A Primer on Pragmatism: Truth

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.


In Part 1 I described Charles S. Peirce’s view of the pragmatic method. William James championed Peirce, and elaborated on his ideas in a series of lectures in 1906-7, published in a book titled Pragmatism: A New Name For Some Old Ways Of Thinking, available online here. In Lecture 2, James describes Peirce’s insights.

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can BE no difference any-where that doesn’t MAKE a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. Emphasis in original.

As an example, consider the notions of appearance and reality. The issue is raised by a question: “How can people know the nature of reality when all that people have immediate access to are appearances?” The idea is like Plato’s cave wall. We don’t see reality itself, just the shadows cast on the walls of the cave we inhabit.* The linked article offers a number of replies to this dilemma. The pragmatist rejects it. What difference does this distinction make to any human being? What different behavior would a decision cause? Scientists have done wonders without worrying about the distinction. There isn’t a test to distinguish appearance from reality. No useful information comes from considering the question. True, it’s fun, and it’s interesting to understand the problem it presented to our ancestors. But contemplating this distinction will never produce anything that will make our lives better, or even different.**

The problem with this view is that it suggests some fixed and eternal reality outside human experience but that we can somehow grasp.


In Lecture VI, James defines truth as a property of our ideas: whether they agree with reality. Both pragmatists and others agree with this. James describes the dominant view of truth as the copy or correspondence theory. Our ideas are true if they copy or correspond with reality. But that raises two questions: what does copy or correspond mean in this sense? What exactly is the reality we are trying to copy?

Here’s my example: what does it mean for our ideas to agree with gravity? At one point in our history, it meant nothing. Gravity existed and we defied it at our peril, and there was nothing else to say about it. Was that true? Then Newton explained gravity with an equation that included a constant that was hard to measure. Was that true? Then Einstein showed us his equations of general relativity. Are those equations true? Does that mean Newton’s theory was false? That can’t be right, because Newton explains everything we need to function in our day to day lives, without the complexity of Einstein’s theory. And we still defy gravity at our peril.

James says that people who hold to the external reality view have a static view of truth. They think there is some objective truth out there somehow separate from and beyond our senses. Once they find that truth, they can construct a theory that would account for everything. It might be Marx, it might be some form of religion, it might be some economic theory. But it is static and cannot be affected by the growth of human understanding or anything else. They have the truth, and we must all accept it.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (Emphasis in original.)

For pragmatists, truth

… means, {Dewey and Schiller] say, nothing but this, THAT IDEAS (WHICH THEMSELVES ARE BUT PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE) BECOME TRUE JUST IN SO FAR AS THEY HELP US TO GET INTO SATISFACTORY RELATION WITH OTHER PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true INSTRUMENTALLY. This is the ‘instrumental’ view of truth taught so successfully at Chicago, the view that truth in our ideas means their power to ‘work,’ promulgated so brilliantly at Oxford.*** Emphasis in original.

Truth is located in the ability of an opinion to work in the real world. In taking this view, James and other pragmatists are following along in the scientific consensus on truth. We take Newton’s theory of gravity as true because it works. Einstein’s theory of gravity adds more, without taking away the truth of Newton’s ideas under most circumstances. We take Darwin’s ideas as true because they explain our experiences of the real world. Darwin’s ideas enable us to make predictions we could not otherwise make and solve problems we didn’t even know existed. As problems arise, we modify our opinionx, but only as far as necessary to accommodate the new facts, the new opinions or the failure of our opinions to work. Thus, we follow a very conservative path from our current state to the next state.

The cash value, as James calls it, is obvious. We benefit from having opinions that work. They help us predict the future. They are tools to uncover things and processes we can manipulate to make our lives better. They dispel ideas that might cause us harm.

One more thing. James says that all of our oldest beliefs were formed in the same way, as opinions based on the impressions we get through our senses from reality.

Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to generalize this observation and to apply it to the most ancient parts of truth. … They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they ARE true, for ‘to be true’ MEANS only to perform this marriage-function. Emphasis in original.

In Part 3 I will offer some thoughts on these ideas.
* This is the image behind Marcy’s occasional references to the Twitter cave wall, an image I really like.

** Roman Catholic theology is grounded in Plato and neo-Platonism, including Plato’s distinction between appearance and reality. The application of pragmatism to religion is far beyond the scope of this primer. James takes it up in Lecture VIII, but there is much more to be said. See also this comment by Drew on the previous post.

*** In this quote “they” refers to John Dewey and F.C.S. Schiller, described in the introduction to the book. Chicago refers to the University of Chicago, where Dewey taught. Schiller taught at Oxford.

A Primer on Pragmatism: Method

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

This series is based on the work of Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher who describes herself as a pragmatist. The next three posts will address basic ideas of pragmatism.* The texts for this post are two papers by Charles Sanders Peirce: The Fixation of Belief, and How To Make Our Ideas Clear, both by Charles Peirce, published in Popular Science in 1877 and 1878. Peirce (pronounced “Purse”) is one of the founders of pragmatism, and one of America’s great original thinkers. Here’s his Wikipedia entry, which explains why.

In Part III of the first paper, Peirce begins talking about the main subject of the paper, belief and doubt. From my very limited knowledge, this separates pragmatism from prior philosophical thought, which turned on truth and falsity. There is no reason to define belief and doubt, except to note that they arise in all human beings individually, as opposed to truth and falsity which are somehow independent of human beings, even though they are human words.

Peirce tells us that we know the difference “between the sensation of doubting and that of believing”. Beliefs guide our actions, as a habit does. Doubts make it hard for us to act. Belief is a comfortable, untroubled state of mind. Doubts are uncomfortable. They give rise to a struggle to settle them into belief. Peirce calls this struggle “inquiry, thought it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation”.

He says that the irritation created by doubt is the only thing that will drive us to inquiry. I’d guess that’s because inquiry can be really hard work, which we humans avoid when possible. We hold strongly to our beliefs, and don’t want to change them. We go to great lengths to avoid doubt, because it would entail actual work.

We may think we want a true opinion, but Peirce disagrees.

But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false. And it is clear that nothing out of the sphere of our knowledge can be our object, for nothing which does not affect the mind can be the motive for mental effort. The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is mere tautology to say so.

We have ideas, habits of the mind. We think they are true because we use them to guide our actions.** If it turns out well, we don’t have to think about it anymore. But there is no reason to think we’ll get it right the next time either; often what passes for inquiry is trial and error, and we hold to the new belief until it becomes painful and we are forced to work again. This is a cleansing idea. We could possibly learn to hold less firmly to our opinions so as to remain open to new ideas. We won’t, though.

In Part V, Peirce describes four methods of settling doubt. First, tenacity. We cling to our first belief and refuse to acknowledge any doubt. This is really hard to do, because we are social creatures, and rub up against other humans in ways that cannot but create doubts about some of our certainties. Or so Peirce says. Observing my fellow citizens, I’m not so sure.

