Illiberalism is something of a fashion around the world today. Sometimes it goes explicitly by that name, such as with Viktor Orban’s self-declared “illiberal democracy.” In other instances, it has a more amorphous character, such as with American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher’s self-description as a post-liberal, which suggests perhaps not total opposition, but certainly a surpassing, of liberalism.
These visions share a few features in common in rejecting liberalism. The first is that they purport to be aimed at some vision of the good, in contrast to liberalism which is value-neutral on most matters not involving individual rights. There are two conflicting versions of how this conflicts with liberalism according to post-liberals (with different post-liberals making different arguments). For some, the opposition to liberalism is because liberalism’s value neutrality is seen as standing in the way of utilizing the levers of state power to bring about the particular vision post-liberal prefers. Others, such as Dreher, see liberalism as not in fact neutral between goods but having certain inherent tendencies to prefer individual and particular—as opposed to collective and shared—goods over others.
Yet what is not often acknowledged is that liberalism ingeniously solves a problem that has long bedeviled the world, and that even if post-liberals have grown disenchanted with liberalism, that problem does not go away. That problem is: “How do we deal with competing visions of the good in a society that is diverse and pluralistic in its outlook?” We know what the “solutions” prior to liberalism have historically been. These are what Jonathan Rauch, in the Constitution of Knowledge, calls “Creed Wars” and they very often include actual wars, pervasive persecution, and forced migration.
It is obvious to state but worth noting that this is not an abstract question. The United States is just such a pluralistic society. George Washington University political science professor Samuel Goldman observes that, even though many of the founding generation may have wanted a society marked by a more religious vision of the good, “It didn’t work out that way, because even at the time, the population was too diverse, the institutions were too precariously balanced to permit it.”
In a long piece for The American Conservative Dreher runs into this problem in the course of an examination and discussion of integralism, which for simplicity’s sake can be described as a political vision that works for greater union between the state and the Catholic Church in pursuit of a vision of the good as understood by Catholicism. Or, for another way to gloss it, it shares many similarities with Plato’s Republic but swaps out Plato’s Philosopher Kings for the Catholic hierarchy. (It is important to caveat that this is very far from being a mainstream position among Catholics—it is largely confined to a few academics and public intellectuals ).
Dreher has many sympathies with the integralists in what he takes to be the failings of liberalism. Yet when thinking about what integralism calls for, the creation of a state aimed at pursuing the Catholic good, Dreher (who is himself Eastern Orthodox) understandably balks. What is to become of religious minorities under such a system? (Not to mention those of us who are not religious!) Why would folks voluntarily consent to such a government if they were not themselves Catholic integralists?
In this way, Dreher rediscovers the challenge of living peacefully with difference that liberalism emerged to resolve. Dreher acknowledges the challenge—the post-liberals cannot agree even amongst themselves about a vision of the post-liberal good. Dreher even acknowledges the value of liberalism in allowing for a peaceful status quo amongst competing visions, yet his deeply felt critique of liberalism does not allow him to rest content with liberalism. Thus, the post-liberal’s dilemma. They see liberalism as intolerable, but any move away from liberalism runs straight back into the question of living peacefully with different visions of the good that liberalism is meant to solve.
The conundrum that post-liberals are left with is that there is no decent way to arbitrate disagreements about the good even amongst themselves. There are indecent alternatives that aim to make society less diverse and pluralistic. For example, inquisitions, wars, and forced population transfers which impose a terrible tragedy on people in the name of a higher good. (To be fair, many post-liberals do not endorse these tactics—but they are what illiberal regimes have turned to in the past.) Further, to the degree that the post-liberals have robust and different visions of the good, these different visions will necessarily come into conflict. (For example, integralism is actually cosmopolitan and global in its scope, envisioning a universal Church, as compared to nationalist post-liberal visions.)
And there is reason to worry that they may be drawn to these indecent alternatives. After all, if the main point of contention is simply that not enough people are religious or recognize the importance of religious values—well liberalism does allow for persuasion and conversion! Yet to hold this view is not to be a post-liberal at all, but simply to be the very decent David French, making use of liberal freedom to persuade others to join his corner. To even call oneself a post-liberal is to hint that alternatives other than persuasion are being seriously considered.
The post-liberal is, in effect, pushed into a circular regress, oscillating between two unacceptable outcomes. They could retain much of their critique but grudgingly grant that liberalism is perhaps the best we can manage in an imperfect world, or they could accept varying levels of indecency to achieve their vision. For me, I hope their sense of decency wins out and perhaps even pushes them to acknowledge that, as messy, noisy and complicated as it is, a liberal society that allows for individuals to pursue many goods really is a rather nice place to live.
For a long time, the animosities of the Cold War ensured that Marx was treated by friend and foe alike as the unrepentant foe of liberal democracy. For his most scathing liberal critics, Marxism constituted a regression to a distinctly pre-liberal way of thinking: collectivist rather than individualistic, committed to historicism rather than universalistic, and worst of all irredeemably German. Ironically some of Marx’s most zealous defenders would agree with their counterparts. Well known authors like Louis Althusser and Slavoj Zizek see Marxism as a fundamental alternative to liberal doctrines. Where liberals offer ideological glosses to naturalize and defend the vulgarities of post-modern global capitalism, Marxism remains the philosophy which allows us to ever so slightly cast our illusions aside.
Whichever side you take, this view of Marx as stridently anti-liberal is coming under increasing critical scrutiny. Marxists like Terry Eagleton and Igor Shoikhedbrod have stressed the many ways in which Marx and Engels were both impressed and inspired by liberal politics and revolutions, while liberals like Amartya Sen and Chantal Mouffe stress the ongoing insights of the critique of capitalist political economy for understanding the power dynamics of our time. While some right wing liberals may naively wish to just exorcise the demon of Marx once and for all, the reality is that as long as capitalism exists so too will its greatest critic retain his relevance. Moreover, when one probes more deeply into the moral bases of Marxism, one finds it much closer to liberalism than the historic rivalry between the two would suggest.
One of the most remarkable achievements of Marx is that starting with an academic background in jurisprudence and philosophy, which he studied at the University of Berlin in the late 1830s, he turned to economics to clarify and deepen his ideas only after he was about 28 years old. It is a testimony to his marvelous gifts that he succeeded in becoming one of the great 19th-century figures of that subject, to be ranked along with Ricardo and Mill, Walras and Marshall. He was a self-taught, isolated scholar…Given the circumstances of Marx’s life, his achievement as an economic theorist and political sociologist of capitalism is extraordinary, indeed heroic.
John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy
Marx began his intellectual career as a Young Hegelian deeply committed to liberal causes in virulently illiberal 19th century Prussia. He came of age during the era of Metternich’s reaction, where the feudal aristocracy seemed to successfully be routing or at least containing the forces of liberalism on the continent. As a firebrand journalist dedicated to freedom of the press, expansion of the franchise, and an end to the authoritarian monarchy Marx naturally had much in common with the liberal radicals of his time.
Indeed he and Engels’s were giddy at the prospect of their inevitable victory over the forces of reaction, applauding the bourgeoisie’s “revolutionary” role and accurately claiming that “during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?” One would be hard pressed to find such zealous praise even from Steven Pinker.
But the course of true love never did run smooth, and Marx was also one of liberalisms’ most relentless critics. He took an ironists’ glee in pointing out how many of the rosy conceits of classical liberal theory—the yearning to shrink the state into obsolescence, that liberalism simply gave political expression to a timeless human nature, the Munchausean desire to both have stability and progress, order and freedom, patriotism and universalism—always run up against the hard material limitations of real-world practices and compromises. And he was always insistent that much as liberals had been hard on reactionary theories which presented authoritarianism as natural, inevitable, or divinely ordained we must be equally hard on liberal idolatry and the tendency to naturalize or mythologize the contingent beliefs and structures of what—after all—was a unique society which had emerged in mature form at the earliest in the late 18th century. This is an important point, and I will return to it below.
The liberal response to Marx has been equally mixed, with some like Rawls expressing great admiration for his social theory and critiques of capitalism and others like J.M Keynes deciding the best response to Marxism is to yawn and ignore it. The less effective criticisms offered by someone like Robert Nozick in his classic book Anarchy, State, and Utopia usually tend to define one prong of Marxism as the cornerstone of the whole edifice—a misconstrued iteration of Marx’s arguments about socially necessary labor time as the basis of exchange value is a usual culprit—which is then critiqued in the hope that Marxism as a whole will collapse with it.
In Nozick’s case, he ridicules the labor theory of value in a well known thought experiment about whether mixing one’s can of tomato juice in the ocean makes it theirs. While this thought experiment is accurate as an objection to the more classically Lockean account of property entitlements (which Nozick himself appeals to at points in his book) and its vulgar Marxist offshoots, it has less bite against the more sophisticated (but still very problematic) historical iteration developed by Marx in Capital. Part ofMarx’s view is that labor comes to be conceived as the basis of value in the bourgeois epoch for complex historical reasons, and on that he was undoubtedly right as the presence of labor theories of value in Locke, Smith, and Ricardo demonstrate.
But liberals have always managed to launch several powerful objections of Marxist theory since its inception, taking aim at everything from the pretensions of the classical dialectical method to both describe the laws of motion of history from a scientific standpoint to the failure of Marx’s predictions about economic crises giving rise to an inevitable communist utopia. More analytical but perhaps theoretically pressing critiques can be directed against the ambitions of Marxists like Evgeny Pashukanis to eventually transcend politics through management once the means of production have become sufficiently developed to produce such a surplus of goods that political questions about who gets what become meaningless.
Commentators like Ronald Dworkin and Rawls have pointed out that this will never happen since even a very wealthy society will still have to deal with the problems of relative scarcity. Is it better to dedicate $10 billion to extend life expectancy by a year, or improve the quality of post-secondary education for millions? A very rich Marxist society may have gigantic resources to allocate to healthcare and education, but it would still have to make moral and political judgments about just how much we should prioritize either. More importantly it would require mechanisms for deciding on these questions, which means the idea of replacing political deliberation with technical management seems like a pipe dream.
Liberal and dialectical theory
A key division can be found in the way liberal and Marxist theory come down on certain philosophical fundamentals. It is an open question whether they can be reconciled.
Classical liberal theory tended to make unidirectional arguments that were often deliberately modeled off of the linear modes of reasoning pioneered by early-modern astronomers and physicists like Galileo and Isaac Newton. Hobbes’ famous references to geometry as the ideal model for critical reasoning before moving onto considerations of the “motions” that directed humankind, or Locke’s attempt to deduce the “laws of reason” and “nature” by moving from a description of the state of nature to civil society are exemplars here. Of course, as commentators going back to Aristotle knew, politics is not akin to the physical sciences and never has and never will benefit from the same level of exact precision. But there was a yearning to move from the most atomic and basic material possible upwards to more complex analyses of civil and political society possible through a sustained process that balanced logical rigor and with empirical exactitude.
Usually the atomic point was conceived as the single individual, who owned his body and labor and was not dependent on civil society or the state and consequently owed it nothing a priori.The movement of these liberal modes of reasoning was meant to not only describe but legitimate through naturalization and mythologization; Locke, Spinoza and others read back into natural human beings many of the features of humankind as they wanted and perceived them to be in the increasingly liberal culture of the era.
