Sunday 7 April 2024

A Note on Political Epistemology

A great time was had at the Midlands Critical Theory conference at Nottingham Trent University these last couple of days. There was one thing I wanted to note in relation to a paper delivered by the comrades of the Critical Political Epistemological Network.

To be honest, that political epistemology has become a recognised sub-discipline served by its own journals, professorial chairs, and postgrad programmes was entirely new to me. Political epistemology's concern is how we speak about truth and knowledge in politics and how this conditions decision-making, questions of legitimacy, who is anointed as experts or authorities to speak in politics, and so on. CPEN is a critical engagement with and rejection of political epistemology's unthought assumptions. Their paper looked at the institutional context of the sub-discipline's formation, noting it grew out of Anglo-American politics departments denuded of radical thought and, as such, does not even place politics in wider social contexts. What is striking about it is its refusal to engage with political theory outside the usual touchstones of liberal and conservative thought, its dismissal of feminism (except in its most liberal forms), and the organised ignorance of Marxism, post-structuralism, critical race theory, critical theory generally, and anything that smacks of sociology. CPEN's argument is the object of political epistemology is worthwhile investigating, but its self-conscious limiting of how to analyse politics and knowledge undermines the enterprise. CPEN proposes to overcome this by struggling to reorientate political epistemology so it draws on and redefines itself in full engagement with what it presently excludes.

This description reminded me of my frequent annoyance with political science. I remember rocking up at my first MRes class 20 years ago after spending many an undergraduate and postgraduate year reading Marxism/critical theory, feminism, postmodernism, and the intersections of all three, and coming away flabbergasted. There was no sign the mountains of scholarship these tectonic movements threw up even existed. What a political party was, what they did, and crucially their relationship to wider society were rudely crammed into methodologically restrictive terms that allowed for easy quantification. It was interested in generating a particular species of social fact, a political epistemology if you will, that avoided asking the most basic questions about party politics: what is power, what is the state, what do parties do, and how do they work as institutional aggregators of interests. Political science offers up a reified and distorted diagram of politics that, in turn, informs how academics, commentators, and (in some cases) politicians think and relate to politics. Its taken-for-grantedness sees itself independent of other social scientific disciplines, especially the dread sociology, and therefore constructs politics as a sphere of activity autonomous from all other spheres of social activity.

Where political science led, political epistemology has followed. But this effort at sealing themselves off from the social is more than a disciplinary strategy for attracting the awards of academic respectability. It's an effect of politics itself presenting as a totally autonomous field of activity. We had a recent reminder that uttering the truth of politics - i.e. the struggle of and for interests - is forbidden. All politicians, regardless of politics, are motivated by public service and/or ideas. There is no necessary correspondence between personnel, values, party positions, and constituencies and to suggest otherwise is crude reductionism, or a retread of the politics of envy. Even the literature most prized by politics serves to ontologise the autonomy of the political. That, by the way, is not manifestos, works of political history or theory (more's the pity), but the biography. They focus on individual motivations, backgrounds, dilemmas, and decisions. They humanise the sanctioned political subject (the politician) and endows them with complexity and messiness. What the weight of biography does is neuter the structural characteristics of politics, reducing it to a site of debate, contestation, and rivalry between reified, ambitious but fundamentally disinterested individuals.

Political epistemology sees itself as autonomous because its big brother discipline, political science, also sees itself as a completely separate from the study of the social world. And this is an echo of how politics denies its social character and pretends itself autonomous of the societies in which it sits. The project of pushing a critical political epistemology is much more than correcting a case of symptomatic disciplinary silence: it's confronting the constitution of politics itself.

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Ken said...

er, so Political Science became a legitimate university specialism when it threw out the politics? Have I got this right?

Anonymous said...

Memetic superstructures behave in many ways very similarly to genetic ones. When they detect a threat, they engage a defensive response of some kind - often a retaliatory lash.

Hence why, as soon as "Critical" anything becomes noticed by the orthodoxy, it has a good chance of attracting all of the vitriol that the encumbant memeplex can muster. That chance goes up proportionally with the level of general pressure and insecurity that the encumbent is feeling. The encumbent correctly perceives the threat of losing the ability of its own orthodoxy to dictate everyday reality for the hundreds of millions of subject humans whose conformance is its literal lifeblood.

Correctly perceiving the threat and correctly reacting to it are two different things. The reaction can be undeveloped, unhelpful, and even self-defeating. We seem to be seeing a lot of that right now.

The delayed, panicked, and generally primitive reaction by Western patriarchal capitalism, to feminism and its various adjacent "Critical" disciplines, has never seemed to have anything of the cunning and subtlety with which the same Western orthodoxy previously saw off the communist movement. The encumbent no longer seems to have the flexibility to successfully steal the best memetic weapons from its rival and deploy them in its own defence. Instead, it has been tying itself in regressive knots. It constructed, or at least attempted to wish into existence, comedically grotesque fixtures such as the "Intellectual Dark Web". It embarked on a disastrous fling with Surkov doctrine, which it now forlornly wishes to extricate itself from. It's wriggling on a hook trying to escape the consequences of enabling genocidal monsters for temporary geopolitical convenience, shouting "anti-semitism!" left and right like it's some kind of safe word. It has basically shown no apparent endgame other than radicalising a sufficient number of idiot males, within its own borders, with which to forcibly disembowel itself. Putin and Xi must be laughing their arseholes off.

Anyway, I'm sure for that reason that CPEN will meet the same warm reception by the orthodoxy that CRT did, just as soon as it comes to any mainstream notice.

Anonymous said...

Can't argue with any of this. Political science seems an equivalent to economics -- dominated by narrow-minded anti-intellectual types who tend to serve the agendas of special interests. (Although I have met a couple of broad-minded types in the field -- oddly enough they were both women who had been obliged to fight their way up through a sexist academic culture.)

Any challenge to a dysfunctional intellectual system is worth making.