Second, some entity could settle all questions by legislating and enforcing approved propositions. That will work if the number of propositions subject to authority is limited, but eventually it will fail.

Third, the a priori method. People sit around and talk in good faith about what they think, and truth emerges. It might sound good, but garbage in garbage out. And with that, Peirce dismisses metaphysics.

Finally, there is the appeal to reality, a permanence outside our thought processes and unaffected by them. Peirce proposes the scientific method.

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion.

That’s exactly the approach to human beings and their habits of thought that attracts me to pragmatism. I note that it works really well for the physical sciences, but it is much harder to apply it to human constructs like institutions and governments, and to social interactions.

The second paper is devoted to a discussion of reality. It’s main point is that

… reality, like every other quality, consists in the peculiar sensible effects which things partaking of it produce. The only effect which real things have is to cause belief, for all the sensations which they excite emerge into consciousness in the form of beliefs. Part IV.

All of our senses produce effects in the mind when stimulated. When we find regularities, we formulate theories based on those regularities Theories that seem to work form our beliefs.

Beyond those things available to the senses, there is nothing of interest in the physical world. Humans invent tools to increase the range of sensations, such as microscopes, UV sensors, and radio detectors. Those things do not change the nature of reality. They simply reveal more of it to our senses.

This approach discards centuries of philosophical thought on matters like the distinction between appearance and reality. These and many other long-standing philosophical issues disappear in Peirce’s theory. They are useless because they do not raise doubts as to how we should act, or raise doubts about our beliefs.

Then Peirce explains how we this method enables us to settle our opinions. We use different methods come to agreement on specific issues, always subject to change or even rejection. He gives the example of the speed of light, offering a number of different methods of estimating it. As different people work out different methods, the answers begin to converge and we get better estimates. At the end there is always an error factor, so the measurement may never be perfect. But no one thinks the answer is a fiction. We assign an error factor and use the best estimate in further calculations and for future efforts to plumb reality.

We could use a similar process to form new beliefs. As William James puts it in his book Pragmatism available online here:

No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. THE ATTITUDE OF LOOKING AWAY FROM FIRST THINGS, PRINCIPLES, ‘CATEGORIES,’ SUPPOSED NECESSITIES; AND OF LOOKING TOWARDS LAST THINGS, FRUITS, CONSEQUENCES, FACTS. Lecture II
(Emphasis in original.)

Pragmatists work from observable facts. They ignore “first principles”, for example, the Natural Law or the principles of Galen or the categories of Aristotle. Sacred texts and religious dogmas are irrelevant. Classifications of reality must stand the test of usefulness for identifiable purposes.

In the next post I’ll discuss James’ views of truth in pragmatism. then I’ll take up some partial conclusions.
* H/T to PartiallyExaminedLife.com for links to Peirce and James. The podcast discusses these works in Episodes 20 and 22.
** This idea sounds a lot like Bourdieu’s term “habitus”.

Freedom And Equality: In The Workplace

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

Elizabeth Anderson’s book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) is in part an application of her ideas about freedom and equality. Here’s a review in the New Yorker. Anderson takes a broad view of government. From the review:

If you exercise “public government,” you allow the people you rule to have a say in how they are governed; if you wield “private government,” the rules are not up for debate. In public government, decision-making is everybody’s business—the government “belongs” to everyone, like a public park. In private government, it belongs to the governor, as his or her private possession.

We saw this broad view with Bruce Scott here, and with Michel Foucault here. In Anderson’s terminology, the workplace is a private government, one in which workers have no say, and are subject to coercion, humiliation and domination at the whim of their employers. There are examples in the review, but you can find all you want with a bit of googling.

A contrasting view is set out in a book by John Tomasi in his book Free Market Fairness. Tomasi is a professor of political philosophy at Brown University. Anderson and Tomasi participated in a symposium on Tomasi’s book; here’s the introduction. Anderson wrote this, and Tomasi replied with this. Here’s Tomasi’s description of his book:

In Free Market Fairness, I argue that justice requires that our social institutions show respect for citizens as responsible authors of their own lives. Choosing whether to join a democratic workplace (that may offer lower pay) or a non-democratic workplace (where pay may be higher) seems to me a choice that we should seek to empower individual citizens to make for themselves. Democratic workplace requirements would deny workers a choice that many workers might reasonably make: namely, to choose a job that pays a higher wage rather one that offers the experience of democratic control. And many citizens might reasonably make that choice, not out of greed or moral stupidity, but as an expression of their own values and in pursuit of a life plan that is precious to them.

The first thing to note is that Tomasi is trying to argue that Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905) should be reinstated. Lochner concerned a New York law that prohibited bakers from working more than 10 hours a day amd 60 hours a week. The state of New York argued that this was a proper use of the police power, the general power of a state to protect the health and safety of bakery workers exposed to flour dust and physical exhaustion.

In a 5-4 ruling, SCOTUS decided that this statute interfered with the freedom of contract of the worker protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The case made it difficult for governments at every level to protect the health and safety of workers. It stood for 30 years until the Court decided a series of cases rejecting the idea that freedom of contract was a constitutional right, implicitly but not directly overruling Lochner. Tomasi’s view would require reinstating Lochner or a Constitutional Amendment.

The two papers cited above take a different approach to Tomasi’s argument. These are dry arguments addressing complex issues of human life: the social relations between capitalists and workers in the workplace. Tomasi wants to leave these mostly unregulated, the lstandard libertarian approach. Anderson says that unregulated relationships will lead to relations of domination and oppression.

In the real world, Anderson has the better argument. We’ve all seen skin-crawling stories of workplace oppression practiced by US companies. We know that governments have been moving in the libertarian direction for over 50 years. That sounds like an empirical test showing that Anderson is right and Tomasi is wrong. Tomasi can’t refute that factual argument. Here’s his position:

Abstracting from the complicated facts of particular societies, my hope is to identify the institutional forms that might best express the commitment of citizens to live together as free and equal self-governing agents. My main thesis, of course, is that market democratic regime-types—democratic laissez-faire and democratic limited government—express that moral commitment more completely and more attractively than do social democratic ones—liberal socialism and property-owning democracy. So my argument is an exercise of normative identification that is conducted at the level of ideal theory.

He admits that he can imagine a society in which the workplace liberties that make up his preferred world, his rules of free market fairness, could “…leave workers vulnerable to the coercive abuses of the sort that worry Anderson.” But instead of dealing with the real world test, he constructs an imaginary world, with an imaginary problem. He eventually admits that the possibility that the “lofty ideals of free market fairness cannot be achieved”.

Resolving the disagreement

Tomasi’s argument proceeds at a very high level of abstraction. He gives us a clue about his personal predilections when he tells us:

My main thesis, of course, is that market democratic regime-types—democratic laissez-faire and democratic limited government—express that moral commitment more completely and more attractively than do social democratic ones….