Questionable premises—such as Locke treating private property, a fundamantally legal relation, as something which exists in the absence of a coercive state—often led to questionable conclusions. But whatever its logical flaws, classical liberal theory had the effect of delegitimating the older, paternalistic ways of justifying society which made individuals dependent on the rules for protection and care, and putting forward a new, emancipatory ideal in its place. But one that, from a Marxist perspective, ran the risk of becoming just as much an idol of naturalization and mythologization as what it replaced.
Contemporary liberal theorists are more sensitive to these risks, in no small part due to over a century of critiques from Marxists and other commentators. Since at least the mature Enlightenment philosophy of J.S. Mill, theory construction is usually self-consciously reflective about putting forward a controversial moral ideal of humankind. Nevertheless the philosophical modes of reasoning still tend to proceed in linear fashion from basic principles upwards to complex and rich justifications of liberal democratic states; though the particulars remain a matter of significant debate amongst liberals. Rawls’s commitment to an abstract “pure procedural justice”—criticized by Amartya Sen as a kind of “transcendental institutionalism”—is a typical case.
Many of the lazier Marxist commentators have a bad habit of mechanically stamping these modes of liberal theorizing “idealism” or “ideology” and calling it a day. This is a reductive evasion that ignores a lot of what liberal theory could potentially offer the Marxist critique of political economy. But it is true that the dialectical tradition is often better at explaining the world outside of pure theory than its liberal competitors.
From a Marxist standpoint, liberals can fall into the trap of thinking unicausally about historical and political-economic dynamics; for instance asserting along with Gary Becker or Milton Friedman that humanity is best conceived as a sequence of self-interested individuals, that self-interested individuals pursue economic gain rationally at all costs, and the liberal state is natural to humankind because it reflects that. The heuristic device of the social contract, so popular with early liberals like Locke, reflects this in its effort to explain how one moves from describing a state of nature made up of self-interested individuals to legitimating a liberal political order constitued long ago and binding upon us now.
Of course the social contract never actually occurred, and the earlier liberals were well aware of this. But the linear mode of rationalization was nevertheless important in trying to demonstrate that the liberal state is what people would have chosen if they had been reasonable and had the option available to them. Consequently, any deviation from this model is seen as irrational or even unnatural—the fact that illiberal societies were the norm for the vast majority of human history is often left without sufficient explanation by earlier liberal theorists or chalked up to a mere lack of Enlightenment maturity on their part. This has an idealist quality in not accounting for the historical process which provided a fertile soil within which liberal ideas and institutions not only emerged, but had sufficient currency amongst the emergent middle classes to seriously vie for political power against the old aristocratic feudal order.
The dialectical materialist method pioneered by Marx approaches politics and society from a very different standpoint. For Marx, unicausal explanations of how society emerges always risk becoming ideological since they are typically invoked to give absolute weight to a controversial point of view. Marxist theory tends to move in a less linear and a more circular direction, starting from an interrogation of a small scale social phenomenon, analyzing it theoretically using the categories of dialectical thought, and then resituating it in a broader totality.
In this way, to use David Harvey’s expression, Marx’s thought is rather like moving from the center of an onion outwards, where each circular movement expands the scope of what we’re looking at. To appeal to a scientific analogy, it has more in common with the organic model of evolutionary development in Charles Darwin, an important theoretical influence on Marx, than the linear physics of Galileo or Isaac Newton.
From a Marxist standpoint liberals are unable to recognize how, since we exist in a multi-causal world defined by contingency, every form of political and economic organization produces unintended systemic effects and tendencies which aren’t just evolutionary but occasionally revolutionary. Some of these can be reinforcing and beneficial, but others can be destabilizing and even provoke crises. Marx’s name for the latter were contradictions, and it is important to be precise in understanding what he means here.
Crude commentators like Ben Shapiro sometimes seem to assume that when Marx discussed contradictions he was implying that we should just embrace contradictory hypotheses, which would of course be absurd. But what he actually meant is that oftentimes the ways we try and go about implementing and stabilizing a given form of political and economic organization can end up undermining it in the long run; often in ways we can predict and manage through reform, sometimes in ways we cannot which means there may be increasingly radical energies boiling.
For instance the liberal state was defined by numerous contradictions. On the one hand liberals claimed to value freedom and want as small a state as possible. But on the other hand, right wing liberals conceive of freedom first and foremost as the protection of a very expansive conception of property rights. But the more expansive a conception of property rights one wants to uphold, the bigger the state and the more coercion will be required. The same is true when it comes to facilitating the spread of markets across the globe on the one hand, while limiting the freedom of democratic majorities to limit inequality and insulating capital from political pressures.
In the 19th century when Marx wrote, he saw this contradiction being expressed in the efforts to shrink the power of the aristocracy and feudal authoritarianism, while at the same time the burgeoning liberal state quashed labor movements and advanced on immense campaigns of imperial conquest. When confronted with powerful progressive movements in the mid-20th century, the liberal state responded by offering welfarist concessions and allowing the spread of labor movements. This was intended to ameliorate the harshness of class conflict and give everyone a stake in maintaining the liberal system. As Ernst Mandel put it in his classic book Late Capitalism:
…The late capitalist state’s function of general organization, regimentation and standardization must be extended to the whole superstructure, and specifically to the sphere of ideology, with the permanent aim of attenuating the class consciousness of the proletariat. The actual extent to which these tendencies prevail, the extent to which their success is limited by the ultimate inability of the system to cancel or conceal its objective contradictions, and the extent to which the objective relationship between the contending classes-which depends, of course, on the objective liability of late capitalism to sharp crises-also shapes subjective class relations…
In the 20th and now 21st century, these kinds of compromises were no longer necessary given the political ascendency of conservatism after the 1980s due to the high levels of unemployment and inflation brought about by the OPEC crisis and growing public dissatisfaction with the political radicalism of the 1960s and early 70s. Consequently the welfare state came under assault, usually under the auspices of shrinking the state. But the fundamental contradiction between the aspiration of market society for maximal freedom and the coercion required to enforce ever starker inequities of property didn’t in fact disappear.
This is why Marxists would argue the Reaganite “shrinking” of the state nevertheless required massive increases in incarceration. Indeed by the end of the 20th century the state was no longer sufficient to do the job capital intended for it, meaning many of the same people who demanded a shrinking of the state also put into place vast new international institutions and regulatory agencies like the WTO to provide further fuel to advancing markets.
Reconciling liberalism and Marxism?
Marxists are very effective at pointing out how these kinds of contradictions emerge, not in spite of the efforts of liberals to prevent them, but in fact because of them. Note how every effort to resolve the contradiction between aspiring for freedom and enforcing strict divisions of property eventually fell apart, usually resulting in a new series of solutions that in turn produced further problems down the line. But Marx’s solution to this problem, that eventually the contradictions would become irresolvable and a new communist utopia would emerge, seems dangerously naïve in hindsight. In Politics and Vision, Sheldon Wolin rightly observed thatMarx’s own account of the power of liberalism and capitalism to reinvent and preserve themselves seemed directly contrary to his predictions that sooner rather than later the bell would toll.
More importantly Marx spent far too little time ruminating on what features of liberal society dedicated egalitarians might want to retain. This is in part due to the limitations of his own dialectical method, which are in many ways the inverse of the liberal traditions. If liberals were given to the idealizing tendency of conceiving prescriptive reforms to improve society while ignoring how these tended to reflect the interests of a given class, Marx often seemed too given to optimistically hoping a sufficiently transformative revolution would eventually allow the creation of a political-economic system where any and all group- and interest-based politics would be eliminated. The characterization of Marx himself as a proto-authoritarian, so beloved on the political right, is wrong.
Marx himself supported virtually every major liberal and democratic reform in his day, and dreamed of the day where the state would “wither away.” But the utopian imaginations opened by the prospect of a society that had overcome the necessity of politics wholesale were dangerous, and he might have been far more cautious in catering to them. This leads us to a key difference between Marxism and liberalism. While Marx’s unpacking of the contradictions of liberal capitalist society and the way class power seeks to manage them holds an uncomfortable mirror up for liberals, it is also the case that many liberals were far more sensitive to the ongoing and intransigent risks entailed by political power than he was in his more rhetorically utopian moments. The attempt to reduce the insights of liberal theorists on this point to mere class prejudice or ideology are misplaced.
The liberal insistence that certain fundamental rights should be put beyond the purview of state interference, including the demand for greater material equality, seems very apt in light of the catastrophic experiments with totalitarian management run by the Soviet Union and its satellites. Moreover, while the Madisonian belief that political power should be divided and limited has often rightly been criticized by Marxists as simply a means of preventing democratic majorities from challenging the power of property, it is also the case that undivided etatism is no solution. Marx’s own thoughts on this were impressively complex, but provisional; the most sustained account appears in the Critique of the Gotha Program and doesn’t amount to more than a few paragraphs where he points out that any new kind of society can be constructed wholesale but will be “stamped” by features of the old. In his essay “Socialism and Liberalism: Articles of Conciliation” Irving Howe was right to point out that many leftists simply ignore the problems entailed in pushing for democratization while warding off the dangers of majoritarian tyranny in a system where political power would be less divided and more responsive than it is in the liberal state.
Papering over these problems by throwing the word “radical” in front of everything isn’t sufficient. I would argue that a sufficiently fine-grained account of democratization which takes into account the liberal warniness of excessive concentrations of power through the creation of discrete but interacting democratic nodes might be the way to go. Possible options could be the project of radical socio-economic democratization, well discussed by the late Leo Panitch and Colin Leys in their recent book, which would entail moving away from party politics to more direct forms of citizen participation in affairs of state while still providing or even expanding meaty protections for individual rights. Reinvigorating the labor movement and building workplace democracy might be another.
What is needed to get behind these differences is a deeper account of the moral bases of both liberalism and Marxism, which I would argue are more similar than different. Marx was a modernist, late Enlightenment thinker who was firmly committed to the project of human emancipation of material flourishing. In this respect he is very much kin to the other mature liberal thinkers like J.S. Mill, John Rawls, and Martha Nussbaum, who also directed our attention firmly away from the limitations of the possessive individualist strains of classical liberalism. Where Marx enriched our conversation on this subject was directing attention away from the classical liberal concerns about what negative liberties allow people to live without interference, and directing it towards what capabilities people need to lead flourishing lives.
His correct intuition was that people who lead flourishing lives will not only be better off, but freer in the sense of having far more choices available to them to engage in diverse experiments in living of the sort any liberal thinker should applaud. On the other hand if liberals do indeed think that freedom and flourishing are important, it is crucial to ask whether they are indeed possibilities for everyone and in what respects the liberal state lets many of its citizens down by limiting or failing to amplify their fundamental capabilities.
There is no getting around these questions by hoping against hope that liberalism or Marxism will simply cease to exist. Nor should we want it to. One is reminded of the great dialectical joke in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 that the best conservative argument against capitalism is just how many Marxists it produces. But a system that didn’t produce critics is one that would not only stagnate, but rot. Given the ongoing economic crises and inequality that mark our time, an analysis of the links and divides between Marxism and liberalism remains as vital as ever.
In part two of this series, I discuss the cases of Peter Boghossian and Beverly Gage, the final two academics discussed in the Twitter thread by the Economist on October 19, 2021. Part one can be found here.
When required to describe himself pre-resignation, Boghossian would say he was “a non-tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University who was recently denied promotion to associate professor.” This phrase appeared in his Twitter bio (it now says something else) and the author description on his paper arguing to reinstate his hoax paper. The first tweet about Boghossian implies that his resignation from Portland State University is the result of his criticism of “post-modern ideology” by placing the two sentences one after the other. The thread makes no other claims about why he resigned. Boghossian’s resignation letter claims that his school has become a place where students are afraid to speak openly and honestly, ironically linking to a video of students being given a platform to air their objection to the “social justice agenda” at the school.
