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Close Encounters of the Third Kind
April 28, 2010 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Emerging from a debate on "epistemic closure" (of the conservative mind) John Quiggin looked beyond the dead horses and gazed upon the need "to offer hope, in the form of goals that can excite enthusiastic commitment to a progressive alternative." Matthew Yglesias pondered and penned a response providing a glimpse of the very big picture...

the agenda he has on offer:
For rich countries—productivity growth, social insurance, and efforts to improve public health all aiming at allowing people to live more and more of their time outside the bonds of commercial work. For poor countries—capitalism, to get the process of prosperity and social betterment rolling. At the interface between the two—a generous and humane approach to migration issues so that people can have the freedom to escape bad situations, and a trade regime that aims at facilitating the exchange of goods rather than coercing poor countries into adopting the preferred policies of rich world companies. And for all of us, an overhaul of energy systems so the world doesn't boil and we all get to keep enjoying our prosperity.
DiA begs to differ a bit:
I don't think this revolution in the power of people's non-commercial labour is simply exciting or empowering. I think it's extremely disruptive, in both the positive and negative senses of the term. I don't think it can simply be plugged into an optimistic "third-way" Blairite vision of well-managed welfare-state capitalism, to juice up one's options for spending the extra leisure time generated by increasing productivity. The advent of "insanely easy", digitally distributed social organisation, media and production rips up a lot of the established systems of value and exchange that have structured advanced capitalist societies. Most important, it entails a large amount of production and consumption leaving the cash nexus.
-A Loss of Faith in Government
-In which I "attack old-fashioned economics," i.e. utility maximization
-Solving the Social Sciences' Hard Problems
posted by kliuless (17 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

Thanks for posting this. I just became vaguely aware of this debate here and was meaning to look into it more. Excellent post.
posted by homunculus at 11:30 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the "Debate" link, Yglesias says:

But in John Cole’s acid metaphor, dealing with the agnotological right is like going on a dinner date where you suggest Italian and your date prefers a meal of tire rims and anthrax. [....] this is one of the reasons I think we need to offer hope, in the form of goals that can excite enthusiastic commitment to a progressive alternative.

This feels inauthentic, disconnected from the very people who the progressive elite ought to care about. I much more liked the attitude of the students who spoke after the talk by Chris Hedges. Instead of dismissing the tea party people altogether and trying to create some new intellectual whatever, these minority students point out that tea party angst rises from the same inequalities and pressures felt by everyone else. When discourse breaks down, surely actions and relationships are the place for innovation - not just a more isolated discourse.
posted by honest knave at 11:53 AM on April 28, 2010

I agree that the conservative thought has run to a dead-end, and while the notion of epistemic closure seems obvious, to me at least, it is not as important.

What is important, or what conservatives should consider important, is that which is wholly ignored in these links, the relationship between the decay of conservative thought and decoupling of the US economy from production and its increased reliance on finance. Without a massive plant of production, there is no need for the laissez-faire market economics of conservatives. The fact that we have no need of production (or so we think) means we have no need for free market economics. In fact, the conservative movements last great victory coincided neatly with the dot-com/VC fueled explosion, which at the time seemed colorably about innovation and production, but in retrospect seems quite obviously about finance. when the people feel the need to make investment, they trend conservative, when they need services, those same people trend liberal.

In the event of a massive resurgence in US domestic production, such as the explosion of some new industry or a fundamental downward shift in the value of certain key natural resources, conservatives could trot out the same old arguments, but they would succeed, because they would make sense. But at the moment, there is no great new American opportunity on the horizon, nothing that requires tremendous investment by broad segments of the population. It's basic personal finance. When the return on investment is less than the interest on debt, you shift from savings/investment to paying off debt.

So that is what we are doing.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:14 PM on April 28, 2010

I think that Yglesias' prognosis for developed countries is a bit myopic. 20% of the documented workforce does not receive paid vacation time at all, ~40% of all workers expect to work full-time after their official dates of retirement. I don't necessarily think that this is a bad thing-- if folks are going to live into their eighties, employment is a productive way to ward off inactivity, which can help keep the population healthy-- I just think that it might be disingenuous to suggest that in our great social democrtic future we're going to have more leisure time on our hands.
posted by The White Hat at 12:50 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

'Epistemic closure' is a term from philosophy. The guy who first applied it to conservative groupthink says that it's a term he remembered vaguely from his undergrad philosophy courses -- but critically, it does NOT mean closed-mindedness, groupthink, intellectual conformism, orunresponsiveness to contrary evidence.

Here's an explanation of what the phrase means in philosophy:
Epistemic closure in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It is a debate over whether knowledge is "closed under entailment". That is, do you know all the things that are logically entailed by things you know? (If I know x, and x implies y, do I thereby know y?) There is debate over this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:48 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

As the education system continues to degrade, it's not surprising that "agnotology" reigns supreme and facts become inconveniences. The heart of democracy is an educated electorate, something which is rapidly slipping away.

Tea party angst rises from the same inequalities and pressures felt by everyone else.