I read this to say he doesn’t think people should be pushed around by government, dominated, as Anderson would say. Anderson adds this to our understanding of his position:

Tomasi argues that rights to economic liberty should be constitutionalized, with economic regulations subject to a high level of judicial scrutiny. Considerations of social justice may sometimes override economic freedom—but only if judges approve.

If that’s right, it seems to mean that Tomasi wouldn’t mind being pushed around by judges. He accepts one form of government, but not broad legislative or administrative regulation unless that is checked by some form of unaccountable official. I assume he thinks judges would agree with his predilections.

I understand Anderson’s view in favor of broad social democracy. Her starting point, the social contract, has deep roots in US politics. She is willing to trust in the judgment of her fellow citizens to a much greater extentthan Tomasi, and is unwilling to submit much to the decision of unaccountable officials, whether in private or public government.

One way to evaluate the normative superiority of one or the other view might be to ask each to describe the kind of person who would thrive in their respective regimes. I’ve read enough Anderson to suggest she would answer that human nature resists domination and humiliation. People want to have a say in decisions about themselves and their projects, including their work.

I can’t answer for Tomasi. I have no idea if there are people who would accept domination, humiliation, or unreasonably dangerous working conditions for higher wages. I also don’t understand why that has to be a choice in a democracy. I think it’s horrifying to allow employers to pay more so they can dominate or humiliate their workers, or subject them to unreasonably dangerous conditions. Maybe I just don’t understand libertarians, but I’m not willing to spend any more time thinking about them.

Freedom And Equality: Anderson Against Libertarianism

Posts In This Series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

The first four posts in this series discuss two articles by Elizabeth Anderson explaining her view of freedom and equality. The text for this post is her chapter titled Freedom and Equality in The Oxford Handbook Of Freedom And Equality, available online through your local library.

In the last post I said that relational equality* is a principle of social relations, and not a principle of the distribution of material goods and opportunities. But as Anderson says, relational equality entails a certain minimum level of material distribution. Material redistribution is flatly rejected by libertarians**. It’s easy for progressives to forget that there is a philosophical basis for libertarianism, with well-known exponents, including Robert Nozick. Anderson takes on the libertarians in this chapter. She argues that freedom as non-interference, the ground of libertarianism, cannot justify a regime of private property.

In Part 1 of the chapter, Anderson describes different ideas about freedom and equality, and gives some examples. This section covers the ground of the first four posts in this series, and is easy to follow. In Part 2, she addresses the libertarian arguments justifying private property strictly on the grounds of negative liberty*, that is, freedom from interference.

Anderson starts with a brief discussion of taxes. In standard libertarian thought, requiring someone to do something is normatively different from requiring someone to refrain from doing something. Thus, ordering people to supply others with goods and services is different from ordering people not to take the property of others. Libertarians say that taxes raise revenue for the government which is used to supply goods and services to others, and so taxation is normatively wrong. The basis for this assessment is that income is associated with labor, so that making people pay taxes is directly the same as making them work for others. Anderson points out that this may be true of taxes on wages, but it obviously irrelevant to passive income, as that from investments, capital gains, mineral royalties, rents, bequests and interest.***

She points out that taxes on land rents can be justified as “respecting the property rights in the commons of those who lost access to privately appropriated land.”

But that’s just the first point. Anderson’s focus is on the priority of positive freedom in connection with property rights. This argument is more complex. First, she points out that even libertarians do not argue for absolute negative freedom with respect to property. Perfect negative liberty means that no one has the right to demand that the state assist in constraining an owner’s use of property. As far as I know, no one, even the most rigid libertarian, makes tsuch an expansive claim. Therefore the claim to private property is a right.

If claims to property are rights, then they entail duties in other people. If the owner excludes others from property, exercising the owner’s right to non-interference, then others lack the right to use of that property. Their right to use of that property is interfered with. On numerical grounds alone, this negative liberty of one person creates a massive net loss of negative liberty.

… to secure the right of a single individual owner to some property, the negative liberty of everyone else — billions of people — must be constrained. Judged by a metric of negative liberty alone, recognition of property rights inherently amounts to a massive net loss of total negative freedom.

To justify this massive net loss of negative freedom, we must look to other kinds of freedom. Positive freedom* supplies a good answer. Private property can improve overall economic outcomes for the many. Properly used, it can create greater opportunities for many. Receiving the benefits from improvements can encourage more of these benefits. Freedom from domination* is protected and increased when in a system of regulated private ownership which prohibits the use of private property to dominate others.

To use these arguments, though, we must prioritize positive liberty and freedom from domination over negative freedom. This, of course, was the point Anderson is trying to show.

Instead of libertarian negative freedom as the primary principle of society, Anderson offers a social contract view of private property.

In this picture, the principles of right are whatever principles persons would rationally choose (or could not reasonably reject) to govern their interpersonal claims, given that they are, and understand themselves to be, free and equal in relation to one another.****

Generally people would choose a regulated system of private rights so as to ensure reasonable economic efficiency, order, and maximum positive liberty and freedom from domination. In this setting, individual rights are not grounded in selfish interests as in libertarian thought, but in the reality that we all have “a common interet in relating to each other through a shared infrastructure of individual rights.”


1. As I read this section, Anderson is trying to show that prioritizing negative freedom, meaning noninterference, is not a solid foundation for a decent society; and I think she succeeds.

I have never thought libertarianism was sensible. In high school, I read Anthem by Ayn Rand, which I took to be an anti-communist screed, mildly enjoyable and short. In college, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and I realized that Rand was actually arguing for radical selfishness. The books are badly written and laughably simple-minded, and impossible to take seriously. Essentially libertarians want social protection for themselves and their property, but think it is theft if taxes are used for anything besides protecting them and their rights and giving them stuff. Their society looks like the Gilded Age, when state and federal governments called out the militia to attack striking workers. Let’s just skip past all the jargon. As a practical matter, Libertarians need to explain why those workers should support their ideal society. A similar question should be asked of today’s plutocrats and their enablers.

2. The tax question is a good example. I noted Anderson’s view of earned vs. unearned income issue, and her argument based on the principles of social contract theory. Social contract theory is the idea that we as a group implicitly agree to certain rules and institutions, surrendering some of our rights and accepting some duties, in exchange for protection of our remaining rights and creating and maintaining social order.

The justification for this theory is that life is better in such a society. In a democracy we select our leaders and can vote them out. This is a form of freedom from domination by government, and to the extent we can force government to act, it frees us from domination by employers.

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society” as Oliver Wendell Holmes said. For now, I’ll just note that in Modern Money Theory, Holmes is not quite right. In nations that issue their own currency there is no connection between spending and revenue. In the MMT model government spends money into the economy and taxes bring some of it back to the government; and this is done for several reasons, including stabilizing prices and the value of money. That model seriously undercuts the primary argument that taxes are extracted from the successful to buy stuff for losers.