In his resignation letter, Boghossian claims he faced “retaliation” for simply asking questions about the DEI efforts of his school. As support for this claim, he brings up a Title IX accusation from 2017, for which he was cleared. He was advised not to make discriminatory remarks about members of protected classes, which was apparently deeply offensive to him and constituted censorship. He claims that a stunt (he and James Lindsay, a blogger and anti-CRT activist, wrote a fake paper satirizing gender studies, which they got published through a low-impact“pay what you will” journal after being rejected from some higher-impact venues) prompted retaliation such as sharpied messages on bathroom stalls on campus and a bag of feces in front his office (this latter claim has not been corroborated beyond). He provides a photo of one message on a bathroom stall reading “Peter Boghossian is a secret Nazi” but no other evidence. Apparently, the university punished him for asking them to act on the bag incident, which is again not substantiated and makes little sense to anyone acquainted with university disciplinary processes. Also presented as retaliation to his supposed DEI-related questions is his investigation for research misconduct (detailed below).
Other claims of “retaliation” include someone speaking during a panel he was doing with Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying (now known for their contributions to ivermectin conspiracy theories), a fire alarm going off, an activist pulling a mic cord during a talk with James Damore (the talk was not stopped), and someone posting flyers on campus. The first PSU employee I spoke with told me the flyers simply displayed verbatim quotes of Boghossian’s. Another observer told me they saw a poster showing him as Pinocchio, as a reference to his having lied about the Sokal Squared hoax. What about these events should lead us to believe that he was targeted for his skepticism of postmodernism, as the Economist claims, is unclear. As a theoretical framework, postmodernism is far from the only one being actively pursued by academics. The book that supposedly summarizes the hoaxers’ understanding of postmodernism casts doubt on whether anyone involved can accurately describe it.
There do not appear to have been any large-scale public demands for Boghossian’s firing, and the university did not request his resignation. Boghossian simply did not enjoy being unpopular and removed himself from his own job. It is perhaps appropriate that his resignation letter is hosted on Bari Weiss’s extremely lucrative substack, as Weiss, too, quit her own job due to being unpopular at work and called it “cancel culture.”
It is also strange that Boghossian would be so concerned about people feeling free to explore their academic and philosophical interests without undue interference, given his tendency to declare his unwillingness to tolerate the beliefs he considers to be “wokeness.” But he feels that his life and work have been disturbed by objections to his academic output, so the responsible thing to do would be to investigate the claims related to the act he feels most caused the retaliation he alleges: the Sokal Squared Hoax.
The Sokal Squared hoax, also called the Grievance Studies hoax, was a prank pulled by then-Associate-Professor Boghossian and two activist bloggers, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose. It was undertaken to unmask the dangers of postmodernist thought. The trio wrote twenty fake articles under pseudonyms and attempted to get them published in various journals that focus on gender studies, queer studies, critical race studies, and other fields related to identity. The article linked in the Economist’s thread describes Boghossian’s participation in the Sokal Squared Hoax as an attempt to “expose what he saw as a willingness to publish anything that used the right jargon.” It claims that seven were published, and suggests that this feat shows the state of universities: that they are no longer places for free inquiry but factories for producing social justice ideologies.
Seven papers were not published, and none were published as initially submitted. Four were published, and only after extensive review which required significant rewriting, removal of certain claims, and adding support to others. The Economist article claims that the published articles include “one on “queer performativity” in urban dog parks, and one calling astronomy imperialist and suggesting physics departments study interpretive dance.” The astronomy paper was not accepted or published, nor does it suggest that physics departments should study interpretive dance (it suggests that feminist interpretive dancers should do dances about astronomy), but the journalists would have to have verified Boghossian’s claims by reading the paper or its reviewer comments, both of which are publicly available, to find that out.
Summarizing the hoax in Vox, Zack Beauchamp points out some of the main issues with the project as a whole. For one, as political scientist Matt Blackwell points out, they did not bother to engage in anything resembling a scientific method. They started from their conclusion, that “identity” studies would be accepted uncritically because the field is irredeemably corrupt, and only focused their efforts on getting papers published there. They did not try to pass off any papers in other humanities disciplines, or in STEM fields. They also sent some papers to low-impact journals that rarely get cited, and whose editorial board members are largely not academically affiliated, such as the Journal of Poetry Therapy.
An ideology factory?
When the trio submitted the papers, most were rejected, but those that reviewers did think showed promise received comments that actually demanded rigor, not ideological and jargonistic conformity. The hosts of the podcast “I Don’t Speak German” covered the hoax in a recent two-part series, and they helpfully collected all of the papers and their reviewer comments in their show notes. In the case of the astronomy paper, which received a “reject (revise and resubmit)” verdict, reviewer comments indicated serious doubts about the paper as submitted. Reviewer 1 says, “I found the paper disappointing and unconvincing. If the paper is to be published in WSIF, it requires quite a bit of reworking.” They go on to object to claims that “are rarely backed up by arguments.” Reviewer 2 agrees that the paper “requires major revisions and reworking in order to strengthen its overall argument for feminist astronomy.”
One of the primary aims of the hoax was to show that one could simply name drop some famous scholars and use some jargon, but Reviewer 1 corrects this, saying “it is not sufficient to cite a couple of old papers … feminist science studies has a long and rich history, and there are many, many papers which explore how the masculinist vision of the natural sciences has developed.” They also catch that some of the citations do not reflect the content of the work cited, remarking for example, “In the following sentence, there is a specific focus on astronomy, referring to Harding and Plumwood, neither of whom wrote specifically about astronomy.” Reviewer 2 asks, “where is the literature review?” and goes on to list many works that would be useful to the authors. They also suggest adding a case study with analysis, essentially suggesting a way to make the paper a real paper with some academic rigor to it.
The main point of the paper is that there ought to be a feminist astronomy, which is not actually a difficult claim to substantiate. It is the other, weaker claims that the authors attempt (but fail) to conceal with jargon and complex writing style. Reviewer 2 notices the trick a bit, writing, “In my first quick read of the manuscript, I was fascinated by the possibilities of a feminist astronomy and beguiled by the diction and syntax. It was not until subsequent, more methodical reads, that many areas in need of attention became more apparent.”
One of the claims of the Sokal Squared trio is that there is an unfounded, unrigorous focus by “postmodernists” to legitimize other forms of knowledge, and that those forms of knowledge are themselves silly and non-empirical. However, the astronomy paper reviewers ask that the authors change their paper to specify what those knowledges are, what they can contribute to astronomy, and how. Reviewer 2 asks, “how are practitioners to do feminist astronomy, specifically?” and lists some feminist science studies methods that might be possible avenues for them to explore, and objects to the vagueness of the suggestion that feminist science scholars should do ethnography, feminist analysis of mythological analysis, and feminist interpretative dance.
The dog park paper was desk rejected, but the managing editor of the journal suggested that a re-attempt might be considered if the paper was rewritten. The re-attempt was apparently better written. The reviewers still had several revisions they would require before publishing, but they were generally positive about it. The biggest problem, which peer review is not designed to catch, is that this paper was based on fabricated data. Sneaking a paper through review by faking data is a pervasive problem that did not require a hoax of this kind to investigate, and it is under no circumstances to be seen as exclusively a problem in feminist and queer studies, or even the humanities. The website “Retraction Watch” maintains a collection of retractions on the basis of faked data, and a perusal of this collection suggests that STEM is not even close to being free of this issue. One of the things reviewers like best about the paper is that the fieldwork is deeply detailed and provides empirical evidence for something not previously demonstrated. Reviewers are unable to verify that the purported authors actually went to dog parks and did this fieldwork, so they could not know that it was made up. Reviewer 2 begins to recognize the issues that stem from the data being fabricated, wondering about how the author developed their plan for data collection: “It sounds to me like you did a kind of ethnography… but that’s not entirely clear here. Or are you drawing on qualitative methods in social behaviorism/symbolic interactionism?” Similarly, when the data is presented, they suggest, “I think it would be helpful to present some of these statistical data in a table.” They also notice that while the author claims to have taken field notes, they do not provide any excerpts, which would be standard. Interestingly, Helen Pluckrose claims in Areo Magazine that “We wanted to see if reviewers or editors would ask to see this data or question the conclusions we drew from it. They did not.” But a quick skim of the reviewer comments shows that they did.
The draft contained silly claims like that dogs could be defined as “oppressed” based on the fact that they “were engaging in queer behavior.” Reviewer 1 found this “reductive and inaccurate” and pointed out that it contradicts the other work cited in the paper. They provided multiple other works that the authors neglected to include. Reviewer 3 agrees that this is not substantiated enough. In fact, Reviewer 1 offers an extremely detailed, line-by-line review explicitly suggesting ways to change, add to, and remove elements of the paper in such a way that simply following their clear and actionable advice would vastly improve the paper empirically and theoretically. Reviewer 2 notes that the paper might accidentally suggest that violence between animals is equivalent to that between humans, which is discussed and critiqued in other work, and asks the author to clarify their position and engage with the existing research. Reviewer 3 asks for more careful and specific exploration of why the author thinks “rape” is an appropriate descriptor for uninvited sexual behavior between dogs and points out that the author does not have a strong basis for determining when humping was “resisted” or not, given they do not describe the body language of the humped dog or give any credentials suggesting they know about animal behavior. They, correctly, suggest that the paper would be better if it were about human interpretations of dog behavior rather than “dog rape culture” as the hoaxers try to sell it. The paper, as published, did make this change, contrary to the claims of the Economist.
The hoaxers tried to make “fur color” a factor in their analysis so that they could later argue that the journal accepted anything that seemed vaguely antiracist without interrogating it first, but that is not the case. Reviewer 2 suggested that they change this to talk about the dogs’ breeds, and see if they could make any conclusions about the owners’ race, demographic tendencies to own certain dog breeds, and attitudes toward the dogs’ behavior. Reviewer 3 rejected the relevance of fur color outright, saying “the analogy between fur color and race brings up many problematic questions about race, species, and conflation of different forms of oppression. My instinct here is best not include this section on fur color unless it is given significantly more attention and discussion.” Fur color was in fact absent from the accepted paper.
Boghossian, in his resignation letter, claims that the paper also recommends leashing male humans as we would male dogs, but the paper does not do this. It instead makes some extremely obvious metaphorical comments about ‘leashing’ men by stopping our culture from condoning rape.
In summary, the papers were either rejected outright, accepted but never published, or, in the case of just four papers, published after extensive rewriting but retracted on the basis of fraud. No Sokal Squared Hoax papers are currently published. Of the four that were, the reviewers essentially held their hands and led them to the information they needed to turn their papers into real academic works, by providing necessary citations, recommending ways to add support to their claims, and suggesting they remove the more outlandish and less-substantiated arguments in their papers. This was, ultimately, a demonstration of the peer review process working correctly. Just using niche jargon and arguing for “social justice” values was nowhere near enough for these papers to get through review, and the documentation shows that definitively. The fact that mainstream journalists took the claims of the trio at face value, to the point of reproducing outright lies about what was in the papers and how they were received, demonstrates a lack of journalistic ethics that has caused real harm to the pursuit of knowledge.
