Political Philosophy & Critique
Political Philosophy & Critique
Q: The Value of Political Philosophy. In your 2020 article ‘If This Isn’t Racism, What Is?’, you offer a searing critique of the state of contemporary political philosophy. Drawing on recent debates around immigration, abortion, and the marketisation of higher education, you write that “it seems to me that philosophers vacate the scene of the main action… this desertion is not a politically neutral move”. Do you think that deciding on which position to adopt in a real-world political debate does or should rely on philosophical analysis in any sense? What do you take the value (if any) of political philosophy to be?
A: What I was saying there was that it seemed to me that philosophers, when they approach political issues at all, do so in way that manages to be reliably off the point. So, as I see it, the reason to defend access to abortion has nothing really to do with the moral status of a foetus – any more than the ‘pro-life’ position really has anything to do with the sanctity of life. We all know it’s about the power relations between women and men, and men’s control of women through the control of sexuality and reproduction. That’s why feminists are ‘pro-choice’, not because of any metaphysical conviction about pre-natal life, and not even because of any prior or general commitment to the ‘right’ of the individual woman to control her body. Our bodies are not really under our control, for the most part; they’re affected by forces outside of our control, by people and politics, inescapably and continually. That’s neither an inherently good or bad thing; it’s just how it is. For particular reasons in particular cases, we might want to resist instances of the affecting of people’s bodies by others, as in many instances that we call ‘domination’ or which are otherwise cruel or irrational or counter to the things we care about. “My body, my choice” is a useful shorthand, that’s all. The political analysis – in this case, that there is a social reality called ‘patriarchy’ in which women are oppressed, and that the control of sexuality through the denial of birth control is and has been a central plank of this – comes first. Or as philosophers might put it, the politics is what is “doing the work.” But when philosophers talk about political issues, they seem to go out of their way to deny or disguise this. They put politics to one side, or rather pretend to (I don’t think you can ever really place politics aside, you can just make your political assumptions and preferences less visible). Then they engage in these intricate, clever games in an effort to come up with a ‘philosophical’ justification for whatever they wanted to say in the first place. To my mind, this gets things the wrong way around. There is no such thing as an independent philosophical foundation on which political positions can be rested. Political judgement goes ‘all the way down.’
None of this is to say that there is no value in philosophical analysis. The point is not that, since politics is what is important, we should just stick to the politics and ditch the philosophy. Certainly, there is plenty of philosophy that I think we would do well to ditch. But taking the philosophy out of politics is no more possible than taking the politics out of philosophy.
To put it another way, it depends on what is meant by ‘philosophical analysis’. If we take ‘philosophical analysis’ to refer to an ahistorical, politically faux-neutral approach to thinking about the world, then I am saying that we should reject that. But I think we should also reject such a narrow conception of ‘philosophical analysis’. It is this conception that is reflected in the assumption that historical or political analysis is not ‘philosophical’. But historians do not simply recount events in chronological order, any more than those who write about politics simply describe voting patterns (or, in the case of more ‘polemical’ treatments, simply express in an un-philosophical way their political emotions and desires). If ‘philosophical analysis’ is given the more general meaning of thinking critically, deeply and systematically, then of course I’m not rejecting that; but ‘philosophical analysis’ in this sense is by no means the preserve of academic philosophy.
This still leaves a question as to whether there is room for anything distinctive called ‘philosophy’, or ‘political philosophy’. What I’ve just said might be taken as implying that there isn’t: either ‘philosophical analysis’ refers to a kind of philosophy not worth pursuing (or at least, not useful for approaching political questions), or it’s basically synonymous with ‘thinking properly about stuff’ – in which case, it fails to mark out any particular discipline. I don’t quite want to say that, though. I do think there is something in between these two senses, something that indicates a distinctive role for philosophy – although the borders of this are inevitably fuzzy. What I mean is that there are contributions which the disciplinary tradition called ‘philosophy’ is, at its best, well placed to make. These include the critique of ‘ideology’ (linking malformations of thought to underlying relations of power), the interrogation of concepts (and sometimes their revision or invention), as well as an affinity for abstraction. I often criticise mainstream analytic philosophy for being ‘too abstract’. But this is to criticise particular abstractions made, and the function they serve – for instance, the way in which liberal political philosophy often abstracts away from inconvenient or unsavoury political realities – rather than to condemn abstraction tout court. It’s impossible to think at all without abstracting. And there can be a value in the kind of relatively free-ranging abstraction that philosophers, being untethered to any particular ‘subject matter’, are sometimes able to engage in. Of course, none of these activities are the exclusive preserve of philosophy, and many philosophers are terrible at them (or in the case of ideology-critique, refuse to engage in them at all). But there is still something of value, I think, in the style of theorising – whether we call it ‘philosophy’ or not – that develops and emphasises these aspects. I don’t really think of it as a distinct discipline or ‘subject’, but more as a style of thought that transcends disciplinary boundaries and involves a kind of dance across them.