* These terms are discussed at length in prior posts

**Thus we are regularly treated to the idiot claims that taxation is theft, and that affirmative action is an unfair benefit to minorities and to the working class.

*** One thing I love about Anderson is that she never limits herself to a list of three examples followed by etc. Here she identifies 5.

**** This starting point is similar to the Veil of Ignorance of John Rawls in A Theory Of Justice.

Freedom And Equality: More on Equality

Posts in this Series. For those interested, I update this post from time to time with additional resources that help flesh out what may be unfamiliar ideas.

The text for this and the previous post is Elizabeth Anderson’s chapter Equality in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, available online through your public library. In the previous post we saw that Anderson describes equality in terms of social relations rather than in terms of material distribution. Relational equality is opposed to social hierarchies. She describes three forms of social hierarchy, command, standing, and esteem, and tests them against the pragmatic values of the good, the righteous or just, and the virtuous or moral. She concludes that these hierarchies are neither good, just, nor virtuous. Next she takes up the arguments of defendes of hierarchy.

Proponents of social hierarchy cannot justify the extremes of social hierarchy, slavery, serfdom, peonage. So they try to defend the less egregious cases. In evaluating these arguments, it’s helpful to think of concrete situations, rather than mere abstractions, because the actual practice of thee social hierarchies has direct impact on real humans. These hierarchies exist in government and other institutions, public and private. Anderson hersolf applies these ideas to the world of work in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), 2019, Princeton University Press.

Defenders of social hierarchies argue that command hierarchies are the only solution to certain kinds of social problems. Specifically, they argue that social order can only be maintained “… under a division of labor in which those competent to rule issue commands and others obey.” Egalitarians point out that almost everyone has the ability to participate in a democratic form of government. There is no obvious way to select those capable of command, certainly not on typical grounds, which she describes as “inscriptive group identities such as such as race, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, religion, language, citizenship status, marital status, age, and sexuality. In the real world, these defenses are nothing more than legitimating existing hierarchies of dominance.
Defenders of hierarchies of esteem and standing argue first, that there are differences in virtue among people; some people are more deserving than others, justifying differences in esteem and standing. Second these defenders argue that differences in esteem and standing act as incentives for more productive workers. Following Rousseau, Anderson writes almost poetically:

// Equal citizenship status in a republic provides such a ground. When fellow citizens meet in the public square, they meet as co-sovereigns—as co-creators and guarantors of the republic that makes them free and independent. Each can stand erect before everyone else; no one has to bow and scrape before another. Everyone basks in the glory of the republic they jointly sustain. This basal equality of esteem, of the free citizen and the recognition of that status with all its rights and dignity by fellow citizens, constitutes the essential background condition for the practice of republican virtue*. Thus, genuine virtue requires an underlying equality of esteem.**//

Anderson sees no reason for hierarchies of standing. Rewarding achievement with special material benefits, special privileges or exemptions from constraints binding others leads directly to people seeking those benefits directly instead of by cultivating virtue.

The danger of all three hierarchies is that the holders of high positions will use them for personal benefit, and will seek to pass them on to their offspring or their favorites regardless of talent or virtue, directly, as we see politicians handing their positions to their children, or indirectly, as by establishing standards for the hierarchies that favor their children or protégés. I hardly need to provide examples. Worse, once people become used to their position in these hierarchies, some of them will exploit those below them without compunction, and with no accountability.


1. Anderson says that these egalitarian arguments are better for showing the failures of the current system that for creating a new one. She points out that democracies have the potential to overcome these hierarchies, but only in practice can we find the proper means to do so.

In general, pragmatists argue that the proof of value is in the doing. Each solution engenders its own problems, problems that are rarely foreseeable, so the role of the people as an electorate is to seek solutions to the new problems or to take other routes to the desired goal. There are no permanent solutions to these problems, only approximations, best guesses, and constant evaluation.

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in this sense. She argues in favor of democracy, which enables people to select their leaders and creates means to hold those leaders accountable. In that setting, the exercise of power is not domination: the people can throw out and otherwise punish bad leaders. For example, the US Constitution provides for impeachment of the President, Vice-President, and all civil officers, which includes all judges.

Social hierarchies resist change other than those benefit the entrenched dominant class. They are static. At its best democracy is dynamic. It is never complete. It is a project, a human project. People decide on what is important, and find ways to move toward those goals. There is a kind of organized conflict inherent in democracy, as people urge different goals and different paths to those goals. That conflict is evidence of life, and is only a threat to those who benefit unfairly and unreasonably from the existing arrangement.

2, Anderson argues for relational equality over equality of material distribution. But she is obvious that relational equality requires some material redistribution. That redistribution is subject to social determination, but should include at least sufficient food, clothing and shelter to maintain personal dignity, open access to all educational and job opportunities, additional assistance to those who have not had that access in the past, and special attention to those who are disadvantaged by illness, genetics and other causes beyond their control.

4. This piece by Anderson is beautifully written and quite clear. I have not attempted to cover all the richness of her argument.

*This term relates to the Roman Republic, not to the US party of that name. I discuss this point in an earlier post in this series.

** Richard Rorty makes similar poetic arguments in Achieving Our Country following Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy. See the additional materials in the Introduction and Index To Posts.

Freedom And Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 2

Introduction and Index To Posts In This Series


I began this series with a discussion of Freedom With Honor: A Republican Ideal by Philip Pettit, 64 Social Research, Vol. 1, P. 52. I want to emphasize the nature and importance of honor in this paper. Pettit says that decent societies

… do not deprive a person of honor. Specifically, they do not undermine or jeopardize a person’s reasons for self-respect. More specifically still, they do not signal the rejection of the person from the human commonwealth: they do not cast the person as less than fully adult or human.

… To be deprived of honor is to be cut out of conversation with your fellows. It is to be denied a voice or to be refused an ear: it is not to be allowed to talk or not to be treated as ever worth hearing. People differ, topic by topic, in how far they are thought worth listening to; they enjoy lower and higher grades of esteem. But to be deprived of honor is to be denied the possibility of ever figuring in the esteem stakes; it is to be refused the chance to play in the esteem-seking game.

Honor in this sense is perhaps the most important human need after our material needs are met. Pettit does not offer examples at first (his examples are discussed below), so I offer this one. Martin Luther King was instrumental in the strike of the Memphis sanitation workers; he was murdered while working on it. Here’s a Smithsonian article on the strike, which features this thrilling image.