Boghossian and journalists who cover him tend to describe his investigation for the Sokal Squared hoax as unfair retaliation for challenging the heterodoxy. The fact is that he really did violate research ethics. The procedure that should have been followed was for a protocol to be filed via PSU’s Institutional Review Board, which deals with human subjects research. Even when a researcher believes they should not have to file an IRB protocol, if human subjects are involved they need to file for exemption. Boghossian and others argue that it is silly to treat journal reviewers and editors as human subjects. This is, however, a completely normal process for ensuring that participants in research have their safety and privacy protected, and to document that their consent has been obtained for research on them to be published. Even in a case like this, in which the participants would have to be lied to initially, the IRB has provisions for how to secure consent after the fact. This is vital for protecting the individual rights of the people whose behavior or speech we are using as data. As a linguist, I have had to complete IRB protocols any time my research involved observation because while I was not subjecting them to any substances that could harm them, I was being given access to their names, activities, and other details that should not be compromised. I had to demonstrate that I was procuring informed consent from all my participants, that I was using pseudonyms for them, and that any identifying information was either in a physical lockbox or in encrypted files. Boghossian and his co-conspirators did none of this. They also claim that it is unnecessary as the reviewers are already anonymous. They might be, but using their words requires permission, and the editors of the journals are not anonymous. The Sokal trio redacted their names in the documents they released, but it is easy to go to the websites of the journals and find out who they were.
It’s also worth noting that the reviews for the submitted papers represent significant labor and expertise from a large number of academics, which was wasted on work that was never intended to further the field in which it was entered. The reviewers were diligent, respectful, and principled in their pursuit of rigorous research, and they were exploited. An IRB protocol would require the researchers to discuss this cost to the participants and find a way to offset it.
The participants claim that this was an audit rather than an experiment, and that this word game somehow absolves them of responsibility, but they have written a paper discussing the hoax, thereby placing it under the purview of research ethics.
Another element of the fraudulent nature of the hoax is that they signed an agreement with each journal that they were indeed the authors of the papers and had done the research themselves. They used false names, with invented academic affiliations and credentials, and they fabricated data. This is a clear case of fraud, which should naturally carry repercussions for an academic. Science, even science in which participants need to be lied to for part of the study, depends on trust and honesty. Only the people who designed and executed an experiment know what really happened. This hoax does not show what the trio said it did, but it does lay bare the vulnerability of honor systems in academic publishing.
Having been found guilty of academic misconduct, the only consequences issued to Boghossian were that he was restricted from conducting human subjects research until he could finish a standard training on research ethics. This is a training every researcher is supposed to do before engaging in human subjects research, even before submitting an IRB protocol. I did the training in graduate school; it is neither difficult nor especially time-consuming, considering it is a crucial element of protecting the rights of the people who are making our research possible.
A larger pattern?
The next tweet in the Economist’s thread expands the field beyond Boghossian’s resignation to a claim that there have been 426 cases of scholars being targeted with demands for investigation, demotion, or censorship in the last five years. This is a reference to a report put out by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. This claim cleverly conflates students initiating complaints about professor conduct with demands for professional consequences, does not separate spurious complaints from legitimate ones, and confuses “scholars” with “cases,” assuming incorrectly that each case involves a different scholar.
The database from which FIRE generated their report has already been criticized for being poorly managed. The “threats from the left” include things like a copyright claim on a YouTube video uploaded by Bruce Gilley of Portland State University. On the topic of Gilley, another “attack from the left” claims that he was “subject to a petition demanding the retraction of his peer-reviewed paper” (the paper was technically peer-reviewed, in that it was desk rejected, but the Editor-In-Chief elected to ignore this decision and sent it out for review anyway, at which time reviewers disagreed on whether to reject it, and the tie-breaker was the same Editor-In-Chief). The database is desperately vague about many of the incidents, for example suggesting that Thomas Brennan “was terminated over his tweets about COVID and posts involving memes deemed racist and anti-Semitic.” In fact, he promulgated extemely anti-Semitic conspiracy theories involving the moon landing being fake, the atom bomb actually just being a lot of TNT, and COVID-19 being “a stunt to enslave humanity,” all in fulfillment of the prophecy of the mark of the beast. Was his termination an example of a threat to free speech? FIRE seems to think so, and it goes in the database as a politically motivated attack from the left.
For Inside Higher Ed, John Warner notes that the database does not include harassment and threats to academic freedom from outside the schools, such as from conservative outlet Campus Reform, which was the subject of an AAUP report detailing the way it mobilizes readers to demand the sanction and removal of professors it considers too left-leaning. For some strange reason, the FIRE report also does not include the incident at Boise State University in which a non-student fabricated a complaint that someone they knew had been made to feel degraded by a diversity and ethics course. This complaint resulted in the entire course being canceled, for reasons that remain unclear. Nor does it include any of the places (and thereareseveral) where university boards and legislators are discussing banning Critical Race Theory because it offends people on the right. One reason FIRE might not be interested in including these threats from the right could be its funders, who champion conservative causes.
Finally, the Economist links to a story about Beverly Gage, who was pressured to resign from the Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy Programme at Yale University. Because this one really did happen the way Gage says it did, the Economist was not put in a position in which they might have to fact-check her story or evaluate the validity of any databases, a thing they appear not entirely equipped to do. As the article points out, Gage did not remove the materials considered central to the program, but added some relevant items about social justice movements. Nicholas Brady, one of the program’s two biggest donors, became offended by the content of this program and pressured her to change the materials presented therein, apparently upset that she had not been teaching it “the way Henry Kissinger would.” Brady and the other biggest donor, Charles Johnson, convinced the university to create a five-member board of advisors and even helped select the members. The board was extremely ideologically homogeneous, and did not reflect any other kind of diversity either, which Gage raised concerns about. She threatened to resign if the university did not rectify the issue, and when they did not, she followed through. Students and faculty agree that this represents a serious loss for the students. University President Peter Salovey wrote a letter expressing his regret that he did not try harder to improve the situation, but continued to assert that the donors are “wonderful members of our community” despite their successful attempts to interfere with the academic freedom of that community. He commits to re-evaluate how the community can “ensure that gifts we receive do not infringe on the academic freedom of our faculty.” So far, no tangible steps have been taken to do so, but perhaps with time and continued pressure from the academic community, some plan will materialize.
It is unclear why “activist students” were mentioned in this thread, as the events mainly concern a conflict between an educator and her institution’s donors. Perhaps this was an attempt to connect this event to the two described earlier. In fact, the Stock/Boghossian incidents could not be more different from this one. Both Stock and Boghossian committed serious misconduct; Gage did not. Stock and Boghossian had the support of their institutions; Gage did not. Stock and Boghossian have been criticized by fellow academics for their poor contributions to their fields; Gage has not. Stock and Boghossian have gone on media tours lamenting their cancellation at the hands of some ideological orthodoxy among leftist students; Gage has not. Finally, the objections students had to Stock and Boghossian were entirely misrepresented in the media, while Gage has had her story more or less accurately told.
Who is silenced?
Combining these three incidents under the umbrella of “academic freedom under threat” represents a serious problem with the way academic freedom is treated in public discourse. The disapproval of students from the left does not generally lead to any tangible consequences; administrations will support their employees, sometimes even in the face of overwhelming evidence of misconduct. Protests and criticisms by students are by and large appropriate exercise of free speech: it is entirely possible that some protesters have crossed a line—for example, if they committed an act of violence, threatened it, or published personal details that would allow someone to harm them—and any such cases are worth condemning, but the actions of a few unidentified individuals do not undo the legitimate accusations against Stock and Boghossian.
Unfortunately, the media has limited attention and a short memory for the perspectives of the students, and chooses to reproduce the claims of the professors without fact-checking them, even after the students’ conflicting perspectives are already on record. Students do not have the power to interfere with faculty’s academic freedom; this power is reserved for high-level donors, politicians, and well-funded political activist organizations. And these parties tend to attack from the right, as they did in the case of Gage. Even when a controversial figure has left their position, they find somewhere to land that can even provide them an even more powerful megaphone with which to pronounce their views and advocate for their political goals, as both Stock and Boghossian have done with the new University of Austin. So why do narratives about academic freedom so overwhelmingly focus on students, who have so little power to impact the administrative decisions of their schools? Perhaps the stifling orthodoxy is not the desire of these powerless students to see their institutions become more equitable: perhaps it is the tendency of the wealthy and powerful to work to maintain a status quo that gave them their power in the first place.
This is Part 1 of a two-part essay, discussing the controversy surrounding Kathleen Stock. Part 2 will cover the case of Peter Boghossian.
Each year when fall arrives, the leaves change color, the students return to campus, and the media rings one of its favorite old bells: academic freedom is under threat. The fall of 2021 has been no different, bringing hundreds of articles, thinkpieces, tweets and blog posts focused on one or another academic whose freedom has apparently been violated, usually by ostensibly left-leaning students. The hand-wringers never seem to define “academic freedom” or specify how any particular anecdote is an example of the violation thereof. To investigate whether this framing is justified, we can take one of a litany of examples, the Twitter thread posted by the Economist on October 19, 2021, and check its claims, the first and most central being that academic freedom is being stifled in universities.
What is academic freedom?
Journalists should be careful not to misinform the public by suggesting that academic freedom and free-speech assurances protect instructors from the consequences of discriminatory or otherwise fireable behavior. Academic freedom, according to the American Association of University Professors, is the freedom to do research, publish results, and discuss their subject in the classroom without undue interference. If we focus on controversial statements made outside the classroom, as many of these stories tend to, the statement specifies that a college or university teacher “should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations … hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” The question of college and university teachers speaking as citizens, rather than as educators and researchers, is further clarified in the 1970 comments: “If the administration of a college or university feels that … the extramural utterances of the teacher have been such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position, it may proceed to file charges under paragraph 4 of the section on Academic Tenure [which pertains to termination for cause].”
In the UK, protections for academic freedom are somewhat less explicit, but the Education Reform Act of 1988 generally affirms the instructor’s freedom to teach and research without undue interference or loss of employment. These protections only extend to speech “within the law,” meaning that discrimination is not protected. Plans are underway to implement more specific mechanisms to ensure academic freedom in the UK, though reports suggest that the greatest threats come from university administrators and the state security apparatus, not from students.
As a general rule, academic freedom means that college and university teachers have the right to speak their opinions, but that right does not extend to protect them from professional consequences if they violate the rights of others or demonstrate that they cannot effectively do their job as an educator. The thread posted by The Economist on the 19th discusses three university instructors who, according to them, have had their academic freedoms violated. To determine whether that is true, the details of each case should be carefully laid out and investigated beyond uncritically reproducing the claims of the three scholars. I discuss the first of these in the present article and will discuss the other two in Part 2.
Kathleen Stock was, until October 28, 2021, a professor at the University of Sussex, where she specialized in the philosophy of fiction. This is the only topic on which Stock has any peer-reviewed work. She is not, however, focused on philosophy of fiction at this time, preferring instead to focus on non-academic writings, non-peer-reviewed commentary pieces in academic journals, broadcast appearances, and activism aimed at rolling back the rights of trans people in the UK. In light of her activism, Sussex students have organized protests, stating that they object that she is a trustee of the LGB Alliance, considered by many to be an anti-trans group masquerading as a gay rights organization, and that she signed a declaration by the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, an organization that is committed to outlawing “the practice of transgenderism.” Media covering her resignation have not reported this accurately, claiming that the students are simply offended by Stock’s personally held beliefs: Andrew Crowley for The Times writes, “Stock does not believe people can change their biological sex, a view that has prompted protests from students on campus and calls for her to be sacked.”
