Tag: Philosophy of Social Science

Austerity is a con, the Tories are authoritarians and they conflated the fact-value distinction.

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One of the first things I realised as an undergraduate is that social “sciences” aren’t. My very first essay was on the topic of the “scientific” basis of sociology and its methodology, and my reading took me deep into the labyrinth of history and philosophy of science. I concluded that science itself isn’t as “scientific” as we are led to believe, let alone a discipline that aims at the study of inter-subjectively constructed human behaviours in a social context. I’ve been attempting to rescue anyone that has succumbed to the mythical, positivist, fraudulent chimera called “objectivity” ever since.

As a critical interpretivist, I believe that social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically, there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context: a systematic dehumanisation. The Tories have depopulated social policy. This is a characteristic of authoritarianism, and other hallmarks include stigmatisation of social groups, moral disengagement, moral exclusion, impunity, and a societal “bystander apathy”. (See also Allport’s ladder, which is a measure of the manifestation of prejudice and discrimination in a Society. It’s also an explanation of the stages of genocide, and how the Holocaust happened.)

And before anyone invokes Reductio ad Hitlerum or Godwin’s Law, I will point out in advance that it would be unreasonable where such a comparison is appropriate and reasonable, as it is in this case. (For example, in discussions of the dangers involved in eugenics, persecution and stigmatisation of any social group, or tolerance of racist and nationalist political parties, and propaganda campaigns used to promote and justify any of these). In such a context, the dismissal of someone’s proposition on this basis becomes its own form of association fallacy and Ad Hominem attack.

Upwards and onwards then.

Authoritarian legitimacy is often based on emotional appeal, especially the identification of the regime as a “necessary evil” to combat easily recognisable societal problems, such as economic crises.

Authoritarian regimes commonly emerge in times of political, economic, or social instability, and because of this, especially during the initial period of authoritarian rule, such Governments may have broad public support. Many citizens won’t immediately recognise authoritarianism, especially in formerly liberal and democratic countries. In the UK, there  has been an incremental process of un-democratising, permeated by a wide variety of deliberative practices which have added to the problem of recognising it for what it is.

Authoritarian leaders typically prefer and encourage a population that is uninformed and apathetic about politics, with no desire to participate in the political process. Authoritarian Governments often work via propaganda to cultivate such public attitudes, by fostering a sense of a deep divide between social groups, society and Government, they tend to generate prejudice between social groups, and repress expressions of dissent, using media control, law amendments or quietly editing existing laws.

Many of us are unaware of the sheer extent to which this is going on. George Lakoff, researcher and cognitive linguist, said: “Conservatives have set up an incredible infrastructure. It’s a vast, unseen communication system and it’s very effective. This has been pointed out over and over to progressives and few seem to recognise the danger. They think it’s just propaganda and so they ignore it.” cognitive linguist. Lakoff is right. The deep and hidden state that the government have created is founded on nudge, ‘strategic communications’, data analytics and psychographic profiling. It includes the use of military grade psyops, aimed at changing people’s perceptions and decision making., with the ultimate aim of maintaining the status quo. This has profoundly perverted our democracy.

Whenever I listen to the Tories in Parliamentary debate, I’m reminded of the fact/value distinction – the alleged difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be). Facts are one sort of thing, values another sort of thing, and the former never determine the latter. That’s the idea, anyway. But it isn’t considered to be very clear-cut when it comes to the “social sciences” such as politics and economics (although I would go further and propose that it’s not so clear-cut in the physical sciences, either. (Please see footnote).

The fact/value dichotomy was associated with the doctrine of logical positivism, that arose out of a supreme attempt at concept control. Beginning in the eighteenth century, some of the Enlightenment thinkers had declared that values (such as moral obligations) could not be derived from facts.

The verification principle, which is at the heart of the logical positivist doctrine, is a form of vigorous scientific anti-realism – restricting science to (empirically verifiable) observable aspects of nature. Inductive reasoning makes broad generalisations from specific observations. Such observations can be used to make “probability guesses” based on deductive reasoning.

This applies to many theoretical claims, including the beginning of time, gravity, the existence of matter (one of which is the Big Bang Theory), quantum events, the age of the Universe, the age of the Earth, the origin of the Moon, and the occurrence of other magical events in the past.

But the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Values are involved in the very identification or determination of what is “fact”. As Einstein once said: “the theory tells you what you may observe.” 

Similarly, in social research, the area of study is intentionally selected. There are problems related to the connection between observation and interpretation also. Perhaps every observation is an interpretation, since “facts” are seen through a lens of perceptions, pre-conceptions and ideology. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation choose to study poverty. Cynical Iain Duncan Smith simply changes the definition of it.

