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Marx on Ideology Critique and Social Explanation in the Jewish Question

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/11/2020 - 9:13pm in

Nevertheless, North America is pre-eminently the country of religiosity, as Beaumont, Tocqueville, and the Englishman Hamilton unanimously assure us. The North American states, however, serve us only as an example. The question is: What is the relation of complete political emancipation to religion? If we find that even in the country of complete political emancipation, religion not only exists, but displays a fresh and vigorous vitality, that is proof that the existence of religion is not in contradiction to the perfection of the state. Since, however, the existence of religion is the existence of defect, the source of this defect can only be sought in the nature of the state itself. We no longer regard religion as the cause, but only as the manifestation of secular narrowness. Therefore, we explain the religious limitations of the free citizen by their secular limitations. We do not assert that they must overcome their religious narrowness in order to get rid of their secular restrictions, we assert that they will overcome their religious narrowness once they get rid of their secular restrictions. We do not turn secular questions into theological ones. History has long enough been merged in superstition, we now merge superstition in history. The question of the relation of political emancipation to religion becomes for us the question of the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation. We criticize the religious weakness of the political state by criticizing the political state in its secular form, apart from its weaknesses as regards religion. The contradiction between the state and a particular religion, for instance Judaism, is given by us a human form as the contradiction between the state and particular secular elements; the contradiction between the state and religion in general as the contradiction between the state and its presuppositions in general. Karl Marx (1843/1844) On The Jewish Question, Proofed and Corrected: by Andy Blunden, Matthew Grant and Matthew Carmody, republished at

I returned to the early Marx of Zur Judenfrage after nearly thirty years because of a discussion in my department about the nature of ideology critique. And I did so because in the intervening years I had picked up somewhere that it is the original Marxist ideology critique. And indeed it anticipates, as Jo Wolff notes in his SEP entry, a standard criticism of liberalism: that the political project that is supposed to emancipate us both presupposes and promotes our separation and, thereby, promotes a false view of life (that is, greed) and a false (Hobbesian) view of freedom (that is, security from threats). It also anticipates the line of argument that liberal democracy just is a species of applied or debased christianity. I leave to others to trace the link of influence from this piece to Max Weber, Nietzsche, Freud, and Carl Schmitt and all the luminaries of modernity.

In re-reading the argument I was struck by the claim that the "existence of religion is the existence of defect, the source of this defect can only be sought in the nature of the state itself." In particular, the causal claim this presupposes -- viz., social defects are the effects of the nature of the state [hereafter: the causal claim] -- can be made best visible "where the political state exists in its completely developed form." It is no surprise that Marx quotes The Social Contract further down, because this kind of causal claim that deviations from human flourishing in social life can be explained by social even political causes is articulated in The Social Contract.+

The United States is then the main instance of such complete development because it, or at least some of its states, allows pure freedom of religion even granting that all political rights (including holding office) can be gained without a formal religious requirement.* Marx does not deny that the causal claim operates in other (post-Feudal) political contexts, but in those contexts there are interfering social mechanisms (so Marx is intuitively thinking of the causal claim in terms of its instantiation of a law with ceteris paribus conditions). 

The way Marx traces out the argument suggests something like the following: that there continue to be religious individuals is the effect of the liberal state's promotion of capitalism and individualism (since it does not promote a religion). Their religiosity is essentially a byproduct of this. And because religious association is constituted by individual choice it generates not community, but growing difference and differentiation (and so, as Weber notes, value pluralism). Now, in context this fact is used to criticize Bauer's argument that Jewish emancipation is only possible on the condition that Jews give up their Judaism. While the main criticism of Bauer is that he has an incomplete understanding of emancipation, the conceptual argument is that Bauer aims for the impossible (because the liberal state effectively promotes religious diversity). 

While Bauer's argument is developed in a Prussian context (where relations of subordination are christianized), Marx's criticism of Bruno Bauer remains of interest in light of the militant secularism of French laïcité (which is effectively anticipated by Bauer), which is the true Atheist state described by Marx. (More than the United States, France evacuates traditional religiosity from the public sphere.) From a Marxist perspective, even more than the US, French secularism (which presupposes our separateness in civil society) is doomed to fail in virtue of its effective tendency to promote religiosity among (sovereign) individuals, and simultaneously to insist that the French state itself is the only legitimate political tie in common.

But the proposed site of religiosity, civil society, is incapable of being truly heavenly according to Marx because it presupposes our separateness and promotes our greed. But because our religiosity has not been extinguished, it has in fact been stimulated, its only effective site is the state (which presents itself as striving for eternality). Thus, the state is effectively an idol not just from the perspective of the Marxist, who recognizes that the state continues the (essentially Christian project of) estrangement of abstract citizens from themselves (by secular means), but also from the perspective of those citizens who reject an individualist (i.e., protestant) conception of religion (and state).

In fact, if we think about the causal claim it is accompanied by a further claim (which Marx explicitly asserts): "the imperfection even of...politics [in the perfected state] becomes evident in religion." So, the presence of religious fundamentalism among citizens of a state that understands and presents itself as atheist, is indicative of the fact that the state itself has taken on the character of a supreme idol. So, rather than seeing fundamentalism as something archaic or atavistic it is a distinctly modern effect of a society that is capitalist and with a secular public sphere. 

Let me return to the building blocks of Marx's argument: his causal claim presupposes a proper functioning view of human nature. In his account of the effects of history this proper functioning is deformed/undermined by economic practices which are, in turn, secured by state power. (Again, note the echo of Rousseau here.) So, Marx here already anticipates features of his later view (recall) that is more articulated in (say) The Communist Manifesto and the Critique of the Gotha Program. Crucially, Marx's argument (in terms of social defects) in The Jewish Question does not get off the ground without such a proper functioning view of human nature. 