Q: ‘Political Philosophy’ as a Discipline. In your 2015 book The Political is Political, you immediately grab the attention of any student of political philosophy with your forthright language, failure to conform to convention (I, for one, did not realise how much I relied on a table of contents until the absence of one in your book!), and attack on academic norms such as being charitable to one’s interlocutors. Could you expand on your reasons for doing this, and more broadly on your experience of the culture of political philosophy as a discipline?
A: Mainly, I was just very bored. It’s not that I thought there was anything inherently wrong with any of these conventions – sometimes a detailed table of contents is useful – but I didn’t see why it all had to be so rigidly (neurotically, I thought) enforced, why it had to be so homogeneous. And often so insufferably deferential – so much forelock-tugging and back-slapping (to use the more polite metaphors). I just found that embarrassing. It’s also at odds with philosophers’ image of themselves as no-holds-barred, free-thinking truth-seekers. This couldn’t be much further from the reality. The slightest departure from custom, from orthodoxy, and they go berserk.
So, partly I was just pushing their buttons; but this was also continuous with my central point in the book. What I tried to say there was that there is a deep hypocrisy in mainstream, i.e. liberal, political philosophy. It prides itself on various methodological norms, like philosophical ‘charity’ (‘reasonableness’ is another one). We’re encouraged to think of these norms as being somehow politically neutral – universally recognisable rules of good philosophical practice, or just ‘common sense’. What struck me by the time I wrote that book was that the game was rigged: these purported neutral norms, which were rarely scrutinised, would always turn out to have contestable political presuppositions or leanings – invariably favouring the liberal mainstream. So, I wasn’t against being charitable, for instance. I just noticed that what counts as ‘charitable’ (or ‘uncharitable’) seemed to be rather open-ended and ultimately to depend on various political assumptions that we have to plug in. Nothing wrong with that: I wasn’t suggesting that we should go on some kind of quest for truly neutral norms (a fool’s errand). But I did think there was something very suspicious about the energy with which liberal political philosophers in particular seemed to deny or disguise the non-neutrality of their own devices, and with which they would trade on the illusion of neutrality in order to vindicate hegemonic liberal assumptions and to dispatch and discredit dissent.
Q: Feasibility. In The Political is Political, you also write about the ways in which what is considered ‘feasible’ is an inherently political question. What role do you think ‘feasibility’ should play within political theorising and activism, if any? Is there anything which you consider to be outside the realm of feasibility (whether that relates to human nature, possible economic structures, and so on)? And what do you say to the liberal pessimist who believes that whilst capitalism is bad, no other economic system could fare better?
A: There’s plenty I consider to be outside the realm of feasibility. Human being cannot feasibly live under water – at least, not in the absence of some quite dramatic physiological or technological advance. Any scheme that relies on ‘perfect compliance’ is equally unfeasible. That’s why it doesn’t let the UK government off the hook, in any way, to point to cases where people haven’t properly complied with Covid restrictions. Of course not everyone has complied perfectly – even though most people have, for the most part. Any policy that can’t accommodate some human failure in compliance is just useless policy (but it’s obviously useful to be able to shift the blame onto ‘the public’). Last summer, the government even told everyone they could go to the beaches, and then blamed people when too many of them showed up at the same time. What, are they assuming powers of telepathy now? Or are people supposed to behave like molecules in osmosis?
Like with charity, my point about feasibility is not that it doesn’t matter or that we should ignore it. Of course it matters whether an idea can actually be made to happen – not least in the context of activism. Again, my point is that what counts as ‘feasible’ is not a politically neutral question. It’s not just that anti-capitalists say that an alternative to capitalism is feasible whereas many supporters of capitalism deny this. Equally, supporters of capitalism typically rely on claims about what is feasible within a capitalist framework, claims which are highly contestable. ‘Liberal egalitarians’, for example, typically assume that it is possible to achieve quite demanding ideals of ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ without fundamentally altering the prevailing economic system. The problem with this kind of political philosophy, to my mind, is not that there is anything positively wrong with the idea of more material equality (for instance); the problem is that these kinds of ideal seem to be antithetical to the logic of capitalism. That’s a contestable claim, of course: it’s possible to argue one way or the other about it. But that would involve actually discussing the politics of capitalism, which is something that liberal political philosophers tend to avoid. What tends to happen instead – and in fairness, this happens as much outside of academic philosophy as inside it – is that those who question capitalism are given a lecture about the need to ‘compromise’ or to pay heed to some disembodied ‘feasibility constraints’ – as if we could all agree on what is ‘feasible’, but some of us just haven’t thought about it or simply don’t care (a familiar depiction of dissenters as idiots or wreckers). The assumption that is often implicit in this is that the less far you propose to deviate from the status quo, the more ‘feasible’ your plan. Of course, that’s true in a sense: it’s incredibly difficult to change the system in any fundamental way; much easier to get relatively superficial or inconsequential changes. But it’s equally obvious that some problems require radical solutions – climate change being one of the more stark contemporary examples. It was ‘feasible’ to put a 5p charge on plastic bags, but in terms of saving the planet, it’s no more than a comforting distraction.