Since the beginning of the protests, Sussex University has consistently affirmed that they had no intention of terminating Stock or initiating any disciplinary action against her; however, Stock suddenly withdrew from teaching in October, leaving the university unable to cover her classes for a week. Then, on October 28, she officially resigned. A message from Vice-Chancellor Tickell to all students and staff continued to insist that the only problem their campus is facing is that a professor’s “academic freedom and lawful freedom of speech” has been jeopardized by “bullying and harassment.” He goes on to say, “it is unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of sex and of philosophical belief,” reinforcing the misconception that it was Stock’s beliefs about sex and gender that prompted the protests, rather than her discriminatory actions. He makes no mention at all of any actions on the part of Stock beyond her “beliefs,” but I will detail them here so there is no confusion as to what the students at Sussex and in Stock’s field have had to endure.
The Economist makes several claims here. First, that Stock is experiencing harassment. Second, that there is a “stifling orthodoxy” in British universities. Third, that Stock’s “credentials” should insulate her from the label of transphobia: she is after all a liberal lesbian feminist with an OBE. And finally, that her claims are “vanilla.” These claims range from difficult to support to outright false.
Is Stock being harassed?
Stock’s defenders have argued that she was harassed. Certainly this claim was repeated uncritically by multiple press outlets. In UK law, harassment requires that someone be the target of repeated unwanted contact that offends, intimidates, or humiliates them. The 2010 Equality Act specifies that one is harassed if the unwanted contact is targeted based on a protected characteristic such as gender, race, religion or philosophical belief. The employment case of Forstater v CGD Europe recently defined gender critical beliefs as a protected philosophical belief in the same way that beliefs such as “marriage is between a man and a woman” are protected: one cannot be denied employment based on just believing that. If, however, that belief causes someone to do their job badly (like denying marriage certificates to same-sex couples), they are no longer protected. This decision also does not protect anyone from being the subject of protests that object to their behavior, even if that behavior is informed by their protected belief. Protest is protected by UK law just as it is in the US. People are allowed to protest when someone’s religion inspires them to campaign against civil rights for gay people, and they are allowed to protest when someone’s gender critical philosophy inspires them to use their academic affiliation to add credence to their beliefs about a protected group, give expert testimony to parliament in favor of removing trans rights, or give support to organizations that lobby for that cause.
One of the ways Stock and her defenders have argued that the students were guilty of misconduct was to frame their actions as threats rather than normal forms of protest. For example, Stock claims that police advised her not to go to campus without security guards for her own safety, though no evidence has been provided that this advice was given, let alone as a response to actual harassment. Stock volunteered this claim when speaking to journalists from the Sunday Times, but the article did not provide any reason other than having seen posters on campus, which made her cry. While it appears that Stock’s experience is not legally harassment, it is reasonable to empathize with the genuine distress one would feel if their workplace were filled with people and written materials demanding their removal. Even if they were absolutely within their rights to do so, the feeling Stock likely experienced probably did amount to something like offense, intimidation, or humiliation. This section is not meant to detract from those valid feelings, but to investigate the question of whether the protesters are guilty of anything that would require censure.
Here is what has happened. Students have protested on campus with posters and slogans. Stickers were allegedly placed on or near her office saying, “If your feminism doesn’t include ALL women it’s NOT FEMINISM. Terfs Not Welcome Here.” There are no images or other evidence of these, but stickers are confirmed to have been placed in a tunnel station near campus that said various slogans such as “It’s not a debate, it’s not feminism, it’s not philosophy. It’s just transphobia and it’s not on,” and “Kathleen Stock makes trans students unsafe. Sussex still pays her.” There is nothing in any of these stickers that constitute a threat.
Others have suggested that a student using blue and pink smoke as part of the protest display constituted a threat. This would be difficult to justify in a legal sense, as all it did was create an interesting color effect evoking the trans flag. If that is in fact a threat, then every rock concert since the invention of colored smoke should be investigated.
Another popular accusation was that students wearing black hoodies and masks and holding an umbrella suggested an “assault rifle motif,” which stretches the imagination even more. Stock does say that she received a tweet that features a man with a gun and the text, “Kathleen Stock rest your weary head,” which actually is a threat, although there is no evidence that this person has any connection to the university or any ability to access her. Still, this kind of threat is disturbing.
Whether what has happened to her is harassment or not, she is arguably quite guilty of harassment herself.
Her first successful campaign to silence a student is documented in this thread by Associate Professor Grace Lavery of UC Berkeley. In September 2018, Nathan Oseroff, a student at King’s College, responded on Twitter to an article in which Stock expressed the opinion that philosophy departments are made unsafe when academics are not allowed to “challenge currently popular beliefs or ideologies for fear of offending.” His opinion was that Stock publicly advocated “bigotry and intolerance,” which constitutes hate directed at her students and colleagues, and this was what made departments unsafe. Stock chose to link to Oseroff’s tweet, asking her followers not to dogpile him but also saying to him, “oh do fuck off, you complete and utter dickhead.” She then accused him of defamation and defended her attacks by suggesting that his position as an editor (she apparently mistakenly believed he was the editor) with the Blog of the American Philosophical Association, made him “hardly powerless.” She went on to contact University of Chicago Law School philosophy professor Brian Leiter, who published a statement on his well-known blog, “Leiter Reports,” in which he accused Oseroff of libel. Finally, Stock emailed Oseroff’s boss at the blog, suggesting that his tweet was harassment (Stock has a tendency to call things “harassment” or “defamation” that certainly are not). Leiter also campaigned to have Oseroff fired from the APA. It appears that Oseroff was only allowed to remain on staff at the blog on the condition that he publicly apologize to Stock for tweeting his opinion. Oseroff was let go some months later, after the APA received calls complaining about him, and Leiter gloated that he’d been fired. So it was Oseroff, a graduate student, not Stock, who sustained unearned reputational damage and was prevented from correcting the record through professional intimidation and institutional apathy. Oseroff no longer works in academia, but his departure was not announced in every major media outlet in his country like Stock’s was.
Less than two months after Oseroff’s tweet, Katie Tobin, a student at Sussex University, published an article in the student newspaper, The Sussex Tab, describing the effect of Stock’s anti-trans activism and statements on students. Stock contacted the newspaper to make them retract the article and replace it with a “correction” that assured readers of her commitment to preserving the rights of trans students. A commitment that she very explicitly undermines in the email described in that retracted article, in which she discusses her interest in preventing “biologically male, genetically-intact trans women” from occupying “female only spaces” and insinuates that “structural male violence” has an impact on that question. She also refers to an “unprecedented rise” in transitioning teenagers and children, raises questions about trans women in women’s sports, and more. After Tobin’s article was retracted, Stock also tweeted about it, threatening to sue Tobin, referring to her by name and sharing her Twitter handle, which caused her to receive violent threats from Stock’s defenders. When Tobin went to the school to report this harassment, an investigation cleared Stock but awarded Tobin a payment for the distress she experienced at Stock’s hands. The school then warned Tobin that if she should speak about this investigation in public, they may publish the report in its entirety, which contained personal information about Tobin. Here again, a student’s right to speak her opinions was hampered when Stock contacted the student’s employer and university administration in order to silence her.
After she began reporting on cases of harassment by Stock, UC Berkeley Associate Professor Grace Lavery was also made aware of Sussex student Talia Fogelman, who registered a complaint with her Equity Officer about a hostile work environment created by Stock. The officer told her the complaint was inappropriate and that Stock had been moved out of her student-facing role and therefore would not be impacting the students’ work environment, which was untrue.
Christa Peterson, an American philosophy PhD student, became frustrated with claims that those criticizing Stock are not aware of her actual beliefs or actions. She fell victim to a classic trap in these circles: if you do not provide enough evidence, you are accused of not knowing what you are talking about. If you provide too much evidence, you are accused of being obsessed. She was the target of a remarkable number of attacks from powerful members of her field such as Kathleen Stock and Brian Leiter, who launched insults about her mental health rather than engage with her substantive critiques (available both onTwitter and elsewhere).
Besides suggesting that Peterson was mentally ill and obsessed, Stock repeatedly claimed on Twitter and on her website that her critiques were “defamatory,” a beloved claim of hers, using legal intimidation to attempt to silence Peterson.
Most recently, Stock was able to get the BBC to publish a statement which some news outlets labeled a “correction,” accusing Sussex student Amelia Jones of making false accusations against her and sharing Jones’ full name, photo and video in the context of calling her a liar, though nothing Jones said was factually inaccurate. As the UK media (and, increasingly the US media as well) seem unwilling to verify Stock’s claims before publishing them, her negative opinions of students who critique her easily become a matter of public record and the student’s reputation is tarnished before they can even begin their careers. This is a power that Stock should be careful with, and she has regularly demonstrated that she would rather wield it with abandon.
After spending considerable time and effort searching, I found no concrete evidence of Stock receiving threats or harassment from students. But there is documented evidence that Stock has, on more than one occasion, reached out to the employers of students who have criticized her and demanded professional censure in retaliation, threatened them with frivolous claims of harassment and defamation when their speech should have been protected, and dragged their names through the mud. It is a common features in these episodes for those accused of harassment and bullying to leave their posts—if they do so at all—while proclaiming that they are actually the victims of the very behaviors they have perpetuated.
Is Stock a victim of a stifling orthodoxy?
There is a near constant refrain among the culture war content-generation pundits that academia is being stifled by an orthodoxy that forbids dissent on certain topics. Incidentally, the topics these pundits consider stifled are usually settled matters in the fields that cover them (e.g., Is it scientifically coherent to assert that some racial groups are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than others? No. Is it psychologically reasonable to argue that sex assigned at birth should override gender identity? Also no). To continue to insist that these questions are not resolved is to pull back the reins on the pursuit of knowledge. To insist that the established conclusions be overturned on no evidence, discover that those who specialize in that area do not agree, and suggest that this represents a “taboo,” as Stock has done, is arguably dishonest.
Another, more accurate word for how these discussions are managed might be “norm.” Norms in academic disciplines help us socialize one another into the most effective ways of formulating and investigating questions, as developed over time by previous scholars. One such norm is the scientific method. When one changes research focus, the first thing one must do is familiarize oneself with the existing work in the new topic area. It is by no means required that one conform precisely to the norms of the new field, but when Stock moved from philosophy of fiction into gender and politics, she completely disregarded the work that endeavors to answer questions relevant to her interests.
Pedagogical norms are also relevant to Stock’s case. These include norms about civility and respect for the humanity of one’s students and colleagues. These norms are not in conflict with policies regarding academic freedom in the UK, which only protect educators “within the law” to question and test received wisdom and to “put forward” (which does not mean endorse) controversial opinions. These norms also do not protect educators from criticism or protest, only from losing their jobs. As with all principles regarding freedom of expression, these protections do not cover discriminatory speech. Norms guiding how to do one’s job effectively and responsibly are not a stifling orthodoxy, they are a natural result of living in a society.
Perhaps the most compelling argument that Sussex University is not captured by a stifling pro-trans orthodoxy is that the administration has opted to ignore the accusations that Stock’s transphobic actions constitute discrimination, issuing no public statements on the issue for years until this month, when Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell made statement unequivocally supportive statement of Stock on BBC Radio and then sent an email to the same effect to every student at the university. This email misrepresents the protections afforded Stock to hold philosophical beliefs extend to her actions (campaigning and testifying against the rights of trans people), and threatens to take action against students who refuse to tolerate said actions. After her resignation, Tickell put out yet another statement supporting Stock and refusing to acknowledge the complaints of the student protesters. These are not the words of a school administration being stifled by student opinions. The government similarly has praised Stock for her statements about free speech (these statements were about being free to express gender critical beliefs specifically), making her an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to higher education. She has been glowingly profiled in a deluge of news articles and op-eds. This is not a person who is being targeted or silenced by anyone with any measurable power.