Tory values. How else can we explain the flagrantes et virulentes Tory political rhetoric manifested in media-wide chanting for the blood and souls of the poor for the sake of “austerity”? There are no “facts” that can ever justify the persecution of a social group.

All of the knowledge and understanding we possess, whether of “facts”, values, or anything else, is contained within our consciousness, as structured by intentionality.  There isn’t an “objective”, mind-independent yardstick – we cannot step outside our consciousness to compare our ideas with anything else “out there” (please see footnote). We cannot experience our consciousness independently of intentionality, and we do have a degree of free-will and moral agency.

This means we have to face our morality, take responsibility for our ethical decisions and own our value-judgements. Rather than disguise them as “facts”, as the pseudo-positivist Tories frequently do.

It’s truly remarkable that Tories loudly attribute the capacity for moral agency to people claiming benefits, for example, formulating sanctions and “assessments” to both shape and question the morality of the poor constantly, yet stand outside of any obligation to morality themselves. It’s always someone else’s responsibility, never theirs.

Any claim to value-freedom in decision-making does not and cannot exempt us from moral responsibility, or justify moral indifference.

The consciousness of each of person is situated, rather than existing independently. A situation is an intentional act (or action) taken in social contexts as we experience them. Our understanding of our situation is embedded in conversational language. We are continually engaged in dialogues with other persons – “discourse”. Dialogue and narrative are how we make sense of the world.

It strikes me that in politics it all comes down to language. Those who can shape a controversial issue in the terms they prefer have the advantage in shaping public opinion. It’s called “framing”. Such concept control is a way of rigging the debate: You must talk about this controversial issue using our categories, terms, and definitions.

As a result, those who have the power to declare the terms of discourse have the power to determine the outcome of the debate, and furthermore, they have the power to determine what is accepted as “true or false”.

Really, for the Tories, it’s nothing more than linguistic bullying. You only need listen to Prime Minister’s Questions to understand this. For the Tories, both facts and values are irrelevant, despite their fake claims to fake empirical statistical data, all that matters is their ideological narrative. As a Society, we really need to pay much more attention to detail.

And we really need to challenge more. In terms of evidence, the Tories have not provided any verification that any of their policies work. There’s a growing body of rich qualitative data that reliably and consistently informs us that those policies do not work as claimed by the Tory-led Coalition, and the sheer volume of those accounts also informs us that this data is both credible and valid. So why are the Government so determined to ignore it?

Value-laden observation: their “theory” tells them what they may observe.

I’m not particularly au fait with economic theory, I just about grasp the differences between Keynes and Hayek, but I do know that after the British depression of the 1920s, Hayek promoted the idea that private investment, rather than Government spending, would promote sustainable growth. However, Keynes proposed that the Government’s job is to increase its own spending to offset the decline in public spending – that is by running a deficit to whatever extent necessary. To cut Government spending is a completely damaging policy in an economic slump. Keynes’s message was: you cannot cut your way out of a slump; you have to grow your way out. Eighty years on and the Tories have still not fully learned the lesson. Well, they probably have, but the fact is they simply don’t care enough to apply it.

I do understand ideology, and the case for austerity is not founded on economic principles, but rests entirely on social conservative ideology, with their wide embrace of neoliberalist principles.

The repetition of a lie ad nauseum is based on the idea Goebbels had – that repeated lies will somehow convince people that they are true. Cameron was busted when he repeatedly told the lie “We are paying down the debt.” Despite being rumbled, the Coalition have stuck with this lie doggedly. The bonus of the lie is that it may be used (and has been, repeatedly) to undermine the Opposition’s economic credibility, and the Tories particularly delight in the lie that it’s all Labour’s fault because they “overspent” as it further justifies austerity measures and starving public services of Government funding, with our paid taxes, as well as stripping our welfare provision and public services away.

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The Tories have carefully planned these measures for a long time, and attacks on our human rights and public services can be seen in plans and policies of previous Tory administrations. Such attacks on the most marginalised and vulnerable citizens and the undermining and steady destruction of social programs and services that may offer any support are an integral part of Tory ideological grammar.

A leading British academic concludes that the last Labour Government has been tarnished by spin and propaganda, while the US treasury secretary follows Gordon Brown’s lead. Jack Lew, the relatively new US treasury secretary, wrote recently in the Financial Times: “While long-term fiscal policy requires tough decisions, we knew we could not cut our way to prosperity”.

 in today’s Guardian says “Lew has now taken up the baton from Gordon Brown when it comes to politicians who understand the nature of the huge deficiency of demand in the world economy. People go on about the need for supply-side policies, but the fact is that there is no shortage of supply, but of demand, which continues to be constrained by the vogue for totally unnecessary and hugely destructive policies of austerity”.

