Ideology and agnotology

The way in which I’ve generally thought about politics is in terms of ideology and particularly, the divide between the left (socialists, social democrats, labour and related groups) and the right (various strains of conservatives, market liberals and business advocates). But increasingly I doubt that this is the right way to look at things.

First, the long-heralded ‘end of ideology’ seems to arrived, but not in way its proposers imagined.

The long struggle of left and centre-left parties to maintain their relevance in the face of the resurgent market liberalism of the late 20th century gradually eroded any belief in the possibility of a fundamental transformation of capitalism, to the point where such ideas no longer receive even lip-service, let alone serious and sustained attention. Instead, these parties have found themselves lumbered with the task of managing the mixture of social democratic and market institutions that emerged from the conflicts of the 20th century, tweaking them sometimes with market-oriented reforms and sometimes with marginal new interventions. This is broadly consistent with the ‘end of ideology’ story.

On the right, however, the scene is one of complete ideological incoherence. Market liberalism has run out of steam, libertarianism has failed to produce a coherent response to the Iraq war or the Bush assault on civil liberties (to be fair, Obama has also failed here) , and the various other elements that have emerged or re-emerged as forces on the right – Christianism, aggressive nationalism, anti-feminism and so on – amount to little more than a tribalist set of hatreds of various others.

The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.

So, Christianists fight to the death on gay marriage but are unconcerned by the emergence of serial divorce and remarriage as a social norm, particularly among the Republican elite. Libertarians denounce gun control as the first step to dictatorship but, many have been unconcerned or supportive of the abrogation of most constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and punishment. Business pushes its own barrow through continuous advocacy of tax cuts, but shows no concern about massive defense spending that is already rendering those cuts unsustainable.

Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.

The manufacture of ignorance is most obvious in relation to climate change, where the gullibility associated with ‘scepticism’ has reached levels that would have seemed unbelievable (at least in the absence of the kind of religious commitment associated with creationism). If supporters of science had invented someone like Lord Monckton, he would have been dismissed as an absurd caricature.

In this context, it’s important to observe that, while the big oil companies initially funded the manufacture of ignorance about climate change using recycled tobacco hacks like Fred Singer, Fred Seitz and so on Steve Milloy, the process has developed its own momentum. Hostility to science and scientists on this issue is now so universal on the right that there is a ready market for additions to the supply of ignorance in the form of new talking points, manufactured scandals and so on. So, even though Exxon pulled the funding plug a few years ago, this stuff keeps on coming.

But the same pattern can be observed repeated across a vast range of issues – creationism, birtherism, the abortion-breast cancer link, the supposed WMDs in Iraq, the idea that the financial crisis was caused by the Community Reinvestment Act and others too numerous to mention. The intellectual atmosphere is one of uncritical acceptance of any talking point, no matter how absurd, that appears to support the position of the tribe.

Some of those maintaining such absurdities continue to present themselves as serious intellectuals, and indeed some of them once could have justified this claim. But now, above and beyond the abandonment of independent judgement on individual issues, they have been forced to pay obeisance virtues of ignorance, as represented by first by GW Bush and then, in even more extreme form by Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck and their Australian equivalents, such as Abbott, Minchin and the rightwing commentariat in general.

How will political contests over agnotology play out? Ignorant tribalism is not a force to be dismissed lightly. In day-to-day politics, the absence of any coherent position or relationship to reality is not a big disadvantage, while a machine capable of disseminating talking points is a big asset.

On the other hand, there are some significant long run costs associated with the embrace of ignorance. Science has been the central engine of human progress over the past century or more and anti-science political movements have rarely prospered for long. The average voter has not yet recognised the fact that the political right is now vehemently opposed to science and scientists. But both scientists and their rightwing enemies are well aware of the fact.

Stereotypical images of scientists as grant-grubbing fans of world government are routinely found in public rightwing rhetoric along with welfare queens, limousine liberals and other outgroups. These attacks are now extending to vicious campaigns of personal harassment, ranging from the overt disruption associated with the FOI and hacking campaign called ‘Climategate’ to anonymous hate mail and death threats. Rightwingers have almost universally cheered the criminality of the Climategate hack, and have tacitly or overtly supported the broader hate campaign.