Not quite - it rises from the failure to recognize these are shared inequalities and pressures. The tea partiers have been manipulated into thinking they are targeted and victimized by particular groups, while the truth is we are all being manipulated more generally: manipulated into "defending marriage", manipulated into thinking there are death panels, manipulated into unaffordable mortgages, manipulated into fearing terrorist threats, manipulated into perpetual war and funding a ballooning military industrial complex, manipulated into demanding ever-tougher criminal penalties to support a for-profit prison industry.

"Epistemic closure" in this context is an essential feature of the modern right because their politics are completely predicated on disinformation and manipulation of uneducated voters. In a democracy without education, fact and fiction are indiscernable, and the winning party is the one that tells the best story. Thus the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck. This is what the future holds.
posted by mek at 2:01 PM on April 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Why don't we eliminate confusion and cut to the chase and just call it "mental closure."
posted by psyche7 at 3:43 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whilst I thought Yglesias had some valid points, his response (and many of them) seems to me to be staggeringly blithe about prospects/needs/desires in the developing world. It's great to talk about labour and efficiency improvements, but without acknowledging that we in the west have directly outsourced misery - on a scale that would make victorian workhouses look like club med - to the developing world, it comes across to me as almost wilfully blind, borderline racist, and hopeless naive. To say nothing of the unsustainable resource flow that accompanies it.

I found Quiggin's post and its responses extremely thought-provoking. I agree with him on many points, but at the same time, I think it runs a risk of indulging in that easiest political mistake; marginalising and disregarding contrary opinion.

For example, Quiggin derides the intellectual underpinnings of the right, and accuses them of being a rudderless ship, hopelessly adrift on a sea of daily, contradictory issues. And yet, isn't the whole point of his post precisely that the left has become reactionary, contradictory, depressingly venal and myopic?

In this regard, I think what Quiggin is lamenting is rather the marginalisation and cheapening of the entire political discourse, a worthy threnody, in my opinion. However, it does raise the question if the discourse has ever been the thoughtful and motivated agora he pines for. Not being alive in '68 (for example) myself, I don't know if the socialist agenda and the high-minded discussion that could sometimes accompany it was ever a truly broad, public, interrogation like he implies. I can say that it certainly wasn't in Australia - we barely got that in the seventies with Whitlam, our most progressive, dare I say visionary, prime minister (nb: not alive then, either).

Thus, whilst I think a call for vision, for quality discourse, or engagedness is a worthy and understandable goal - especially in response to the creeping relativism of third way politicians the world over - I don't know if the disease he prescribes for is quite so acute as he portrays, or rather more a chronic, fundamental part - not of the social democratic project, but of democracy itself.

In this regard, I think it is incumbent on us - as citizens, as advocates - to continue promoting this vision and its subsidiary beliefs whatever colour they may be, because we can (and should) do that as represented in a way that politicians in large, frequently two party democracies (as representative) cannot, and maybe should not, if it's not democratic in a meaningful sense of the word.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is the media, being both represented and representative, and the responsibility they should bear (but don't, imho) in a successfully functioning democracy.

Apologies if this is long and disjointed, but his post and its responses has engendered a lot of thought in me.
posted by smoke at 6:12 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Actually, LobsterMitten, that's the least plausible version of closure (unless you're a hard core internalist). Something better would be "do you know all the things that you know to be logically entailed by things you know?"

The subject of the post? What's wrong with, say, "wilful ignorance"?
posted by GeckoDundee at 6:20 PM on April 28, 2010

Closure is the new stupid.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:34 PM on April 28, 2010

GeckoDundee, that's my speciality.

Quiggers continues the debate on his own blog, here and here.
posted by wilful at 6:54 PM on April 28, 2010

that's the least plausible version of closure

GeckoDundee, fair enough, I don't have any dog in that fight; just meant to be giving a broad sense of what the philosophical debate is over (i.e., something totally different from what the term's being used for here).
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:29 PM on April 28, 2010

The tea partiers have been manipulated into thinking they are targeted and victimized by particular groups, while the truth is we are all being manipulated more generally: other groups who favor things-I-don't-like?

This is a primary thing that is wrong with the left, and partisan politics in general. I am really tired of people telling me that I need to wake up to the evil conspiracy which is oppressing and destroying us all, because the truth is that...

Whenever I hear I this I am enormously tempted to interrupt the person and ask them to please just fuck off. It never seems to occur to any of these people that I might possibly have had these same thoughts years ago, hold a different opinion or even possibly be more educated than they are. Only about 1 person in 10 that I get into a chat about politics with ever says 'Oh really? Why would you think that?' if I demur or express disagreement. I usually have hugely enjoyable discussions with those people.

The other 9 don't seem to care what I think and launch into an exposition of 'the truth', which rarely seems correlated to any kind of objective reality or logical progression, but rather consists of a my interlocutor's grievances with The Powers That Be, whose identity varies, but who everyone agrees control everything and are responsible for 'what's really going on'. They are so hideously oppressive that I am astonished by the willingness of these truth-tellers to take on the risk of 'waking the sheeple', and especially by their predilection for doing so over the internet, which (they love to remind me) is constantly monitored by agents of TPTB.

