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False Consciousness and the Fringe

April 10th, 2003 · No Comments

On the suggestion of a commenter to a post below, I was skimming over the first chapter of David Stove’s Against the Idols of the Age when my eye lighted on a passage concerning what Karl Mannheim called “unmasking” explanations. These are most familiar if you’ve debated with one of the few genuine Marxists not yet being protected in some endangered species habitat somewhere, and generally purport to explain how it is that person X really only believes/argues Y because of some hidden cause—social conditioning, or economic self-interest. Stove writes:

But the stupidity which is common to all such â??explanationsâ? is, of course, simply that of proceeding as though the merits of a theory—such things as truth, or probability, or explanatory power—could not possibly be among the reasons for its currency. Sometimes, of course, and to some extent, you do need to refer to social circumstances, in order to explain the currency or the origin of a theory. You are more likely to need to do so, obviously, the less merit the theory has.

This got me thinking about libertarians and public choice theory, which, as I’ve said before, serve very much the same function in our thought as Marxist class theory and base/superstructure arguments did for socialists in their day. Why should we, in particular, have need of such relatively well-developed theories for exposing the political delusion of others? Here’s one possibility: by and large, people rely enormously on “social proof.” We mostly adopt the opinions and habits of those around us. I’ve never tested the proposition that one ought not to jam a fork in an electrical socket, or fall asleep with one’s head wrapped in a plastic bag, and I don’t intend to. The same goes for a lot of generally accepted factual beliefs I don’t (or can’t) personally confirm. If I’m trying to convince you of the advantages of some obscure and complex political theory, your first response is likely to be: “If you’re so clever, how come I’ve never heard of you guys before? Why have we always done things this other way?” If I have no good answer, you’ll probably figure it’s not worth the time and effort to contemplate the merits of these notions that seem not to have caught on with other smart folks.

Now, there’s a tricky bit here. One response is: “because I am that clever, and the vast majority of my fellow human beings are sheep and imbeciles.” As a rule, this is a poor way to win friends and influence people. So both the Marxist and public choice answers find a way to make it the fault of some third-party force that keeps the masses from perceiving what’s what. But from there, they diverge slightly. In the old Marxist version, the workers had been duped by the expositors of a self-serving ideology predetermined by the society’s economic structure. The non-Marxist, on this account, is not really at fault, but he has nevertheless been duped. On the one hand, then, the limited success of Marxist ideas is explained without requiring the majority of people to be wicked or stupid—it’s primarily the fault of those capitalists, don’t you know. But there’s still the appealing prospect of being able to think of oneself as having pierced the veil of illusion, of being on the leading edge of history—a history whose iron laws guarantee your inevitable victory!

The public choice equivalent is less hot. The structure of incentives that explain voter ignorance may or may not have been maniuplated by elites to reduce their own accountability. But it remains the case that such ignorance is, as they say, rational ignorance. You don’t get to think of yourself as quite so dramatically cleverer than the rest, since they aren’t irrational in having neglected what you now know. Moreover, it seems to imply that it would be perfectly irrational, except perhaps as a pure curiosity, to keep on exploring the problems with the status quo. Especially if there’s no guaranteed payoff at the end of history, the chance to join the revolution, so to speak, would take on the aspect of an eccentric hobby. What we need, I suspect, is some kind of plausibly teleological story predicting our ultimate triumph…

I don’t, by the way, mean to imply that public choice is no more likely to be right than its Marxist equivallent—this isn’t intended as an “unmasking” of public choice. Whatever theory works in the social role they both served is also under moderate pressure to actually appear to be true, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if one or another of the accounts in that slot also got it right.

Update: I was flipping through some other articles by David Stove in order to attempt to feel him out, and I’ve got to say, if this piece is representative, I’m inclined to agree with the commenter who opined that in a contest between Popper and Stove it would be a “no contest” win for Popper. It’s a set of ten objections to evolutionary theory—ten tenets that are supposed to be transparently false. I don’t think I’m exagerrating to say that these are all so clearly awful to anyone who has even my basic, pop-science understanding of evolutionary theory that I can only conclude that Stove either had never really read the people he’s critiquing, didn’t understand them, or is just willfully refusing to apply some fairly elementary reasoning to see how the principles in question, if one understands what they’re saying, are entirely compatible with human traits and behaviors. The portion of Popper and After I looked at was little better. It reads like bad Rand warmed over—breezy, bomb-throwing intellectual history as detective story, with a search for philosophical villains wielding corrupt premises. Was Stove just jealous that Popper was so much better in that genre? Seriously, is this is what passes for conservative “philosophy”? No wonder the left controls the academy. But I imagine he would’ve made a hell of a blogger.

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