Conversely, scientists are now as reliably hostile to the Republican party as African-Americans (a total of 6 per cent, according to this poll) When the general image of the political right catches up with this reality, the costs are likely to be severe.

But, in the meantime, their abandonment of reality-based politics has left managerialists like Rudd and Obama wrong-footed. Their whole approach to politics assumes that the other side shares a broadly consistent view of reality. 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.

The big political problem is that while competent management commands widespread approval it does not mobilise much enthusiasm. What is needed here is a return to ideology, and a project to move beyond day-to-day management and offer the ‘light on the hill’ of a positive social transformation, based on justice and equality.

180 thoughts on “Ideology and agnotology

  1. Welcome back Andre. There’s no fun engaging with your comment about my “ideological world” because you’ve no evidence, at all, to inform your opinion on the matter. I made no claim about libertarians generally but referred to Terje specifically – you don’t think I believe his “libertarian delusionalism” to be of a notably worse nature than any other kind of “delusionalism”, do you? Your mistake. You also may have missed my words “More generally it’s meaningless … ” in which I was addressing your quote absent any context at all, just Hayek’s idea in and of itself.

    OK I’m having a bit of a laugh now but believe me I do take climate change and Friedrich Hayek, both, perfectly seriously and join you in support of healthy scepticism. Cheers 🙂

  2. I think the original criticism made by Jim Birch about claiming, as a matter of methodology that complex phenomena can always be reduced to simple ideas is more applicable to Mises than to Hayek. Mises does indeed make this kind of claim (not ‘reductionism’ in the sense the term is usually used but an extreme form of a priori rationalism) which the result that he, and those economists who followed him, have been trapped in dogmatism. The answers are known as a matter of revealed truth, and if the real world does not appear to fit them, so much the worse for the real world[1].

    fn1. This phrase is usually attributed to Pigou, but I think he was saying something rather different.

  3. Alice #37.. I think it means we have to watch our P’s and Q’s.
    Dot our t’s and cross our eyes.
    For the rest, will express sorrow at the sad Santo Santoro type attack on Bob Brown from Andrew. Had people listened to people like Brown, instead of swallowing the scare campaigns against him and other intelligent educated and well motivated people, the generation and more in time we have lost since the eighties could have been spent developing a sustainable economy rather than to now have to consider belated, EXPENSIVE and largely inneffectual adhoc measures implemented AFTER the damage has been done.
    Think of Tasmania, if you cant think of a better paradigm for the last twenty or thirty years.

  4. @paul walter
    You know Paul…thats often the way isnt it? Mankind really progresses in small steps. Bob Brown is one of those small steps. He faces all sorts of pressures but perhaps not as many as Peter Garrett and perhaps the latter should not have moved to Labor and I wonder if (late at night) he thinks the very same thing himself? For was he not one of the environments greatest campaigners and an icon for a generation in this respect? In which role was he more effective at effecting change? As a political musician or a musical politician?
    One of the greatest criticisms of the left or even the moderates comes from the view that not enough of them actually seek political power…that they prefer to remain as critics and dissenters rather than attempt to gain the power to effect change.
    Its an important point. Do they lack sufficient souls like Garrett who actually are willing to step up into the seat of power – and will they be emasculated when they do by party politics?

    Who is a better man? Brown or Garrett? I really cant say…. but Garrett faces greater obstacles in my view.

    And I do think we should take care of our Ps and Qs and both combined. Where else can we have such interesting discussions?

  5. @Alice
    I mean a simpler way of expressing this is…

    Do you really think Peter Garrett finds it satisfying to be now embroiled in an argument about pink bat installations?

    Yes I know we needed a fast working fisca stimulus but I really objected to the pink bats from the start. Pink bats are relatively affordable for the majority of households to pay for them, themselves. That money would have been far better thrown at solar installations on people’s roofs. More permanent. Less dangerous. More useful.

