Monthly Archives: December 2014

author’s colloquium on We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

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As I prepare to take a 2-week winter break from blogging, I’ll post the video of me, Jane Mansbridge and Marshall Ganz of the Harvard Kennedy School, and Jenny Sazama, Director & Co-Founder of Youth on Board, talking about my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For in a discussion moderated by Meira Levinson (Harvard Grad School of Ed). The event was a CMEI Colloquium/Gutman Library Distinguished Author Event last October 21.

questions about “collective impact”

The concept of “Collective Impact” suddenly seems to be everywhere. No meeting is complete without it. FSG defines it as “the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a complex social problem.” And they propose five conditions:

Common Agenda: All participants share a vision for change that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving the problem through agreed-upon actions.

Shared Measurement: All participating organizations agree on the ways success will be measured and reported, with a short list of common indicators identified and used for learning and improvement.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities: A diverse set of stakeholders, typically across sectors, coordinate a set of differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.

Continuous Communication: All players engage in frequent and structured open communication to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.

Backbone Support: An independent, funded staff dedicated to the initiative provides ongoing support by guiding the initiative’s vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities, establishing shared measurement practices, building public will, advancing policy, and mobilizing resources.

I definitely see the purpose and value of such efforts, but I would pose these questions for critical reflection whenever the framework is being used:

  1. When is a group with a shared agenda and “backbone” organization a “collaboration” or a “community of practice,” and when is it a cartel or a clique?
  2. When is reducing competition among NGOs a valuable a way of reducing waste and allowing them to work toward a broader goal, and when is reducing competition a way of protecting incumbent organizations from challenges by newcomers? (In short, when is a cooperating group a monopoly?)
  3. Who gets to decide on the common agenda, and to whom are they accountable?
  4. What makes you eligible to join the “diverse set of stakeholders”

(A civics textbook would say that the people should ultimately decide on the agenda for their community, mainly by choosing elected representatives who deliberate and vote–all subject to judicial review. We already have a smooth tessellation of political jurisdictions across America, each with its own elected leaders. But in the Collective Impact model, governmental agencies are just some of the “participating organizations.” )

Foucault and neoliberalism

If you’re intellectually and ideologically eclectic, then you will find important ideas all over the map. It will not surprise you to learn that a person generally associated with the left has benefited from F.O. von Hayek or Gary Becker: leading libertarians. An excellent example is James C. Scott, who likes to call himself (I suspect partly for the frisson of it) “a crude Marxist,” but who has been deeply influenced by Hayek. Scott’s analysis of the high-modernist state is indispensable, however you choose to classify it.

On the other hand, if you’re a committed leftist intellectual, it may well come as a surprise to you that Michel Foucault read Hayek and Becker and said positive things about neoliberalism. That is the theme of Daniel Zamora’s forthcoming volume Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale. In the left magazine The Jacobin, Zamora presents it as puzzling and even potentially scandalous fact that Foucault should have showed “indulgence … toward neoliberalism.”

I do not know the relevant texts and statements by the late Foucault. But I think the affinity between Foucault’s style of critique and libertarianism is important although not very surprising, and I would understand it in the following contexts:

1. The “revolution” of May 1968 was led by activists and intellectuals who considered themselves Marxists and often especially favored Maoism. Yet their successful concrete demands were for greater individual freedom, especially vis-a-vis the state. They won a lower age of consent for sex (1974), abortion rights (1975), freedom of information (1978), and many other reforms traditionally recommended by classical liberals. They also reformed the state by reducing the power of the president, making elections more important, and strengthening NGOs. In Marxist terms, ’68 was a bourgeois revolution, not a proletarian one. So it shouldn’t be shocking that perhaps the greatest political thinker of ’68 was a bourgeois liberal (of a kind).

2. The most evident social issue of 19th century Europe was the oppression of the industrial working class. But economic growth made countries like France pervasively affluent by 1968. Industrial jobs had shrunk while social welfare programs and unions had improved the everyday life of those who still had such jobs–to the point where they could reasonably look like a kind of elite. As Zamora perceptively argues in the Jacobin article, the contrast between organized blue-collar workers and various “excluded” populations (new immigrants and disadvantaged racial minorities, the disabled, the very poor) became a central concern. But the “excluded” were not in a position to seize the commanding heights of the economy, or even to win elections, as the proletariat might have been in 1910. They were especially likely to suffer at the hands of the welfare state in poor schools, prisons, clinics, and conscripted armies. The neoliberal solution–reducing barriers to their market participation–might look more attractive than the traditional social-democratic solution of enrolling them in welfare programs that were sites of surveillance and discipline.