I Am A Man

David Remnick of the New Yorker recently worte: “W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that Andrew Johnson’s unwillingness to enact policies to give freedmen land, a decent education, or voting rights resided, first and foremost, in “his inability to picture Negroes as men.”” I don’t know if Dr. King and the other organizers were consciously thinking of this quote, and I don’t know exactly what they meant by the words on the signs. But to me, the men in this picture demand recognition as a human beings. These men were willing to die rather than endure second class status. They insisted on being recognized as equal participants in society. Fair wages were an issue, but that’s not what the signs demand. They are not inferiors begging for fair treatment, or dependants asking for a higher allowance. They are each on of the Men in All Men Are Created Equal. They demand what Pettit would call honor.

Once you notice the demand for this kind of honor, you see it everywhere. This is from an op-ed by Moira Donegan in The Guardian on Jeffrey Epstein:

He was protected by the broad cultural antipathy toward treating sexual abuse as real harm, the often hostile reaction to the premise that teenage girls should matter as much as adult men.

This is from a piece on being a good customer at a restaurant, also in the Guardian:

There are strategies galore for dealing with rudeness, which mostly end with a waiter spitting in your food, but the main reason you should behave properly as a diner is that you are human and so are they.

Denial of honor in societies based on noninterference

Pettit says a society which prioritizes freedom as non-interference can permit institutional humiliation, domination, and denial of honor, even in a constitutional system supposedly based on equality. How? Imagine you are charged with making laws in such a society. You will recognize that all laws are interferences with the freedom of your members. They will have to observe laws, they will be penalized if they violate them.* You will recognize that some forms of interference are unlikely, and others unlikely to cause what you consider serious injury. You will not want to pass laws to limit the freedom of your members unless you are certain that the benefits will outweigh the costs of enforcement.

In that situation, some people will have the ability to interfere with the liberty of others. People will know that those others can interfere with their freedom, even to dominate them. That in turn leads to servility: the effort to avoid domination, and to ingratiate themselves with the dominator. He offers this example:

Think of the way Mary Wollstonecraft deplores the “littlensses” and “sly tricks” and “cunning” to which women are driven, in her view, because of their vulnerability in relation to their husbands.

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of man; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent of their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish.

Cites omitted.

This “cunning” is dramatized in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen**.

“Elizabeth Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, “is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”

“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.


1. In current usage, the word honor means formal respect, and we reserve it for special occasions: to honor the victorious US Women’s soccer team; to honor a dead war hero. In our usage, it is something we do woth respect to others, not something we seek or need for ourselves; it’s not as a personal matter. We occasionally use it to describe a goal for individuals: to live honorably. Pettit uses it more like a combination of political and social equality. In our political discourse, the word equality is contested, sadly. I’m going to use the term civic dignity, which is clumsy but at least not contested, and which seems to me to capture the essence of Pettit’s term honor. I will also use the words honor and dignity together to convey the idea.

2. It’s fascinating to read this material in the context of Trump and the Republicans. They flatly reject the premise that all humans are entitled to civic dignity. It reminds us that we have to fight, literally, for honor for all if we want to keep it for ourselves.


* Pettit also says that taxes are a violation of negative liberty, and that citizens will be taxed to pay for enforcing all laws. This is true at the state level, but not at the federal level. See, e.g. Beardsley Ruml, Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete.

** The context of this passage is that without quite saying so, Austen makes us understand that Caroline Bingley wants to attract the affections of Mr. Darcy. This isn’t the first time she has attacked Elizabeth, and it isn’t the last time she uses cunning to reach her goal. It’s passages like this one that make Pride and Prejudice worth multiple readings.

Freedom And Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 1

Introduction and Index

Elizabeth Anderson wrote a chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Freedom and Equality, titled simply Freedom and Equality. She begins by acknowledging that perfect material equality would require an authoritarian state, and no one seriously argues for that position. On the other hand, Friedrich Hayek argued in The Road To Serfdom that any form of socialism would lead down the slippery slope to totalitarianism, but he was wrong. There are realistic choices short of perfect material equality, such as the societies of Western Europe with their social democratic forms of government and economy.

Anderson writes:

To make progress on the question of normative trade-offs between freedom and equality within the range of options for political economy credibly on the table, we must clarify our concepts. There are at least three conceptions of freedom — negative, positive, and republican — and three conceptions of equality—of standing, esteem, and authority.

Republican freedom is an unfortunate term, given its association with a political party with a highly … nuanced view of freedom. Philosophers use the term because it is associated with the Roman Republic of Cicero and Cato. And that is another unfortunate juxtaposition, because the leading libertarian think tank is the Cato Institute, which is heavily funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, another group not that interested in broad concepts of freedom. So I’m not going to use the term, and instead will refer to it as freedom from dominanation, or non-domination.

In her book chapter, Anderson offers a brief description of the three forms of freedom: negative freedom as noninterference, positive freedom as opportunitites, and non=domination.

Sarah has negative freedom if no one interferes with her actions. She has positive freedom if she has a rich set of opportunities effectively accessible to her. She has republican freedom if she is not dominated by another person — not subject to another’s arbitrary and unaccountable will.

For the last few decades, talk about freedom has meant almost exclusively negative freedom, with occasional references to positive freedom. Anderson says there has been a recent revival of interest in freedom from domination, citing a book by Philip Pettit, a philosophy professor at Princeton, titled Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Here’s a paper written about the same time as the book, Freedom With Honor: A Republican Ideal. 64 Social Research, Vol.1, p. 52.

Pettit starts with the proposition that

The decent society, as Avishai Margalit … defines it for us, is one in which the institutions do not humiliate people. They do not deprive a person of honor. … They do not cast the person as less than fully adult or human.

He obviously isn’t talking about the Republican party. Honor is a crucial issue for humans, both personally and as the ground for participation in society, and thus is a central element of a decent society. Pettit says that negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference, is the heart of liberalism, by which he means the philosophical perspective common in the 19th Centuries, not our 21st Century usage as a political ideology. We would use the term neoliberal to refer to people who hold this political stance today.

… I think it is fair to say that almost all contemporary descendants of nineteenth-century liberalism agree on the equation of liberty with negative liberty. All agree that I am free “to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity” [quoting Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 1957].

Negative freedom can exist in a society in which the institutions undermine and jeopardize the grounds of self-respect for some of its inhabitants. Institutionally people may be treated as a second-class citizen without interfering directly with their choices.

This seems intuitively obvious but Pettit only makes an argument; he doesn’t offer examples. Here are three that seem right to me. First, consider the status of women in the 19th Century. They were treated as dependents economically, politically and socially. The attitudes of women towards themselves were largely created by institutions such as the family, the Church, and the education system. They were not free to form their own projects for themselves, to act fully as agents in their own lives, or to determine their own views of themselves free of these institutions. Of course these institutional constraints were reinforced by laws, but the laws had their origins in those institutions, and did not touch most of the effective limitations.

