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Freddie deBoer and Left-Wing Epistemic Closure

January 18, 2011

Freddie deBoer’s much-discussed piece covers a lot of rhetorical ground, but one of its more salient points is that blogosphere policy debates tend to be circumscribed within a neoliberal framework. Underpinning whatever differences might arise between Klein, Sullivan, Douthat, et al is a shared commitment to free trade, globalization, and continual economic growth — a commitment Freddie would like to see challenged. (Incidentally, I would submit that common ground is necessary in any debate; that the alternative is mutual incomprehension.) Dissident voices — the anti-globalization left, paleconservatives, socialists, and so on — are simply written out of the conversation. Or so Freddie would have us believe.

Freddie makes the whole thing sound very insidious, but I don’t at all think that’s what’s going on. Rather, I suspect Jon Chait speaks for many in the blogosphere when he says that if he doesn’t tend to address left-wing arguments, it is because his “interest in ideas is primarily, though not completely, in proportion to their influence on American politics.” Chait and company are interested in politics as the art of the possible — or, to vary the expression, politics as a series of passes, hand-offs, and runs designed to move the football forward, however incrementally. (May I never again make a sports reference on this blog!) Freddie, I presume, sees the whole affair as a mere neoliberal game and wants, at the very least, to rewrite the rules. Yet “establishment” bloggers tend to be either too busy playing the game, or to have internalized its rules too much for outside critiques to have much sway.

This is what liberals call “epistemic closure” — a phenomenon they attribute exclusively to the Right. I take it to be a basic fact of human nature, and Freddie’s critique to be evidence of that fact. Jon Chait, one of the sharpest critics of right-wing epistemic closure, now links to Freddie merely so as to dismiss him as irrelevant; Matthew Yglesias confesses to being a neoliberal, but seems unable to grasp Freddie’s basic point. The only liberal (at least, the only one I’m aware of) who meets Freddie head-on is Mike Rorty. (The other blogger who adequately addresses Freddie is, oddly enough, the conservative economist Tyler Cowen.)

Thankfully, the left-wing intellectual bubble is, to borrow a word I once used in a similar context, semipermeable. The fact that Freddie’s post is getting discussed at all is, to my mind, itself evidence that the blogosphere remains an vital medium for the exchange of ideas, even ideas that defy the status quo. Chait and Yglesias may fail to engage Freddie in a meaningful way, but they have at least acknowledged him — which is more than we could reasonably expect from the New York Times op-ed pages or the talking heads at MSNBC.

Furthermore, I tend to agree with Mike Rorty that neoliberal wonkery can ultimately be put into the service of more progressive political ends; it is better to absorb, rather than simply dismiss, neoliberalism. Rorty explains:

A quote from James Ferguson’s lecture, “Toward a Left Art of Government: From ‘Foucauldian Critique’ to Foucauldian Politics” (~22m in) at this conference ‘Foucault Across the Disciplines’ (mp3s at site) is what motivates a lot of my work:

For the sort of new progressive initiatives I have in mind seem to involve not just opposing the neoliberal project…but appropriating key mechanisms of neoliberal government for different ends…Let me emphasize that to say that certain political initiatives and programs borrow from the neoliberal bag of tricks doesn’t mean that these political projects are in league with the ideological project of neoliberalism, in say David Harvey’s sense. Only that they appropriate certain characteristic neoliberal moves, and I think of these discursive and programmatic moves as analogous to the moves one might make in a game. These moves are recognizable enough to look neoliberal, but they can I suggest be used for quite different purposes than that term normally applies.

In this connection one might think of statistical techniques used for calculating the probabilities of workplace injuries. These statistical techniques were originally developed in the 19th century by large employers to control costs. But they eventually became the technical basis for social insurance, and ultimately for the welfare state, which brought unprecedented gains to the working class across much of the world. Techniques that is to say can migrate across strategic camps, and devices of government that were invented to serve one purpose have often enough ended up through history’s irony been harnessed to another. Might we see similar re-appropriation of market techniques of government, which were, like workplace statistics, undoubtably conservative in their original uses, for different, more progressives, sorts of ends? Maybe not. I’m genuinely open-minded about this, but I think it’s worth considering.

As Banfield noted, postulating problems creates demands for solutions. Techniques once used for factory controls or to wage war can be used for providing a social insurance. The question for me is how to turn the current pieces on the board towards better outcomes.

I’ll second that.

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