Political styles

Ideologies and political movements don’t just have substantive beliefs, they have styles as well.

Conservatism and the cultural left both engage in identity politics. When a dispute is about not just what we should do, but who we are, things – and language – get heated. Conservatives and the cultural left often use stories to make their case. Stories have dramas and excitement not so easily found in a logical argument. It is not coincidence that many conservative intellectuals are historians.

Classical liberals and social democrats tend to be far more cool and analytical in the way they present themselves. They are better at detaching themselves from issues. They will often use statistics rather than stories to make their case. They are more likely to be economists or philosophers than historians.

Left-wing academics have their own style in a particular form of bad writing. Take this passage from the Smith and Marden article on think-tanks:

The power attributed to the language of the market is indeed considerable, mainly due to its epistemological status. In his book The Fiction of Autobiography, Edward Said evoked the idea of the ‘genuine shadow of truth’ in reference to Conrad’s universe and the imperialism of ideas, which is equally apt in this context. ‘So sufficient is this all-enveloping shadow that one can rest entirely within it, away from any of the common rational forms of human hope or regret’ (Said, as cited in Hussein 2004, 43).

Despite their meaning being far from apparent, given these sentences in isolation no experienced reader of academic prose could fail to guess that their authors would be on the left. I think this is sociological rather than intrinsically ideological in its origins; sometime in the last few decades this atrocious style became not just acceptable but expected in some disciplines (I suspect that French theorists are to blame).

One advantage of the right’s expulsion from the academic humanties and non-economic social sciences is that this kind of self-indulgence was never possible. If nobody could read think-tank publications, think tanks would not survive.

23 thoughts on “Political styles

  1. A similar swipe could be directed at the mathematicization of neoclassical economics. Just because they’re writing with formulae and numbers shouldn’t exempt them from such ‘communicating’.

    We could keep going with this game all night.

    Next the physicists…


  2. Systematic (as opposed to “literary”) thinking has its own pitfalls too, though: many “logical” thinkers begin with a faulty but strongly-held set of axioms, and build up a rigid but shaky logical system from there. They often have formulaic ways of explaining away (any) evidence against their positions.

    In my limited experience, anarcho-capitalists on the right and certain Marxists on the left often fall into this trap: to them, everything is explicable in terms of government coercion or class domination. The financial crisis? “Too much regulation; monetary policy was too loose” versus “another example of the crazy, irrational rule of Capital”. Pop culture? “Who are you to say what others should or shouldn’t like?” versus “maintains false consciousness/spreads bourgeois ideology”.

    I think how extreme one’s views are is important too. Social democrats and classical liberals tend to be pretty happy with the way things are, compared to political radicals, and so don’t have as much reason to be angry.


  3. Apart from an element of obscurantism connected with some interpretations of quantum physics, there is a great deal of very clear writing about physics. Nobody has reported a hoax on a science journal to equal the Sokal hoax on avant garde lit theory.
    The very sad thing about the travesty of scholarship in the soft social sciences is that the students who want to succeed become corrupted and the others become anti-intellectual, thinking “If that is the life of the mind, they can shove it…”.

    even regarding some very deep and complex theories.


  4. I don’t think the situation in the soft social sciences is quite so bad as it seems. Sniping at obscure terminology — usually without any attempt at understanding the theories involved — has become a cliche, in the same way that Bushisms are/were on the Left. The mocking of Rumsfeld’s perfectly coherent but complex “known unknowns” schpiel is a classic example. Similarly, Judith Butler’s famous Bad Writing Contest-winning sentence, though under-punctuated and overlong, makes pretty good sense if you understand the jargon.


  5. “Classical liberals and social democrats tend to be far more cool and analytical in the way they present themselves. They are better at detaching themselves from issues. They will often use statistics rather than stories to make their case. They are more likely to be economists or philosophers than historians. ”
    Anything else? Much better lovers? Far cleverer at programming mobile ‘phones?
    This is meant to be provocative, right?
    It isn’t just left-wing academics who write in convoluted jargon – lots of academics do it because it says this is a difficult area and I’m an expert in it. Moreover the world is a more and more complex place – compare a nice, simple car manual of 50 years ago with one of today (or tax legislation then and now?)
    The world is a complex place and there are many ways of experiencing it and expressing one’s experience of it. Interactions, relationships, influences … so many things can be richly explored without statistics. Can we only talk about things that have been counted?