    I really dont know what got into Rudd over the pink bats myself. I had a feeling it was ridiculous from the start. It was a ridiculous way to waste the stimulous money. Bats degrade. Solar systems less so. A short term useless hit with no vision and now Garrett has to wear a decision he didnt make.

  6. Alice, Ifind the suggestion by a suggestion by a blogger elsewhere, that the pink batt thing was really an exercise in implementation of the”new” labour recruiting. Could have been green eggs, or anything. It was more the way the program was implemented and what precedents it set in a deunionised environment.
    Nothing I saw watching Rudd slithering over “Insulgate”convinces me that these are remotely interested in avoiding future “Bernie Banton” moments.

  7. @paul walter
    Paul..the whole idea was batty from the start.

    Now we have Abbott running and hiding from Bernie Banton while criticising Garrett for running and hiding from the bat mess. Dont you just love it (not)? Running us all round in circuses – both majors.

    How far we have fallen when our idea of fiscal stimulus or responsible government spending extends as far as recruiting teams of cash economy workers to stuff cheap insulation in ceilings as fast as they can. But lets face it…on par for par its not much better than Howard unleashing the AWB execs on us all or getting sucked in to signing the FTA is it? It just gets worse and worse. When it comes to responsible government spending on infrastructure I dont think they can get it up any more. Our governments were better at this job 100 years ago…because they hadnt yet got blindsided by market ideology.

    How far they have fallen when they cant speak to an asbestos victim…Mr Rabbitt.

  8. You’ve missed the point, Tony. An apology to Bob Brown, and to the readers here, for your display of crude bigotry, is what is needed.

  9. @Alice
    I wouldn’t argue that the insulation scheme was well run, but it was as you mentioned quick to implement and the workers receiving the money would have been less likely to save it than stimulus measures aimed at the more well off (does anyone still believe in multipliers?). There are also health benefits to insulating roofs and it is probably the simplest and cheapest way of improving the energy efficiency of a house. It was one of the first things I did in my house (batts and foil with no government assistance or training required for me to do my own roof).
    It’s a scandel that many buildings are still being built today without basic insulation or poorly installed insulation. I know many will disagree but the standard of Australian buildings leaves a lot to be desired.

  10. Alice @ 8 said;

    “When it comes to responsible government spending on infrastructure I dont think they can get it up any more. Our governments were better at this job 100 years ago…because they hadnt yet got” their filthy hands SO deep into our pockets….. (100 years ago total government revenues were only about 6% of GDP ) see table 27.19 TAXATION REVENUE AND GDP PER HEAD .

  11. The ‘end of ideology’ story always amused me because the real claim wasn’t that ideology had ended but that their (libertarian) ideology had permanently displaced all others. This was a ridiculous claim given that the claim of displacement wasn’t even true at the time the claim was made.

  12. JQ

    I think your representation of Mises is half right. Ironically, he is often mis-intepreted and mis-represented by his critics and supporters.

    ” Mises’s methodological position occupies a unique place that is at once both wholly aprioristic and radically empirical.”

    Leeson and Boettke published a paper arguing the above conclusion.

    I have to admit I couldn’t access to the full paper, but here is a summary of my thoughts:

    It is possible to be both aprioristic and radically empirical if you accept that deviant logic is selected out (eventually); the survival of the fittest. From this Mises reasons that action must embody economic principles. So maybe the laws of economics are apriori ?

  13. “if you accept that deviant logic is selected out (eventually); the survival of the fittest”

    But that only works if you put some sort of limit on “eventually”. As of now, Mises’ economic views are represented by a fringe sub-faction of a minority school of economics, represented in academia by a couple of obscure Southern US universities and tinged with even more deviant Southern (in fact, neo-confederate) views.