Now one may well wonder why from the perspective iof such a proper functioning view of human nature religion is a defect. Presumably because it is seen to undermine an authentic, communal life that belongs to our essence. It is possible Marx could allow that a non-individualistic religion -- one that glories our communal life in shared joyful activity (recall Plato's natural religion) -- wouldn't be thought defective. But perhaps he treats all religion as instances of superstition (there is language in the Jewish Question that suggests this). I am not sure.

Let me wrap up. Recall that for Mill ideology is the product of a system of hierarchy or domination in which the ruling classes promote falsehoods which justify their rule. Along the way this ideology undermines the proper functioning of the moral sentiments of the rulers and the ruled. In general the ruled see through these falsehoods, even if at times the ideology effectively promotes servility. What makes something ideological is not just that it is false and corrosive of our nature, but (and here Mill echoes Smith) that it serves a particular (factional/class) interest. (This sounds, in fact, like the kind of thing one would expect from a vulgar marxist.) So, we may say that the liberal idea of ideology requires the false to serve ruling faction and undermine our capacity to political and moral judgment. From a liberal perspective, one can always smell/rat out the existence of ideology if we ask 'cui bono?' and follow the trail. 

One attractive feature of the liberal conception of ideology is that the victims of it can see through it (and this eventually leads to standpoint epistemology). They generally do not need ideology critique to learn the truth of their situation. In this liberal conception if we could make our ruling ideas more impartial and reinforce our natural capacities, ideology can be overcome. And one natural route, although not the only one, to the undermining of ideology (and this (recall) anticipates Jason Stanley) (and here) is according to the liberal the flattening of hierarchy, which would undermine the 'demand' for such false justifications (and also undermine its supply by making it less profitable). Another route is to make sure that people flourish within a liberal polity.

If we go beyond Bauer's own aims, we can see that in Zur Judenfrage Marx, in effect, criticizes this liberal idea of ideology as itself a species of ideology. And Marx's main point is not that it serves the interest of capital (although clearly this is implied). But rather because the political emancipation implied by impartiality in the context of liberal state is, while worth having if you lack it, itself a defective ideal of emancipation. It is emancipation into a fragmentary and inauthentic life, and so no genuine emancipation at all.++ 

The explicit role of the Jews in Marx's analysis is, as is well known, not too flattering to Jews (or Christians). But the role they play in his analysis is also to show that on Marx's account it is by no means obvious that the subordinated victims of an ideology will see through the ideology. And so we see here already the rudiments of the need for a project of consciousness raising. That is to say, ideology critique takes on the shape of unmasking so that the victims of ideology can be oriented to a better ideal. This clearly has, although Marx does not alert his reader to it, the character of a kind of religious conversion.

I do not wish to try to settle the debate between Marx and liberalism. I just note that modern liberals may claim that such an ideology critique misses the mark. After all the proud modern liberal is, when legislating public reason, agnostic about the good life; this only works if the defectiveness of modern life is not widely felt. Such agnosticism does not tempt the older perfectionists like Smith and Mill, who have a conception of human flourishing that is a partial rival to Marx's. But I have gone on long enough today.



+I do not mean to suggest Rousseau invents this; it's clearly visible in Mencius (recall) and also in lines of argument influenced by Isaiah 32:17 and Spinoza's Political Treatise 5.2. 

*I don't think Marx needs to be committed to the thought that the United States is in all respects completely developed politically (given the existence of slavery, and its gendered franchise). He later admired Lincoln greatly, so this could fit his position. But perhaps there are reasons he must be.

++I am thinking of this passage:

"Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished."

Paul Joseph Watson Refutes Black Lives Matter

Paul Joseph Watson is another right-wing Youtuber. He used to be bonkers conspiracy theory peddler Alex Jones’ British buddy on Infowars, before he split with him and returned to Blighty. Leaving Jones to peddle his overpriced quack health supplements and mad ideas about the globalists running the world on behalf of demonic aliens, Obama and Hillary Clinton being demonic alien cyborgs set on imprisoning Americans in FEMA camps alone. Like Carl Benjamin, he’s also responsible for breaking UKIP. He entered the party along with Mark ‘Nazi pub’ Meechan. And the rest of the party, who really didn’t want to look like a bunch of racists, left in response.

But despite his extreme right-wing views and his opposition to immigration, I really don’t think it’s fair to call Watson a racist. And he does have a point about Black Lives Matter. BLM is centred around the perception that Black people are more likely to be killed by the cops than Whites, and that the police are institutionally racist. But this isn’t born out by the statistics.

Five years ago in May 2015 Watson posted this video, ‘Racist Facts White People Daren’t Talk About’ on his YouTube channel. He cites official government, police, FBI and academic statistics to show that Blacks aren’t killed by the cops more than Whites. But they do have more encounters with the rozzers because they disproportionately commit more violent crime.

He begins the video by showing that half of the police officers responsible for killing Freddy Gray, which set up of the Baltimore riots, were Black. But this fact is ignored. Black Lives Matter is about exploiting White guilt while ignoring the real causes of confrontations between Blacks and police.

Blacks commit disproportionately more violent crime than Whites. Blacks constitute just 13 per cent of the American population but commit half of all homicides. Department of Justice statistics from 1980 to 2008 show that Blacks were responsible for 52 per cent of all homicides compared to 48 per cent by Whites. FBI statistics for 2013 show that Blacks committed 38 per cent of murders compared to 31 per cent of Whites. From 2011 to 2013 38.5 per cent of those arrested for murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault were Black. Young Black men between the ages of 15 to 34, who comprise just 3 per cent of the American population, are responsible for the proportion of these crimes from Black people listed above.

