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The firing of Kevin Williamson has led, predictably, to outrage from other conservatives, and in particular from anti-Trumpers like Bill Kristol and Erick Erickson. I can’t help thinking that much of their outrage is rooted in fear. Conservative intellectuals are in a very awkward historical position.

It is an unfortunate, but fairly obvious truth that most intellectuals, both on the left or right, don’t have particularly original ideas. Go to the Aspen Ideas Festival, or TED, or any of their ilk and you won’t find much that is genuinely surprising or exciting. Instead, you will find a lot of people whose stock-in-trade is not so much innovation as influence.

This used to be true in some quite specific ways of conservative intellectuals. The conservative movement perceived the need for intellectuals, both to hold their own fractious coalition together through ‘fusionism’ and the like, and to justify their goals to liberals, who dominated the space of serious policy discussions, and could possibly stop them. Liberal policy types, for their part, needed to understand what was happening among conservatives, and perhaps hoped to influence it a little. The result was that conservative intellectuals were in a highly advantageous structural position, serving as the primary link between two different spheres, which didn’t otherwise come much into contact. As network sociology 101 will tell you, this allowed them a fair amount of arbitrage and enough slack that e.g. people like Jonah Goldberg were treated as serious thinkers.

Now, however, the game is up, thanks to an unfortunate concatenation of events. Conservative intellectuals defected en masse from Trump, thinking that it was a fairly cheap gesture of independence, but Trump got elected. Not only did this damage these intellectuals’ personal ties with the new administration and the conservative movement, but it opened up the way for a conservatism that basically didn’t give a fuck about policy ideas and the need to seem ‘serious’ any more. The result is that conservative intellectuals don’t have all that much influence over conservatism any more.

The problem is that without such influence over conservatives, these intellectuals’ capital with liberals and the left is rapidly diminishing too. If conservative intellectuals don’t have much of an audience within conservatism itself, why should people on the opposite side listen to them any more? Their actual ideas are … mostly not that strong. Some of them are good writers (David Frum, for example), but good writing only goes so far. The only plausible case for paying attention to conservative-intellectuals-qua-conservative-intellectuals, is that perhaps the pendulum will swing back after Trump, and the old regime be restored. That might happen, but you wouldn’t want to betting serious money on it.

If this analysis is right (and it obviously may not be) Stephens, Williamson (up until this afternoon) and the others are running on fumes. The adherents of old-style centrist liberalism might still have some nostalgia for the old days when men were real men, women were real women, and associate editors of the New Republic were real associate editors of the New Republic. But that’s a poorish substitute for actual influence and an actual audience, especially when the actual liberals and leftwingers that are the audience for publications like the Atlantic don’t want anything to do with these people. The very brightest will probably be OK – but it’ll be a cold enough future for the others.

Sam Harris and the ideology of reason

by Henry on March 30, 2018

There’s lot’s that has been said in the last couple of days about Sam Harris, and not much to say about Charles Murray, race, and IQ that hasn’t already been said over the decades. But the whole tone of his writing in this exchange, aggrieved postscript and all, is worth noting briefly as a specific example of a broader phenomenon. One of the minor plagues of our time is a specific flavor of Enlightenment Man Rationalism – see Harris, Dawkins, Pinker – in which the Enlightenment Man (gender specificity intended) casts himself as the bold-honest truth-seeker, who is willing to follow reason wherever it takes him, even if (and perhaps especially if) this upsets the vulgar prejudices of the right-thinking herd. Quite often (as in Pinker’ recent book) this is linked to a particular ideal of the Enlightenment, some of the rhetorical aspects of which do support the image of the lonely man of truth standing against the mob. [click to continue…]

The travesty of liberalism

by Henry on March 21, 2018

More in the suddenly topical vein of ‘who will rid us of those troublesome leftists’ from Sean Wilentz. For Chait, the problem is “It’s obvious to me why conservatives want everybody who’s alienated by the callout culture to self-identify as a conservative. It’s less obvious to me why liberals should also want that.” For Wilentz:

These shifts and attempted shifts in vocabulary are not of passing or merely semantic significance. Insisting upon the proper meanings of terms is not divisive or sectarian bickering. The words at stake embody different worldviews. To merge basic concepts that are plainly distinct, such as socialism and New Deal liberalism, is not a useful step toward clarifying our politics. It is, however, a Republican fantasy.

