Digifesto

Category: politics

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.

References

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

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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.

References

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.

References

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:

PERPETUAL PEACE

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.

The meaning of gridlock in governance

I’ve been so intrigued by this article, “Dems Can Abandon the Center — Because the Center Doesn’t Exist”, by Eric Levitz in NY Mag. The gist of the article is that most policies that we think of as “centrist” are actually very unrepresentative of the U.S. population’s median attitude on any particular subject, and are held only by a small minority that Levitz associates with former Mayor Bloomberg of New York City. It’s a great read and cites much more significant research on the subject.

One cool thing the article provides is this nice graphic showing the current political spectrum in the U.S.:

The U.S. political spectrum , from Levitz, 2017.

In comparison to that, this blog post is your usual ramble of no consequence.

Suppose there’s an organization whose governing body doesn’t accomplish anything, despite being controversial, well-publicized, and apparently not performing satisfactorily. What does that mean?

From an outside position (somebody being governed by such a body), what is means is sustained dissatisfaction and the perception that the governing body is dys- or non- functional. This spurs the dissatisfied party to invest resources or take action to change the situation.

However, if the governing body is responsive to the many and conflicting interests of the governed, the stasis of the government could mean one of at least two things.

One thing it could mean is that the mechanism through which the government changes is broken.

Another thing it could mean is that the mechanism through which the government changes is working, and the state of governance reflects the equilibrium of the powers the contest for control of the government.

The latter view is not a politically exciting view and indeed it is politically self-defeating for whoever holds it. If we see government as something responding to the activity of many interests, mediating between them and somehow achieving their collective agenda, then the problem with seeing a government in gridlock as having achieved a “happy” equilibrium, or a “correct” view, is that it discourages partisan or interested engagement. If one side stops participating in the (expensive, exhausting) arm wrestle, then the other side gains ground.

On the other hand, the stasis should not in itself be considered cause for alarm, apart from the dissatisfaction resulting from ones particular perspective on the total system.

Another angle on this is that from every point in the political spectrum, and especially those points at the extremes, the procedural mechanisms of government are going to look broken because they don’t result in satisfying outcomes. (Consider the last election, where both sides argued that the system was rigged when they thought they were losing or had lost.) But, of course, these mechanisms are always already part of the governance system itself and subject to being governed by it, so pragmatically one will approve of them just in so far as it gives ones own position influence over outcomes (here I’m assuming strict proceduralism are somewhere on the multidimensional political spectrum themselves and is motivated by e.g. the appeal of the stability or legitimacy in some sense).

Habermas seems quaint right now, but shouldn’t

By chance I was looking up Habermas’s later philosophical work today, like Between Facts and Norms (1992), which has been said to be the culmination of the project he began with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962. In it, he argues that the law is what gives pluralistic states their legitimacy, because the law enshrines the consent of the governed. Power cannot legitimize itself; democratic law is the foundation for the legitimate state.

Habermas’s later work is widely respected in the European Union, which by and large has functioning pluralistic democratic states. Habermas emerged from the Frankfurt School to become a theorist of modern liberalism and was good at it. While it is an empirical question how much education in political theory is tied to the legitimacy and stability of the state, anecdotally we can say that Habermas is a successful theorist and the German-led European Union is, presently, a successful government. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that this is at least in part due to the fact that citizens are convinced, through the education system, of the legitimacy of their form of government.

In the United States, something different happened. Habermas’s earlier work (such as the The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) was introduced to United States intellectuals through a critical lens. Craig Calhoun, for example, argued in 1992 that the politics of identity was more relevant or significant than the politics of deliberation and democratic consensus.

That was over 25 years ago, and that moment was influential in the way political thought has unfolded in Europe and the United States. 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 political identities need in order to unify as a legitimate state. There’s a sense in which the whole idea that one should continue a 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.