It's not these people's opinions which irritate me, even if I don't agree with them; it's their religiosity. An opinion is something we could disagree about, even get into an argument over, and still respect as something the other person is entitled to, at least as long as they are willing to entertain the idea of modifying it in response to new information. but when someone announces they're going to tell me 'the truth' I start to cringe in anticipation of a quasi-religious diatribe and I am seldom disappointed.

At that point I usually start looking around for some avenue of escape, because without fail anyone who wants to give me a dose of 'the truth' follows up with an exhortation to join them in fighting TPTB, because things have reached 'crisis point', wherever the fuck that is.

If 'the left' can't articulate a compelling 'progressive alternative' to market liberalism, and I don't think they can, then maybe it's time to put down the drums, stop chanting slogans, and answer the question of what is so goshdarned awful about market liberalism that we need a progressive alternative to it.

I don't think it's the idea of markets, as such: even Trotsky thought markets played an essential economic function in promoting quality and discovering prices. So is it the liberalism part? I'm liberal: I think governments should derive their authority from the mutual consent of the governed, who should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as it doesn't impinge upon or jeopardize the freedom of others to do the same. And since ignorance, illness, and insecurity (of the economic or existential kinds) tend to undermine freedom, minimizing their influence is the reason people establish governments in the first place.

Depressingly, articulating this point of view to anyone expounding 'the truth' usually results in my being denounced as an agent of TPTB. When I point out that I would love to get paid for being their representative, I am sometimes downgraded to being a mere tool. If I could make one lasting change in society's political consciousness, it would this: abandon this fruitless use of abstract nouns as units of political currency, lest woe befall Athens.
posted by anigbrowl at 8:47 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Wow dude, 3/4 of that was raging against a whole lot of straw men and making pretty facile generalisations, as opposed to substantively engaging with Quiggin's arguments.

Whilst I broadly agree with your last point, the rant about people carping on about "the truth" bears little relevance to the post, or any of the comments in thread.
posted by smoke at 9:00 PM on April 28, 2010 other groups who favor things-I-don't-like?

No, by rational, self-interested actors. Politicians want more votes, companies want more money, it's pretty simple logic. This is why it's very important to make sure that votes and money cannot be traded - because politicians are supposed to hold companies accountable to the public. When companies can buy advertisements and other media exposure, and the public is easily manipulated, votes are effectively for sale. This is why everyone obsesses about war chests in American politics.

If 'the left' can't articulate a compelling 'progressive alternative' to market liberalism

There is a compelling "progressive alternative". It's called "Europe". Only a plane ticket away! Seriously though, a healthy capitalist system would be much better than what we have now.

Whenever I hear I this I am enormously tempted to interrupt the person and ask them to please just fuck off.

Thanks for providing an excellent example of the subject of the FPP.
posted by mek at 9:41 PM on April 28, 2010

I guess this would a bad time to point out that I'm European, wouldn't it?

As it happens, proportional representation and publicly financed elections are two stereotypically European things that I like - although randomly timed elections and a paucity of referenda, not so much. Although I can't vote in American elections, I've made voluntary contributions to a few municipal or primary campaigns (helping out at events and suchlike, for candidates you would probably like), because it's so much easier to get engaged in the democratic process at a local level here.

This goes a long way towards offsetting the influence of corporate money in politics...and by corporate, I mean to remind you that unions, too, spend a lot of money on political campaigns and lobbying in pursuit of their economic interests. While they don't wield anywhere near the same degree of economic power, that doesn't seem to stop them engaging in expensive, bitter and protracted turf wars. There will always be rational, self-interested actors seeking to manipulate people's perceptions, and by extension their electoral choices, and I don't think there's a simple technical solution to this. Our politicians and political actors in Europe are just as cynical and manipulative as the ones here, and in the countries that employ a party list system it's a lot harder to dislodge them. I mean, look at Silvio Berlusconi, who has plumbed depths of corruption that most Republicans can only dream about. Invective and misdirection may sound sweeter in one of our many languages, but are no less poisonous to civic life for any of that.

I might also note that the temptation to to rudeness is not the act itself, despite claims to the contrary by certain religious thinkers.

Smoke, I don't have any real disagreement with Quiggen's arguments. I thought his dismissal of market liberalism was a little facile and offered my own more holistic understanding of the term (that is, a regulated liberalism which includes markets, rather than the idea of liberalizing markets and no more). And while I don't care for the term 'progressive' much, neither does Quiggen, who notes the intellectual contributions of Popper, Burke and Hayek in identifying the limiting factors of ideology. I don't think it's a question of left versus right so much as one of rationality and pragmatism versus ignorance and extremism.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:26 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

there are no europeans!

"do you know all the things that you know to be logically entailed by things you know?"

if (some) conservatives _think_ this, then maybe the term applies :P

more epistemic closure...

also btw here's a fresh look at the left and right political blogospheres, cf. obama & sullivan

oh and i thought paul romer's presentation at the economics bloggers forum on persuasion and norms (pooping back and forth forever with michael specter on the danger of science denial ;) was quite good and worth seeing!
posted by kliuless at 1:11 PM on May 5, 2010

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