Are Stock’s claims “vanilla”?
Stock’s tendency throughout all of her public writing and speaking to refer to trans women as “biological males” reflects her deep commitment to withholding respect for those individuals. It has become clear in the last few years that there is a pervasive belief among those who call themselves “gender critical” that it is not transphobic at all to refer to trans women as male and trans men as female. Indeed, after a recent BBC article prompted objections from readers, gender critical activist Jane Clare Jones annotated her disagreements with an open letter to the BBC and posted them on her account. One of her most frequent objections took place when the letter expressed disagreement with the BBC’s tendency to suggest that trans women are not women, to which Jones replies, “They’re not. Women are female.”
Stock’s reactions to challenges to her reasoning are also a cause of concern for those hoping to ensure a constructive and rigorous academic environment. When it was suggested that she should become more familiar with the extant literature on gender, she mocked her critic. It is not even that she believes that she actually is familiar with it: she explicitly declares that it is laughable that she should be, writing, “I cannot for the life of me see how this worry [that trans women have ‘male energy’] could satisfactorily be neutralised by acquaintance with this literature”. Her ignorance on the subject is evident throughout her public statements, for example when she claimed that trans lesbians were not describing themselves as such until ten years ago (they were), or when she suggested that there will be negative social implications to gender-inclusive language when referring to people who can get pregnant (Stock fails to describe these implications). Her refusal to engage honestly with how gender works extends to her ostensible area of expertise, philosophy and cognition. To pretend that the empirical findings of cognitive science, that gender identity is the result of interaction of a person’s self-concept with their social world, is “discredited Cartesianism ghost-in-the-machine stuff” is to demonstrate one’s lack of fitness to participate in, let alone teach, philosophy of gender. Similarly, her tendency to rely on unsubstantiated beliefs about stereotypes suggests that academic rigor is not a priority, nor is restricting herself to “vanilla” claims.
Perhaps most chilling of all, Stock has managed to insert her beliefs about trans rights into political and legal proceedings. She added her name to the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights, the credo of the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, an organization that campaigns to undo nearly all aspects of the Gender Recognition Act of 2004. In their written evidence submitted to UK Parliament, the WHRC states: “The Convention calls for the ‘elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women’ (Article 5). We consider that the practice of transgenderism clearly falls under this article because it is based on stereotyped roles for men and women.” Despite supporting this organization, Stock claimed that her recent book contains arguments for retaining the Gender Recognition Act, though a close reading reveals that it does not. In fact, she provided expert testimony before the House of Commons that the Gender Recognition Act prevents people from being protected from “male patterns of violence and male patterns of sexism” and that trans women should no longer be granted access to places “where women are undressing, sleeping, in prison, in a hostel or in a refuge” if they have not had surgery. She provided expert testimony that workplace discrimination against trans employees should be legal. She has argued that there are parties preventing research from being published that might contain results which are not politically expedient for trans rights organizations, and she has had this claim taken on board by a judge in the High Court of Justice. This is a conspiracy theory, for which she has used her credentials as an academic to lend legitimacy, and which is now part of UK legal documentation. She has also argued before a judge to prevent transphobic hate incidents from being treated similarly to racist hate incidents because, in her opinion, transphobic statements and misgendering should be interpreted as “simple descriptions of observable facts.” As philosopher Christa Peterson points out, many racist statements are also frequently justified by those who say them as observable fact, rendering her argument ignorant at best. Using her academic credentials to convince a government body to ignore transphobic hate speech because, in her opinion, it is true, is not “vanilla.”
The behavior and language Stock has displayed certainly qualify as transphobic, contrary to the claim that her credentials (lesbian, feminist, OBE) should preclude that assessment. They are also decidedly not “vanilla.”
Gender critical academics: speaking out?
The next tweet in The Economist’s thread widens the lens not only to all gender critical academics, but to anyone who feels that their beliefs are unwelcome.
In my workanalyzing the language used in defense of academics who cry “cancel culture,” I have found that they tend to adopt the posture of a whistleblower. This tweet about academics who “speak out” precisely mirrors this finding. A whistleblower is typically someone who discovers malfeasance on the part of a powerful organization such as a government office or a company, then exposes this malfeasance at great personal risk. It is considered a heroic act, a David-vs-Goliath story. It represents the precise opposite of the true state of affairs, in which professors, with the full support of their institutions and the media, insult and sometimes even defame the students over whom they have significant power. The discursive construction of their situation as though they are in danger or under siege tends to recruit metaphors of authoritarian regimes both historical and fictional, barbaric hordes, and biblical armies to give the sense that the scholars being criticized are actually victims who need rescuing. In the experience of those accused of perpetuating cancel culture, this tends to result in fans of the academic engaging in online harassment campaigns over social media and email.
To see The Economist uncritically repeating these rhetorical moves is concerning for those of us who have been on the receiving end of such harassment, both for ourselves and for those currently raising the alarm about figures such as Kathleen Stock and Peter Boghossian.
*Note this article originally included a quotation from Sara Ahmed, mistakenly out of context. It has been removed.
Civil libertarians assume that democracy relies on privacy. We cannot have autonomous citizens if privacy is not sacrosanct. Citizens require a protected space in which they can make up their minds, understand what they truly want and believe, free from outside influence or coercion.
The journalist Glenn Greenwald, who helped Edward Snowden reveal the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance operation in 2013, puts it thus:
Only when we believe that nobody is watching us do we feel free to truly test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves. For that reason, it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate.
Indeed, what are democratic citizens without creativity and dissent, the courage to push back against orthodoxy and autocracy alike? Meek, submissive citizens do not expand the bounds of liberty. Panoptic surveillance, as Michel Foucault famously described it, is a powerful tool of submission: when people are under watch, and know they are under watch, preferably from a power whose identity and will are uncertain, they will chasten themselves, watch what they do and say—free of physical coercion. Surveillance makes people their own oppressors, if you will; thus, Foucault says surveillance is eminently efficient.
It’s a compelling theory—but it’s wrong. Surveillance may not be so devastating and conformity-inducing as critics think. And privacy, the freedom from spying, coercing eyes, may not be the foundation of liberty. In fact, it is a rather incoherent notion, and certainly difficult to attain, from a practical point of view—especially in the digital age, when whatever privacy we might have enjoyed before is almost certainly doomed. Instead of doubling down on impossible goals, it is time we turned our focus on the foundation of political liberty—which is not privacy, but popular organization and coordination in the public realm.
A changing world
Many commentators and philosophers have pointed out how the digital economy achieves a form of panoptic surveillance more expansive and impressive than Foucault ever dreamed of. We are watched in everything we do by shadowy spies, who collect and analyze our every piece of data, and draw meticulous profiles on us. And yet, though we know we are watched online, we feel the need to share and blare intimate details galore. Seemingly nothing is beyond the pale, and standards of propriety or shame have gone out the window.
Civil libertarians bemoan how we make ourselves vulnerable in the process. The more Facebook knows about me, the more power it has to influence my decisions. If only we were unwatched, or keen on protecting our privacy, then we might also protect ourselves from external pressures. Except that the notion of privacy, this sacrosanct space wherein I am free, safe and pure, is fraught with problems. It seems impossible to arrive at an objective, universal concept of privacy. Whether we have privacy, or whether we feel ‘private,’ is largely up to each of us, and will vary according to our resilience and vulnerability.
Isaiah Berlin makes this clear when he likens it to an ‘area of non-interference’: what does it mean to be interfered with—or not? How shall I know when or if I am interfered with? And isn’t it up to me if I am or if I feel interfered with?
My mother grew up in a three-room cottage in the west of Ireland; her parents and 8 siblings shared the roughly 10 by 20 foot house. Contra Greenwald, quoted above, she is perfectly capable of making up her own mind, knowing what she wants, and ignoring what those around her—glaring perhaps—think of her. She is able to forge her own ‘privacy,’ if you will—never having been raised with the physical thing, which Greenwald insists is essential to personhood.
Autonomy is delivered not by being left alone to your own devices, in a safe, private space, where you can think what you want. Berlin notes that “fiery individualism” and independent-mindedness, the trademark of America’s enduring democracy, grows “at least as often in severely disciplined”—and oppressive—“societies, among, for example, the puritan Calvinists of Scotland or New England…” Individual autonomy has sources other than privacy.
In fact, it starts to emerge that privacy is an obstacle to liberty. For, not only is it incoherent, but also politically debilitating and disempowering. Privacy is championed and defended as an individual right. Consider major privacy regulations, proposed or enacted, like the European Union’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations), the envy of many civil libertarians. Said regulations generally seek to carve out more power for individuals to protect their data from hungry corporate spies. It is naïve and misguided, however, trying to empower lone individuals against the massive tech titans who spy on them. It’s not a fair fight. We can never grasp what information our spies want, how they get it, and what they will learn from it. Choices that the average individual would find trivial turn out to hold great interest. For example, one retailer has determined that a premiere indicator of credit worthiness is if people buy felt pads to protect their furniture. The notion, propagated by laws like GDPR, that we—individual citizens and consumers—can play some role in negotiating with our deep-pocketed spies about the data they want, what we will give them, and what they will deduce from it, is laughable. We can hardly fathom their esoteric science.
Privacy regulations lull us to sleep, thinking we are safe and secure, when that is far from the truth. What’s more, they urge us to protect ourselves as individuals, while we are more powerful as collectives—certainly, up against the likes of Apple and Google, and their armies of savvy data scientists.
Association and citizenship
“No man and no mind was ever emancipated merely by being left alone,” John Dewey affirms. According to Dewey, it is not individuals who are the proper foundation and fabric of democracy, but associations.These associations meet, convene, and sometimes conflict, in the public sphere.
Democratic citizens are social products. Which is to say, they are molded, formed, and empowered through social interaction, and they primarily exert power in collectives, not as individuals. Citizens are not magically produced on their own, in a private bubble. They are not made by simply giving people space, time, and quiet. They are just as likely to become preoccupied with egotistical concerns, and ignore the public good. Citizens are formed through interaction and communication, learned habits of negotiation and peaceful dispute, and the crucible of struggle.
Dewey understood ‘associations’ expansively. He included groups or entities that are explicitly political, such as advocacy groups, alongside those that are not, or not necessarily, such as social clubs, labor unions, churches, mosques, and synagogues. Dewey was also very concerned about the importance of schools in a democracy, and wrote extensively on the topic. Schools are a primary and essential forum where children are socialized, and learn to live with and communicate with people from many different backgrounds. Schools may serve as the polity in a microcosm, in other words.
Associations impart crucial democratic training for their members—they introduce them to democratic life—though the character of the groups themselves may not be democratic through and through. Often, they are not. They nurture democratic character nonetheless, because they provide members opportunities to learn how to listen to one another, navigate differences and disputes, and manage complicated coordination of efforts. Associations also instruct on how and when to mobilize, and in so doing, encourage individual citizens who would be less inclined and prepared to mobilize on their own. Associations help us define ourselves, address and compete with opponents, and challenge authority—credibly. Entrenched powers are more likely to heed, and perhaps fear, coordinated citizen action, not the demands of isolated individuals.