The problem with this approach to intellectualism is that it is fractious and undermines itself. When these qualities are taken as intellectual virtues, it is no wonder that boorish overconfidence can take advantage of it in an open contest. And indeed the political class in the United States today has been undermined by its inability to justify its own power and institutions in anything but the fragmented arguments of identity politics.

It is a sad state of affairs. I can’t help but feel my generation is intellectually ill-equipped to respond to the very prominent challenges to the legitimacy of the state that are being leveled at it every day. Not to put too fine a point on it, I blame the intellectual laziness of American critical theory and its inability to absorb the insights of Habermas’s later theoretical work.

Addendum 8/7/17a:

It has come to my attention that this post is receiving a relatively large amount of traffic. This seems to happen when I hit a nerve, specifically when I recommend Habermas over identitarianism in the context of UC Berkeley. Go figure. I respectfully ask for comments from any readers. Some have already helped me further my thinking on this subject. Also, I am aware that a Wikipedia link is not the best way to spread understanding of Habermas’s later political theory. I can recommend this book review (Chriss, 1998) of Between Facts and Norms as well as the Habermas entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which includes a section specifically on Habermasian cosmopolitanism, which seems relevant to the particular situation today.

Addendum 8/7/17b:

I may have guessed wrong. The recent traffic has come from Reddit. Welcome, Redditors!

 

Propaganda cyberwar: the new normal?

Reuters reports on the Washington Post’s report, citing U.S. intelligence officials, that the UAE arranged for hacking of Qatar government sites posting “fiery but false” quotes from Qatar’s emir. This was used to justify Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain to cut diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar.

Qatar says the quotes from the emir are fake, posted by hackers. U.S. intelligence officials now say (to the Post) that they have information about UAE discussing the hacks before they occur.

UAE denies the hacks, saying the reports of them are false, and argues that what is politically relevant is Qatar’s Islamist activities.

What a mess.

One can draw a comparison between these happenings in the Middle East and the U.S.’s Russiagate.

The comparison is difficult because any attempt to summarize what is going on with Russiagate runs into the difficulty of aligning with the narrative of one party or another who is presently battling for the ascendancy of their interpretation. But for clarity let me say that by Russiagate I mean the complex of allegations and counterclaims including: that the Russian government, or some Russians who were not associated with the government, or somebody else hacked the DNC and leaked their emails to influence the 2016 election (or its perceived legitimacy); that the Russian government (or maybe somebody else…) prop up alt-right media bots to spread “fake news” to swing voters; that swing voters were identified through the hacking of election records; that some or all of these allegations are false and promoted by politicized media outlets; that if the allegations are true, their impact on the outcome of the 2016 election is insufficient to have changed the outcome (hence not delegitimizing the outcome); the diplomatic spat over recreational compounds used by Russians in the U.S. and by the U.S. in Russia that is now based on the fact that the outgoing administration wanted to reprimand Russia for alleged hacks that allegedly led to its party’s loss of control of the government….

Propaganda

It is dizzying. In both the Qatari and U.S. cases, without very privileged inside knowledge we are left with vague and uncertain impressions of a new condition:

  • the relentless rate at which “new developments” in these stories is made available or recapitulated or commented on
  • the weakness with which they are confirmed or denied (because they are due to anonymous officials or unaccountable leaks)
  • our dependence on trusted authorities for our understanding of the problem when that trust is constantly being eroded
  • the variety of positions taken on any particular event, and the accessibility of these diverse views

Is any of this new? Maybe it’s fair to say it’s “increasing”, as the Internet has continuously inflated the speed and variety and scale of everything in the media, or seemed to.

I have no wish to recapitulate the breathless hyperbole about how media is changing “online”; this panting has been going on continuously for fifteen years at least. But recently I did see what seemed like a new insight among the broader discussion. Once, we were warned against the dangers of filter bubbles, the technologically reinforced perspectives we take when social media and search engines are trained on our preferences. Buzzfeed admirably tried to design a feature to get people Out of Their Bubble, but that got an insightful reaction from Rachel Haser:

In my experience, people understand that other opinions exist, and what the opinions are. What people don’t understand is where the opinions come from, and they don’t care to find out for themselves.