Whites, on the other hand, are twice as likely to be killed by the cops. Data from the Centre for Disease Control from 1999 to 2011 show that 2,151 Whites were shot by the police, compared to 1,130 Blacks. But as Blacks commit the same numbers of offences as Whites, then the numbers of Blacks shot should also be equal.

He also presents evidence to show that Blacks are far more like to commit crimes against Whites than the reverse. He claims that Blacks are eight times more likely to commit crimes against Whites than Whites are against Blacks. He cites FBI stats from 2007 that state that Black males were 40 per cent more likely to assault Whites as the reverse. And interracial rape is almost wholly Black on White.

He quotes the academics James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein , who stated in 1985 that the higher rates of crime amongst Black Americans cannot be denied, even allowing for discrimination in the justice system. Every official statistic shows Blacks overrepresented people arrested and imprisoned for street crimes.

And Blacks are more likely to be involved in violent confrontations with the police. Here Watson makes the point that this does not justify police brutality, but it does refute the BLM allegation that the cops are racist or solely brutal towards Blacks.

This raises the issue of whether Blacks are unfairly targeted and framed by the police. This allegation is debunked by looking at offenders described as Black by the victims. The number of Blacks arrested correlates with the numbers of perps described as Black by their victims.

Watson also goes on to consider the factors responsible for the greater incidence of criminality in the Black community. Poverty is one factor responsible for disproportionately predisposing Blacks towards violent crime, exacerbated by family breakdown. But there is also the problem that there is an element in Black subculture that actively celebrates criminality. This is encouraged by the White liberal media. After the Baltimore riots the media justified the violence directed against Black owned businesses. This is racist, and it leads to more police brutality.

He states that police brutality is a problem in the US. But the real problem is the violent criminality in the Black community. But until this becomes part of the national conversation the real, underlying issues will not be resolved. He concludes that by keeping silent about this, Black leaders and White liberals are responsible for maintaining a vicious cycle of violence.

Obviously this is very controversial stuff. There have been complaints and campaigns for decades about the reporting of crimes committed by Blacks to prevent the automatic association of Blacks with criminality and violence. This has now got to the point where many people assume that a perp must be Black, if his race is not mentioned in any news reports as there are obviously no such delicacies about the reporting of crimes by Whites. 20 years ago this resulted in a reversal of racial prejudices. A poll of the British public taken about then found that White youths were the most distrusted section of the British populace.It’s undoubtedly true that Blacks have been the victims of massive discrimination and prejudice by Whites down the centuries. Highly discriminatory legislation was put in place to keep them down and segregated after the abolition of slavery in America. And there was considerable, vicious racism against them over here. I’ve Black friends, who’ve had terrible experiences.

Black Lives Matter’s assertion that police are prejudiced against Blacks also has a basis in fact. The police were, but I don’t think it’s true so much now. As I’ve said in previous articles, I’ve had relatives and friends in the police who very definitely weren’t. And this ingrained prejudice against the police has caused terrible misperceptions of intent when the cops have gone to help Black people. Years ago back in the 1990s I was on a sociology course as part of a postgraduate degree I wanted to do on British Islam. The lecturer told us that we had to be aware how our views of events didn’t necessary match those of others. One of these examples was a case in America, where a Black woman collapsed in the street. Two White cops went to help her, but other Blacks automatically assumed that they were attacking her and an angry crowd gathered. This was an instance where Black prejudice against the police, which I don’t doubt came from previous experience, was actively harming them by preventing the rozzers from helping that poor woman.

Watson has the attitude that the liberals and the media are keeping silent about the real reasons for Black confrontation with the police, as they wish to keep them dependent on the state. This is the usual conservative nonsense about welfare dependency. I think one of the reasons Britain did not have the same level of violent crime until the last couple of decades or so was because we had a functioning welfare state, or at least some semblance of one, which meant that in the absence of properly paid work people weren’t faced with the choice of robbing or selling drugs to keep body and soul together.

I’m not great fan of Watson, and certainly don’t share his arch-Tory, Brexiteer opinions. But I think that the facts are behind him in this case. And this does need to be recognised, because without it nothing will change.

Even if it discredits Black Lives Matter’s essential assertion that more Blacks are killed by police.

Fact Check: Is the Evangelical Youth-Inspired Great ‘Awokening’ Just Around the Corner?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/10/2020 - 4:44am in

Early in George W. Bush’s second term, not long after I started my Ph.D. work...

White privilege and class. A reply to Chris Bertram by Kenan Malik

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 31/08/2020 - 4:27am in

This is a guest post by Kenan Malik replying to two posts by Chris Bertram last week

Chris Bertram published two posts on Crooked Timber last week, the first1 challenging critiques of the concept of “white privilege”, the second2 arguing that certain claims about race and class are irrational. As one of the targets of these articles (Chris linked to one of my posts as exemplifying the problem, and we had previously debated the issue on Twitter), this is a response. Chris’ two posts are not directly linked, but they clearly deal with linked issues, and it is worth looking at them in tandem.

In the first post, Chris argues that “the ‘white privilege’ claim sits best with a certain sort of metaphysics of the person, such that individuals have a range of characteristics, some of which are more natural and others more social, that confer a competitive advantage or disadvantage in a given environment, where that environment is constituted by a range of elements, including demographics, institutions, cultural practices, individual attitudes, and so forth.”

