I Seriously Hope the Libertarians Aren’t Right, Composing, 28/01/2015

A review I wrote jointly with some of my colleagues at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective went up this week, discussing the new book written by Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0. I enjoy writing these joint reviews because each of us can take a partial point of view on the work we’re talking about, and write freely without pressure to be fully comprehensive. We usually each focus on a particular concept or angle, and let each of those different perspectives add up to a multifaceted view of the whole work.

But I also have a few more thoughts about Heath’s book and the political ideas he expresses in it that I eased away from in my review. I had space constraints, and these issues are really more relevant to some of my ongoing political philosophy research for my own projects. 

Even though most of my writing work at the moment is concentrating on Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, the Utopias project is still on my radar as well. It’s why I’m reading Friedrich Hayek and thinking about how his own intellectual confrontation with Nazi and Bolshevik totalitarianism has influenced the contemporary right wing of Western politics and the contemporary right wing view of the left wing.

Inventive businesspeople can monetize anything.
I realized just from reading and thinking about today’s politics, especially today’s conservative movements, that you can’t write a book that deals with the dangers of totalitarianism without engaging with libertarian thinking. It’s not because libertarians are totalitarian – far from it. The reason is that libertarians believe they’re the front line of defence against totalitarian currents in modern politics. They’re people who seriously believe that Barack Obama and Jack Layton represent totalitarian political movements.*

* When the Tea Party first arose, I thought the Obama = Hitler meme was just ignorant racism, like those posters depicting him as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. But there are people who are genuinely anti-racist who actually believe that Obama wants to make the United States a new Nazi republic. I still find it so depressing that I have to write these sentences seriously.

Joseph Heath co-wrote The Rebel Sell, which made his popular reputation as a critic of consumer and corporate culture. The book analyzed counter-cultural movements as not genuine rebellions against an oppressive mainstream, but equally consumerist tribal identities. It was a popular, but quite controversial account of grassroots political movements as merely alternative brands. 

The impeccable depth of research in Enlightenment 2.0 impressed me. His book journeys through psychological studies of human reasoning abilities. He compiles a mass of evidence to demonstrate pretty conclusively that humans are not as rational as the old faith of the original Enlightenment movement thought we were. 

Here’s an example that I didn’t have space to cite in my review. Heath discusses how detergent companies design their bottlecaps. The caps double as vessels to measure and pour laundry detergent, and they all have markings on the inside to show how much is needed for a single, double, or triple load. 

Even our laundry detergent caps are insidious.
But the markings are all extremely faint, usually written as raised plastic and not as actual marks of contrasting colour with the cap. As a result, most people don’t see them. I see them, but I’m accustomed to looking for them. Most people don’t see them, and fill the detergent cup almost to the brim for every load. Not only does this use unnecessary detergent, making you spend money needlessly on more laundry detergent than you need; you also end up spending more money on clothes because washing them with so much detergent damages the fabric and prematurely ages them.

I cite this example because it’s so ordinary in all our lives, but also a very small detail in most people’s lives. This is a way that unscrupulous companies take advantage of the petty non-rationality of most people. And because his body of psychological evidence suggests how difficult it is for most people to overcome their non-rationality through self-conscious knowledge, Heath recommends a different route.

Heath’s key concept in Enlightenment 2.0 is the kluge. It’s a little modification to your environment that encourages you to think better or discourages a counter-productive thought. It’s easy to do on an individual level. For instance, I have a tendency to forget where I put particular small items that I need every day, like my keys or my phone. My environmental kluge is to keep all those things in the same place on my writing desk as soon as I come home from work. 

The kluge is the engine of the new enlightenment. And Heath entirely lays it on the state to install these kluges throughout our lives to ensure the public’s rationality so that our representative democratic institutions continue to work in the public interest. Even down to the caps on our laundry detergent.

It’s not that I’m against all government regulation.** But a refusal to trust the state is necessary to maintain democratic politics today. We can’t go back to the old era of trusting the state to manage every little aspect of our lives. That minute universality of management is what Michel Foucault called the oppression of biopolitics, and Hayek argued against it too. 

** I admit that I rather sound like Heath when he distinguishes his own distrust of the public’s rationality from that of philosophers like Zhang Weiwei who are open state authoritarians. Heath is unconvincing about his continued faith in democracy, and when I talk as I do here, I sound pretty unconvincing about my continued faith in government.

A thinker as quality as Foucault can't be contained
in the doctrines of a single political movement.
Ultimately, my argument on this problem of public rationality is that if we all work together, we can overcome the dirty tricks of our natural unreason that profiteers use to separate us from our increasingly hard-earned money. That’s just what I said in my section of the book review. 

The message that I want you to take away from this blog post is a lesson about anti-corporate politics. It’s similar to what I wrote about Daniel Zamora’s recent critique of Foucault as a closet neoliberal.*** Fighting the manipulation of oligarchic interests shouldn’t send us back to oppression under a micro-managing state authority, and fighting state authoritarianism shouldn’t send us back to life as corporate playthings, which is the practical endgame of modern libertarian politics. I’m not even any good at playing ping-pong. I don’t want to be a ball.

*** Yes, I’m aware of the irony of the term applied to Foucault. It’s quite a simple piece of wordplay.

Progress in fighting oppression under authorities of all kinds should ultimately free us from oppression from authorities of all kinds, not just trade one for another back and forth. Progress means taking control of our own lives.

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