In other words: it is not hard for somebody to get out of their own bubble. Somebody’s else’s opinion is just a click or a search away. Among the narrow dichotomies of the U.S.’s political field, I’m constantly being told by the left-wing media who the right-wing pundits are and what they are saying, and why they are ridiculous. The right-wing media is constantly reporting on what left-wing people are doing and why they are ridiculous. If I ever want to verify for myself I can simply watch a video or read and article from a different point of view.

None of this access to alternative information will change my mind because my habitus is already set by my life circumstances and offline social and institutional relationships. The semiotic environment does not determine my perspective; the economic environment does. What the semiotic environment provides is, one way or another, an elaborate system of propaganda which reflects the possible practical and political alliances that are available for the deployment of capital. Most of what is said in “the media” is true; most of what is said in “the media” is spun; for the purpose of this post and to distinguish it from responsible scientific research or reporting of “just the facts”, which does happen (!), I will refer to it generically as propaganda.

Propaganda is obviously not new. Propaganda on the Internet is as new as the Internet. As the Internet expands (via smartphones and “things”), so too does propaganda. This is one part of the story here.

The second part of the story is all the hacks.

Hacks

What are hacks? Technically, a hack can be many different kinds of interventions into a (socio)technical system that creates behavior unexpected by the designer or owner of the system. It is a use or appropriation by somebody (the hacker) of somebody else’s technology, for the former’s advantage. Some example things that hacks can accomplish include: taking otherwise secret data, modifying data, and causing computers or networks to break down.

“CIA”, but Randall Munroe

There are interesting reasons why hacks have special social and political relevance. One important thing about computer hacking is that it requires technical expertise to understand how it works. This puts the analysis of a hack, and especially the attribution of the hack to some actor, in the hands of specialists. In this sense, “solving” a hack is like “solving” a conventional crime. It requires forensic experts, detectives who understand the motivation of potential suspects, and so on.

Another thing about hacks over the Internet is that they can come from “anywhere”, because Internet. This makes it harder to find hackers and also makes hacks convenient tools for transnational action. It has been argued that as the costs of physical violent war increase with an integrated global economy, the use of cyberwar as a softer alternative will rise.

In the cases described at the beginning of this post, hacks play many different roles:

  • a form of transgression, requiring apology, redress, or retaliation
  • a kind of communication, sending a message (perhaps true, or perhaps false) to an audience
  • the referent of communication, what is being discussed, especially with respect to its attribution (which is necessary for apology, redress, retaliation)

The difficulty with reporting about hacks, at least as far as reporting to the nonexpert public goes, is that every hack raises the specter of uncertainty about where it came from, whether it was as significant as the reporters say, whether the suspects have been framed, and so on.

If a propaganda war is a fire, cyberwar throws gasoline on the flame, because all the political complexity of the media can fracture the narrative around each hack until it too goes up in meaningless postmodern smoke.

Skooling?

I am including, by the way, the use of bots to promote content in social media as a “hack”. I’m blending slightly two meanings of “hack”: the more benign “MIT” sense of hack as a creative technical solution to a problem and the more specific sense of one who obviates computer security. Since the latter sense of “hack” has expanded to include social engineering efforts such as phishing, the automated influence of social media to present a false or skewed narrative as true seems to also fit here.

I have to say that this sort of media hacking–creating bots to spread “fake news” and so on–doesn’t have a succinct name yet, I propose “skooling” or “sk00ling”, since

  • it’s a phrase that means something similar to “pwning”/”owning”
  • the activity is like “phishing” in the sense that it is automated social engineering, but en masse (i.e. a school of fish)
  • the point of the hack is to “teaching” people something (i.e. some news or rumor), so to speak.

