Zoom

I just gave my first UQ departmental seminar using Zoom. As in most places, our usual practice is to have visiting speakers present their work and meet colleagues in the same field. When large numbers of Chinese students were prevented from returning to Australia in the first round of the coronavirus epidemic, the cost to the university’s budget was such that nearly all travel, including paying for visitors’ travel was cancelled. As it’s turned out, a good thing to. This left big gaps in the seminar program, so I volunteered to present a paper in one of the vacant slots.

By the time the seminar was scheduled to happen, budget cuts were the least of our worries. Lectures were stopped for a week while we switch to all-online teaching, and (nearly all) meetings were cancelled. So, I decided to present the talk from home using Zoom. It went quite well, even though my home Internet is a bit flaky (the much-delayed National Broadband Network is supposed to arrive here next month, and may improve things). In the subsequent discussion, it was pointed out that we could invite people from outside the department to take part. For example, one of our PhD students had a paper accepted for a conference that’s been cancelled, and could ask some of the key people who would have been there to hear the presentation.

It also struck me that we could have gone back to the originally scheduled speaker, and had them do a Zoom presentation. That leads immediately to the question: why carry on with the tradition of flying colleagues in to have them talk to us, when they could just as well do it from home (or at least, from their home campus)? The difficulties are much less than those with online-only teaching.

Of course, I would say that. I’ve been pushing the merits of videoconferencing and related technologies for decades, and regularly respond to travel invitations by offering a video presentation rather than attendance in person. But now that lots of people are experiencing the process and finding it works reasonably well (and in fact has substantial advantages), returning to the old ways once the crisis is over may be too difficult to justify, especially since our budget is going to be stringently rationed for a long time to come.

Intersectionality vs dominant identity politics*

Shorter JQ: Although the idea of intersectionality emerged on the left as a solution to problems involving class and identity politics, it turns out to the be the natural response to the rise of dominant identity politics on the right.

As I see it, intersectionality combines a recognition that people are oppressed both through the economic structures of capitalism and as members of various subordinate groups with a rejection of both:

  • “essentialist” identity politics, based on the claim that some particular aspect of identity (gender, race, sexuality, disability etc) should trump all others; and
  • “working class” politics, presented as a politics of universal liberation, but reduced by the failure of revolutionary Marxism to another kind of identity politics (I took this formulation from Don Arthur on Twitter. I had something to say about class and Marxism a while back)

The point about intersectionality is that there many kinds of oppression and injustice, and they interact in complex, more than additive, ways. The resulting political strategy for the left is not so much that of a “rainbow coalition” of distinct identity groups but a kaleidoscope in which different facets come to the fore at different times and places.

Now think about dominant/default identity politics (I’ll use the US/Australian version, but other versions can be obtained just by changing the dominant identity). The key idea, is that well-off, white, Christian men are being oppressed by virtue of challenges to their natural position of dominance, and rejection of their natural expectation of deference.

The central claim is also addressed to white Christian women, particularly married women, who are assumed to identify their interests with those of their families.

Looked at this way, the claims of dominant/default identity politics are the exact opposite of those underlying intersectionality. The more someone deviates from the “typical” American/Australian, the more they are seen as benefiting unfairly from social welfare systems, anti-discrimination policy and so on.

The right (along with much of the centrist commentariat,least until recently) at mostly fails to understand its relationship with intersectionality, in two ways.

First, they mostly don’t recognise their own politics as identity politics, though this is changing. This recognition is welcome for overt white supremacists, but more problematic for those who want to retain the illusion that their movement is based on broad ideological principles.

Second, they miss the point of intersectionality completely, seeing it as just old-style identity politics on steroids. That’s unsurprising, since they never paid much attention to disputes within the left over class and identity politics, and have used “identity politics” as a rhetorical cudgel.

How will all this develop? As white Christians become a minority, the implied political strategy is a combination of political mobilization for rightwing whites and voter suppression for everyone else. If this succeeds, we’ll be well on the path to dictatorship. If it fails, the right will need to expand the notion of acceptable identity, a path proposed, and then abandoned, after their 2012 election defeat.

  • As usual from me, amateur analysis, probably unoriginal and possibly wrong. Feel free to point this out in comments.

