as opposed to about building neutrally legitimate institutions. When one party in Congress considers a tax bill which seems designed mainly to enrich ones own constituencies at the expense of the other’s things have gotten out of hand. The idea of a unified idea of ‘good government’ has been all but abandoned.

An alternative is a commitment to procedural neutrality in the inside view of institutions, or at least some institutions. The fact that there are many different institutions that may have different policies is indeed quite relevant here. For while it is commonplace to say that a neutral institution will “reproduce existing biases”, “reproduction” is not a particularly helpful word here. Neither is “bias”. What we can say more precisely is that the operations of procedurally neutral institution will not change the distribution of resources even though they are unequal.

But if we do not hold all institutions accountable for correcting the inequality of society, isn’t that the same thing as approving of the status quo, which is so unequal? A thousand times no.

First, there’s the problem that many institutions are not, currently, procedurally neutral. Procedural neutrality is a higher standard than what many institutions are currently held to. Consider what is widely known about human beings and their implicit biases. One good argument for transferring decision-making authority to machine learning algorithms, even standard ones not augmented for ‘fairness’, is that they will not have the same implicit, inside, biases as the humans that currently make these decisions.

Second, there’s the fact that responsibility for correcting social inequality can be taken on by some institutions that are dedicated to this task while others are procedurally neutral. For example, one can consistently believe in the importance of a progressive social safety net combined with procedurally neutral credit reporting. Society is complex and perhaps rightly has many different functioning parts; not all the parts have to reflect socially progressive values for the arc of history to bend towards justice.

Third, there is reason to believe that even if all institutions were procedurally neutral, there would eventually be social equality. This has to do with the mathematically bulletproof but often ignored phenomenon of regression towards the mean. When values are sampled from a process at random, their average will approach the mean of the distribution as more values are accumulated. In terms of the allocation of resources in a population, there is some random variation in the way resources flow. When institutions are fair, inequality in resource allocation will settle into an unbiased distribution. While their may continue to be some apparent inequality due to disorganized heavy tail effects, these will not be biased, in a political sense.

Fourth, there is the problem of political backlash. Whenever political institutions are weak enough to be modified towards what is purported to be a ‘substantive’ or outside view neutrality, that will always be because some political coalition has attained enough power to swing the pendulum in their favor. The more explicit they are about doing this, the more it will mobilize the enemies of this coallition to try to swing the pendulum back the other way. The result is war by other means, the outcome of which will never be fair, because in war there are many who wind up dead or injured.

I am arguing for a centrist position on these matters, one that favors procedural neutrality in most institutions. This is not because I don’t care about substantive, “outside view” inequality. On the contrary, it’s because I believe that partisan bickering that explicitly undermines the inside neutrality of institutions undermines substantive equality. Partisan bickering over the scraps within narrow institutional frames is a distraction from, for example, the way the most wealthy avoid taxes while the middle class pays even more. There is a reason why political propaganda that induces partisan divisions is a weapon. Agreement about procedural neutrality is a core part of civic unity that allows for collective action against the very most abusively powerful.


Zachary C. Lipton, Alexandra Chouldechova, Julian McAuley. “Does mitigating ML’s disparate impact require disparate treatment?” 2017

Notes on fairness and nondiscrimination in machine learning

There has been a lot of work done lately on “fairness in machine learning” and related topics. It cannot be a coincidence that this work has paralleled a rise in political intolerance that is sensitized to issues of gender, race, citizenship, and so on. I more or less stand by my initial reaction to this line of work. But very recently I’ve done a deeper and more responsible dive into this literature and it’s proven to be insightful beyond the narrow problems which it purports to solve. These are some notes on the subject, ordered so as to get to the point.

The subject of whether and to what extent computer systems can enact morally objectionable bias goes back at least as far as Friedman and Nissenbaum’s 1996 article, in which they define “bias” as systematic unfairness. They mean this very generally, not specifically in a political sense (though inclusive of it). Twenty years later, Kleinberg et al. (2016) prove that there are multiple, competing notions of fairness in machine classification which generally cannot be satisfied all at once; they must be traded off against each other. In particular, a classifier that uses all available information to optimize accuracy–one that achieves what these authors call calibration–cannot also have equal false positive and false negative rates across population groups (read: race, sex), properties that Hardt et al. (2016) call “equal opportunity”. This is no doubt inspired by a now very famous ProPublica article asserting that a particular kind of commercial recidivism prediction software was “biased against blacks” because it had a higher false positive rate for black suspects than white offenders. Because bail and parole rates are set according to predicted recidivism, this led to cases where a non-recidivist was denied bail because they were black, which sounds unfair to a lot of people, including myself.