    So, if you apply the market test, Mises has (at best) offered the wrong kind of a priorism

  14. Tony G :
    Alice @ 8 said;
    “When it comes to responsible government spending on infrastructure I dont think they can get it up any more. Our governments were better at this job 100 years ago…because they hadnt yet got” their filthy hands SO deep into our pockets….. (100 years ago total government revenues were only about 6% of GDP ) see table 27.19 TAXATION REVENUE AND GDP PER HEAD .

    Ah, the good old days…

    no schools,
    no hospitals,
    no emergency services,
    no air force,
    no universities,
    no freeways,
    no sanitation,
    no passports,
    no mail,
    no rail,

    Consequently …

    no taxation,
    huge debt in London, and of course,
    no justice.

  15. @Alice

    Actually I still think it was a good idea. It provided work for low-skilled workers – the most vulnerable in a slumping economy, I’d have thought – while achieving a modest but worthwhile benefit in energy efficiency. The numbers of bodgy jobs and oh&s breaches are pretty low for the average regulated occupation – think real estate agents, car dealers, domestic builders. And this was an unregulated occupation when Garrett kicked it off.

    As I understand it, Garrett’s scheme has led to much better compliance with safety and standards than existed before the scheme, with an order of magnitude fewer breaches and safety incidents per thousand installations. Note that ‘much better’ does not equal ‘perfect’. There are deaths and injuries every week in highly regulated occupations like electrical contractors and plumbers, and of course in the even more highly regulated and restrictive professions. What the comparative rates are, I do not know.

    Consumers play their part in keeping standards as low as possible, by choosing a Dodgy Bros quote for building work over the quotes offered by reputed tradespeople. For me, alarm bells would ring if I got two quotes to construct, say, a deck coming in at around $20K and one at $8K. All work requires skills; the more skilled and painstaking players want remuneration appropriate to their skills and care – good work in other words costs money. When consumers enter the market and seek quotations for work, they are usually ignorant of reputations and indeed risks, and are powerfully motivated by price. They see installing installation as a DIY job, with the only significant issue being the competing features of different insulation media.

    Not so strangely, occupations actually love to be regulated by a restrictive licensing system, because it deters new entrants into the market: competition. Much of the volume of criticism aimed at Garrett has been supplied by established market players wanting to maintain their former share of what under the scheme became a much bigger market. Raising public fears of unsafe installations by new market entrants is in the commercial interest of these players – just as it is in the interest of domestic manufacturers to play up alleged non-compliance and safety concerns about imported competitor products.

  16. One other point worth making is that the Commonwealth used to have the internal ability to run a program such as this, in the form of the former Australian Construction Services, an arm of the former Department of Administrative Services. ACS used to manage all Commonwealth construction projects, and had its own workforce of engineers, inspectors and tradespeople. It employed tradespeople on payroll to undertake routine maintenance and minor construction work. It was the central repository of expertise in the nation on such obscure branches of engineering as aircraft pavements and post-disaster recovery operations (e.g. reconstruction of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy). This capacity was largely jettisoned by the Keating government and last rites were pronounced by Howard. The Commonwealth must now go out into the market itself to buy this expertise, which is not readily available domestically.

  17. @Hal9000
    Hal – I disagree when you say “think real estate agents, car dealers etc”

    My partner is a regulated car dealer. He pays his license fees and all other transaction costs associated with used car dealing. What he is up against is the unregulated car dealers that trade form their garages…do deals with cut and shut merchants…rebirthing experts..and if you dont know what cut and shut means – its when the back half of a write off is welded to front half of another write off and its sold as an original vehicle.

    They can be hard to tell. They are black market dealers specialties. Its not until you get them to a mechannic does it come to light and when a legitimate dealer gets up at 5am or 6am to source a good car buy they cant always tell that Mr Jones with a mosman address and a clean car is only a front for some shonky backyard operation.

    He has bought such beasts a few times and luckily we have threatened the authorities and got the money back for a purchase.

    Car dealers, the regulated ones are up against a tide of shonky unregulated dealers without the costs of regulation and without offering warranties…pretending to sell their mother’s, brother’s, friend’s cars every weekend.