    Don’t mean to pick on you Andrew, but referring back to your exasperating post on “Over-qualified workers” in which you present to us, again, some statistics/factoids: you tell us that statistics show that SOME uni graduates earn a lot of money – you’ve told us that before and we’re meant to infer that therefore ALL graduates therefore should pay for their own education. I’ve asked you about graduates who don’t earn much, but there doesn’t seem to be stats on that! so easy to ignore if there aren’t stats.
    And then, even worse, the statistics that show that there are many arts graduates working in areas that don’t require an arts degree, implying that uni places in these courses are a waste of resources. (I think they phrase you used once to describe arts degrees was as a finishing school for middle class girls.) But why do you assume arts degrees are vocational education? They aren’t, mostly, vocational education, but “a preparation for life”.
    So your statistics don’t actually add up to anything, but I think you’ve presented them because it comforts you to think that they support your ideological view – the right-wing view that it’s bad to have to pay for something that someone else may gain a benefit from.
    Despite this wrong-thinking, you do have an admirably clear writing style.


  6. Whenever I read somebody invoking Edward Said authoritatively to bolster their argument (such as the Leftists quoted in the OP) I reach for my revolver. I beg you all to do the same.

    Edward Said has been a pox on undergraduate humanities education for nearly three decades. Get this, his whole shtick is an application of BOTH Foucault and Gramsci. ROFLMAO.


  7. Leon, your point about Rumsfeld is well made, people just needed to shelve their ideological prejudices and listen to what he was saying. Same thing with Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”, when you look at the context, she was making the opposite of the point that the lampooners took up.
    But the situation in general is every bit as bad as the critics claim, you can see that when you read commentators who are on top of the game and writing with crystal clarity, in this case two Australians taking on some of the trendy lit theorists.


  8. Russell – Actually, the over-education statistics can as easily be used by those who oppose paying for education as those who support them, and they can certainly be used against my argument that we should lift the quota system.

    Leon – Yes, there have been countless similar attacks on bad writing. But they keep doing it, so they should keep getting lampooned for it. I agree there are hard concepts, but that requires more attention to clear language, not less.

    I agree with you on logical conclusions drawn from wrong starting points. The Smith and Marden article does this with its reductionist emphasis on the self-interest of the capitalist class, and there have been even more critiques of rational, self-intersted man in economics than there have been of bad writing in the soft social sciences.


  9. Andrew

    What would really help these types and their students is an education in what capitalism actually is and how it works. Whether this is taught through Micro, Macro, Information Economics, International Trade and other “orthodox” programs or through Marxism does not really matter. Unfortunately, there are so very few rigorous courses in Marxist Economics in Australian undergrad degrees that the pomo leftist radicals simply get no training in the analytics of the capitalism they so despise. Ask them to explain the tendency for the average rate of profit to fall or the time value of money, and see how they go.

    Hence the drivel they write.


  10. I have long been bemused by the close association of poststructuralist theories with the academic left. The theories themselves are conservative if anything. Perhaps, as you say, it is a matter of style.
    I remember being at a conference on Levinas (a worse obscurantist than most), where a discussion purportedly about ‘Levinas and politics’ turned out to be more along the lines of ‘can Levinas be used to support the left-wing cosmopolitanism that all right thinking people endorse’? My comment that my PhD thesis had applied Levinas to support classical liberalism was met with a series of blank stares.
    BTW, as Leon says, Judith Butler’s sentence makes good sense to anyone familiar with the theoretical background. I don’t think that specialist academics can properly be expected to make their work accessible to everyone! By contrast, the Smith and Marsden quote just seems like nonsense.


  11. Leon is quite wrong, I’m afraid. Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ speech was a horrible example of dumb inarticulateness from a normally intelligent and articulate man.
    The famous Thatcher quote, ‘there is no such thing as society’, is better – at least its meaning is clear, and it’s not just an epistomological quibble, which is just about all that can be said for the Rumsfeld quote – but it’s probably the single most self-defeating right-wing quote in the past fifty years. Of COURSE it should be read in context, but that context has long been forgotten, and the quote lives on – partly because right-wingers like defending it.
    While in many cases liberal and conservative examples of writing are clear than left-wing writing, there are obvious problems with right-wing terminology as well. One specific problem I have is with the catch-all term ‘the market’ – eg ‘education is best left up to the market’. Yes, the free-market IS important and should be defended, but especially in cases relating to services like education, health, etc, repeated use of ‘market’ and other abstruse economic terminology sounds dehumanising and tends to alienate otherwise sympathetic readers.


  12. dk.au,

    The Neoclassical economists are a textbook example of what happens when people rely on telling stories derived from axioms which are themselves derived in opposition to known facts. Unfortunately for economics, the neoclassicals have manged to tell stories devoid of all drama and excitement.

    And for once I disagree with Tim. I think Leon is right: Rumsfeld’s point about ‘known knowns’ etc, although not the most eloquent use of English, was both exactly correct and perfectly clear, and the point that he made was an important one.


  13. Tim – Though I think the reaction to that out-of-context Thatcher quote is entirely symptomatic of how the left has handled the right over several decades – both in the deep misunderstanding of what right-wing politicians and thinkers stand for, and in jumping on isolated quotes as revealing much, while paying little attention to their actual developed views and, for politicians, records in office.

