The world is changing. What was stable has become unstuck: mass movements and class conflicts, elite hubris and institutional failure, authoritarianism and a collapse of authority: and everywhere a crisis of meaning. How should one live in this world? In this podcast, I take books I read and ideas I find and try to bring them down to earth, to understand what is happening here and now. I seek lasting principles, not hot takes. Topics include the professional class; critiques of social justice and identity politics; the information society; myth, narrative and meaning. I want to see clearly and speak freely. "Who knows, doesn't talk. Who talks, doesn't know." — Tao Te Ching
Discourse, the Demon of Social Justice
Discourse is at the heart of social justice: the idea human beings are not free actors in the world, but are instead constrained by language, in the form of discourses that have been established over time. And we do not create our identities freely: who we our is our experiences of different discourses - discourses like race, gender, nationality, and so forth.
Discourses are power relations. They conflict with one another - feminism versus patriarchy, for instance. They, not we, are the dominant actors in the world. We are the landscape on which they struggle, and the territory that they conquer. We are possessed by discourses. Discourses, as it were, are the demons of social justice.
In such a world of conflict, power comes from controlling what people say. Censorship is not a convenient tactic of social justice, it is central to the social justice world view.
This is the final episode of season one of this podcast. The theme of the season has been social justice. Nearly every episode implicitly critiques an aspect of social justice. But the pandemic has revealed that social justice is not the cause of the situation we're in. It shows that something more fundamental is at work - something that is manifesting in both social justice and the authoritarian response to Covid.
I will be pausing now. When I return with new episodes, for season two, I will be looking beyond social justice. I expect I will be looking at technology, technocracy and the narrative of progress.
This episode excerpts Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, 3rd edition, by John Hartley.
Racecraft: Constructing Race
"Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race . . . [which] transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss." — Karen & Barbara Fields, Racecraft
Race is invisible. Skin colour is merely in indication of something deeper, a hidden quality of the intellect or the personality. But that quality is not real. Like an unseen world of gods or spirits, we imagine it to give life meaning. We use this invisible, imagined quality of race explain why bad things happen: inequality, crime, injustice.
In fact, race is real - as a social construction. As explain in a previous episode, social constructions are not simply in our minds. They are made of real people, things, and our interactions. Race does not exist as an invisible quality inside us - but we do create it as something we outside and among us. Census forms, news stories, academic papers: these are what race is made of, not some invisible force in the body.
The anti-racism of the social justice movement acknowledges that race is socially constructed - but then it repeats the error. Racism, as the Fields sisters say, is not imaginary: it is actual oppression. It is actual things that people do to other people. Anti-racism replaces material racism with another invisible, imaginary quality of consciousness. But dematerializing racism into a phantom like race itself makes it nearly impossible to fight.
Race is the perpetuation of the the belief in an invisible quality that doesn't exist. As the Fields sisters say, "the first principle of racism is belief in race." By continually recreating race, we pass racism down from generation to generation.
We need someone to blame. When something bad happens, we don't want to hear that it's because of chance or nature, because then it's meaningless. We want a social explanation. That's what witchcraft delivered for the Azande people, studied by Edward Evans-Pritchard,
For the Azande, everyday misfortunes are caused by witchcraft. If you get sick, and the illness gets progressively worse, that's because of witchcraft. There are witches all around. Their envies and jealousies lead witches to bewitch friends, neighbours, even family members.
To us, this belief seems irrational. But it is no more so than our confidence in science or technology. We don't understand most technology, but we have experts who do, and we take their word for it. The Azande have experts too, and ways to identify witches. Suspected witches even effectively confess to the deed. And their experts can even conduct an autopsy to discover whether someone was a witch.
The only thing missing is a mechanism - the actual method that a witch uses to arrange it so that your hurt yourself on a stump, for instance. That's the one thing that science offers that witchcraft does not. But do you know how your phone works? All the mechanisms involved, from electromagnetism to just-in-time software compilers? Of course not. So it is with the Azande. It is easy to pretend superior knowledge, but we are not so different.
Witchcraft among the Azande is real. Even if no one is truly bewitched, from oracles to autopsies to the rituals of an accused witch promising to desist, witchcraft is a real social institution. As an example from a foreign culture, it provides us with an illustration of how social constructions work. In the next episode, I will bring that home, to a more familiar construction: race.