Hence, Wilentz’s proposed way forward:

It may be that the future of the Democratic Party will be determined by the extent to which men and women to the left of the right learn to appreciate the differences between liberal and progressive—and, as an important first step, to appreciate the difference between liberalism and the progressive travesty of liberalism.
[click to continue…]

Scalded Chait

by Henry on March 20, 2018

I want to write about other things on Crooked Timber than Jonathan Chait. Really, I do. I have a half-finished essay on The Globalists that is going to be so much more worth your time (if only because the book itself is so good). But since he’s written again today to defend the proposition that we should too be bagging on Political Correctness Gone Mad, it’s worth spending a few minutes pointing out quite how bizarre his understanding of the threat actually is.

Chait’s quite straightforward claim is that if the true awful force of political correctness were unconstrained, it would whisk us all up and deposit us in the gulag.

all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow the same basic structure. These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. The gap between Marxist political theory and the observed behavior of Marxist regimes is tissue-thin. Their theory of free speech gives license to any party identifying itself as the authentic representative of the oppressed to shut down all opposition (which, by definition, opposes the rights of the oppressed). When Marxists reserve for themselves the right to decide “which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t,” the result of the deliberation is perfectly obvious.

In the contemporary United States, these ideas are confined by the fact that only in certain communities (like college campuses) does the illiberal left have the power to implement its vision, and even there it is constrained by the U.S. Constitution. If illiberal ideas were to gain more power, the scale of their abuses would widen.

Since this quote is not quite Gulag-y enough for some of our commenters, here’s Chait again, making the point even more explicit:

The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. (For those inclined to defend p.c. on the grounds that racism and sexism are important, bear in mind that the forms of repression Marxist government set out to eradicate were hardly imaginary.)

American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.

Now I think that it’s perfectly fair to argue with and against student activists. They can be idiots (as can every human being; as can the professors and administrators who they are railing against). But even when they are idiots, they are not a Gestapo in the making. The notion that when the Political Correctness Police come to power, people like Chait are going to be hauled off to the camps for compulsory gender reassignment surgery (after having been convicted in mass show trials of Gross Heteronormativity in the First Degree) is … well, actually, it’s quite mad.

Furthermore, it’s politically toxic. On the one hand, Chait holds himself out as the practitioner of a liberalism devoted to “permeability, [and] openness to evidence and diverse perspectives.” On the other, he wants to make out that the people who are to his left on race and gender are a crowd of neo-authoritarians in the making, who will kulakize the lot of us if they are ever let anywhere near “the machinery of the state.” One is left with the impression that Chait’s proposed coalition for taking on the right consists of a few middle aged white guys, all former staff writers or contributing editors to The New Republic When It Was Really The New Republic, who alone are both intelligent enough to understand the true commitment to liberalism at the heart of the American dream, and brave enough to defend it against the zealots to their left and to their right. Likely, that is a quite unfair summation of what Chait wants. But if Chait continues to insist on demonizing everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates on leftwards, it’s what he is going to get.

We’re all going to need safe spaces

by Henry on March 16, 2018

So I got muted on Twitter this morning by Jonathan Chait.

Riffing off this really fantastic essay on Jordan Peterson, I’d pointedly asked Chait whether he might reconsider his own position given Peterson’s guff about the deep commonality between trans activists and Maoist murderers of millions. After a grumpy back-and-forward he responded even more grumpily that he’d only ever said that identity politics people had borrowed Marxism’s critique of liberalism. I pointed out that he’d in fact also suggested that we’d all be marching to the gulags if the campus left got its way. After a couple more tweets, the ban-hammer descended. Finis.