Tolerance, acceptance, deference, dominance

Warning: Amateur sociological/political analysis ahead

I’ve been thinking about the various versions of and critiques of identity politics that are around at the moment. In its most general form, identity politics involves (i) a claim that a particular group is not being treated fairly and (ii) a claim that members of that group should place political priority on the demand for fairer treatment. But “fairer” can mean lots of different things. I’m trying to think about this using contrasts between the set of terms in the post title. A lot of this is unoriginal, but I’m hoping I can say something new.

Starting from the left (in more senses than one), tolerance involves the removal of legal barriers to being recognised as a participating member of the community, with legal freedom from persecution, voting rights, property rights and so on. Women, gays, religious minorities and people of colour have all had to struggle to obtain this recognition. But, as has been pointed out many times, mere legal tolerance is demeaning and discriminatory. Identity politics involves a demand not merely for tolerance but for acceptance.

Jumping to the right, the idea of tolerance implies the existence of a dominant group that does the tolerating, either as a result of moral suasion or as a response to political pressure. Moving from tolerance to acceptance implies an erosion of that dominance. It becomes unacceptable for members of the formerly dominant group to express or act on the view that the other group is inferior: such views, once expressed openly without fear of adverse consequences, are now criticised as racist, misogynistic, homophobic.

The most difficult term in the series is deference. In sociology/anthropology, it’s typically used in counterpoint with “dominance”, as the attitude displayed by one submitting to dominance. But in the context of identity politics, I think there’s something more subtle going on.

Members of the formerly dominant group may be willing to extend acceptance to others, but they still expect a kind of deference in return. Most obviously, they expect to be treated as the default identity for the community as a whole, as “typical”, “real”, “true”, Americans, Australians, Finns or whatever.

When that expectation of deference is not fulfilled, the choices are to accept the new situation, or to support what might be called default identity politics. More or less inevitably, that implies an alliance with those who want to reassert or restore the group’s dominant position: racists, theocrats, and so on, depending on which aspect of the dominant identity is being challenged.

That makes default identity politics a “double or nothing” bet. If it’s political successful, it’s dragged further and further towards entrenched minority rule by members of the dominant racial or religous group, and typically towards some form of personal dictatorship. If it’s unsuccessful, the divisions it creates risks a reversal of the previous order. Instead of being accepted as one element of a diverse community, the formerly dominant group becomes the object of hostility and derision. The signs of that are certainly evident, particularly in relation to the culture wars around religion.

Fudge

As I’ve said previously, explaining election losses after the fact is too easy, since changing any factor that caused a loss of significant numbers of votes would (other things equal) turn the loss to a win.

Still, one thing that’s struck me about several recent elections lost by the left is that they combined a generally coherent platform with a fudge on a central issue. Examples are Corbyn on Brexit, Shorten on Adani and Clinton on the TPPA.

I don’t want to make too much of this. The decision to fudge in each case reflected the reality that going either way would cost at least some votes, and might not get enough new ones to make up.

Still, Shorten didn’t gain anything by hedging on Adani, and lost quite a bit. If he had announced the end of new thermal coal, he wouldn’t have lost any more seats[1], and might have gained some

I think also that Corbyn would have done better with a promise of an immediate referendum on Johnson’s deal and a commitment to campaign for Remain. And once Clinton decided against TPP she should have gone the whole hog, rather than appointing another globalist like Tim Kaine as running mate.

fn1. This policy would actually help miners working in existing mines, in the Hunter Valley for example. Whether Labor’s abysmal campaign crew could get such a message across is another question.

No true war is bad?

On Facebook, my frined Timothy Scriven pointed to an opinion piece by classics professor Ian Morris headlined In the long run, wars make us safer and richer It’s pushing a book with the clickbaity title War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”. Timothy correctly guessed that I wouldn’t like it.

Based on the headline, I was expecting a claim along the lines “wars stimulate technological progress” which I refuted (to my own satisfaction at any rate) in Economics in Two Lessons”. But the argument is much stranger than this. The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity.

For the classical world at 100 CE or so, the era on which Morris is an expert, that argument seemed pretty convincing. As the famous Life of Brian sketch suggests, Roman rule delivered a lot of benefits to its conquered provinces.