Keegan quotes the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, who is a widely respected in the profession, from  the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. It covers the economic record of the 1997-2010 Labour Government in considerable and balanced detail: “The line that the Labour government was responsible for leaving a disastrous fiscal position which requires great national sacrifice to put right is pure spin”.

The austerity movement has damaged recovery from the economic depression, whilst it has also caused a crisis worldwide through its imposition upon many nations. The foundation research that was used to justify the austerity movement came from two Harvard Professors: Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.  A University of Massachusetts student Thomas Herndon found that their work was filled with mathematical errors in their research spreadsheets.

Their spreadsheets were their “proofs” that economic austerity promotes economic recovery and were used to “verify” this theory. The powers that be have imposed this fundamentally flawed doctrine, and the ill-effects fall squarely upon 99% of the people, leaving the wealthiest unscathed.Thriving, actually.

It’s is both infuriating and horrific to witness the sheer suffering and destruction that follows in the wake of these now debunked theories. The unemployment in Europe  has reached record high levels high levels, Countries like Greece and Spain have widespread rioting in the streets and a new neo Nazi movement is gaining popularity throughout Europe.

The cost in human suffering is incalculable, but those fatuous academic asses supporting austerity are not concerned with people, they are concerned with their reputations and salaries, and with catering for the powerful wealthy. Their theories, rather than being based on informed facts, the result of real research and learning experiences, are NOT science: they are nothing more than by-products of overweening egotism in tandem with uncaring self interest. Such highly prized Tory values.

It gets worse. Huffington Post contributor: Mark Gongloff wrote this article : “Austerity Fanatics Won’t Let Mere Economics Stop Them From Thinking They’re Winning”, in it he writes: Like Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who hid on an island in the Philippines for 30 years refusing to believe Japan had lost World War II, austerity fanatics are never going to admit their failure. Instead, they are going to keep pushing the policies that are making millions of people in Europe miserable”.

Another example of their denial is a piece by Michael Rosen of the American Enterprise Institute, a Conservative think tank, entitled Austerity And Its Discontents”. He declares that, far from being shamed by the recent discovery of errors in influential research by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, austerity fans have recently gained “the upper hand in the global argument over austerity”.

We really do need to shout down the public’s passive acceptance of grotesque inequality, social injustice, political justifications for intentionally inflicted and growing poverty and the steady removal of our civil rights. This is now the propaganda of a so-called liberal democracy.

Sure, many news articles circumvent the conspicuous propaganda of pernicious sophist, Conservative policies – manifestations of their socioeconomic Darwinist neoliberalist orthodoxy – which really makes the media complicit in such propaganda: diversions are a silent endorsement, after all.

The column of truth has holes in it, no matter which newspaper you read now.

There is a very conspicuous absence of counter agitprop, let alone any semblance of the grim truth. There is no representation of those with alternative principles, values and norms, the ones that challenge, with the potential to trigger much needed cultural changes. Public attitudes are being micromanaged. Whatever happened to counter-culture? There’s no Beat Generation, only a ‘being beat’ one. And we, the blogging Bohemians, and other underground dissenters, seceded from the conventionalities of an increasingly right wing public.  

The wealthy one percent have their own problems, just not on par with ours. The ‘poor me’ rich have to face a modicum f Government regulation, taxes and those darned pesky workers who want fair wages and decent working conditions. The political solution has been to bring many of the 99% to a level slightly above starvation.

This ensures that they will work for any amount that helps them put some food on the table, to meet their basic survival needs. It necessitates that social welfare and support programs be destroyed so the plebs will have no choice but to seek shelter from material devastation at some exploitative, low paying job that keeps them just above subsistence. This adds to the profits of the 1%. The steady erosion of workers rights also a lowers the value of labour further, because there is now a large and pretty desperate, disposable reserve army of labour.

The pay and bonuses of bankers and the tax cuts for the very wealthiest have sunk our country into obscene levels of inequality. When banks receive money, they invest over 90% in assets like property, that does nothing for the economy. The rich benefit as the value of their assets rises, so 12% of the population now own half the country’s wealth.

Wide gaps in income levels, human rights violations, political corruption and authoritarianism. These conditions tend to happen together. Despite the emphasis and value that authoritarian regimes place on social conformity, and a reliance on passive mass acceptance, rather than popular support, history shows us that it cannot be maintained by repressive and coercive strategies.