It turns out that this sort of media hacking isn’t just the bailiwick of shadowing intelligence agencies and organized cybercriminals. Run-of-the-mill public relations firms like Bell Potinger can do it. NatReferencesurally this is not considered on par with computer security crime, though there is a sense in which it is a kind of computer mediated fraud.

Putting it all together, we can imagine a sophisticated form of propaganda cyberwar campaign that goes something like this: an attacker collects data to identify about targets vulnerable to persuasion via hacks and other ways of collecting publicly or commercially available personal data. It does its best to cover its tracks to get plausible deniability. Then they skool the targets to create the desired effect. The skooling is itself a form of hack, and so the source of that attack is also obscured. Propaganda flares about both hacks (the one for data access, and the skooling). But if enough of the targets are effected (maybe they change how they vote in an election, or don’t vote at all) then the conversion rate is good enough and worth the investment.

Economics and Expertise

Of course, it would be simplistic to assume that every part of this value chain is performed by the same vertically integrated organization. Previous research on the spam value chain has shown how spam is an industry with many different required resources. Bot-nets are used to send mass emails; domain names are rented to host target web sites; there are even real pharmaceutical companies producing real knock-off viagra for those who have been coaxed into buying it. (See Kanich et al. 2008; Levchenko et al. 2011) Just like in a real industry, these different resources or part of the supply chain need not be all controlled under the same organization. On the contrary, the cybercrime economy is highly segmented into many different independent actors with limited knowledge of each other precisely because this makes it harder to catch them. So, for example, somebody that owns a botnet will rent out that botnet to a spammer who will then contract with a supplier.

Should we expect the skooling economy to work any differently? This depends a little on the arms race between social media bot creators and social media abuse detection and reporting. This has been a complex matter for some time, particularly because it is not always in a social media company’s interest to reject all bot activity as abuse even when this activity can be detected. Skooling is good for Twitter’s business, arguably.

But it may well be the case that the expertise in setting up influential clusters of bots to augment the power of some ideological block may be available in a more or less mercenary way. A particular cluster of bots in social media may or may not be positioned for a specific form of ideological attack or target; in that case the asset is not as as multipurpose as a standard botnet, which can run many different kinds of programs from spam to denial of service. (These are empirical questions and at the moment I don’t know the answers.)

The point is that because of the complexity of the supply chain, attribution need not be straightforward at all. Taking for example the alleged “alt-right” social media bot clusters, these clusters could be paid for (and their agendas influenced) by a succession of different actors (including right wing Americans, Russians, and whoever else.) There is certainly the potential for false flag operations if the point of the attack is to make it appear that somebody else has transgressed.

Naturally these subtleties don’t help the public understand what is happening to them. If they are aware of being skooled, it would be lucky. If they can attribute it to one party involved correctly, that is even luckier.

But to be realistic, most won’t have any idea this is happening, or happening to them.

Which brings me to my last point about this, which is the role of cybersecurity expertise in the propaganda cyberwar. Let me define cybersecurity expertise as the skill set necessary to identify and analyze hacks. Of course this form of expertise isn’t monolithic as there are many different attack vectors for hacks and understanding different physical and virtual vectors requires different skills. But knowing which skills are relevant in which contexts is for our purposes just another part of cybersecurity expertise which makes it more inscrutable to those that don’t have it. Cybersecurity expertise is also the kind of expertise you need to execute a hack (as defined above), though again this is a different variation of the skill set. I suppose it’s a bit like the Dark Arts in Harry Potter.

Because in the propaganda cyberwar the media through which people craft their sense of shared reality is vulnerable to cyberattacks, this gives both hackers and cybersecurity experts extraordinary new political powers. Both offensive and defensive security experts are likely to be for hire. There’s a marketplace for their first-order expertise, and then there’s a media marketplace for second-order reporting of the outcomes of their forensic judgments. The results of cybersecurity forensics need not be faithfully reported.