The next 1900 years or so present a bit of a problem, though. There have been countless wars in that time, and no trend towards bigger states. On the contrary two or three dozen states (depending on how you count them) now occupy the territory of the former Roman Empire.

You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but then you have an even bigger problem. The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.

Morris avoids the problem by a “no true Scotsman” argument. He admits in passing that the 1000 years of war following the high point of Rome had the effect of breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones, but returns with relief to the era of true wars, in which big states always win. That story works, roughly, until 1914, when the empires he admires destroyed themselves, killing millions in the process.

After that, the argument descends into Pinker-style nonsense. While repeating the usual stats about the decline in violent deaths, Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

I haven’t read the book, and don’t intend to. If someone can’t present a 700 word summary of their argument without looking silly, they shouldn’t write opinion pieces. But, for what its worth, FB friends who have read it agree that it’s not very good.

Passports (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

I was looking over this post from 2016, on the consequences of a relatively successful Brexit

I’m finding it hard to see that anything will happen to justify the massive effort involved. The Poles and other EU citizens whose presence was the biggest single justification for Brexit won’t go away. On the contrary, it seems pretty clear that all EU citizens will get permanent residence, even those who arrived after the Brexit vote. Even with a hard Brexit, the benefits of consistency with EU regulations will be overwhelming. The terms of any trade deal with non-EU countries won’t be any better than the existing EU deals and probably worse. Even symbolically, what’s going to happen? Typically, national independence is marked by a ceremony where the flag of the imperial power is lowered, and the new national flag is raised. But, from what I can tell, the EU flag is hardly ever flown in the UK as it is. The same for national currency, passport, official languages and all the other symbolic representations of nationhood. So, after a successful Brexit, Britain will be a little poorer and more isolated than before, but otherwise largely unchanged. Will that count as success in the eyes of those who voted to Leave. I don’t know.

Most of that still looks about right. But as commenters at the time pointed out, I was wrong about passports. One of the big things Leavers disliked about the EU was the replacement of the blue British passport with EU burgundy. It turns out that the colour change wasn’t compulsory, and the reintroduced blue passports will be printed in France, but at least that is a symbolic win for the Brexiteers.

On the other hand, how does this fit with the oft-repeated claim that Leave voters were “left behind” “stayers”? To be nostalgic for blue passports, you would presumably need to have undertaken a fair bit of international travel before 1988, when they were replaced. That experience, combined with the assumption that Britain is far superior to the EU, sounds like the profile of a stereotypical well-off, middle-aged or older, Tory voter. And, as far as I can tell, it was this category that provided the core support for Leave. That’s consistent with Trumpist voting most places in the English speaking world.

Movers and stayers

A lot of discussion of immigration is framed around the distinction between movers and stayers. Until recently, most of what I’ve seen has framed “stayers” as those who see their economic interests as being threatened by competition from immigrants. To protect themselves, they want to restrict immigration, even if the consequence is to restrict the opportunities for “movers” from their own country. The harm to these “movers-out” is just collateral damage

But lately I’ve been seeing a different account, in which it’s the departure of the movers-out that is causing problems by reducing the supply of workers to provide services to, and pay taxes to support, the stayers (particularly, the old). In economic terms, the obvious solution would be to replace the movers-out with movers-in, but they are of the wrong religion, skin colour and so on, and are therefore rejected. That exacerbates visible economic decline, particularly in terms of the level of economic activity, even when income per person holds up or is sustained by transfer payments. This in turn produces support for Trumpism and its variants.

This story comes up most clearly in relation to Eastern Europe (most notably Hungary) following accession to the EU, but I think it’s applicable to many rural areas in richer countries.

The feelings of the stayers in this story are understandable. They liked things better as they were, and resent changes. But they are hard to defend in moral terms, since keeping things as they were requires massively constraining the rights of others to work, marry and live in the way they wish to.

On this account, there’s also a lot of self-selection going on here. Staying, and demanding that others do so, is a conservative and authoritarian choice, so the stayers will tend to be those in a given population who fit this description. This comes back to the question of why rural voters support conservative parties, even when those parties serve the interests of the urban rich. I’ve seen (but can’t now find) a very old discussion of this point in relation to France, where it’s been relevant ever since 1789. In the US context, it’s being rediscovered right now.