But he also acknowledges that “I’m not establishing that, as a matter of fact, “white privilege” in the form I describe is a real thing, although I believe that it is”. It is difficult to see, though, how one can have a debate about whether “white privilege” is a meaningful category without have first established whether it is “a real thing”. It is possible to have an abstract debate about whether such a phenomenon could exist, but not to critique those who challenge the concept as inchoate in reality. Chris, in common with many proponents of the “white privilege” thesis, takes as given that which has to be demonstrated.

Underlying the “white privilege” thesis are two basic claims. First, that being “white” is a useful category in which to put everyone from the CEOs of multinational corporations to the cleaners in an Amazon warehouse. And, second, that being in such a category imbues people with privileges denied to those not in that category. Are either of these claims true?

The idea of whiteness as a “certain sort of metaphysics of the person” derives, of course, from racial thinking. In recent years it has found an important expression in the notion of “white identity” – the idea that all those deemed white have a common identity and set of interests which may conflict with those of non-whites. Most anti-racists (and, I assume, Chris, too) reject such a claim. We recognize that all whites do not have a common identity, that the interests of white factory workers or shelf-stackers are not the same as those of white bankers or business owners, but are far more similar to those of black factory workers or Asian shelf-stackers.

Why, then, do we ignore this when it comes to the question of “white privilege”? Because, proponents of the white privilege thesis argue, white people do not suffer the kinds of discrimination suffered by non-whites by virtue of their skin colour. At one level this is true. “Racism” refers to the practice of discrimination against, and bigotry towards, certain social groups; there may be many reasons for such discrimination and bigotry, but one is clearly that those who are non-white are often treated unequally. Viewing the issue in terms of “white privilege” is, however, deeply flawed for a number of reasons.

First, it is not a “privilege” not to have to face discrimination or bigotry; it should be the norm. I doubt if Chris, or, indeed, most proponents of the white privilege thesis, would disagree. Framing the absence of oppression or discrimination or bigotry as a “privilege” is to turn the struggle for justice on its head.

Second, the concept of white privilege fails to distinguish between “not being discriminated against or facing bigotry because of one’s skin colour” and “having immunity from discrimination or bigotry because one is white”. The distinction is important. Many whites, because of privileges afforded by wealth and class, do have immunity against discrimination. But many others, who are poor or working class, do not. Their experiences of state authority or of policing is often similar to that of non-whites.3

Consider, for instance, police killings in America. African Americans are disproportionately killed by police.4 But more than half of those killed by US police are white. Some analyses suggest that the best predictor of police killings is not race but income level5 – the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be killed. The data here is relatively sparse, largely because it is easier to break the figures down by race and ethnicity than by class. So, by default, the question of class often disappears. Note that I am not saying that racism does not shape the policing of black communities – it clearly does. What I am saying is that for working class whites, being white does not provide an immunity from the kinds of militarised policing that black communities face, nor provides them with a privilege to avoid it.

Or take the question of mass incarceration. Some studies have shown that the startlingly high prison numbers in America are better explained by class than by race and that “mass incarceration is primarily about the systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race”.6 There is data, too, that suggests that while the ratio of blacks to whites being incarcerated has remained broadly flat over the past century, the proportion of high school drop outs compared to graduates has exponentially increased in the past 50 years (see fig. 1 here7). What this suggests is that the extraordinary rise in prison numbers in recent decades has been fuelled by a vast increase in the imprisonment of those without higher education and of the poor and the working class. There is an ongoing debate about these figures and about the causes of both police brutality and mass imprisonment. But as someone who has long accepted that mass imprisonment is primarily the result of racism – the “new Jim Crow” in Michelle Alexander’s phrase – I am beginning to change my mind, having seen some of this data. It is certainly the case that African Americans are disproportionately poor and working class. It is also the case that racism plays a major part in ensuring they are so. But it makes littles sense to view police killings and mass imprisonment in terms of “white privilege” when poor and working class whites do not enjoy such privilege.

Or take school exclusions in Britain. Black pupils are disproportionately excluded from school, and there has long been evidence of racism being an important reason as to why. But look more closely at the figures8 and you see that the problem is primarily faced by those of Caribbean descent. Pupils of black African descent are less likely to be excluded than their white peers. This difference can be seen in many aspects of education9, not just exclusion, and class probably plays an explanatory role – those of Caribbean descent being more working class, while those of African descent being traditionally more middle class (though that has changed in recent years). Figures also show that pupils claiming free school meals (FSM) – a proxy for poverty – are almost four times as likely to be excluded as those not receiving FSM.10 In other words, the differences between both pupils of African and of Caribbean descent, and between pupils claiming FSM and those who do not, suggest that class as well as race plays an important role. Again, none of this is to say that there is no racism in the education system. It is saying, however, that it cannot be viewed simply in terms of “white privilege”.

Chris derides such arguments in his second post with an analogy between rich and poor people sleeping under a bridge. The fact that rich people sleeping under a bridge may suffer the same harms as poor people doing so (“exposure to the cold, or being beaten up by gangs of strangers”) does not mean, he points out, that economic inequality does not exist, nor that we should not concentrate resources on poor people sleeping rough. The same, he suggests, applies to arguments about race and class. White people may face police brutality or imprisonment, but that’s essentially equivalent to rich people sleeping rough.

Except that it’s not. The odd rich person may find themselves sleeping under a bridge because of particular circumstances, such as being “inebriated after a night at their club”. But it is not just a “few” working class whites who face police brutality or imprisonment or school exclusion. Nor is it simply the case, as Chris dismissively suggests in his first post, “of noticing that some groups of white people suffer outcomes that are as bad or worse than non-white people on average or some non-white groups in particular”. These are, rather, features woven into the fabric of social life. They may happen because of one’s skin colour. Or because of being working class and poor. Or because of both. But only by ignoring the facts could one suggest that there is any meaningful analogy between white working class people facing police brutality or imprisonment or exclusion and rich people sleeping under a bridge. The degree to which race and class may be causally important in any specific issue at any particular time is an empirical question. It is, however, not a question that we should ignore in the way we can ignore the problem of rich people sleeping rough.