Outcomes

I don’t know what the endgame for this is. If I had to guess, I’d say one of two outcomes is likely. The first is that social media becomes more untrusted as a source of information as the amount of skooling increases. This doesn’t mean that people would stop trusting information from on-line sources, but it does mean that they would pick which on-line sources they trust and read them specifically instead of trusting what people they know share generally. If social media gets less determinative of people’s discovery and preferences for media outlets, then they are likely to pick sources that reflect their off-line background instead. This gets us back into the discussion of propaganda in the beginning of this post. In this case, we would expect skooling to continue, but be relegated to the background like spamming has been. There will be people who fall prey to it and that may be relevant for political outcomes, but it will become, like spam, a normal fact of life and no longer newsworthy. The vulnerability of the population to skooling and other propaganda cyberwarfare will be due to their out-of-band, offline education and culture.

Another possibility is that an independent, trusted, international body of cybersecurity experts becomes involved in analyzing and vetting skooling campaigns and other political hacks. This would have all the challenges of establishing scientific consensus as well as solving politicized high-profile crimes. Of course it would have enemies. But if it were trusted enough, it could become the pillar of political sanity that prevents a downslide into perpetual chaos.

I suppose there are intermediary outcomes as well where multiple poles of trusted cybersecurity experts weigh in and report on hacks in ways that reflect the capital-rich interests that hire them. Popular opinion follows these authorities as they have done for centuries. Nations maintain themselves, and so on.

Is it fair to say that propaganda cyberware is “the new normal”? It’s perhaps a trite thing to say. For it to be true, just two things must be true. First, it has to be new: it must be happening now, as of recently. I feel I must say this obvious fact only because I recently saw “the new normal” used to describe a situation that in fact was not occurring at all. I believe the phrase du jour for that sort of writing is “fake news”.

I do believe the propaganda cyberwar is new, or at least newly prominent because of Russiagate. We are sensitized to the political use of hacks now in a way that we haven’t been before.

The second requirement is that the new situation becomes normal, ongoing and unremarkable. Is the propaganda cyberwar going to be normal? I’ve laid out what I think are the potential outcomes. In some of them, indeed it does become normal. I prefer the outcomes that result in trusted scientific institutions partnering with criminal justice investigations in an effort to maintain world peace in a more modernist fashion. I suppose we shall have to see how things go.

References

Kanich, C., Kreibich, C., Levchenko, K., Enright, B., Voelker, G.M., Paxson, V. and Savage, S., 2008, October. Spamalytics: An empirical analysis of spam marketing conversion. In Proceedings of the 15th ACM conference on Computer and communications security (pp. 3-14). ACM.

Levchenko, K., Pitsillidis, A., Chachra, N., Enright, B., Félegyházi, M., Grier, C., Halvorson, T., Kanich, C., Kreibich, C., Liu, H. and McCoy, D., 2011, May. Click trajectories: End-to-end analysis of the spam value chain. In Security and Privacy (SP), 2011 IEEE Symposium on (pp. 431-446). IEEE.

Capital, democracy, and oligarchy

1. Capital

Bourdieu nicely lays out a taxonomy of forms of capital (1986), including economic capital (wealth) which we are all familiar with, as well as cultural capital (skills, elite tastes) and social capital (relationships with others, especially other elites). By saying that all three categories are forms of capital, what he means is that each “is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.” In his account, capital in all its forms are what give society its structure, including especially its economic structure.