    So dont take unkindly to regulated dealers. Look at the backyard dealers if you want to know what dirty deals are being done (go up parramatta road way for that).

  18. “libertarianism has failed to produce a coherent response to the Iraq war or the Bush assault on civil liberties”

    Sorry, but genuine libertarians produced coherent responses to both. As far as the Iraq War goes, we raised the slogan “No War but the Class War” and opposed it as an imperialist war. As for the Bush Junta, we opposed it as yet another capitalist government as well as its restrictions on rights.

    Unless, of course, by “libertarianism” you mean propertarianism? The right-wing ideology which stole the good name “Libertarian” from the left?

    If you look at what they advocate, “propertarian” is far more accurate — particularly as anti-state socialists were using the term libertarian 100 years before the right did!

  19. @Hal9000
    Sorry Hal – I misconstrued part of your post above …and you say “Not so strangely, occupations actually love to be regulated by a restrictive licensing system, because it deters new entrants into the market: competition”

    Yes it happens but of course existing regulated businesses will seek protection from unregulated new entrants (because they pay a higher regualtory new entrants with less regulation threaten their profitability and put them at a competitive disadvantage even though they may be more competent and more skilled and provide a superior service.

    Competition is good but excessive competition can also produce undesirable social costs …think unregulated car dealers, unregulated dentists, unregulated real estate agents and even unregulated or even insufficiently financial advisers.

    There can be adverse consequences to those “too eager too accepting” deregulation policy initiatives implemented by governments underpinned by the paradigm that “all competition is good competition and that more competition means even better competition”. Think productivity commission under previous PM. I think many of us have been seeing this paradigm in many western governments over the past few decades.

    Yet some of us have been scratching our heads wondering whether the econo rats (couldnt resist – see Elizabeth Farrelly in today’s SMH) in governments who have been enjoying riding the deregulation train actually didnt notice that the train appears to have either no brakes or Toyota brakes.

  20. Have you ever noticed that while many of the deniers are conspiracy theorists who go on about a Green or Left conspiracy to fudge the science or control our lives, there are no conspiracy theorists amongst them who will talk about the role of Big Oil and Big Coal in fudging the science or in controlling our lives?

  21. silkworm,
    It just goes to show that there are conspiracy theorists and delusionists at just about every point on the political spectrum. The answer to the question of “Why is my pet theory not working correctly?” is, by those prone to delusional thinking, “A gigantic conspiracy by those I would hurt against the people I am trying to help!” (reason one) rather than “Perhaps I am wrong with my theory” (reason two) or “I am just not good enough to convince enough people that I am correct!” (reason three).
    Personally, I think I fall into the third of these reasons, but am open to the second. I do not make the case for the first. You seem to, for your ideas, adopt that one.

  22. Speaking purely of the drivers of conspiracy theory Andrew, (putting aside people suffering from mental illness) it seems to me that it’s analogous to the way we humans respond to mosquito bites. Really, you know that in the long run scractching only makes it worse, but in the short term it gives blessed relief.

    If you are frustrated with the way the world is, attributing the apparently counter-intuitive character of policy to grand conspiracies does provide the kind of narrative closure that allows one to persist in holding one’s own view and perhaps to continue believing that most rational people would share your view, if only you could pitch it.

    The downside of course is if there really is an all embracing conspiracy, then one’s chance of ever seeing one’s preferred policy get implemented is pretty much zero. You aresetting yourself up for longterm disappointment or at best a kind of world-weary apathy.

    That’s not to say that conspiracies never happen, or that here and there groups of people with a momentary common interest don’t get control of the parts of policy that suit them, but one should be very careful to seek out and find observable, pertinent and persuasive data in reading back from policy to apparent stakeholder interest, because that way lies madness.

  23. It just goes to show that there are conspiracy theorists and delusionists at just about every point on the political spectrum.

    No it doesn’t. The political right are the delusional ones when it comes to the science of global warming. And my point still stands that the deniers will not speak about the role of Big Coal and Big Oil in the denial movement.

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