While I understand that there is a lot of high quality and well-intentioned research on this subject, I haven’t found anybody who could tell me why the solution to this problem was to stop using predicted recidivism to set bail, as opposed to futzing around with a recidivism prediction algorithm which seems to have been doing its job (Dieterich et al., 2016). Recidivism rates are actually correlated with race (Hartney and Vuong, 2009). This is probably because of centuries of systematic racism. If you are serious about remediating historical inequality, the least you could do is cut black people some slack on bail.

This gets to what for me is the most baffling aspect of this whole research agenda, one that I didn’t have the words for before reading Barocas and Selbst (2016). A point well-made by them is that the interpretation anti-discrimination law, which motivates a lot of this research, is fraught with tensions that complicate its application to data mining.

“Two competing principles have always undergirded anti-discrimination law: nondiscrimination and antisubordination. Nondiscrimination is the narrower of the two, holding that the responsibility of the law is to eliminate the unfairness individuals experience a the hands of decisionmakers’ choices due to membership in certain protected classes. Antisubordination theory, in contrast, holds that the goal of antidiscrimination law is, or at least should be, to eliminate status-based inequality due to membership in those classes, not as a matter of procedure, but substance.” (Barocas and Selbst, 2016)

More specifically, these two principles motivate different interpretations of the two pillars of anti-discrimination law, disparate treatment and disparate impact. I draw on Barocas and Selbst for my understanding of each:

A judgment of disparate treatment requires either a formal disparate treatment (across protected groups) of similarly situated people, or an intent to discriminate. Since in a large data mining application protected group membership will be proxied by many other factors, it’s not clear if the ‘formal’ requirement makes much sense here. And since machine learning applications only very rarely have racist intent, that option seems challengeable as well. While there are interpretations of these criteria that are tougher on decision-makers (i.e. unconscious intents), these seem to be motivated by antisubordination rather than the weaker nondiscrimination principle.

A judgment of disparate impact is perhaps more straightforward, but it can be mitigated in cases of “business necessity”, which (to get to the point) is vague enough to plausibly include optimization in a technical sense. Once again, there is nothing to see here from a nondiscrimination standpoint, though a nonsubordinationist would rather that these decision-makers have to take correcting for historical inequality into account.

I infer from their writing that Barocas and Selbst believe that nonsubordination is an important principle for nondiscrimination. In any case, they maintain that making the case for applying nondiscrimination laws to data mining effectively requires a commitment to “substantive remediation”. This is insightful!

Just to put my cards on the table: as much as I may like the idea of substantive remediation in principle, I personally don’t think that every application of nondiscrimination law needs to be animated by it. For many institutions, narrow nondiscrimination seems to be adequate if not preferable. I’d prefer remediation to occur through other specific policies, such as more public investment in schools in low-income districts. Perhaps for this reason, I’m not crazy about “fairness in machine learning” as a general technical practice. It seems to me to be trying to solve social problems with a technical fix, which despite being quite technical myself I don’t always see as a good idea. It seems like in most cases you could have a machine learning mechanism based on normal statistical principles (the learning step) and then use a decision procedure separately that achieves your political ends.

I wish that this research community (and here I mean more the qualitative research community surrounding it more than the technical community, which tends to define its terms carefully) would be more careful about the ways it talks about “bias”, because often it seems to encourage a conflation between statistical or technical senses of bias and political senses. The latter carry so much political baggage that it can be intimidating to try to wade in and untangle the two senses. And it’s important to do this untangling, because while bad statistical bias can lead to political bias, it can, depending on the circumstances, lead to either “good” or “bad” political bias. But it’s important, from the sake of numeracy (mathematical literacy) to understand that even if a statistically bad process has a politically “good” outcome, that is still, statistically speaking, bad.

My sense is that there are interpretations of nondiscrimination law that make it illegal to make certain judgments taking into account certain facts about sensitive properties like race and sex. There are also theorems showing that if you don’t take into account those sensitive properties, you are going to discriminate against them by accident because those sensitive variables are correlated with anything else you would use to judge people. As a general principle, while being ignorant may sometimes make things better when you are extremely lucky, in general it makes things worse! This should be a surprise to nobody.


Barocas, Solon, and Andrew D. Selbst. “Big data’s disparate impact.” (2016).