Traditionally, a post like this would continue the fight by other means, likely (as a bunch of people have been doing on Twitter), by doing a tu quoque tying Chait’s habit of blocking or banning people on Twitter to his condemnations of campuses shutting out inconvenient voices. I don’t want to do that. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that Chait should mute or block me if he wants – I’ve occasionally done it myself to people who kept on trying to pull me into arguments that I didn’t want to be pulled into. Doubtless, those people felt aggrieved too that I wasn’t responding to their (in their minds good and cogent) points. Given the way that Twitter is set up, you sometimes have no other good options, if you want to continue to have the conversations that you do want to have, and not have them drowned up by the conversations that you don’t.

But there’s also a much bigger point there, about the kind of space that the Internet has created. Liberalism of the small-l kind goes together with a strong emphasis on free speech. The implicit assumption is that we will all be better off in a world where everyone can say whatever they want, to whoever they want, even if it is inconvenient, or wrong minded, or crazy.

However, this assumption rests on empirical assumptions as well as normative ones. And as speech becomes cheaper, it may be that those assumptions don’t hold in the same way that they used to (see further Zeynep Tufekci, Rick Hasen and Timothy Wu, as well as Molly Roberts’ forthcoming book).

There are two versions of the problem. First – speech doesn’t scale, and at a certain point, the scarce resource isn’t speech but attention. Even when people who want to argue with you are entirely sincere, there is a point at which you simply can’t pay attention to everyone who wants to talk at you on Twitter and still function. You need to make choices.

Second, speech is increasingly being weaponized to drown out inconvenient voices. “Flooding” attacks (as Roberts describes them) are making online political conversation more or less impossible in authoritarian regimes, as people have to deal with a spew of tendentious, irrelevant, and angry comments, what Adrian Chen describes as a “flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space” (in passing, I used to be very strongly in favor of anonymous free speech on the Internet; I’ve had to seriously rethink that).

In the standard shibboleth, the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have discovered is that the best antidote to more speech is bad speech. And while there is a lot of paranoia about Russian bots, there was, I think, a very real attempt to use these techniques to stir things up in the US election, and in Western European countries too.

These are problems that liberalism (including strongly-left-democratic versions of liberalism) are poorly equipped to handle. We don’t have any good intellectual basis that I know of for deciding the appropriate ways to allocate attention, since we’ve only started to have that problem in the very recent past. We also don’t have good tools for muting the kinds of speech that have been weaponized to undermine conversation, while preserving the kinds of speech that conduct towards it. Which is maybe all a long winded way of saying that I don’t particularly blame Jonathan Chait for wanting a safe space, and wanting to exclude me from it. We are all going to need safe spaces – and to start thinking systematically about how to build them while preserving conversation. Neither Chait’s version of liberalism, or the kind of left-democratic approach that I am more attracted to has any good idea of how to do this (or if either have, I’m not reading the right people and want to be pointed to them).

Post Democracy in Italy

by Henry on March 5, 2018

Written five years ago

The Italian Democratic Party is caught on one tine of the post-democratic dilemma. It is trying to work within the system as it is, in the implausible hope that it can produce real change within a framework that almost seems designed to prevent such a thing. As the party has courted Grillo, it has started making noises about refusing to accept austerity politics and introducing major institutional reforms. It is unclear whether senior Democratic figures believe their new rhetoric; certainly no one else does. If the party does somehow come to power, the most it will do is tinker with the system.

The Five Star Movement has impaled itself on the other tine, as have the Indignados in Spain, Occupy in the US and UK, and the tent movement in Israel. All have gained mass support because of the problems of post-democracy. The divide between ordinary people and politicians has grown ever wider, and Italian politicians are often corrupt as well as remote. The Five Star Movement wants to reform Italy’s institutions to make them truly democratic. Yet it, too, is trapped by the system. As Grillo told the Financial Times in October: ‘We die if a movement becomes a party. Our problem is to remain a movement in parliament, which is a structure for parties. We have to keep a foot outside.’