There is a danger, too, in much of this debate of diminishing the importance of class to black people and imaging that their lives are shaped primarily, or only, by race. Class reductionism is a problem that we should avoid. So, too, is race reductionism.

Chris also makes this point in his second post:

“There are harms reliably associated with low socio-economic status and those harms fall on people regardless of their race. Kerching! – it is claimed – race doesn’t matter in the explanation of those harms! But obviously, if being black increases your relative propensity of being sorted into a poor working-class group that is exposed to such harms, and if being white reduces your relative propensity of being so sorted, then race is actually a big part of the picture. Showing that, of those who are in a category that is strongly pre-selected for by race, harms were not associated with race, does not lead to the valid conclusion that those harms are not associated with race.”

It’s a claim that conflates the critique of the white privilege thesis with a denial of racism. I have not at any point denied the existence of racism, nor do I know of any leftwing critic of the white privilege thesis who does so. It is precisely because I am concerned with challenging racism that I am critical of the claims about white privilege. Yes, African Americans (and other minority groups) are disproportionately working class and poor, and, yes, racism plays a significant part in explaining why this is so. But that, as I have already pointed out, is not the same as demonstrating the existence of “white privilege”.

A key phrase in Chris’s quote is “if being white reduces your relative propensity of being so sorted…”. This, again, is to conflate two issues. First, a higher proportion of whites than blacks are middle class and wealthy. Second, a large proportion of whites are working class and poor. The problem lies is in the belief that we can “sort” all white people into a single category and assume that such a category is meaningful in discussing social injustice. Just as there is no category “white” that is meaningful in discussing the identities and interests of all people deemed white, so there is no single category “white” that makes sense in discussion of social injustice or privilege.

Racism is an important issue that needs urgently to be tackled. So is class inequality. Looking at social problems through the lens of “white privilege” helps us do neither.











On an objection to the idea of “white privilege”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 27/08/2020 - 11:56pm in

The term “white privilege” has been getting a lot of play and a lot of pushback recently, for example, from Kenan Malik in this piece and there are some parallels in the writing of people like Adolph Reed who want to stress class-based solidarity over race. Often it isn’t clear what the basic objection from “class” leftists to the concept of “white privilege” is. Sometimes the objection seems to be a factual one: that no such thing exists or that insofar as there is something, then it is completely captured by claims about racism, so that the term “white privilege” is redundant. Alternatively, the objection is occasionally strategic or pragmatic: the fight for social justice requires an alliance that crosses racial and other identity boundaries and terms like “white privilege” sow division and make that struggle more difficult. These objections are, though, logically independent of one another: “white privilege” could be real, but invoking it could be damaging to the struggle; or it could be pragmatically useful for justice even if somewhat nebulous and explanatorily empty.

One particular type of argument is to deny that some white people enjoy privilege on the basis of noticing that some groups of white people suffer outcomes that are as bad or worse than non-white people on average or some non-white groups in particular. The claim is then that it is nonsensical to think of these white people as enjoying “white privilege”, or, indeed, any kind of privilege at all. But whatever the truth turns out to be about the explanatory usefulness of “white privilege”, I think these outcome-oriented assessments, sometimes based on slicing and dicing within racial or ethnic groups in ways that create artificial entities out of assemblages of demographic characteristics (white+rural+poor, for example), don’t ground a valid objection because they misconstrue what the privilege claim is about.

As I understand it, the “white privilege” claim sits best with a certain sort of metaphysics of the person, such that individuals have a range of characteristics, some of which are more natural and others more social, that confer a competitive advantage or disadvantage in a given environment, where that environment is constituted by a range of elements, including demographics, institutions, cultural practices, individual attitudes, and so forth. The claim is then that perceived whiteness confers a relative advantage on its bearer in a society where some combination of other facts holds true, where those other facts may include (and each to varying degrees) overt racism towards non-white people, or a perception of perceived phenotypical “whiteness” as the norm, or institutions that end up discriminating against non-white people because they reproduce existing patterns of advantage, etc.

If we understand “white privilege” in this frame, then it is easy to see that its possession (or lack) is entirely consistent with some non-white groups doing better than some white groups. So, take, for example, a group of non-white people of recent immigrant origin, which possesses a strong culture of parental ambition for children and set them alongside the demographicaly constructed assemblage of poor+white+rural, which perhaps turns out to be statistically associated with low levels of parental ambition for children. It may very well be that members of the first group do better, on average, than members of the second group. But is may also be the case that if we select a member from each group and make sure that they are identical on the full range of other characteristics (height, physical strength, gender, educational attainment, job experience), then the member of the white group will have an advantage in a job or college application over the non-white group.

Notice that what I’m doing here is just explaining that the objection based on average outcomes for demographic groups doesn’t hit the spot. I’m not establishing that, as a matter of fact, “white privilege” in the form I describe is a real thing, although I believe that it is. Also notice that the existence of “white privilege” is consistent with some people perceived as white suffering from analogous relative disadvantage on the basis of, for example, ethno-cultural characteristics that they possess, such as being seen as a redneck, hillbilly, foreigner, or in some contexts (such as 1980s Britain) coming from some towns or regions or having an accent there. It may also be unclear, for some individuals or groups, whether they enjoy white privilege or suffer from a lack of it (and this may change over time as they come to be seen as being or not being “white”).