Dieterich, William, Christina Mendoza, and Tim Brennan. “COMPAS risk scales: Demonstrating accuracy equity and predictive parity.” Northpoint Inc (2016).

Friedman, Batya, and Helen Nissenbaum. “Bias in computer systems.” ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS) 14.3 (1996): 330-347.

Hardt, Moritz, Eric Price, and Nati Srebro. “Equality of opportunity in supervised learning.” Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems. 2016.

Hartney, Christopher, and Linh Vuong. “Created equal: Racial and ethnic disparities in the US criminal justice system.” (2009).

Kleinberg, Jon, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Manish Raghavan. “Inherent trade-offs in the fair determination of risk scores.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1609.05807 (2016).

Why managerialism: it acknowledges political role of internal corporate policies

One modern difficulty with political theory in contemporary times is the confusion between government and corporate policy. This is due in no small part to the extent to which large corporations now mediate social life. Telecommunications, the Internet, mobile phones, and social media all depend on layers and layers of operating organizations. The search engine, which didn’t exist thirty years ago, now is arguably an essential cultural and political facility (Pasquale, 2011), which sharpens the concerns that have been raised about their politics (Introna and Nissenbaum, 2000; Bracha and Pasquale, 2007).

Corporate policies influence customers when those policies drive product design or are put into contractual agreements. They can also govern employees and shape corporate culture. Sometimes these two kinds of policies are not easily demarcated. For example, Uber has an internal privacy policy about who can access which users’ information, like most companies with a lot of user data. The privacy features that Uber implicitly guarantees to their customers are part of their service. But their ability to provide this service is only as good as their company culture is reliable.

Classically, there are states, which may or may not be corrupt, and there are markets, which may or may not be competitive. With competitive markets, corporate policies are part of what make firms succeed or fail. One point of success is a company’s ability to attract and maintain customers. This should in principle drive companies to improve their policies.

An interesting point made recently by Robert Post is that in some cases, corporate policies can adopt positions that would be endorsed by some legal scholars even if the actual laws state otherwise. His particular example was a case enforcing the right to be forgotten in Spain against Google.

Since European law is statute driven, the judgments of its courts are not amenable to creative legal reasoning as they are in the United States. Post’s criticism of the EU’s judgment in this case is because of their rigid interpetation of data protection directives. Post argues a different legal perspective on privacy is better at balancing other social interests. But putting aside the particulars of the law, Post makes the point that Google’s internal policy matches his own legal and philosophical framework (which prefers dignitary privacy over data privacy) more than EU statutes do.

One could argue that we should not trust the market to make Google’s policies just. But we could also argue that Google’s market share, which is significant, depends so much on its reputation and users trust that in fact it is under great pressure to adjucate disputes with its users wisely. It is a company that must set its own policies, which do have political significance. It has the benefits of more direct control over the way these policies get interpreted and enforced in the state, faster feedback on whether the policies are successful, and a less chaotic legislative process for establishing policy in the first place.

Political liberals would dismiss this kind of corporate control as just one commercial service among many, or else wring their hands with concern over a company coming to have such power over the public sphere. But managerialists would see the emergence of search engines as an organization among others, comparable to other private entities that have been part of the public sphere, such as newspapers.

But a sound analysis of the politics of search engines need not depend on analogies with past technologies. This is a function of legal reasoning. Managerialism, which is perhaps more a descendent of business reasoning, would ask how, in fact, search engines make policy decisions and how does this affect political outcomes. It does not prima facie assume that a powerful or important corporate policy is wrong. It does ask what the best corporate policy is, given a particular sector.


Bracha, Oren, and Frank Pasquale. “Federal Search Commission-Access, Fairness, and Accountability in the Law of Search.” Cornell L. Rev. 93 (2007): 1149.

Introna, Lucas D., and Helen Nissenbaum. “Shaping the Web: Why the politics of search engines matters.” The information society 16.3 (2000): 169-185.

Pasquale, Frank A. “Dominant search engines: an essential cultural & political facility.” (2011).

Why managerialism: it’s tolerant and meritocratic

In my last post, I argued that we should take managerialism seriously as a political philosophy. A key idea in managerialism (as I’m trying to define it) is that it acknowledges that sociotechnical organizations are relevant units of political power, and is concerned with the relationship between these organizations. These organizations can be functionally specific. They can have hierarchical, non-democratic control in limited, not totalitarian ways. They check and balance each other, probably. Managerialism tends to think that organizations can be managed well, and that good management matters, politically.