2. Many of the great disasters of the 20th century were attributable to high-modernist states that sought to count and measure society in order to control it–sometimes in the interest of laudable goals, like equality. One of the worst such states was Mao’s China, but French intellectuals of 1968 romanticized that regime as some kind of participatory democracy. Their misconception about China gradually faded, and in any case, China became capitalist. More to the point, the left intellectuals of Foucault’s generation were already able to see that other high modernist states were disastrous. It was appropriate and natural for the left to turn away from statism. But once they opposed the state, why should they not become libertarians? As Zamora asks in a follow-up article, “How could we seriously think that discrediting state action in the social domain and abandoning the very idea of social ‘rights’ constitutes progress toward thinking ‘beyond the welfare state’? All it has done is allow the welfare state’s destruction, not a glimpse of something ‘beyond.'” (An alternative could be anarchism, but anarchism in practice often looks like neoliberalism.)

3. Foucault and his generation emphasized a whole range of oppressions and invidious uses of power that might not arise between a capitalist and a worker but rather between a man and a woman, a parent and a child, a teacher and a student, a doctor and a patient, a white person and an immigrant, and other such pairings. They were correct to recognize these problems. But once oppression is seen as multifarious and omnipresent, we no longer want the working class to rule through the state or unions. Individual expressive freedom and various kinds of diversity become high priorities.

Zamora writes:

Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.

Foucault “seemed to imagine” this because, indeed, a lightly regulated market economy in an affluent society is less bureaucratic than a social welfare state and does generate autonomy and diversity. Perhaps a market system also reshapes the human psyche in problematic ways. And certainly it generates unequal wealth. But for the reasons stated above, unequal wealth no longer seemed to be the primary domestic economic problem in a country like France ca. 1968. And if markets subtly shape the soul, states do so more blatantly and more uniformly.

To be clear, I am not a libertarian; I want states and other strongly organized bodies to promote equity as well as freedom. Also, I recognize that many people with egalitarian instincts have absorbed libertarian ideas without abandoning the state. They have read Hayek as well as Marx and Foucault. But I think the left still is still wrestling with the realities that led Foucault to say nice things about neoliberalism in his last years.

what does Russia make?

In the waning days of Communism, it seemed as if all the Soviet Union made that anyone else wanted to purchase were Matryoshka doll sets. In reality, the USSR was exporting oil and natural gas. Drops in their market value helped end the regime.

It occurred to me that I couldn’t think of anything that post-Communist Russia makes that anyone else wants to buy, apart from oil and gas–but that could be a prejudice on my part. The Observatory of Economic Complexity allows you to check the real story. More than half of Russia’s exports are oil and gas, and almost 100% are raw materials or other inputs to industrial or food processes, such as sawn wood and fish. The biggest category of finished goods that I can find is gas turbines, valued at $1.5 billion (total). Nuclear reactors follow at $1.27 billion. By way of contrast, Canada also has vast natural resources, but it exports $47 billion worth of cars and $7 billion worth of aircraft, among many other finished products.

Bernard Williams on truth as a virtue of the humanities

Bernard Williams (1929-2003) published Truth and Truthfulness in 2002, when the humanities were still processing criticisms of truth, objectivity, science, the Enlightenment, and related ideals that had arisen with postmodernism. Williams held his own complex epistemology; he certainly wasn’t interested in defending naive positivism or scientism. But he saw that unless the humanities stood for truth as some kind of virtue, there wouldn’t be much of a case for those disciplines.

He recognized that the postmodern critique of truth might be waning. Epistemological radicalism had been more of an issue in 1990 (when I was at the same institution as Williams) than when he published Truth and Truthfulness. But he was prescient about the decade to come:

There is a danger that the decline of the more dramatic confrontations [about postmodernism] may do no more than register an inert cynicism, the kind of calm that in personal relations can follow a series of hysterical rows. If the passion for truthfulness is merely controlled and stilled without being satisfied, it will kill the activities it is supposed to support. This may be one of the reasons why, at the present time, the study of the humanities runs the risk of sliding from professional seriousness, through professionalization, to a finally disenchanted careerism.