[Capital] is what makes the games of society – not least, the economic game – something other than simple games of chance offering at every moment the possibility of a miracle. Roulette, which holds out the opportunity of winning a lot of money in a short space of time, and therefore of changing one’s social status quasi-instantaneously, and in which the winning of the previous spin of the wheel can be staked and lost at every new spin, gives a fairly accurate image of this imaginary universe of perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity, a world without inertia, without accumulation, without heredity or acquired properties, in which every moment is perfectly independent of the previous one, every soldier has a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, and every prize can be attained, instantaneously, by everyone, so that at each moment anyone can become anything. Capital, which, in its objectified or embodied forms, takes time to accumulate and which, as a potential capacity to produce profits and to reproduce itself in identical or expanded form, contains a tendency to persist in its being, is a force inscribed in the objectivity of things so that everything is not equally possible or impossible. And the structure of the distribution of the different types and subtypes of capital at a given moment in time represents the immanent structure of the social world, i.e. , the set of constraints, inscribed in the very reality of that world, which govern its functioning in a durable way, determining the chances of success for practices.

Bourdieu is clear in his writing that he does not intend this to be taken as unsubstantiated theoretical posture. Rather, it is a theory he has developed through his empirical research. Obviously, it is also informed by many other significant Western theorists, including Kant and Marx. There is something slightly tautological about the way he defines his terms: if capital is posited to explain all social structure, then any social structure may be explained according to a distribution of capital. This leads Bourdieu to theorize about many forms of capital less obvious than wealth, such as the symbolic capital, like academic degrees.

The costs of such a theory is that it demands that one begin the difficult task of enumerate different forms of capital and, importantly, the ways in which some forms of capital can be converted into others. It is a framework which, in principle, could be used to adequately explain social reality in a properly scientific way, as opposed to other frameworks that seem more intended to maintain the motivation of a political agenda or academic discipline. Indeed there is something “interdisciplinary” about the very proposal to address symbolic and economic power in a way that deals responsibly with their commensurability.

So it has to be posited simultaneously that economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root, in other words – but only in the last analysis – at the root of their effects. The real logic of the functioning of capital, the conversions from one type to another, and the law of conservation which governs them cannot be understood unless two opposing but equally partial views are superseded: on the one hand, economism, which, on the grounds that every type of capital is reducible in the last analysis to economic capital, ignores what makes the specific efficacy of the other types of capital, and on the other hand, semiologism (nowadays represented by structuralism, symbolic interactionism, or ethnomethodology), which reduces social exchanges to phenomena of communication and ignores the brutal fact of universal reducibility to economics.

[I must comment that after years in an academic environment where sincere intellectual effort seemed effectively boobytrapped by disciplinary trip wires around ethnomethodology, quantification, and so on, this Bourdieusian perspective continues to provide me fresh hope. I’ve written here before about Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity (2004), which was a wake up call for me that led to my writing this paper. That has been my main entrypoint into Bourdieu’s thought until now. The essay I’m quoting from now was published at least fifteen years prior and by its 34k citations appears to be a classic. Much of what’s written here will no doubt come across as obvious to the sophisticated reader. It is a symptom of a perhaps haphazard education that leads me to write about it now as if I’ve discovered it; indeed, the personal discovery is genuine for me, and though it is not a particularly old work, reading it and thinking it over carefully does untangle some of the knots in my thinking as I try to understand society and my role in it. Perhaps some of that relief can be shared through writing here.]

Naturally, Bourdieu’s account of capital is more nuanced and harder to measure than an economist’s. But it does not preclude an analysis of economic capital such as Piketty‘s. Indeed, much of the economist’s discussion of human capital, especially technological skill, and its relationship to wages can be mapped to a discussion of a specific form of cultural capital and how it can be converted into economic capital. A helpful aspect of this shift is that it allows one to conceptualize the effects of class, gender, and racial privilege in the transmission of technical skills. Cultural capital is, explicitly in Bourdieu’s account, labor intensive to transmit and often done so informally. Cultural tendencies to transmit this kind of capital preferentially to men instead of women in the family home become a viable explanation for the gender cap in the tech industry. While this is perhaps not a novel explanation, it is a significant one and Bourdieu’s theory helps us formulate it in a specific and testable way that transcends, as he says, both economism and semiologism, which seems productive when one is discussing society in a serious way.