Does “white privilege” add anything to the claim that we live in a racist society? I think it does, in a number of ways, even if the same ideas could be expressed or conveyed differently. First, the claim of “white privilege” is more clearly dissociated from claims about the individual attitudes of white people, even if the advantage white people enjoy often rests on people having such attitudes. Second, I think it better conveys a phenomenological sense of non-whiteness coming with an impediment in a racist society, of swimming against the current, of carrying a heavier load. White people who revile discrimination and overt racism may have thought that racism was therefore nothing to do with them without having a good sense of how things work comparatively to ease their path on the basis of perceived race. In an atmosphere of toxic social media exchanges perhaps the notion of “white privilege” can be used to sow division and spark white resentment, but in getting white people to see how others face obstacles they do not, it could also foster empathy and, more importantly, solidarity.

American Sociology’s Emergence and Separation from Political Economy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 25/07/2020 - 10:27am in

Rereading Philippe Steiner’s excellent, thorough and highly recommended Durkheim and the Birth of Economic Sociology (2011) — in which Steiner argues that there were two stages in Durkheim’s approach to the economy: a sociological critique of political economy and a sociology … Continue reading →

Experimental methods in sociology

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/07/2020 - 10:22am in



An earlier post noted the increasing importance of experimentation in some areas of economics (link), and posed the question of whether there is a place for experimentation in sociology as well. Here I'd like to examine that question a bit further.

Let's begin by asking the simple question: what is an experiment? An experiment is an intervention through which a scientist seeks to identify the possible effects of a given factor or “treatment”. The effect may be thought to be deterministic (whenever X occurs, Y occurs); or it may be probabilistic (the occurrence of X influences the probability of the occurrence of Y). Plainly, the experimental evaluation of probabilistic causal hypotheses requires repeating the experiment a number of times and evaluating the results statistically; whereas a deterministic causal hypothesis can in principle be refuted by a single trial.

In "The Principles of Experimental Design and Their Application in Sociology" (link) Michelle Jackson and D.R. Cox provide a simple and logical specification of experimentation:

We deal here with investigations in which the effects of a number of alternative conditions or treatments are to be compared. Broadly, the investigation is an experiment if the investigator controls the allocation of treatments to the individuals in the study and the other main features of the work, whereas it is observational if, in particular, the allocation of treatments has already been determined by some process outside the investigator’s control and detailed knowledge. The allocation of treatments to individuals is commonly labeled manipulation in the social science context. (Jackson and Cox 2013: 28)

There are several relevant kinds of causal claims in sociology that might admit of experimental investigation, corresponding to all four causal linkages implied by the model of Coleman’s boat (Foundations of Social Theory)—micro-macro, macro-micro, micro-micro, and macro-macro (link). Sociologists generally pay close attention to the relationships that exist between structures and social actors, extending in both directions. Hypotheses about causation in the social world require testing or other forms of empirical evaluation through the collection of evidence. It is plausible to ask whether the methods associated with experimentation are available to sociology. In many instances, the answer is, yes.

There appear to be three different kinds of experiments that would possibly make sense in sociology.

  1. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about features of human motivation and behavior
  2. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about the effects of features of the social environment on social behavior
  3. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about the effects of “interventions” on the characteristics of an organization or local institution

First, sociological theories generally make use of more or less explicit theories of agents and their behavior. These theories could be evaluated using laboratory-based design for experimental subjects in specified social arrangements, parallel to existing methods in experimental economics. For example, Durkheim, Goffman, Coleman, and Hedström all provide different accounts of the actors who constitute social phenomena. It is feasible to design experiments along the lines of experimental economics to evaluate the behavioral hypotheses advanced by various sociologists.

Second, sociology is often concerned with the effects of social relationships on social behavior—for example, friendships, authority relations, or social networks. It would appear that these effects can be probed through direct experimentation, where the researcher creates artificial social relationships and observes behavior. Matthew Salganik et al’s internet-based experiments (2006, 2009) on “culture markets” fall in this category (Hedström 2006). Hedström describes the research by Salganik, Dodds, and Watts (2006) in these terms:

Salganik et al. (2) circumvent many of these problems [of survey-based methodology] by using experimental rather than observational data. They created a Web-based world where more than 14,000 individuals listened to previously unknown songs, rated them, and freely downloaded them if they so desired. Subjects were randomly assigned to different groups. Individuals in only some groups were informed about how many times others in their group had downloaded each song. The experiment assessed whether this social influence had any effects on the songs the individuals seemed to prefer. 

As expected, the authors found that individuals’ music preferences were altered when they were exposed to information about the preferences of others. Furthermore, and more importantly, they found that the extent of social influence had important consequences for the collective outcomes that emerged. The greater the social influence, the more unequal and unpredictable the collective outcomes became. Popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs became less popular when individuals influenced one another, and it became more difficult to predict which songs were to emerge as the most popular ones the more the individuals influenced one another. (787)

Third, some sociologists are especially interested in the effects of micro-context on individual actors and their behavior. Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel offer detailed interpretations of the causal dynamics of social interactions at the micro level, and their work appears to be amenable to experimental treatment. Garfinkel (Studies in Ethnomethodology), in particular, made use of research methods that are especially suggestive of controlled experimental designs.

