Saturday, November 19, 2016

When Nudge Comes to Shove

"He had no social machinery but the cumbrous one of the intellect. When he tried to be amiable he usually only succeeded in being portentous." (Wyndham Lewis)

Andrew Gelman has an excellent demolition of SciAm's neuro-scientific explanation of Trump's victory up at his blog. I left a comment that I'll repost here with a view additional thoughts.

“The fact is if science is on the level of this piece (and much, if not most of it, is), then it does deserve to go down the drain,” says Alex Gamma. This is a very important point. The “progressive” impulse to settle political questions with science is as dangerous as the “conservative” impulse to settle them with moral sentiment. Scientific “explanations” of political decisions get in the way of understanding them. We sit in judgment on our political opponents, rather than engaging with them.

My very first reaction to the election result channeled Wyndham Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled. “Social reform today [1926],” he begins, “is a very fluid and mercurial science,” and adds that “politics and science are today commutative.” Much later in the book, in a brilliant chapter called “Fascism as an Alternative,” he writes about the situation in Mussolini’s Italy:

In ten years a state will have been built in which at last no trace of European ‘liberalism’ or its accompanying democratic ‘liberty’ exists. […] In such a state it is difficult to see how ‘politics’ could exist. ‘Economics’ will simply disappear. All the boring and wasteful sham-sciences that have sprung up in support of the great pretenses of democracy, and in deference to notions of democratic freedom, will die from one day to the next: for they are the most barren of luxuries, and no one would be interested in keeping them alive for their own sakes (in the way the arts are sometimes kept alive) for an hour. (322)

The fascist approach to ‘politics’ is essentially to do away with it (in any recognizably democratic sense) and to replace it with “decision making” by a powerful person. What’s interesting is how the “science” of decision-making simulates this attitude, albeit with a pretense of democracy. Before each of Ezra Pound’s broadcasts from Rome during the second world war, Italian radio provided the disclaimer that Pound was being given the airwaves “in accordance with the Fascist policy of the free expression of opinion by those qualified to hold it.” If one didn’t know better, one would think they were trying to be funny.

But hasn’t “the age of Obama” been precisely a time when one felt unqualified to hold one’s own political opinions? I’m thinking here, for example, of the “science” of “nudging” people towards policy goals by “priming” their “implicit biases”. One has felt disqualified by dint of one’s limbic system, let’s say. The neuro-scientific end run around what people think and believe about their polity is in many ways like telling people that 97% of all scientists believe in climate change. They may be right, of course. But I think the effort to “qualify” political opinions with science has finally undermined the basis of science’s real authority.

Lewis exemplified the "commutative" nature of science and politics with their joint "revolutionary" fervor. "Everyone today, in everything, is committed to revolution. But when unanimity on the subject of revolution has become complete, then there will be no more revolution." Lewis is difficult to read, especially today. But here's something that bears thinking about:

There is creative revolution, to parody Bergson's term [i.e., "creative evolution"], and destructive revolution. A sorting out is necessary to protect as many people as have the sense to heed these nuances. A great deal of the experimental material of art and science, for instance, is independent of any destructive function. Reactionary malice or stupidity generally confuses it with the useful but not very savory chemistry of the Apocalypse.

A hundred years of trying to reform society with science has taken a toll on both science and politics. Perhaps this is the "permanent revolution" Lewis warned about. Whether it was by malice or stupidity we've been living through an ongoing apocalypse, always being promised that "four more years" will get the job done. It's almost refreshing to hear Trump's top adviser propose to harness the forces of "darkness" and "govern for fifty years". Again, though one suspects otherwise, one hopes he's trying to be funny.

I, too, hope I'm joking. But the problem is, of course, quite serious. The "liberal" establishment has been trying for many years (probably since the second world war at least) to "nudge" us with its "science" towards a particular kind of utopia and, therefore, like I say, through—slowly, very slowly through—a particular apocalypse. Lewis again:

The present [1926] is of course a particularly "transitional" society: but the transit must take some time as it must go all around the earth. Animal conditions, practically, must prevail while this progress is occurring. We begin already to regard ourselves as animals. The machinery of the transit is the "revolutionary" dogma daily manufactured in tons by the swarming staffs specially trained for that work. (25)

I think we can now see what it he meant. The "animal conditions" are, of course, our reduction to our "limbic systems". The "machinery of the transit" is the cumbersome apparatus of the welfare state, moving forward in its fits and starts and irritating little nudges, staffed by bureaucrats whose heads are filled with social theories, swarming through the revolving doors of universities, think tanks and government agencies. It would seem that someone has given the apocalypse a good shove forward.

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