    In Australia, there is probably only one significant exception to this in Judy Brett. Every other analysis from the left is pretty much irrelevant, attacking their own fears rather than reality.


  14. Tim, stated in isolation the words ‘there is no such thing as society’, are very far from being clear, they are almost meaninless. They were lifted out of an informal conversation, not from a prepared or considered text. They could mean, “there is no identifiable agent or person called ‘Society'” in which case the statement is true. In that kind of convesation people speak in half-sentences, leave out the “not” in sentences where it belongs, and generally produce a lot of stuff that does not bear publication, like most of our first drafts of essays.

    If you find out what Thatcher actually said in that conversation, then you will get an idea of the shallowness and dishonesty of the people, including Jurgen Habermas, who have run with the standard left interpretation.

    As for right wingers defending the quote, I am not aware of anyone ese who has done so (defending the correct interpretation of Thatcher’s views in that conversation I mean). And I am not aware of any right winger who has ever tried to make out that there is no such thing as the mass of interconnected human groups and organisations that make up society.

    Your own position appears to be quite incoherent? Do you care what Thatcher really thought about the issue? If you think the context matters then you cannot accept the quote at face value, but you seem to be quite happy that everyone on the left is doing just that.


  15. “I hope we’ll be ok if the economy goes belly-up, I say, my self-interest confirming Margaret Thatcher’s adage that there’s no such thing as society, just individuals”.
    Kate Legge in The Weekend Australian Magazine, Dec 6-7.


  16. Andrew @ no 13 – touche! But spin is, unfortunately, a reality of modern politics, no?

    I agree with you and Rafe that the Thatcher quote has been lifted out of context. I agree that Thatcher’s character as revealed by her political career should certainly be the yardstick by which she is judged.

    And yet the quote has had a life of its own – it is said scornfully by left-wingers the world over, and has indeed fuelled a general perception that politicians and thinkers who will in practice advocate free-market economics and liberal politics, privilege economy over society. Continually referencing the original Thatcher interview, and contesting this point on its own, does very little to combat this – few people care to read through the whole interview, and it is easier by far to remember a pithy quote than an interview in context. And I don’t think it’s useful to pursue the ‘contextual’ meaning of that quote when engaging in discussions or debates with left-wingers, since they themselves only seem to raise the quote in passing in the context of a wider debate about the superiority of socialist economics, or whatever. It often seems pedantic and distracting to contest just this one point.

    Perhaps this difficulty, the taking of the Thatcher quote out of context, has been exacerbated by the mainstream media of today, which is largely controlled by headlines and easily-explained stories which are likely to sell papers. But it is a reality nonetheless; what can you do about it?


  17. Yeah, but it’s like criticising Satan for a wart on his nose. There are almost always more substantive points to be addressed. It’s not good to be distracted from the main task by arguing over a minor etymological point – the origin and ‘authentic’ meaning of a phrase.


  18. Though as I read it the actual point that Thatcher was making with that comment – that it is not some abstract ‘society’ that pays the bill when you go on welfare or get a grant, but your fellow citizens – remains a perfectly good one. Extend it a bit to opportunity cost and you have an idea that is obvious when you think about it, but applied only with the utmost reluctance if at all by many on the left. The fact that economics does rigorously apply it makes it far more useful in thinking about real problems than than other frameworks.

    It’s impossible to debate people like Smith and Marden, because they would not even let you concede an argument. Thatcher could not say ‘I believe in society’, because they would be convinced that she really doesn’t and that anything inconsistent with their prior prejudices would be dismissed as spin or an anomaly of some kind.

    All you can really do is point out how intellectually worthless their work is.


  19. Andrew, I’m not sure you can separate social democrats from the cultural left nor classic liberals from conservatives. True classic liberals will tend not to mind other peoples’ business but they’re not exactly conspicuous in challenging the more obtuse conservative narratives. Some endorse them even. Social democrats may be culturally of the left or right. But those of the left are just as bad at promoting ‘narratives of otherness’ or whatever as whatever ideology is adhered to by others in the cultural left.

    Personally statistics and stories are both valuable in my opinion. For different things. The conflict of narratives that’s happening under the hubristic nomenclature of cultural warfare is the result of an increasingly hostile conflict which is, as Samuel Johnson wrote, the best way to eliminate the truth.

    Stories are good if they’re not propaganda.


  20. Adrien – I think there are lots of social democrats who go lightly on the cultural left agenda: most successful ALP politicians for a start, and in the blogosphere I would include John Quiggin, Fred Argy, and (soon to be back I hope) Andrew Leigh.

    There are a good number of people who are classical liberals on economics but take conservative positions on ‘culture wars’ issues. But there are also classical liberals, including most involved with the CIS, for whom this stuff is not our style.


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