In Britain, the minority are exceptionally well-housed, have gold-plated pensions, fine art, fine food, luxury yachts, a big say and shrinking taxes. Many of the rest of the population are fighting to survive. There is a chasm opening between them and the majority of society who are mostly in debt, suffering severely reduced welfare and tax benefits, unable to afford a home, increasingly forced to relocate away from their community, breaking kith and kinship bonds and ways of life, routines and many are being forced to travel for hours in order to pick up menial work for the rich to profit from.

Those in a run-down area lucky enough to own a flat pay eight times as much council tax proportionally as the very rich. That beggars belief, but its a social fact, one of many grim facts we are now facing, manifested directly from Tory class prejudice.

Edwardian levels of inequality led to the Great Depression. Austerity measures under Chancellor Hindenburg contributed to the rise of Nazism. The drop in household income in Japan between 1929 and 1931 led to a wave of assassinations of Government officials and bankers. Social policies after World War 2 turned the tables and brought peace, with inequality steadily dropping in Britain until recently. But inequality is now returning to pre-war levels.

In response to the atrocities committed during the War, the International Community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual. Ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951, those human rights originally established in the Universal Declaration have been steadily eroded since the Coalition gained Office. There’s a clear link between high levels of inequality and failure of Government’s to recognise human rights, and to implement them in policies.

Authoritarians view the rights of the individual, (including those considered to be human rights by the international community), as subject to the needs of the Government. Of course in democracies, Government’s are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population. Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice.

The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable Government and equality before the law, is critical. Façade democracy occurs when liberalisation measures are kept under tight rein by elites who fail to generate political inclusion. See Corporate power has turned Britain into a corrupt state  and also Huge gap between rich and poor in Britain is the same as Nigeria and worse than Ethiopia, UN report reveals.

In the UK, democracy is very clearly faltering. It’s time to be very worried.

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant illustrations.


Footnote

My academic background is in sociology, history and philosophy of science, social policy and social psychology. I tend towards critical (Marxist) Phenomenology when it comes to ontology and epistemology:  defining “social reality”. Experience is “evidence”.  Existence is fact, which precedes essence.

Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen  is a critical approach in all social sciences, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects and not human subjects of their policies.

My own starting point is that regardless of any claim to value-freedom in social science, we cannot abdicate moral responsibility, and cannot justify moral indifference. We see this positive approach exemplified in our laws, human rights and democratic process. We are also seeing an erosion of this tendency to a globalisation of values, and inclusion of a recognition and account of the full range of human experiences in policy making. Indeed our policy has become an instrument of social exclusion and increasing minoritization.

We are being reduced to little more than economic statements here in the UK. We have a Government that tends to describe vulnerable social groups in terms of costs to the State, and responsibility is attributed to these social groups via media and State rhetoric, whilst those decision-makers actually responsible for the state of the economy have been exempted, legally and morally, and are hidden behind complex and diversionary scapegoating propaganda campaigns.

Sartre once said that oppressors oppress themselves as well as those they oppress. Freedom and autonomy are also reciprocal, and it’s only when we truly recognise our own liberty that we may necessarily acknowledge that of others. Conservatism has always been associated with a capacity to inhibit and control, and never liberate. We need to take responsibility for the Government that we have. In fact we must.

With regard to the philosophical issues raised regarding the physical sciences, to clarify, I believe that there is a mind-independent “reality”, that exists beyond the full grasp of our perception and conception of it: in this respect I am a transcendental realist. My point is that how we choose to perceive reality is very much our own business, and demonstrating a correspondence with reality and our description of it is very problematic. Wittgenstein once said that any attempt to demonstrate such correspondence by theory leads to an infinite regress of descriptions of descriptions of descriptions…

Although it’s fallible, the scientific method is pretty much all we have in terms of validation. My own sidestep criterion for the problems raised with methodology is to recognise the role that values play in determining “facts”, and take responsibility for those values. Identify and declare your interest in an area of research. Although we may have difficulty in proving something to be an ultimate truth, we may at least explore issues and give an increasingly coherent account of them. See Coherence theory of truth
 

It’s not possible to do full justice to the debate about objectivity and relativism, deduction and induction here, so I’ve posted a couple of links for anyone interested in pursuing it further:

These are reasonable starting points: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Social Science. 

Update:

Beastrabban has written an analysis of this article: Kittysjones on the Philosophical and Methodological Errors in the Tories’ Austerity Myth

 


 

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