This is as opposed to liberalism, which is grounded in rights of the individual, which then becomes a foundation for democracy. It’s also opposed to communitarianism, which holds the political unit of interest to be a family unit or other small community. I’m positioning managerialism as a more cybernetic political idea, as well as one more adapted to present economic conditions.

It may sound odd to hear somebody argue in favor of managerialism. I’ll admit that I am doing so tentatively, to see what works and what doesn’t. Given that a significant percentage of American political thought now is considering such baroque alternatives to liberalism as feudalism and ethnic tribalism, perhaps because liberalism everywhere has been hijacked by plutocracy, it may not be crazy to discuss alternatives.

One reason why somebody might be attracted to managerialism is that it is (I’d argue) essentially tolerant and meritocratic. Sociotechnical organizations that are organized efficiently to perform their main function need not make a lot of demands of their members besides whatever protocols are necessary for the functioning of the whole. In many cases, this should lead to a basic indifference to race, gender, and class background, from the internal perspective of the organization. As there’s good research indicating that diversity leads to greater collective intelligence in organizations, there’s a good case for tolerant policies in managerial institutions. Merit, defined relative to the needs of the particular organization, would be the privileged personal characteristic here.

I’d like to distinguish managerialism from technocracy in the following sense, which may be a matter of my own terminological invention. Technocracy is the belief that experts should run the state. It offers an expansion of centralized power. Managerialism is, I want to argue, not compatible with centralized state control. Rather, it recognizes many different spheres of life that nevertheless need to be organized to be effective. These spheres or sectors will be individually managed, perhaps by competing organizations, but regulate each other more than they require central regulation.

The way these organizations can regulate each other is Exit, in Hirschman’s sense. While the ideas of Exit, Loyalty, and Voice are most commonly used to discuss how individuals can affect the organizations they are a part of, similar ideas can function at higher scales of analysis, as organizations interact with each other. Think about international trade agreements, and sanctions.

The main reason to support managerialism is not that it is particularly just or elegant. It’s that it is more or less the case that the political structures in place now are some assemblage of sociotechnical organizations interacting with each other. Those people who have power are those with power within one or more of these organizations. And to whatever extent there is a shared ideological commitment among people, it is likely because a sociotechnical organization has been turned to the effect of spreading that ideology. This is a somewhat abstract way of saying what lots of people say in a straightforward way all the time: that certain media institutions are used to propagate certain ideologies. This managerialist framing is just intended to abstract away from the particulars in order to develop a political theory.

legitimacy in peace; legitimacy in war

I recently wrote a reflection on the reception of Habermas in the United States and argued that the lack of intellectual uptake of his later work have been a problem with politics here. Here’s what I wrote, admittedly venting a bit:

In my experience, it is very difficult to find support in academia for the view that rational consensus around democratic institutions is a worthwhile thing to study or advocate for. Identity politics and the endless contest of perspectives is much more popular among students and scholars coming out of places like UC Berkeley. In my own department, students were encouraged to read Habermas’s early work in the context of the identity politics critique, but never exposed to the later work that reacted to these critiques constructively to build a theory that was specifically about pluralism, which is what identity politics need in order to unify as a legitimate state. There’s a sense in which the whole idea that one should continue an philosophical argument to the point of constructive agreement, despite the hard work and discipline that this demands, was abandoned in favor of an ideology of intellectual diversity that discouraged scrutiny and rigor across boundaries of identity, even in the narrow sense of professional or disciplinary identity.

Tapan Parikh succinctly made the point that Habermas’s philosophy may be too idealistic to ever work out:

“I still don’t buy it without taking history, race, class and gender into account. The ledger doesn’t start at zero I’m afraid, and some interests are fundamentally antagonistic.”

This objection really is the crux of it all, isn’t it? There is a contradiction between agreement, necessary for a legitimate pluralistic state, and antagonistic interests of different social identities, especially as they are historically and presently unequal. Can there ever be a satisfactory resolution? I don’t know. Perhaps the dialectical method will get us somewhere. (This is a blog after all; we can experiment here).