Fourth, sociologists are interested in macro-causes of individual social action. For example, sociologists would like to understand the effects of ideologies and normative systems on individual actors, and others would like to understand the effects of differences in large social structures on individual social actors. Weber hypothesized that the Protestant ethic caused a certain kind of behavior. Theoretically it should be possible to establish hypotheses about the kind of influence a broad cultural factor is thought to exercise over individual actors, and then design experiments to evaluate those hypotheses. Given the scope and pervasiveness of these kinds of macro-social factors, it is difficult to see how their effects could be assessed within a laboratory context. However, there are a range of other experimental designs that could be used, including quasi-experiments (link) and field experiments and natural experiments (link),  in which the investigator designs appropriate comparative groups of individuals in observably different ideological, normative, or social-structural arrangements and observes the differences that can be discerned at the level of social behavior. Does one set of normative arrangements result in greater altruism? Does a culture of nationalism promote citizens’ propensity for aggression against outsiders? Does greater ethnic homogeneity result in higher willingness to comply with taxation, conscription, and other collective duties?

Finally, sociologists are often interested in macro- to macro-causation. For example, consider the claims that “defeat in war leads to weak state capacity in the subsequent peace” or “economic depression leads to xenophobia”. Of course it is not possible to design an experiment in which “defeat in war” is a treatment; but it is possible to develop quasi-experiments or natural experiments that are designed to evaluate this hypothesis. (This is essentially the logic of Theda Skocpol’s (1979) analysis of the causes of social revolution in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China.) Or consider a research question in contentious politics, does widespread crop failure give rise to rebellions? Here again, the direct logic of experimentation is generally not available; but the methods articulated in the fields of quasi-experimentation, natural experiments, and field experiments offer an avenue for research designs that have a great deal in common with experimentation. A researcher could compile a dataset for historical China that records weather, crop failure, crop prices, and incidents of rebellion and protest. This dataset could support a “natural experiment” in which each year is assigned to either “control group” or “intervention group”; the control group consists of years in which crop harvests were normal, while the intervention group would consist of years in which crop harvests are below normal (or below subsistence). The experiment is then a simple one: what is the average incidence of rebellious incident in control years and intervention years?

So it is clear that causal reasoning that is very similar to the logic of experimentation is common throughout many areas of sociology. That said, the zone of sociological theorizing that is amenable to laboratory experimentation under random selection and a controlled environment is largely in the area of theories of social action and behavior: the reasons actor behave as they do, hypotheses about how their choices would differ under varying circumstances, and (with some ingenuity) how changing background social conditions might alter the behavior of actors. Here there are very direct parallels between sociological investigation and the research done by experimental and behavioral economists like Richard Thaler (Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics). And in this way, sociological experiments have much in common with experimental research in social psychology and other areas of the behavioral sciences.

Book Review: What is Digital Sociology? by Neil Selwyn

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 05/07/2020 - 7:00pm in



In What is Digital Sociology?, Neil Selwyn offers a new overview of digital sociology, advocating for its mainstream acceptance as a valuable expansion of sociological inquiry, while dispelling the misconception that it is a entirely new or radically different form of sociology. This is an excellent introduction to digital sociology, recommends Huw Davies, that will be particularly helpful for … Continued

Call for Papers: From Economic Rationalism to Global Neoliberalism?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/05/2016 - 3:49pm in

From Economic Rationalism to Global Neoliberalism?

A Workshop for Early-Career and Postgraduate Researchers

RMIT, Melbourne, Fri 2nd December, 2016

Hosted by The Australian Sociological Association’s (TASA) Sociology of Economic Life thematic group and Centre for Applied Social Research, RMIT


Pusey bookThis year marks the 25th anniversary of Michael Pusey’s seminal text of economic sociology, Economic Rationalism in Canberra. Pusey’s book helped instigate a national conversation and publicised the concept of ‘economic rationalism’. It was ranked by TASA as one of the 10 most influential books in four decades of Australian sociology and described by The Age as a ‘celebrated analysis of how economic rationalism came to dominate policy making in Canberra’.

Today, the idea of ‘neoliberalism’ has entered into widespread use in the academy, society and social movements, evoking many of the free market, anti-statist notions critiqued in Pusey’s work. Despite short-lived claims that the 2008 global recession would bury neoliberalism, the politics of free markets and austerity seems as dominant as ever, in Australia and globally. Moreover, scholarship and debate about neoliberalism has exploded in the last quarter of a century.

In this context, this workshop offers a chance for emerging scholars undertaking studies of neoliberalism and economic rationalism, as it manifests in Australia and globally, to present their research at a day-long event in Melbourne. Held the day after TASA’s annual conference in Melbourne, this workshop will offer Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students and Early-Career Researchers (i.e., within five years of their PhD award) the chance to present their research in a supportive environment of peer-to-peer discussion and mentorship from leading scholars, including Michael Pusey who will read papers and provide extensive feedback.

We invite abstracts of 100-150 words and a brief (i.e., 50 words or less) biographical note, which should include reference to your HDR/ECR status. Authors of accepted abstracts will be asked to submit full papers of between 4000-7000 words (double-spaced) including tables, notes and references. We welcome research that focuses on any aspect of neoliberalism or economic rationalism within sociology as well as cognizant disciplines such as political science, political economy, geography, etc. Accepted papers will receive critical feedback by a senior scholar (who will also act as discussant) and at least one ECR/HDR peer at the workshop. Authors of accepted papers are expected to make a brief presentation of their paper at the workshop.