… All are embroiled, in different ways, in the perplexities of post-democracy. None has any very good way out. Ever since France’s president François Mitterrand tried to pursue an expansive social democratic agenda in the early 1980s and was brutally punished by international markets, it has been clear that social democracy will require either a partial withdrawal from the international economy, with all the costs that this entails, or a radical transformation of how the international economy works.

It is striking that the right is not hampered to nearly the same extent. Many mainstream conservatives are committed to democracy for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons. They are quite content to see it watered down so long as markets work and social stability is maintained. Those on the further reaches of the right, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, find it much easier than the Five Star Movement or Syriza, the Greek radical-left coalition, to think about alternatives. After all, they aren’t particularly interested in reforming moribund democratic institutions to make them better and more responsive; they just want to replace them with some version of militaristic fascism. Even if these factions are unlikely to succeed, they can still pull their countries in less democratic directions, by excluding weaker groups from political protection. The next 10 years are unlikely to be comfortable for immigrants in southern Europe.

Post-democracy is strangling the old parties of the left. They have run out of options. Perhaps all that traditional social democracy can do, to adapt a grim joke made by Crouch in a different context, is to serve as a pall-bearer at its own funeral. In contrast, a new group of actors — the Five Star Movement and other confederations of the angry, young and dispossessed — have seized a chance to win mass support. The problem is, they seem unable to turn mass frustration into the power to change things, to create a path for escape.

Perhaps, over time, they will figure out how to engage with the mundane task of slow drilling through hard boards that is everyday politics. Perhaps, too, the systems of unrule governing the world economy, gravely weakened as they are, will fail and collapse of their own accord, opening the space for a new and very different dispensation. Great changes seem unlikely until they happen; only in retrospect do they look inevitable. Yet if some reversal in the order of things is waiting to unfold, it is not apparent to us now. Post-democracy has trapped the left between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. We may be here for some time.

The father of consumer sovereignty

by Henry on February 16, 2018

I hope to have a lot more to say about Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism when it comes out next month. Short version: it’s a very important book that deserves to have a quite enormous impact. It does look at questions related to those of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains (specifically – to what extent is the version of libertarianism that flowed from Hayek, Friedman and others explicitly anti-democratic). However, it doesn’t mention MacLean (whose book likely came out too recently to be considered), and deserves to be treated as a major achievement in its own right rather than as a further contribution to a semi-related spat. Hence, this preliminary post which is intended to get all that stuff out of the way before I write about Globalists proper. [click to continue…]

Futures of the Past

by Henry on January 24, 2018

I’ve wanted for a while to encourage people to buy John Crowley’s Totalitopia, which was published as part of Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Authors series at PM Press. It’s a great series of short books, each containing stories, essays and interviews. I also recommend Eleanor Arnason’s Mammoths of the Great Plains – if you liked what Le Guin did with anthropology, you will probably love Arnason -, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Lucky Strike). The e-books are now on sale, along with all the e-books at PM Press, for a dollar each (go to their website, pick the books you want and enter BUCK into the coupon field), except for those, like Robinson’s, which are free. I’ve spent the morning stocking up on Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Ken MacLeod, Elizabeth Hand and others.