My second example is our education system. Every child is entitled to education, but the quality of that education is systematically worse for working class children and children of color. There is no interference with the liberty of every parent to send their child to the best school they can afford, and there is a public school for every child. But the schools for upper class children generally are better than the schools for middle class children, and the schools for working class and poor children are worse. What’s important is the ways they are worse. Generally they perpetuate the class status of their parents. And generally, they reinforce the existing schemes of social domination. We saw the importance of this in our discussion of Pierre Bourdieu’s work; here’s a sample.

My third example is the treatment of employees by employers. We all know that many employers systematically abuse their workers. There is some protection for certain kinds of abuse, such as abuse based on gender or race. But who stops the humiliating practice of driving employees to pee in bottles or wear diapers?

I offer these examples without citation, appealing perhaps to my own preconceptions, but I think they give a flavor to Pettit’s bare argument.

Looking more closely at these examples, we can see that protecting the dignity of women, children, especially working class children and children of color, and workers, will require interference by the state. But husbands and fathers, school boards, and employers would argue that state interference restricts their freedom, their rights to noninterference. That illustrates the central point made by both Anderson and Pettit: noninterference with respect to one person is an interferes with the choices of many others.

That explains the central justification for replacing the concept of negative liberty with freedom from domination. Admittedly, freedom from domination is a kind of negative liberty. But negative liberty is based on small group relationships (husband/wife, employer/employee, school/child) where one party has power over another, whether by tradition, money or by law. Freedom from domination is created by a democratic government established expressly for the purpose of constructing, maintaining, and improving a decent society, in which every member’s honor and self-respect is the central goal.

Freedom And Inequality: Introduction and Index

Posts in this series:
Freedom and Inequality: Introduction and Index
Freedom and Inequality: Freedom From Domination Part I
Freedom and Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 2
Freedom and Equality: Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies
Freedom And Equality: More On Equality.
Freedom and Equality: Anderson Against Libertarianism
Freedom And Equality: In The Workplace
A Primer On Pragmatism: Method
A Primer on Pragmatism: Truth
A Primer On Pragmatism: Applications
Egalitarianism And Markets
Private Government By Corporations
Inequality And Freedom
Inequality In Social Relations


This will be a series of discussions of freedom and inequality, based on works by Elizabeth Anderson, Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan. I first heard about Anderson in this New Yorker article by Nathan Heller. Anderson explores the meaning of freedom and equality, especially in the context of work, the economy and the politics of both. Until recently, the dominant ideas were those of conservatives and libertarians, people like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and neoliberals of both parties.

The New Yorker article says that historically everyone thought that freedom and equality are at odds: exercise of freedom would naturally lead to increasing inequality. Political domination is a natural consequence of increasing inequality. If that is true, how can democracy survive? Anderson questions the view that freedom and equality are in conflict. The relevance of this idea to our current political environment is obvious. Republicans champion inequality as an exercise of freedom, and neoliberal democrats agree, but argue that some restraints on freedom must exist to prevent too much inequality. We need a new structure to step outside this duality and protect our democracy.

Again historically, people thought of freedom in two ways: negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, the range of options available to people. Anderson adds a third idea, freedom from domination. As we saw in the series on Ellen Meiksins Wood, one major Marxist criticism of capitalism is domination of the worker by the capitalist, aided by the state.* We saw in Pierre Bourdieu a detailed study of the way dominance is embedded in social relations.** We have also seen Michel Foucault’s view of power, an idea closely related to domination. I’ll discuss the concept of freedom from domination in this series.

From the New Yorker article:

As the students listened, [Anderson] sketched out the entry-level idea that one basic way to expand equality is by expanding the range of valued fields within a society. Unlike a hardscrabble peasant community of yore in which the only skill that anyone cared about might be agricultural prowess, a society with many valued arenas lets individuals who are good at art or storytelling or sports or making people laugh receive a bit of love.

I’m particularly fond of this idea. I made a living practicing law, and on the side, I did a lot of chorus singing, mostly classical and opera. I made room in my life for voice lessons and the unending rehearsals and performances that dominate the life of the singer. I used to say that among lawyers I was one of the best singers, which seems to me to be what this quote is saying.

The New Yorker article says that one of the major influences for Anderson is pragmatism, the distinctly American philosophy, generated by Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William James. It’s leading exponent in the 20th Century was John Dewey.*** A central idea of pragmatism is the definition of “truth”:

To a pragmatist, “truth” is an instrumental and contingent state; a claim is true for now if, by all tests, it works for now.

Ideas are tools, and the truth value of a tool is related to its usefulness. This description of truth throws off centuries of effort to find a fixed point of certainty in the world. It opens the possibility of finding our way through social and individual problems not by reference to some prior version of the truth, but by our own best understandings of our own social reality. I do not currently plan on a formal discussion of this description of truth, and will content myself with pointing it out in passing. But I share that view, and I think it is apparent in much of my thinking and writing.

Reading philosophy papers is difficult for a lay reader like me. Most are presented as arguments with one or more other philosophers. This is not necessarily a good way for a layman to get a positive statement of the views of the author, especially when there are many papers and many arguments. The New Yorker article seems to be a good introduction to the themes Anderson addresses.

Finding these academic papers online is harder than finding the books I’ve been writing about. I am fortunate to have access to a university’s online library, and I can’t find all of Anderson’s work there; I have no idea if readers can find the material I’m reading through their own public libraries, though I hope so. I’ll be giving the best links I can find, for what that’s worth. And as always, I’ll try to separate Anderson’s thinking and that of the authors she discusses separate from my own views.

I’ll update this post with links to all the posts in this series. Thanks for reading.

* Here’s an example. The index to these posts is here.

** See for example this post.

*** Lewis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club is an engaging account of the first three and their friends. Here’s a good introduction to the thought of John Dewey. Richard Rorty considered himself an heir to Dewey. For a fascinating discussion of the nature of truth in pragmatist thought, see Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty, Ch. 2. It’s worth the effort.

Brief Description of the conclusion of Chapter 2 and Chapters 3-7 of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government

Chapter 2 of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government ends with several plausible ways of dealing with the lack of freedom and equality* in the workplace. These are:

1. Exit: the employee can quit and find other work.
2. The Rule of Law: we could have a statutory scheme favorable to the freedom of working people.
3. Substantial “constitutional” rights: we could force corporate structures to allow greater worker freedom.
4. Voice: workers could be given greater rights to participate is making decisions about working conditions, as through unions or board positions, modeled by German codetermination in the form of board seats and Worker Councils.

The next four chapters are brief responses to Anderson’s argument. Ann Hughes offers deeper discussion of the history of dissenters such as the Levellers, which was helpful in understanding some of the history David Bromwich discusses the evolution of business away from the egalitarian ideals of the dissidents. Niko Kolodny suggests that being bossed around isn’t that big a deal. Tyler Cowan represents the neoliberal view, that loss of freedom in Anderson’s sense has to be balanced against the gains, and besides, businesses won’t abuse workers much. Anderson deals with the replies in Chapter 7.