See E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande.
What Are Social Constructions Made Of?
"When a dancer stops dancing, the dance is finished." - Bruno Latour
What Latour calls "critical sociology" (an intellectual foundation of social justice) does three things. 1) It replaces the activities of real people with abstract forces from a limited set of existing categories, like capitalism, society, racism, etc. 2) It ignores the protests of the actors when they say that's not what they're doing. 3) It takes those protests as proof that the sociologists are correct and that ordinary people cannot bear to face the reality of the forces that motivate them.
The result is a discipline that believes in invisible, intangible - in other words, metaphysical - forces that manipulate us like puppets, and which, because they are not material, we have little hope of influencing. The error is not political, however: it is simply how many sociologists look at the world. Latour offers an alternative explanation of social constructions as existing in the material world, composed of the associations of people and things- a dance, in the metaphor above, that exists only so long as their interactions continue.
His book, Reassembling the Social, is actually an introduction to his confusingly-named Actor Network Theory. This episode can serve as an introduction to some of the core ideas of ANT.
The Invention of White Privilege
Plantation owners in 17th century Barbados had a problem. They purchased white indentured servants and black slaves. At that time, there was little difference: life expectancy was so short that most indentured servants never saw freedom. The decision to buy servants or slaves was often dictated by price.
Black and white alike, the oppressed teamed up to rebel. Their oppressors concocted a strategy. Divide and rule: pit the two groups against each other by emphasizing race, and giving more privileges to the whites. For the first time, they crafted race laws that stripped black slaves of rights. And they deliberately starved them. "Tush, they can shift," they said: feed the blacks too little and they will steal from the whites. The strategy worked so well that it was imported to South Carolina, then to other English colonies in what was to become the United States.
White privilege was created not to benefit white people in general, but to benefit the masters. It was created to oppress black and white workers and slaves. The point was not privileges themselves: it was the message they sent that made one group feel superior, the other inferior, so that they would not work together. This strategy survived slavery, into the Jim Crow era when W. E. B. Du Bois called it a "psychological wage" that kept wages down for white workers and maintained racial antagonism to benefit elites.
We used to talk about prejudice and disadvantage: the implication was that disadvantages should be eliminated, raising everyone up. To call out privilege is to imply that it should be eliminated, lowering everyone down. Talk of white privilege is what it has always been: a strategy for domination that sets people against each other on the basis of skin colour to prevent them from resisting domination by elites.
See The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, by Peter Linebaugh and Markus Rediker. See also Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, by W. E. B. Du Bois.
The Matrix and the Heresy of Progress
The Matrix echoes the Gnostic heresy: the world is a prison for our souls, the creator is evil, and knowledge brings freedom.
In the film, what appears to be reality is in fact an illusion created to enslave humanity. The red pill reveals the true world and grants the power to control the illusion to war against the creator.
For the ancient Gnostics, the material world was false. Our bodies and their pleasures, from food to sex, were oppressive deceptions. The truth, they believed, was that our souls are eternal, but this knowledge has been taken from us. Gnosis means knowledge - knowledge of our true natures, and how to transcend our earthly limits. The early Catholic Church declared the Gnostics heretics: for in the Bible, the creator is good, and so is his creation.
But did Gnosticism really fade away? Philosophers Augusto Del Noce and Eric Voegelin say no. They argue that Gnosticism has taken on a materialist, atheist form. The ancient Gnostics believed that Gnostic enlightenment would guide us to a spiritual Utopia. Revolutionary materialist ideologies - communism, socialism, fascism, progressivism - believe instead in a Utopia here on earth.
But, Del Noce and Voegelin say, these ideologies are fatally flawed. Like the Gnostics, and like the humans in the Matrix, they reject the world that exists. Their adherents' belief that better world is possible is so strong that they are willing to cast principle aside. If unborn generations can be spared the suffering of our fallen world, are not acts of violence really acts of love? But once principle has been lost, it can never be regained. The pursuit of Utopia degenerates into nothing more than the pursuit of power.
See Augusto Del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity; Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism; and China Miéville, "Foundation," in Looking for Jake.