We plan to submit selected papers as a special section for the Journal of Sociology or a similar journal in the field (where they would be subject to the normal refereeing process). Please note that, as we cannot offer financial subsidies for participants, we particularly encourage those presenting papers at the 2016 TASA conference to submit papers for this workshop. (Note that TASA conference abstracts are due by 17th June, 2016 – for details, visit

Authors of accepted papers will be expected to be available for the full day of the workshop. We welcome papers exploring the following, and other, topics and questions related to the theme of the workshop:

  • What is the nature of economic rationalism and neoliberalism today, in Australia or elsewhere?
  • Are economic rationalism and neoliberalism the same thing?
  • Should we understand contemporary economic policy making as a form of zombie economics?
  • Is the term ‘neoliberalism’ useful?
  • Is there a distinctively Australian variety of neoliberalism?
  • How has the nature of the market, individuals, and society changed since the late 1970s?
  • What are the implications of relying on markets and money to measure values? What happens to values when they are translated into a form that is legible to markets?
  • Have economic rationalism and neoliberalism been successful? In what ways?
  • Is it correct to argue that neoliberal economic reform represents a political project that shifts income and power to corporations and elites?

Please submit abstracts, following the specifications above, to or (co-conveners of Sociology of Economic Life thematic group, TASA) no later than Mon 27th June, 2016. (Authors of accepted abstracts will be asked to submit full papers for peer review within approx. 2-3 months of notified acceptance.) If you have questions, feel free to contact us.

The post Call for Papers: From Economic Rationalism to Global Neoliberalism? appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).

#TASA2015 and the Case for Political Economy in Our Sociological Imagination

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 08/02/2016 - 8:30am in

In 1959, C. Wright Mills coined the term ‘sociological imagination’ to illustrate how sociologists can provide unique insight via a broad analysis of the social. Via this critical process, we can remove ourselves from everyday life, seeing the social in the personal. The 2015 TASA (The Australian Sociological Association) conference focused on neoliberalism and how it has affected the Asia-Pacific. Through stepping back and thinking “ourselves away” from the milieu, we approached this problem via many sociological frameworks that addressed a variety of structural, agential, empirical and theoretical topics. However, over the course of the conference, I could not help but notice a succinct trend within each of the presentations. Despite the diversity of the lenses being used to view the issues at hand, we were mostly discussing the systemic problems of a late modernity that overly favoured elite interests and economic rationalities.

Let me explain this via some examples. First, Professor Eva Cox opened the conference powerfully with her message of hope and rebellion, arguing we need to underscore the social in the social sciences in Australia and calling sociologists to participate in a more critical role in this time of curtailing choices and truncated meaning. To address worsening social inequality and fracturing futures, she suggests a return to big picture sociology that dares to visit what Jurgen Habermas calls utopian thinking (in a time where utopian thinking has been exhausted). We as sociologists have been robbed of utopia as an ideal – in other words, the dominance of neoliberal rationalism has seen us accept caveats and half-measures which represent the desires of Economic Human more than the needs of a civil society.

Second, in a session for the Cultural Sociology thematic group, several diverse topics were approached; however, it was the contemporary cultural framing of work that underscored how neoliberalist ideals have infiltrated career narratives. Dr Sarah James examined the popular idea that work needs to be ‘meaningful’ more than necessarily lucrative; and furthering this, Fabian Cannizzo studied how academics describe their work as being driven by ‘passion’ and their relationship with university management’s neoliberal imperatives.

Third, in a session for the vibrant Family, Relationships and Gender thematic group, Michelle Dyer discussed how international development discourse is strongly underpinned by neoliberal economic rationalisations. She studied how women’s empowerment in developing countries is presented as salvation for the entire nation – and how women are dually represented as victims and saviours. It is worthwhile looking at Nike’s as this campaign is an exemplar of Michelle’s argument. This mythos ignores the reality of gender relations in developing countries and also avoids any critical reflection how such campaigns are smokescreens for the wider structural issues such as the effects of unethical corporate practices.

What these presentations and topics have in common are the permeation of market ideals and rationality into the discourse of everyday life. Some of the papers, such as Michelle’s, examined the localised effects of neoliberalism in places such as the Solomon Islands; but also considered the wider international political economy of the problem. In this paradigm, tribal peoples grieve the loss of land, the loss of their cultural heritage and self as business buys what they see as valuable real estate for future profits and growth. Using our sociological imagination, we must consider the two very different worldviews and realise that the two ‘ways of seeing’ are incongruous. Furthermore, using political economy, we may also think of how current global power relations, economics and dominant norms feed into this problem. The perspective of subaltern peoples is drowned out by the drone of bulldozers logging their sacred forests. The profit motive is hegemonic and for now, it prevails. What is a sociologist to do?

The Sociology of Economic Life roundtable on the Thursday afternoon generated some practical answers and critical reflection upon some of these problems. Dr Tom Barnes addressed some dominant myths of neoliberalism and then, adding to this, Elizabeth Humphrys discussed how neoliberalism unfolded in Australia. Rather than being a product of the Right, in Australian contexts, neoliberalism emerged from the 1980s Labor government and the Unions with their Prices and Incomes Accord agreements, which gradually saw the introduction of economically rational ideals and a whittling down of labour. At the conclusion of the session, Dr. Dina Bowman provided an important perspective that we need to make ourselves available: to NGOs, to business, wherever sociology is needed.

I took a lot away from #TASA2015. I felt inspired and revitalised. My economic sociological Ph.D. work looks at how luxury consumption and economic inequality may interact. I lean towards critical theories and I unashamedly indulge in utopian thinking. I love William Morris’ ‘News from Nowhere’ and my copy of Marcuse’s ‘One Dimensional Man’ has been read more than a few times. I agree with Eva. We need to reconsider grand theory and sociology as activism. We need to think about political economy in our sociological analysis – because the neoliberal economic rationality is everywhere. As Fabian Cannizzo argues, it even saturates academic governance and the very work we do. In order for us to address the snowballing issue of neoliberalism encompassing and enlarging, we must see these problems as an urgent call-to-arms – to use our positions to make ourselves useful to society and to not shy away from challenging the status quo.