I think the comments are interesting, but somehow less than satisfying. Anderson is talking about concepts of freedom and equality that are foreign to most of us. The reply of Tyler Cowan seems utterly unaware that freedom and equality are social goods, valuable in themselves for human flourishing. These benefits are simply irrelevant to economic efficiency, the traditional goal driving libertarian econmics. Kolodny is sympathetic to Anderson’s egalitarianism, but does not recognize these benefits either. Bromwich takes a more philosophical approach founded on Polanyi’s view that labor, money and land are fictitious commodities. But he offers little in the way of an alternative treatment of the turn away from egalitarianism on the left, and nothing suggesting what can be done.

Anderson’s replies are helpful, but she does not return to the fundamental definitions of freedom and equality. She simply takes the replies on their own terms and responds in the same terms. That is disappointing. I’ll offer my own thoughts in this series.

Additional Resources

1. Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty. Anderson identifies as a pragmatist, and so does Rorty. He is controversial on a number of grounds, but I have learned a great deal from this and other works by Rorty. This is a short book, not theoretical and easy to read. It is an impassioned defense of small-d democracy as described by John Dewey and Walt Whitman. It counsels against despair of that ironic spectator variety of leftism, and argues for an agressive hopeful politics of the left.

2. Podcasts of the Partially Examined Life. This is a philosophy discussion group of some guys who planned to make a living at philosophy but thought better of it, as they say in their introduction. There are two that I think are of interest here. First there is a three part series including an interview with Elizabeth Anderson, Episode 199. There are several episodes devoted to Richard Rorty, listed here. I have listened to the first episode on Achieving our Country, Episode 157, and plan to listen to the rest.

3. In the posts on equality Anderson lays out egalitarian arguments against social hierarchies. For a counterpoint, Episode 157 of the podcast Partially Examined life discusses the Analects of Confucius. The second part is an effort to understand the justification for Chinese hierarchy. Confucius and his school are still influential in China today,and the discussion is a nice counterpoint to the very American ideas of Anderson and the pragmatists.

4. Elizabeth Andersonn wrote a book applying some of her ideas to the world of work. Private Government. Here’s a review in The New Yorker.

5. The Partially Examined Life discusses Peirce and James on Pragmatism in episodes 20 and 22. I have listened to the free part of Episode 20 and plan to listen to the rest.

The Politics of The Green New Deal: Part 1

The Green New Deal starts with the recognition that drastic changes to society and the economy are necessary to cope with the dangers of climate change. I see two basic assertions behind the Green New Deal. First, it says that the pain and costs of restructuring the economy will not be borne by the working class, as has been the case in every other economic disruption. Second, as a nation we cannot allow capitalists to dominate our future. There is a lot to unpack in these two issues, so this is the first of a short series.

In the course of the first part of my neoliberalism project we saw the effects of capitalism on the working class*. This aphorism from Thucydides sums up human history nicely: “the strong do what they can and the poor suffer what they must”. We saw this in the history of the English enclosures discussed by Polany; the use of state militias to break strikes in the US; and in Foucault’s discussion of the way the state forced people into becoming good little factory workers, supervised closely, but largely self-governing, self-controlled.

Republicans have hated the New Deal since forever. The Democrats started cringing over it right after WWII amid Republican fear-mongering about Communists. The Democrats gave the capitalists their first win with the passage of Taft-Hartley in 1947 and their aggressive purge of every element of leftist thinking in their ranks. Liberals joined the Capitalist Celebration; they gradually embraced deregulation, and they did nothing to protect unions, the source of worker power. Democratic wonks became experts at explaining the virtues of the market and the evils of Big Government, and crafted ever more complicated solutions to the problems created by rampant capitalism.

It was with this mindset that the US confronted the biggest crisis facing the working class, globalization. Clinton and the Democrats embraced NAFTA, and so did Democratic wonks. Paul Krugman wrote an article for Foreign Affairs attacking unions for saying that NAFTA would cost US workers their jobs. Nonsense, said Krugman. The impact would be marginal, and the Fed would simply cut interest rates to keep the economy roaring; special bonus: job training programs. This mentality continued to dominate US politics and Democratic party wonks as manufacturing jobs vanished. The promised solutions didn’t work. Capitalists got rich, and the burdens were pushed off onto the working class and small towns across the country.

Here’s a recent defense of NAFTA from the Council on Foreign Affairs. It admits that NAFTA contributed to the decline of US manufacturing jobs, but ignores what happened to the fired workers. It claims that NAFTA provided benefits to the economy as a whole, without specifying who reaped those benefits. It adds this:

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says anxiety over trade deals has grown because wages haven’t kept pace with labor productivity while income inequality has risen. To some extent, he says, trade deals have hastened the pace of these changes in that they have “reinforced the globalization of the American economy.”

Translation: capitalists replaced well-paid manufacturing jobs with cheaper foreign labor, to their benefit and that of their corporations. They ignored the impact on workers, who lost their livelihoods, their insurance, and more. The impact of free trade with China is even greater, according to a recent study, and neither party lifted a finger to help.

The Green New Deal recognizes that climate change is going to create massive disruption, including staggering losses in economic output and damage to property and infrastructure. In the ordinary course of things, the costs of coping with these disruptions would be borne by the working class. After all, the entire point of capitalism is rising profits for capital, and if that imposes costs on the working class, so be it.

To meet the goals of the Green New Deal we will have to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Coal mining jobs are already vanishing, and jobs in oil and gas production are next to go. The latter sector currently employs an estimated 2.1 million people directly and indirectly. Every one of those jobs lost in these and other fields will cost families their incomes, their health insurance, their physical and mental well-being, and their hope of retirement security. Their home lives will be damaged as they cope with unemployment. Marriages will be lost, children will be injured, and elderly parents will be affected in their own financial security, and the pain of seeing the injuries to their children and grandchildren.

New jobs will be created, but where? If the jobs are far away, the unemployed will have to bear the cost and emotional drain of moving. It’s especially difficult for older workers, and the strains of moving teen-agers adds another layer of difficulty. For some, moving will be a positive, an opportunity to start over. But for many others, it’s the loss of a sense of place, the connection to the people and places in which they are comfortable.

One critical roblem is the loss of a home. Home ownership has decreased from 68.6% to 63.7% since the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, but for many Americans the home represents a significant part of family wealth. See Tables accompanying the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, Tables 9.07, line 6, and 9.16 line 6 and line 89 et seq. If there is mass migration to new jobs, there will be substantial losses of wealth for many families. To the extent people are forced to move from areas with low-cost housing to high-cost housing, there will be financial difficulties.