One could also use a Bourdieusian framework to understand innovation spillover effects, as economists like to discuss, or the rise of Silicon Valley’s “Regional Advantage” (Saxenian, 1996), to take a specific case. One of Saxenian’s arguments (as I gloss it) is that Silicon Valley was more economically effective as a region than Route 128 in Massachusetts because the influx of engineers experimenting with new business models and reinvesting their profits into other new technology industries created a confluence of relevant cultural capital (technical skill) and economic capital (venture capital) that allowed the economic capital to be deployed more effectively. In other words, it wasn’t that the engineers in Silicon Valley were better engineers than the engineers in Route 128; it was that the economic capital was being deployed in a way that was less informed by technical knowledge. [Incidentally, if this argument is correct, then in some ways it undermines an argument put forward recently for setting up a “cyber workforce incubator” for the Federal Government in the Bay Area based on the idea that it’s necessary to tap into the labor pool there. If what makes Silicon Valley is smart capital rather than smart engineers, then that explains why there are so many engineers there (they are following the money) but also suggests that the price of technical labor there may be inflated. Engineers elsewhere may be just as good at being part of a cyber workforce. Which is just to say that when Bourdieusian theory is taken seriously, it can have practical policy implications.]

One must imagine, when considering society thus, that one could in principle map out the whole of society and the distribution of capitals within it. I believe Bourdieu does something like this in Distinction (1979), which I haven’t read–it is sadly referred to in the United States as the kind of book that is too dense to read. This is too bad.

But I was going to talk about…

2. Democracy

There are at least two great moments in history when democracy flourished. They have something in common.

One is Ancient Greece. The account of the polis in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1, cf (2 3) makes the familiar point that the citizens of the Ancient Greek city-state were masters of economically independent households. It was precisely the independence of politics (polis – city) from household economic affairs (oikos – house) that defined political life. Owning capital, in this case land and maybe slaves, was a condition for democratic participation. The democracy, such as it was, was the political unity of otherwise free capital holders.

The other historical moment is the rise of the mercantile class and the emergence of the democratic public sphere, as detailed by Habermas. If the public sphere Habermas described (and to some extent idealized) has been critiqued as being “bourgeois masculinist” (Fraser), that critique is telling. The bourgeoisie were precisely those who were owners of newly activated forms of economic capital–ships, mechanizing technologies, and the like.

If we can look at the public sphere in its original form realistically through the disillusionment of criticism, the need for rational discourse among capital holders was strategically necessary for the bourgeoisie to make strategic decisions about how to collectively allocate their economic capital. The Viewed through the objective lens of information processing and pure strategy, the public sphere was an effective means of economic coordination that complemented the rise of the Weberian bureaucracy, which provided a predictable state and also created new demand for legal professionals and the early information workers: clerks and scriveners and such.

The diversity of professions necessary for the functioning of the modern mercantile state created a diversity of forms of cultural capital that could be exchanged for economic capital. Hence, capital diffused from its concentration in the aristocracy into the hands of the widening class of the bourgeoisie.

Neither the Ancient Greek nor the mercantile democracies were particularly inclusive. Perhaps there is no historical precedent for a fully inclusive democracy. Rather, there is precedent for egalitarian alliances of capital holders in cases where that capital is broadly enough distributed to constitute citizenship as an economic class. Moreover, I must insert here that the Bourdieusian model suggests that citizenship could extend through the diffusion of non-economic forms of capital as well. For example, membership in the clergy was a form of capital taken on by some of the gentry; this came, presumably, with symbolic and social capital. The public sphere creates opportunities for the public socialite that were distinct from the opportunities of the courtier or courtesan. And so on.

However exclusive these democracies were, Fraser’s account of subaltern publics and counterpublics is of course very significant. What about the early workers and womens movements? Arguably these too can be understood in Bourdieusian terms. There were other forms of (social and cultural, if not economic) capital that workers and women in particular had available that provided the basis for their shared political interest and political participation.