The Civil Rights movement offers an instructive case study of the power of associations, and the irrelevance of privacy. As individuals, civil rights activists were no match for Jim Crow; they were also subjected to constant surveillance, harassment, and worse. A typical example was the recently departed Bob Moses, who organized sharecroppers in Mississippi. He was persecuted for so much as mentioning the vote to unregistered African Americans, but he persisted nonetheless thanks to the solidarity of allies who flocked south during the Freedom Summer of 1964. And civil rights groups prepared and emboldened their activists, training them in various arts of non-violent protest. This was not something they could be expected to learn, much less practice on their own.
The proper solution to lost privacy is an abundance of public life. We must rediscover the joys and power of socialization, where we may build bonds with diverse others, in intentional groups such as Dewey eulogized. Associations mold, empower, and direct us as citizens. At the policy level, this means—concretely—that communities must integrate their built environment, and redesign it to elevate the public realm.
In a poignant statement, Dewey also wrote that “Democracy must begin at home, and home is the neighborly community.” Democracy is not a matter of abstract or ideal speculation, Dewey maintained. It is born in concrete action, mobilized in actual relations, grounded in the bonds you make with those who are proximate. Democracy withers when neighbors do not see one another, or interact on a regular basis. It withers when they fail to see what they have in common—or share a common purpose. Democracy is undermined when people feel so remote and isolated that they vilify one another. This is a pervasive result of social media echo chambers, which have made partisanship so rigid and unforgiving.
It also stems from our suburban isolation and atomization, where we are each consigned to our private pods, neatly divvied up and spaced apart. It is hard to conceive of a lived environment that better prioritizes privacy. In suburbia, we hardly need to see or know our neighbor, much less strangers passing by (few people sit on their front porches anymore—a vestige of the past). Suburbia frustrates the easy socialization that Dewey suggests is crucial to democratic life and energy.
There is no easy response to the problem of privacy. Regulations and technological fixes will not do the trick. We require nothing less than a renewed public realm, and a renewed commitment to making it the center of our communities, and daily life. Here we may once again witness the value of socialization, and feel the lure and power of associations. In the US, politicians inaugurate a billion-dollar plan to rebuild the infrastructure of our ports and roads; many angle for infrastructure fixes that promote sustainability and racial equity. We would be remiss to ignore the infrastructure of democracy.
[…] the poor labourer who has the soil and the seasons to struggle with, and who, while he affords the materials for supplying the luxury of all the other members of the common wealth, and bears, as it were, upon his shoulders the whole fabric of human society, seems himself to be pressed down below ground by the weight, and to be buried out of sight in the lowest foundations of the building. In the midst of so much oppressive inequality […]
Adam Smith, “Early Draft” of Wealth of Nations
When the late Charles W Mills set out to “occupy liberalism,” he did so with two evidently hostile ideologies: Marxism and the Black radical tradition. But, while the occupiers aren’t exactly meant to be greeted as liberators (they too must adapt), the final product is meant to remain distinctively liberal. In outlining “Black radical liberalism” (BRL), Mills takes as the liberal leg of the tripod the ideal theories of the philosophical titans Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. A stronger BRL can be formulated by replacing the ideal theories of Kant and Rawls with the non-ideal philosophy of the Scottish moral theorist Adam Smith and the social liberals that followed in his wake, culminating with the Capabilities Approach. Smith provides the normativity Mills needs for the liberal leg of BRL—and even some of the materialist sociology of the Marxist leg—with fewer wrong turns than Rawls or Kant, but Smith failed to see the abiding patterns of injustice that constitute an “ill-ordered society”.
Black radical liberalism
Each leg of the BRL tripod modifies the others. Liberalism provides the aspirational normative commitments of freedom and equality for all persons, living in stable peace and rising prosperity in a diverse society in which things tend to get better for a random person on the street. But liberalism in practice has failed to live up to its lofty ideals. Mills argues that liberalism needs to onboard a Marxist critique that theorizes social classes, class-based oppression, and a more materialist understanding of how economic forces shape politics and social life.
Liberalism and Marxism both, however, have largely failed in practice to account for racialization. Incorporating insights from the Black radical tradition and critical race theory illuminates how class conflict and exploitation are racialized, and how liberal legal and economic institutions have despite—and because of—ostensible “color-blindness” implicitly assumed Black inferiority and perpetuated Black oppression.
Mills seemed to be a committed liberal in his later years, but he often cited an instrumental reason for engaging with liberalism for Black liberatory ends: liberalism is the dominant game in political philosophy. So it makes sense that Mills chose Rawls, the preeminent liberal philosopher of the 20th century, as his primary interlocutor. To develop BRL, Mills first problematizes Rawls’s ideal theory, with its original position and “veil of ignorance” thought experiment. In Rawls’s “veil of ignorance”, idealized rational persons are shorn of all information about the place they occupy in society and then set to hammering out principles of justice they could agree to without such personal information. Because no one introduces racial discrimination behind the veil, Rawls’s theory has very little to say about the non-ideal situation of racial inequality that confronts us this side of the veil.
Mills suggests we consider an alternative veil of ignorance, in which rational deliberators retain information about structural racism, but are charged with fashioning principles of corrective justice given the reality of racist oppression and their ignorance of their own placement within the racial hierarchy. For Mills, Rawls’s famous principles of justice—basic liberties, the idea that any inequalities must advantage the worst off, and fair equality of opportunities—would be transformed into vaguer principles of corrective justice for “eliminating illicit white advantage/white privilege/racial pleonexia [greed] in whites’ basic liberties, opportunities, and social respect, in a non-ideal, ill-ordered, white supremacist society.”
Mills was committed to radicalizing contractarian liberalism, but this project involved a curious two-step.
Begin with the liberal contract of ideal theory.
Problematize the ideal theory by pointing out implicit white supremacist norms.
Formalize antiracist principles of corrective justice.
It makes sense from a strategic perspective to engage with Rawls and the massive, still ongoing research program he spun off. But Mills was open to fostering a variety of BRLs. And the de-idealizing two-step can be avoided entirely with alternative liberal traditions. The moral system of sympathy and political system of natural liberty advanced by Adam Smith is an attractive basis for such a project, especially as Smithian insights were further developed in the present day by “capabilities” liberals like Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and Elizabeth Anderson. Mills obligingly provided a template in the epilogue of Black Rights/White Wrongs for radicalizing a liberal political theory:
Overarching framework: Non-ideal theory
Theoretical focus: Ill-ordered societies
Social ontology: Races in relations of domination/subordination
Task of social epistemology: Exposing dominant racialized ideologies, whether overt or subtle
Actual hegemonic variety of liberalism: Racial liberalism
Normative orientation: Corrective justice
Key normative tool: Black radical “Kantianism”
One possible strategy: Adapting Rawls for corrective justice
After a brief summary of relevant Smithian ideas, I’ll proceed to plug Smith into this template.
Smith described a moral system—his Theory of Moral Sentiments—that was constructed from the bottom-up by moral actors observing what actions and feelings earn approval and disapproval from others in their society. We imagine ourselves in the other’s situation and reach for impartiality by reflecting on what an impartial spectator would judge. This “mirror of society” is inherently contextual. This avoids the problems of abstract ethical systems, but it means our moral sense always remains tethered to the social morality around us, however we may stretch our moral sensibilities by seeking out diverse perspectives.
Smith’s political economy is often pithily summed up as the “system of natural liberty” wherein each person is left free to pursue their own self-betterment by their own lights, within the constraints of justice. But equally important for present purposes is Smith’s attention to historical contingency in shaping institutions. Anticipating Marx, Smith viewed political and economic institutions—including property—as functions of the stage of economic development (on Smith’s stadial schema, these were hunter/gatherer, shepherds, agriculture, and commercial society). In addition, Smith saw a large role for governments in provisioning public goods, education, and support for the arts. Smith never missed an opportunity to point out both the unjust privileges of the rich and powerful and the tendency of said elites to jealously guard such privileges. Smith did not develop a concept of distributive justice, but nevertheless evinced a class consciousness that made him favor taxes that undermined privilege where possible, as well as every reform that benefited the worker against the capitalist. Though plainly an egalitarian, Smith was a gradualist rather than a radical, cautioning against abrupt and dramatic change.
Rawls theorized about a nearly perfectly just society with only minor deviations from strict compliance with social rules. As abstract rational deliberators confer behind a veil of ignorance, of course they fail to introduce racist oppression into their principles of justice. But then, as Mills points out at length, whole literatures are spun out about the angels-on-pins minutiae of the principles of justice in raceless worlds and these ideas bleed into applied analysis of our thoroughly unjust, racialized world in ways that offer little understanding and few solutions for oppression.
Mills sees no way forward but rewinding all of ideal theory and starting contractarian liberalism over, largely from scratch. By contrast, Smith is non-ideal from the start. Indeed it is characteristic of the entire Scottish Enlightenment to reject philosophizing from “original position” hypothetical scenarios. We are always already enmeshed in a matrix of norms, relationships, institutions, and expectations. Smith’s sympathetic “mirror to society” impresses upon us that we are continually reconstituting the norms and institutions that shape our lives by fulfilling our expected roles and acting accordingly. Where theorizing from a hypothetical “state of nature” leaves us adrift when confronted with real world values and social patterns that would never have been approved behind a veil of ignorance, a Smithian approach shows us how these patterns are upheld and urges us to investigate their historical origins.
Smith looks to the past and considers how present institutions came to be the way they are. What were the historical contingencies that brought them about? Who were the powerful interest groups, what were their motivations, and who were their allies and adversaries? How did the distribution of power come to be what it is? Consider Smith’s famous account of how the middle nobility lost influence and power relative to both monarchs and bourgeois towns. In the burgeoning commercial society, these landed gentry over time and in the “wantonness of plenty” traded men-at-arms and retinues of servants in exchange for “trinkets and baubles”. On Smith’s account, as this happened monarchs allied with growing commercial towns to centralize their authority, further marginalizing nobles. Right or wrong, this exemplifies the style of Smith’s historical analysis of institutions and power.
Similarly, Black radicalism emphasizes the long history of anti-black racism as it developed out of slavery and adapted to changing social environments. The 1619 Project or Ibram Kendi’s history of ever-evolving racist ideas from the arrival in America of the first African slaves to the present are typical of this approach.
A typical, if grossly oversimplified, summary might go like this: following the end of slavery, attempts by Radical Republicans to redistribute the land of former slave holders to the formerly enslaved failed; Blacks advanced under Reconstruction, but political support for continued use of the military to enforce it evaporated and so it was abandoned, leaving the South to white supremacist rule under the Democratic party; a campaign of lynching and other acts of violent white supremacist terrorism, formal Jim Crow segregation in the South, and redlining and other tools in the rest of the country, crushed any burgeoning Black flourishing until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, after which Black oppression was carried on by the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and the continued use of restrictive land use laws. Throughout this history, Blacks were largely excluded from government-sponsored wealth transfers like land grants and mortgage subsidies aimed at launching and entrenching a property-owning middle class.
This kind of story about the continual adaptation of white supremacist institutions over centuries leading to an entrenched Black underclass fits with Smith’s historical counterfactual approach to understanding the origins of contemporary social classes and relations as they actually exist and function. The focus on history is critical in antiracist thought because white history obscures antiblack violence and wealth destruction. We can contrast this approach to Rawlsian ideal theorizing from an “original position”. Instead of understanding how things got to be the way they are, we’re told they would be very different had they evolved from Ideal Year Zero. The problem of ideal theory is less that it papers over the imperfections of the real world—though it does—but that so much intellectual energy is spent figuring out what the ideal ought to be and no energy is devoted to understanding why we aren’t even approaching anyone’s ideal. Smith and the main company of Black antiracist intellectuals begin, continue, and end in the real world.