But Crowley again – Totalitopia has many good things. Perhaps the best is the lovely short story “This Is Our Town,” which approaches a 1950s Catholic childhood, with saints, miracles and mysteries, through the structure of genre, turning it into a self-contained universe which is both a fantasy and not, depending on whether you are looking from without (as Crowley now is), or within (as the child that Crowley was once did). His essay on the criminally underappreciated Paul Park is also very fine. The title essay, Totalitopia, is a non-fiction sequel to his novellas “Great Work of Time” and “In Blue,” talking about how every present generates its own impossible, contradictory futures, which quickly become antiquated, alien and lost.
[click to continue…]

Ursula Le Guin has died

by Henry on January 23, 2018

She was a wonderful, vexing, intelligent writer, and great humanist. I was lucky enough to be able to tell her once how much her work had meant to me (via email – we had been talking about doing a Crooked Timber symposium, which she decided in the end she didn’t have sufficient time to commit to). There are a very few books that I’m simply not able to talk about coherently, since they’ve shaped me so deeply that I can’t think straight about them. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are among them.

New Bloggers

by Henry on January 9, 2018

So as part of a general process of reinvigoration, we are bringing three new bloggers on board.

  • Serene Khader is the Jay Newman Chair in Philosophy of Culture at Brooklyn College and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on moral and political issues relevant to women in the global South. Her areas of research within philosophy include ethics and moral psychology, political philosophy, and feminist philosophy. She also works in the interdisciplinary field of development ethics, studying practices such as microcredit, small-scale development interventions, and commercial gestational surrogacy.
  • Her work on adaptive preferences, including her first book Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment (Oxford University Press 2011), develops an approach to responding to choices made by oppressed and deprived people that perpetuate their own oppression and deprivation. Her second book, Decolonizing Universalism, Transnational Feminist Ethics (under contract with Oxford University Press), concerns the normative commitments required for cross-border feminist solidarity. When she’s not philosophizing, she can often be found lifting heavy weights and cultivating her love of New York City.
  • Gina Schouten grew up near Indianapolis and went to college at Ball State University. Before beginning graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she taught kindergarten in Colorado. Following that, she taught philosophy for three years at Illinois State University. She now teaches philosophy at Harvard. Her research interests include gender justice, educational justice, and political legitimacy, and she is currently working on a book tentatively called Liberalism, Neutrality, and the Gendered Division of Labor.
  • Astra Taylor is an activist, writer, musician, documentary film maker and general shit stirrer. She was involved in the Occupy movement, co-editing Occupy! with Sarah Leonard and Keith Gessen, as well as helping to found Rolling Jubilee, an organization that purchases and expunges debt. Her movies include Zizek! and Examined Life, a series of dialogues with modern philosophers and thinkers, which appeared with a book of the same name. She has written for a wide variety of places – her book on culture in the digital era, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age is written up at Crooked Timber here. Astra’s new documentary, Democracy, interviews Silvia Federici, Cornel West, Wendy Brown, Angela Davis, trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, former prime ministers, and others, asking what democracy is, how it can work under conditions of inequality, and how people can reclaim their power. It’s going to be out really soon.

We’re really happy to have them all join.

Fire and flood

by Henry on December 27, 2017

Relevant to the scandal in Britain about material being ‘lost’ from the National Archives, this bit from Margaret Levi’s book, Consent, Dissent and Patriotism (p.13)

More arcane is the account of a small fire that destroyed relevant materials from World War I and World War II in the Australian War Memorial. The representatives of the British government operate under strict rules of secrecy concerning a very large amount of military-related material and they uphold these rules rigorously. The Australian government operates with a greater openness. The problem arose because in the Australian war memorial were records that the British deemed secret and the Australians did not. The problem was resolved by the British, or so my reliable source tells me, by planting a mole archivist in the War Memorial. This mole lit a small fire in the relevant stacks and disappeared.