But first, a note on intellectual history, as part of the fantasy of this argument is that intellectual history matters for actual political outcomes. When discussing the origins of contemporary German political theory, we should acknowledge that post-War Germany has been profoundly interested in peace as it has experienced the worst of war. The roots of German theories of peace are in Immanual Kant’s work on “perpetual peace”, the hypothetical situation in which states are no longer at way. He wrote an essay about it in 1795, which by the way begins with this wonderful preface:


Whether this satirical inscription on a Dutch innkeeper’s sign upon which a burial ground was painted had for its object mankind in general, or the rulers of states in particular, who are insatiable of war, or merely the philosophers who dream this sweet dream, it is not for us to decide. But one condition the author of this essay wishes to lay down. The practical politician assumes the attitude of looking down with great self-satisfaction on the political theorist as a pedant whose empty ideas in no way threaten the security of the state, inasmuch as the state must proceed on empirical principles; so the theorist is allowed to play his game without interference from the worldly-wise statesman. Such being his attitude, the practical politician–and this is the condition I make–should at least act consistently in the case of a conflict and not suspect some danger to the state in the political theorist’s opinions which are ventured and publicly expressed without any ulterior purpose. By this clausula salvatoria the author desires formally and emphatically to deprecate herewith any malevolent interpretation which might be placed on his words.

When the old masters are dismissed as being irrelevant or dense, it denies them the credit for being very clever.

That said, I haven’t read this essay yet! But I have a somewhat informed hunch that more contemporary work that deals with the problems it raises directly make good headway on problem of political unity. For example, this article by Bennington (2012) “Kant’s Open Secret” is good and relevant to discussions of technical design and algorithmic governance. Cederman, who has been discussed here before, builds a computational simulation of peace inspired by Kant.

Here’s what I can sketch out, perhaps ignorantly. What’s at stake is whether antagonistic actors can resolve their differences and maintain peace. The proposed mechanism for this peace is some form of federated democracy. So to paint a picture: what I think Habermas is after is a theory of how governments can be legitimate in peace. What that requires, in his view, is some form of collective deliberation where actors put aside their differences and agree on some rules: the law.

What about when race and class interests are, as Parikh suggests, “fundamentally antagonistic”, and the unequal ledger of history gives cause for grievances?

Well, all too often, these are the conditions for war.

In the context of this discussion, which started with a concern about the legitimacy of states and especially the United States, it struck me that there’s quite a difference between how states legitimize themselves at peace versus how they legitimize themselves while at war.

War, in essence, allows some actors in the state to ignore the interests of other actors. There’s no need for discursive, democratic, cosmopolitan balancing of interests. What’s required is that an alliance of interests maintain the necessary power over rivals to win the war. War legitimizes autocracy and deals with dissent by getting rid of it rather than absorbing and internalizing it. Almost by definition, wars challenge the boundaries of states and the way underlying populations legitimize them.

So to answer Parikh, the alternative to peaceful rule of law is war. And there certainly have been serious race wars and class wars. As an example, last night I went to an art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum entitled “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America”. The phrase “racial terror” is notable because of how it positions racist lynching as a form of terrorism, which we have been taught to treat as the activity of rogue, non-state actors threatening national security. This is deliberate, as it frames black citizens as in need of national protection from white terrorists who are in a sense at war with them. Compare and contrast this with right-wing calls for “securing our borders” from allegedly dangerous immigrants, and you can see how both “left” and “right” wing political organizations in the United States today are legitimized in part by the rhetoric of war, as opposed to the rhetoric of peace.

To take a cynical view of the current political situation in the United States, which may be the most realistic view, the problem appears to be that we have a two party system in which the two parties are essentially at war, whether rhetorically or in terms of their actions in Congress. The rhetoric of the current president has made this uncomfortable reality explicit, but it is not a new state of affairs. Rather, one of the main talking points in the previous administration and the last election was the insistence by the Democratic leadership that the United States is a democracy that is at peace with itself, and so cooperation across party lines was a sensible position to take. The efforts by the present administration and Republican leadership to dismantle anything of the prior administration’s legacy make the state of war all too apparent.

I don’t mean “war” in the sense of open violence, of course. I mean it in the sense of defection and disregard for the interests of those outside of ones political alliance. The whole question of whether and how foreign influence in the election should be considered is dependent in part on whether one sees the contest between political parties in the United States as warfare or not. It is natural for different sides in a war to seek foreign allies, even and almost especially if they are engaged in civil war or regime change. The American Revolutionary was backed by the French. The Bulshevik Revolution in Russia was backed by Germany. That’s just how these things go.

As I write this, I become convinced that this is really what it comes in the United States today. There are “two Americas”. To the extent that there is stability, it’s not a state of peace, it’s a state of equilibrium or gridlock.