Mills’s second point of direction for Black-radicalizing liberalism is to ditch the well-ordered society of “complete compliance” with the principles of justice and focus instead on ill-ordered societies characterized by deep, abiding patterns of injustice and oppression. Smith himself did not think of society as deeply unjust. He thought one could fulfill the requirements of justice simply by doing nothing—living one’s life according to a tolerable adherence to everyday morality. But Smith also recognized—and called out—oppressive institutions in his day: notably European imperialism, slavery and the slave trade, and infanticide.
But a liberal can take insights from Smith to more radical ends. Smith had an abiding suspicion of power and inequality, and counseled legislators to be suspicious of capitalists and monopolists who would never fail to conspire against the public. He observed a tendency in people to give the rich and powerful the benefit of the doubt, to sympathize with their (sometimes dubious) struggles while failing to see the objectively weightier trials of the oppressed. And Smith identified a “love of domination” as a natural feature of the human psyche.
Black radicals and antiracists supply the details of how antiblack order manifests and functions, but Smithian liberals can readily understand how such an order is stabilized by the social fact of power and the love of power by those who have it and the mystique power holds over the powerless.
Races in relations of dominance and subordination; exposing racial liberalism
We can put the schema of dominating and subordinated races into Smithian language by noting how the social construct of racial hierarchy is constituted by the social mirror. We see actions that sustain white supremacy earn approval, and those that flout white supremacy earn disapprobation. Indeed this just rephrases Smith’s point about the obsequious attention the poor pay to the powerful. Though Smith is often seen as defending economic inequality, he was both suspicious of the influence that came along with great fortunes and he feared the possibility of an “oppressive inequality” of a few fortunes so vast they could not dissipate by normal means. Black radical liberals might point out the persistence of racial wealth gaps (as well as other gaps in well-being) as a strong analogy to the oppression of extreme wealth inequality. Just as extreme wealth inequality distorts our moral sentiments to sympathize with the rich and scorn the poor, racial inequality—which of course is entwined with wealth inequality—distorts our moral sentiments to sympathize with whites and scorn Blacks and other racialized groups.
Smith largely predated the move to distributive justice, so there’s little room in Smith for massive redistribution based on legacies of racial injustice where most of the original victims are dead and redistribution must therefore be based on contentious counterfactual calculations. But here it’s worth recalling Smith’s materialist “stadial” view of history. Smith saw social institutions and mores adapting to the mode of production and social organization. Just as the agriculture-centered society gave way to the commercial society made possible by industrialization, the early commercial society Smith knew evolved uniformly throughout the developed world into a late commercial society characterized by a growing bureaucratic state providing social welfare and other public services. A Smithian liberal can and should view this as an apparently natural consequence of maturing commercial society. With the machinery of large-scale redistribution in place, the expectations and mores follow for such redistribution to be equitable.
There is also the possibility of a generous reading of the famous “system of natural liberty” passage where the sovereign is accorded the “duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice.” Smith uses the phrase “oppression” liberally throughout his published and unpublished works, often referring to a kind of “vexation” visited upon a person by those with unaccountable authority they have leeway to abuse, whether these are tax collectors, magistrates, masters, or church officials. A modern reader might instinctively add police and judges to this list.
Sometimes “oppression” simply means burdensome, as in the case of oppressive regulations. But still other times oppression refers to a large difference in social or political power, or the abuse made possible by such differentials, as in the case of masters and workers or colonial overseers and the colonized. The Smithian sovereign has a deceptively wide scope of powers at their disposal for protecting all members of society from oppression, not just by the state, but by other members and, presumably, social entities like corporations, agencies, and groups.
For a BRL using Smith, white supremacy obviously already constitutes oppression. But as we’ve seen above, racist oppression can be translated into Smithian terms. And on an expansive conception of the system of natural liberty, the sovereign is charged with protecting every person from racist oppression, up to and including corrective justice to end oppressive racist inequality. Affirmative action to racially desegregate public spaces and public offices (as advocated by Elizabeth Anderson) and reparations for slavery and the rolling institutional assaults on Black flourishing and wealth creation (as described by William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen) are corrective policies that seem well within the scope of a Black-radicalized Smithian sovereign.
A note on Black feminism
One feature of Smithian thought that leans hard against radicalism is his strong inclination against abrupt social change and his warning against “the man of system” who thinks he can move social actors into the preferred positions like pieces on a chessboard. But, as noted, in his own time Smith offered radical diagnoses of unjust but entrenched practices like slavery and colonialism, even if he failed to demand immediate abolition at every opportunity. I’d like to suggest some resonances Smith has with Black feminism, which is itself an indispensable pillar of BRL.
At least one current in the Black feminist tradition can be characterized by radical diagnosis aimed at expanding the political imagination coupled with pragmatic, coalitional democratic politics and an emphasis on harm reduction (negatively) or a politics of care (positively). Black feminists frequently embrace radical causes like police and prison abolition that spook white moderates to no end, but on close examination Black feminists rarely expect—or demand—immediate holistic change.
The point of prison abolition, for example, is to sharply turn away from thinking about incarceration as a normal or expected policy. Angela Davis, in Are Prisons Obsolete? asks her readers to imagine what we would do if prisons were off the table. Black feminists engage in pragmatic politics rather than cosplaying revolution or indulging in democratic political abstinence because they’re sensitive to the fact that those persons living at the margins and intersections of society are the ones most likely to suffer from political instability or antidemocratic government. They take a margin-to-center approach—centering the concerns of Black women, trans people of color, disabled persons, and other vulnerable people—because otherwise such persons are ignored by dominant group politics.
Smith feared political instability. But Smith’s method of sympathy invites us to stretch ever outward and learn in a context-sensitive manner about the diversity of the human experience, pro-actively reaching out to the margins. Smith himself of course never achieved anything like a feminist consciousness himself. He showed no hint of a non-patriarchal notion of gender roles. Nevertheless, with his suspicion of power, thorough egalitarianism, and attention to the plight of the disadvantaged, Smith held the rudiments of the Black feminist approach to politics.
Smith’s apparent bourgeois antiradicalism seems like an impediment to appropriating Smith for BRL. Smith’s pragmatism is closer to the pragmatism of Black feminism than it is to the anxious centrism of the white moderate.
Black radical capabilities
The “key normative tool” of Black radical liberalism should not be Black radical Kantianism or Rawlsianism, but a Black-radicalized Smithian liberalism. But Adam Smith died over 200 years ago and it would be dubious to tie a live radical movement to a philosophical corpse. Arguably, the closest philosophical heirs of Smith today are liberals of the Capabilities Approach, developed by philosopher Martha Nussbaum and economist-philosopher Amartya Sen. Nussbaum explores this connection in The Cosmopolitan Tradition,
“[…] Smith does not interpret the ideas of justice and respect as narrowly as do Cicero and the Stoics. He sees that a life worthy of human dignity requires more than the absence of aggression, torture, and theft. It requires, as well, certain conditions of labor, because it is in the sphere of labor that a person’s humanity is deeply and fundamentally expressed. The freedom to contract for one’s own labor, the freedom of movement, and the free choice of occupation are all essential to a life in which one can “barter and exchange” like a human, rather than fawning like an animal. Moreover, a life worthy of human dignity also requires the wherewithal to raise a family and bring up children to adulthood, thus a decent living wage; spaces for rest and recreation; and a political life in which laws are made for the good of all, not by pressure of the rich on a captive legislature. Unlike the Stoics, who asked for decent treatment of slaves while holding that the institution itself was a matter of indifference, Smith sees that institutions matter for a life worthy of human dignity and that slavery, colonial domination, and certain forms of domination by the rich over the poor are violations of basic justice. Smith’s argument thus strikingly anticipates similar arguments made by proponents of the Capabilities Approach today.”
Smith, moreover, charges the sovereign with providing institutions to develop human capabilities, as with public education to prevent minds from being “mutilated and deformed” in the division of labor of commercial society. A deeper connection to the Capabilities Approach is found in Smith’s social constructivism. Smith allows that a person deserves to be able to appear in public without shame, and that this requires not just some minimum equipage, but that the requirements vary from one culture to another, indeed are socially constituted. Smith’s example is a linen shirt, without which a “creditable day-labourer” could not appear in public without shame. For capabilities liberals, the plural goods and freedoms required for a life of “truly human dignity” are always understood in their social realization.
Capabilities liberals already typically see race as socially constructed. At least in principle, capabilities liberals are already open to seeing how race as a set of social relations can shape and limit the realizable freedom and agency of individuals. A Black radical capabilities liberal—informed by the Black radical tradition, critical race theory, and Black feminism—would focus on how race interacts with class, gender, and other social forces to shape capabilities. A capabilities BRL analyzes comprehensive social and economic outcomes to advocate for corrective policies. The goal is full relational equality, so that a person’s race neither constrains nor advances their freedom to do and to be what they might have reason to value. This may take various forms, but the stratification economics of William Darity and Darrick Hamilton, which “investigate[s] structural and contextual factors that preserve the relative status of dominant groups via intergenerational resource transfers and exclusionary practices” is one example with an acknowledged influence from the capabilities approach. The political philosophy of the Movement for Black Lives—as described here by Deva Woodly—is another.
In 2018, after reading Charles Mills’s Black Rights/White Wrongs, I emailed the good professor, asking him what he thought of the possibility of a “Black radical capabilities”. He sent me a remarkably indulgent, encouraging response to an amateur’s question:
Dear Paul: That’s a very interesting idea. As you know, my line of argument is that the case for corrective justice needs to be developed as a competitor with the currently predominantly distributivist conceptions, since in theory it should be found less objectionable by people on the right-hand side of the political spectrum. I hadn’t thought of recruiting capabilities theory as a potential resource. But maybe you’re right, that one could seek to articulate a corrective capabilities theory that highlighted the differential and disadvantaging contexts that for some people undermine even their socially recognized personhood. (And in this respect put forward a more minimalist list less likely to provoke controversy.) An idea whose time has come…?
6 March 2018
I’ve had this essay in mind ever since then, and I regret that I will not be able to with great trepidation ask Mills if he might—if it’s not very much trouble—read my expanded thoughts on an old email exchange.
Black radical capabilities as I see it is not more minimalist, and it’s unlikely to attract those on the right-hand side of the political spectrum. Yet Smith is beloved of right-leaning liberals, even if they emphasize rather different features of Smith’s thought than I do. Classical liberals might indulge their curiosity about what some ambitious social liberals claim to see in his system of natural liberty. Classical liberals might at least appreciate the possibility that the firmly liberal capabilities approach may make Marx redundant in BRL.
As a sociological thinker, like other protoliberals of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith launched a liberal tradition distinct from deontology and the social contract, including such diverse and disagreeing liberals as John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, Friedrich Hayek, and contemporaries like Elizabeth Anderson and Jacob Levy. Smith is already non-ideal, already fully in this world and not stuck with one foot behind a veil. A Smithian version of Black radical liberalism is thus far more appealing to liberals of this strain.
The point of Black radical liberalism is to unlock the radical potential of liberalism and to translate Black radical demands into liberal terms. I offer Smith and the capabilities approach as a powerful alternative to Kant, Rawls, and the social contract for doing the liberal work of BRL. When it comes to radicalizing liberalism—I think Mills would agree—let a thousand flowers bloom.