Against Max Sawicky!

by Henry on December 1, 2017

Max Sawicky has a piece in Jacobin, giving grief to Brink Lindsey and Steve Teles’ new book on rent seeking, The Captured Economy, and arguing that Dean Baker’s work presents a “left-facing” response to rent-seeking, while Lindsey and Teles’ book, instead, is “right facing.” It’s a little awkward to wade into this fight, since I’ve been around long enough that I’m friendly with Max, Brink and Steve (and, for that matter, Dean), but I think that Max is basically wrong. What Lindsey and Teles are doing, as Max says, is to set out their pitch for liberaltarianism, a fusion of liberalism and libertarianism that John Q. has written about here in the past. But even if liberaltarianism isn’t, and shouldn’t be mistaken for e.g. social democracy, it’s much more congenial to useful argument with the left than Max allows, or than old-style libertarianism ever was. [click to continue…]

Law and Political Economy blog

by Henry on November 13, 2017

A new blog and a new intellectual movement, launched by David Singh Grewal, Amy Kapczynski and Jed Purdy:

This is a time of crises. Inequality is accelerating, with gains concentrated at the top of the income and wealth distributions. This trend – interacting with deep racialized and gendered injustice – has had profound implications for our politics, and for the sense of agency, opportunity, and security of all but the narrowest sliver of the global elite…. Law is central to how these crises were created, and will be central to any reckoning with them. Law conditions race and wealth, social reproduction and environmental destruction. Law also conditions the political order through which we must respond. … We propose a new departure – a new orientation to legal scholarship that helps illuminate how law and legal scholarship facilitated these shifts, and formulates insights and proposals to help combat them. A new approach of this sort is, we believe, in fact emerging: a coalescing movement of “law and political economy.”

The approach we call law and political economy is rooted in a commitment to a more egalitarian and democratic society. Scholars working in this vein are seeking to reconnect political conversations about the economic order with questions of dignity, belonging, or “recognition” and to challenge versions of “freedom” or “rights” that ignore or downplay social and economic power. …We pursue these egalitarian and democratic commitments through a set of theoretical premises. Politics and the economy cannot be separated. Politics both creates and shapes the economy. In turn, politics is profoundly shaped by economic relations and economic power. Attempts to separate the economy from politics make justice harder to pursue in both domains…. Our project is hopeful in spirit. Rigorous criticism is the precondition of viable hope. To think realistically about the ways that another world is possible, we have to understand the ways that our own has been made, with all of its hierarchies and harms, and to see how the same tools that made it might remake it differently. The point is to understand the world in order to change it, which begins by making it less resistant to both change and understanding.

Miéville on revolution

by Henry on September 28, 2017

I’ve a new piece up at Jacobin, talking about how the discussion of revolution in China Miéville’s October (his wonderfully written non-fiction book on the October Revolution), is prefigured and informed by his earlier novels, Iron Council and Embassytown. China’s politics are different than mine (I’m a standard-issue meliorist social democrat), but I’m cautiously happy with how the piece has turned out, and hope that it shows how China’s way of thinking captures possibilities that other, more ground-hugging ideologies such as my own are liable to miss.

October, China Miéville’s new book, describes the October Revolution as a moment of possibility. In its closing pages, Miéville explains why he wrote the book, despite the revolution’s aftermath:

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.

October depicts a pell-mell avalanche of one event crashing down on another, and men and women trying with varying success to guide the collisions — or at least survive them. Miéville’s novels often show people who thought themselves to be acting freely discovering that instead they have been enacting an inexorable logic, which, while not entirely determining their fates, renders many of their actions perverse or irrelevant. Yet there’s also a thread of counter-argument — a skein of moments in which people turn the tables on structure and write their own history.

Crowd-funding Robert Heinlein

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Farah Mendlesohn, a long time friend of Crooked Timber, writes:

I had to withdraw my book on Heinlein from the original publisher due to length. As I explored other options it became clear that no academic publisher could take it without substantial cuts, and no one who read it, could suggest any. In addition, the length would have pushed up the price for an academic publisher beyond what people could afford. Unbound, a crowdsourcing press, have agreed to take the book and have been able to price it at £12 for the ebook and £35 for the hard back.

The crowd-funding site is here. I’ve read and loved two of Farah’s previous books on f/sf (and have been contemplating a reply to her analysis of Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Wall for several years) – I’ve no doubt this is going to be great.