The Green New Deal says that we need to deal with these problems directly, not through some complicated 60 point plan relying on some newly created market or capitalists, but by direct government intervention. Section 4.5 requires the government to direct :

… investments to spur economic development, deepen and diversify industry in local and regional economies, and build wealth and community ownership, while prioritizing high-quality job creation and economic, social, and environmental benefits in frontline and vulnerable communities that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries;

Section 4.15 directs the government to provide

…all people of the United States with—
(i) high-quality health care;
(ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing;
(iii) economic security; and
(iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.

Taken as a whole the Green New Deal rejects the neoliberal program of protecting capital at all costs, in favor of putting people and the planet first.

* I’m going to use the term working class in this series, because as I see it, the conflict is between the working class and the capitalists. In general, by working class I mean everyone who must sell their labor in order to eat. I’ve been in the habit of using the term “workers” but I’m tired of euphemisms. This definition covers a wide range of incomes, but it’s stupid to pretend that middle class people living paycheck to paycheck or people with much higher incomes who have little wealth have interests that are differentiable in any meaningful way. The Fed says that 40% of US households could not pay for an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing or selling an asset. The most recent Survey of Consumer Finances (2016) says that the conditional mean value of retirement accounts for the group with income between the 50th and 90th percentiles is $157K, from which I’d estimate median net financial wealth for that group is in the range of $300K. That means they have to keep working. I’d guess that most of the people in the top 10% of wealth could mostly make it if they were forced out of work, but certainly not all of them. They may think of themselves as wealthy because they own real estate and financial assets, and they may identify with the truly wealthy more than the working class; but I see it their real interests are aligned with those of the working class, because if that group fails, their wealth will be worthless.

Introduction To Discourse Analysis

In this post I discussed a paper by T. J. van Dijk, Ideology and Discourse Analysis, available here. focusing on his summary remarks on ideology. In this post I look at Discourse Analysis which is van Dijk’s specialty. Analyzing language is a common tool. Here’s an example from the New York Review of Books:

… On December 30 an editorial in London’s Sunday Times spluttered:

After more than four decades in the EU we are in danger of persuading ourselves that we have forgotten how to run the country by ourselves. A people who within living memory governed a quarter of the world’s land area and a fifth of its population is surely capable of governing itself without Brussels.

The many unanticipated problems with Brexit are diagnosed by the Sunday Times writer as a loss of confidence, perhaps accompanied by a faulty memory—something happening not just to people but to “a people.” The implication of the indefinite article, with its baggage of Romantic Nationalism, is clear. Britons, as Rule Britannia triumphantly puts it, “never, never, never shall be slaves.” The underside of nostalgia for an imperial past is a horror of finding the tables turned.

The writer, Hari Kunzru, picks apart the language to show the bias of the spluttering Sunday Times editorialists, and we who are not involved in Brexit can just as easily see Kunzru’s framework. Brexit has become an emblem of an ideological struggle between Leavers and Remainers, and the two writers come from different camps.

Two asides. First, neither writer acknowledges a fact central to the perspective of the Leave Camp: British rule over a quarter the world turned out really badly for millions of people. Kunzru’s failure to note this might indicate that he shares the perspective to some extent. Second, it’s really bizarre to think that the essential element of Brexit is self-government. Just think how efficient it is to spread the cost of rule-making across the EU instead of having to do it all yourself, from scratch. Also, given the actual results of regulation, mostly beneficial to the average citizen, it’s fair to see the Times position as preferring more money and power go to corporate interests for the benefit of the rich.

And here’s an example from the standpoint of a practitioner, Lee Atwater:

Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

These examples illustrate the points made by van Dijk. Ideologies are the beliefs, assumptions and knowledge shared by a community and used to talk and think about a set of social issues. The underlying beliefs, assumptions and knowledge are not discussed directly. Instead, the speaker operates with them as if his listeners share them so that acknowledgment is unnecessary.

Van Dijk identifies several formal aspects of analysis needed to decipher the texts. He starts with context. The language chosen by a writer for a text depends on the expected reader.

The second formal aspect is the meaning readers ascribed to the text. Readers’ understanding is influenced by their perception of the events and situations under discussion, the mental models they construct to handle data. These perceptions may also be colored by ideological bias.

Context and meaning are personal and subjective. The third formal aspect, knowledge, is not. Members of an ideological group share specific knowledge as a given. Inside the group, this knowledge is not perceived as ideological, rather as a fair picture of social or physical reality, and it’s uncontroversial.

For example, progressives know that climate change is caused by human activity, mostly the burning of fossil fuels. That knowledge is shared widely among progressives, so that failure to acknowledge it is disqualifying. That bit of knowledge reflects the tip of an iceberg of the kinds of things that progressives know, including on general acceptance of the way science is practiced today, reading they’ve done, and the acceptance of certain persons as authoritative. Progressives also do not trust the exploiters of fossil fuels to tell the truth about their product because they have actively concealed the results of their own studies for years. This forms the basis for the knowledge, rather than the underlying data but it is nevertheless knowledge of the sort van Dijk describes.

There is a vocal minority which includes a number of politicians who “know” that climate change is not caused by human activity, and is certainly not the result of burning fossil fuels. They have read different articles, they listen to other authoritative figures, including those in the pay of the fossil fuel industry, and many distrust the scientific method. This view constitutes knowledge in their community. They also know that the vast majority of scientists are liberal tools.

When these communities interact on the issue, they are not capable of working together. It’s particularly disturbing that meta-arguments, such as the precautionary principle (“… it is the responsibility of an activity-proponent to establish that the proposed activity will not (or is very unlikely to) result in significant harm”), don’t solve the dilemma. The rationales offered by one camp simply do not register with the other.

The fourth formal aspect of discourse analysis is group beliefs. Van Dijk gives as an example a belief shared by racists, white superiority. Within a group of racists this belief becomes akin to knowledge. Attitudes are similar. They are part of a belief structure, but instead of totality, as “the white race is superior to all other races”, they are partial as “almost all white people are superior to people of other races”.

Each of these can be seen in the examples. UK Leavers have a shared knowledge of “sovereignty” that is not shared by the Remainers. The Times editorialist uses that knowledge to make indirect nostalgic arguments. If the writer had been forced to describe the nature of the sovereignty he wants, he would expose the problem with his position, and have to make completely different arguments. In light of the shared understanding of a historical Britain valiantly defying Hitler and saving the world and without acknowledging England’s horrifying colonial past, he gets the benefit of an emotional argument that makes it unnecessary to deal with the hard reality of Brexit.

Atwater makes this strategy clear. His readers know the codes and follow the racist argument. Those who follow him often hide their racism from themselves by cloaking themselves in some kind of shiny armor of economic righteousness.

I do not currently intend to take up discourse analysis in detail. For my purposes, it’s enough to describe a basic structure, to note that it is a reasonably well-known idea, and to remember that close reading is necessary to expose the ideological content of a text.