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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Vegetable Debate

Had we but world enough, and time


our vegetable debate should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow;

I am moving this here, because I do not wish to further pollute a crooked timber thread here

Here is Henry Farrell explaining Doug Henwood's critique of Matthew Yglesias on July 18 2011

This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital).


I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is.

The post vaguely reminded Brad of Marxism. Farrell recently mentioned that he happens to be a Weberian social democrat (in case you were wondering).

I had some silly pointless thoughts.

One is that I would bet that Brad heard "No combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions without theory" when reading Farrell (except for the fact that Brad is a speed reader who doesn't hear words in his head when he reads).

In any case, in this crooked timber thread, I personally objected to the word "theories" with an analogy so clumsy that it caused some mixture of intellectual distress and amusement (for one thing I should have objected to the second passage including "theory" not the first including "theories").

"I don’t like the word “theories”. I don’t think that anyone including left neo-liberals needs a theory of change in order to achieve change. Trees have no theory of photosynthesis, but they grow all the same. "

I want to explain what I meant to write (or perhaps I want to write what I should have written). Actually, re-reading it seems clear to me and not to admit the interpretations made by Farrell and William Berry.

"I do disagree with your suggestion that you don’t need a theory of politics as politics grows like a tree" -- Henry Farrell

I note that didn't suggest that politics grows like a tree. I will rephrase my analogy to make it clearer (or to correct it)

"Straw Farrell says that left neo-liberals are "crippled" because of "the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics". I imagine Straw Farrell meeting a hungry lion and saying to himself 'hmmm that lion probably wants to eat me, good thing that it is crippled by the absence of a leonine theory of muscular contractions". I would have to warn straw Farrell that the lion does not have to think about actin, myosin or ATP in order to run faster than straw Farrell (who need not worry as he would be very unappetizing being made of straw).

I think what Farrell meant was that neo-liberals rely on an unstated implicit thoery of change which does not correspond to reality at all. I at least would say that the possible problem is one of accidental theory -- reliance on theory which is made more absolute and blind because the neo-liberals don't understand that they are assuming a theory of change. Straw left neo-liberals have the theory that their analysis is sound, so all will recognize that it is sound, so all will use it to make the world better, since all agree on what would be better. The problem isn't the absence of a theory of change, or even the absence of an explicit theory of change. It is a totally false theory of change (which is so silly that it can't survive if made explicit).

Totally aside from the lions and the trees, Farrell and I agree that the left neo-liberals we are discussing do have theories of change and those theories are not at all similar to straw neo-liberals' theory.

Now William Berry

I am struck by Robert Waldmann’s grotesque analogy.

A tree doesn’t just grow; its growth is governed by constraints that are narrower than those of any theory, and that is the set of epigenetic processes that are mediated by the complex interactions of gene expression and the influences of a very particular environment.

And there is no such thing as a political movement without doctrinal discipline (i.e., theory) of some kind.

Berry seems to have read my claim that trees are not theorists to imply that there is no valid theory of tree biology. Desperately trying to be semi civil, I just note that I think the problem is that my claim was too obvious to be noticed. Photosynthesis isn't crippled if trees don't think about photosynthesis. It was a claim about trees' mental life (which follows from the belief that they have no mental life at all) not about photosynthesis, tree growth, or the possibility that biological research might be useful.

Political movements aren't necessarily crippled if the political actors don't think about theories of change.

My claim is entirely consistent with the hypothesis that we all should think about theories of change and that political movements in which the actors spend considerable time thinking about theories of change are more effective than others. It takes a lot for an "absence" to "cripple"

Well that was pointless. If anyone is still reading, I'd like to stress that I don't think that developing and testing theories of change is a waste of time. I think that it is a worthwhile branch of social science which is very useful to political movements. I think my objection actually was to the word "crippled" which, I think, overstates the costs of brief casual consideration of mechanisms of political change by wonks. Also, importantly, the wonks who are being discussed think a lot about politics and have theories of change. In fact they like the phrase theory of change. Yglesias sure does so does Ezra Klein Brad uses the phrase less (I'd guess he goes more for Weberian or Marxist jargon), Krugman. This is not a group of people characterized by an absense of theories of change.

1 comment:

JimV said...

For what it is worth, I read that comment thread at CT and understood your comment with no problem. Is it me, or have commenters at CT gotten more obtuse and/or hostile, lately?

Someday if humans last long enough, computers will not only do spell and grammar checks but logic and meaning checks, which I think will eliminate a lot of blog comments. (Present company not included.)