(Anyone recognize evidence of the last three words today?)

Williams’ book is not really about truth but about “the ‘virtues’ of truth, qualities of people that are displayed in wanting to know the truth, in finding it out, and in telling it to other people.” Those virtues turn out to be two: Accuracy and Sincerity. Accuracy means trying to figure out what is true about the world and other people, as opposed to what one wishes, assumes, or is told to be true. It means making an “investment” in efforts to distinguish realities from wishes, for example. Sincerity means sharing what one believes with other people. The two virtues are distinct but related. It is, for example, not much good to be sincere about one’s beliefs if they are childish fantasies, nor to struggle to understand reality but keep what you find to yourself.

A third candidate for a virtue of truthfulness would be Authenticity–being true to who you really are. Williams criticizes the strong, Rousseauian version of this candidate virtue on interesting grounds. We don’t know who we really are. The self is not a unitary thing but a mix of values and other mental states that change rapidly, shift with context, and arise in relation to other people. Becoming someone is a “project” undertaken with other people. So the expectation of Authenticity is frustrating in ways that are worse than the quests for Accuracy and Sincerity.

Williams makes the case that any society needs Accuracy and Sincerity. But, as he argued more generally in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, the fact that a society needs X does not give an individual an adequate reason to supply X. One can free-ride instead. Also, there can be morally legitimate reasons to make exceptions. Kant was wrong to conclude that, because language and society depend on a general expectation of truthfulness, you may never lie. It only follows that most people should be truthful most of the time.

Instead of trying to derive grounds for principles of Accuracy and Sincerity, it is better to analyze and positively depict truthfulness as a virtue that gives credit to the person who displays it. We can also connect virtues together. Thus, for example, it takes courage to be Accurate, and compassion to be Sincere. (“Error is cowardice,” as Nietzsche wrote in a passage that Williams quotes.) Accuracy is also linked to freedom, because the struggle to understand nature is governed by one’s own will, in contrast to a struggle against other people’s wills, which limits freedom. I think Williams’ project is to defend truthfulness by linking several virtues into one attractive picture.

Note that virtues are not like Kantian principles; they can be exhibited to various degrees and even to excess. One can, for instance, make too much of an investment in determining the accuracy of a statement whose implications are not sufficiently important. (That is a sign of an obsession.) Or one can rightly withhold information that ought to be private.

Sincerity is a disposition, and it cannot be understood just as the disposition to follow a rule. Of course, there have to be some general considerations to which Sincerity attends, or the disposition would have no content. … But they do not add up to a rule, in the traditional sense of a requirement which is relatively simple and does not leave most of the work to judgement.

I read Truth and Truthfulness to explore a hypothesis that there are three different sets of virtues that are important to a good life, but they do not fit neatly together. One is truth, which Williams parses as Accuracy and Sincerity. A second concerns our relations to other people, which must be just, fair, compassionate, or some relative of those terms. (I deliberately mean this three-part model to allow for much debate about each part). And the third concerns our inner self, for we are entitled to worry about our own peace, equanimity, and/or happiness.

I found Williams helpful in two ways. First, he substantiates the premise that truthfulness is one set of virtues, honorable in themselves and generally useful to society, but sometimes in conflict with other worthy virtues. Again he quotes Nietzsche: “Fundamental Insight: There is no pre-established harmony between the furthering of truth and the well-being of humanity.” Second, Williams offers an impressive model for how to argue on behalf of a large abstract virtue, of which truthfulness is an example. He parses it closely. He shows by means of hypothetical cases that the virtue benefits a society. He shows by means of real history that the virtue has evolved in certain ways to take its current form. He shows that in the course of this history, certain efforts to change the virtue (e.g., Romantic proposals to turn it into Authenticity) have failed. And he links it to other virtues in ways that make it seem appealing.

The result is not the kind of knock-down argument that would convince a cheerful liar to start being Accurate and Sincere. It is, rather, an excavation of the kinds of reasons that lead reasonable people to try to be fairly truthful, even when inaccuracy and insincerity would be easier. I agree with Williams that unless the humanities exemplify that effort, they do not have much of a future.

See also: are we entering a post-truth era?; why we wish that goodness brought happiness, and why that is not so; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth; does naturalism make room for the humanities? and building alternative intellectual establishments.