What I’m suggesting is that:

  • Historically, the democratic impulse has been about uniting the interests of freeholders of capital.
  • A Bourdieusian understanding of capital allows us to maintain this (analytically helpful) understanding of democracy while also acknowledging the complexity of social structure, through the many forms of capital
  • That the complexity of society through the proliferation of forms of capital is one of, if not the, main mechanism of expanding effective citizenship, which is still conditioned on capital ownership even though we like to pretend it’s not.

Which leads me to my last point, which is about…

3. Oligarchy

If a democracy is a political unity of many different capital holders, what then is oligarchy in contrast?

Oligarchy is rule of the few, especially the rich few.

We know, through Bourdieu, that there are many ways to be rich (not just economic ways). Nevertheless, capital (in its many forms) is very unevenly distributed, which accounts for social structure.

To some extent, it is unrealistic to expect the flattening of this distribution. Society is accumulated history and there has been a lot of history and most of it has been brutally unkind.

However, there have been times when capital (in its many forms) has diffused because of the terms of capital exchange, broadly speaking. The functional separation of different professions was one way in which capital was fragmented into many differently exchangeable forms of cultural, social, and economic capitals. A more complex society is therefore a more democratic one, because of the diversity of forms of capital required to manage it. [I suspect there’s a technically specific way to make this point but don’t know how to do it yet.]

There are some consequences of this.

  1. Inequality in the sense of a very skewed distribution of capital and especially economic capital does in fact undermine democracy. You can’t really be a citizen unless you have enough capital to be able to act (use your labor) in ways that are not fully determined by economic survival. And of course this is not all or nothing; quantity of capital and relative capital do matter even beyond a minimum threshold.
  2. The second is that (1) can’t be the end of the story. Rather, to judge if the capital distribution of e.g. a nation can sustain a democracy, you need to account for many kinds of capital, not just economic capital, and see how these are distribute and exchanged. In other words, it’s necessary to look at the political economy broadly speaking. (But, I think, it’s helpful to do so in terms of ‘forms of capital’.)

One example, which I just learned recently, is this. In the United States, we have an independent judiciary, a third branch of government. This is different from other countries that are allegedly oligarchies, notably Russia but also Rhode Island before 2004. One could ask: is this Separation of Powers important for democracy? The answer is intuitively “yes”, and though I’m sure very smart things have been written to answer the question “why”, I haven’t read them, because I’ve been too busy blogging….

Instead, I have an answer for you based on the preceding argument. It was a new idea for me. It was this: What separation of powers does is its constructs a form of cultural capital associated with professional lawyers which is less exchangeable for economic and other forms of capital than in places where non-independence of the judiciary leads to more regular bribery, graft, and preferential treatment. Because it mediates economic exchanges, this has a massively distortative effect on the ability of economic capital to bulldoze other forms of capital, and the accompanying social structures (and social strictures) that bind it. It also creates a new professional class who can own this kind of capital and thereby accomplish citizenship.

Coda

In this blog post, I’ve suggested that not everybody who, for example, legally has suffrage in nominally democratic state is, in an effective sense, a citizen. Only capital owners can be citizens.

This is not intended in any way to be a normative statement about who should or should not be a citizen. Rather, it is a descriptive statement about how power is distributed in nominal democracies. To be an effective citizen, you need to have some kind of surplus of social power; capital the objectification of that social power.

The project of expanding democracy, if it is to be taken seriously, needs to be understood as the project of expanding capital ownership. This can include the redistribution of economic capital. It can also changing institutions that ground cultural and social capitals in ways that distribute other forms of capital more widely. Diversifying professional roles is a way of doing this.

Nothing I’ve written here is groundbreaking, for sure. It is for me a clearer way to think about these issues than I have had before.