As for the ‘liberal pessimists’, I would say they often turn out to be unduly optimistic about what is feasible within capitalism. In that respect, I’m more pessimistic than they are. It’s not that I think that revolution is around the corner, either. But I don’t see the grounds for thinking that it’s more ‘feasible’ to try and reconcile peace, justice or even the survival of the human species with capitalism than it is break with it. I see a lot of reasons to think the contrary.
Q: Ideology critique. In your 2015 article ‘Of Mountains and Molehills’, you write that if we had to point to a puzzle for the theory of ideology to solve, it would be the problem of finding universal, authoritative standards by which to criticise forms of thought. But you don’t seem too happy about endorsing this view – why is that? And, with regards to this problem, how is it ever possible to knowingly engage in ideology critique? As Haslanger (forthcoming) puts it, “… the critic faces a skeptical moment; the task is to find a basis for critique that is neither external to the social order, nor merely an expression of its internal values.” What do you take to be the answer to this skeptical moment?
A: Just to explain the background here: in that article, I’m arguing against the assumption that the raison d’etre of the notion of ‘ideology’ is to solve a puzzle along the lines of “Why do the oppressed not rise up?” My response is, first of all, that this isn’t a very good question. Oppressed people do rise up, from time to time, and we know what tends to happen to them. That in itself gives us a good clue as to why it doesn’t happen more often. Then there are all sorts of other impediments to resistance – including so-called ‘problems of co-ordination’, but also simpler things like exhaustion and the necessity of working for a living. Something like ideology or ‘false consciousness’ must certainly be part of the full story too – I don’t think anyone can seriously deny that (even if they prefer other terminology). But this is not a postulation devised for the purposes of solving some mystery of oppressed non-resistance: it’s not really a mystery, and the explanation contains many other ingredients. The ‘theory of ideology’, as it’s come to be known, is really just an obvious but important observation about how ideas and power interrelate: that thought tends systematically to be distorted in ways that function to uphold the political and economic status quo and to serve the material interests of those invested in it.
Then I say: if you really want a ‘puzzle’ that the theory of ideology could solve, then a better suggestion would be that it’s a solution to the problem of locating standards for critical evaluation of society. This, I suggested, has the advantage of being a genuine problem. I’m not entirely sure what I meant by that now. I think my point was that there really are no discoverable normative truths ‘out there’ in the universe, and the notion of ‘ideology’ shows us one way in which critique is possible regardless: if you can lay bare the ways in which a society’s justificatory rhetoric is internally self-contradictory, as well as distorting or disguising what we might call ‘empirical’ realities, then that’s a powerful way of criticising the social world without engaging in a futile search for ‘normative foundations’.
I see that as a genuine problem in the sense that I really don’t think anything answering to the description of ‘normative foundations’ is forthcoming (where would they come from? God?), and in the sense that there is genuine difficulty in making sense of, and arbitrating between, the evaluative claims we make about the world. But the reason I stand back from this way of presenting things is that there is also a sense in which I don’t see the problem of finding ‘standards for criticism’ as a genuine one. That is, I think the difficulty involved in deciding how to criticise, and how to evaluate criticism, is a difficulty that arises from the inherent, mundane complexity of the phenomenon: there are infinitely many contextual considerations that might be relevant, in a given case. There is no special philosophical problem about the status of ‘critical’ claims – what they mean, how it is possible for them to be true or for us to come to know them – that does not also apply to our ordinary, ‘factual’ claims. I think another false mystery – like the ‘mystery’ of the non-resistance of the oppressed – can arise from a very widely shared ‘foundationalist’ assumption, which I see no reason to accept: that our evaluative judgements are effectively garbage unless they can be rested on some absolutely and universally valid ‘normative’ basis.
This seems to me a bit like the issue of whether there’s a place for ‘philosophical analysis’: if you assume that the latter has to take one particular form that we’re familiar with and that currently has a hegemonic position in academic circles, then we may be liable to panic at the thought that ‘philosophical analysis’ might be beside the point or worse; but with a more expansive conception of what such analysis might look like, it’s clear that we’re not renouncing philosophical analysis as such – and that losing this particular form of it might be no great loss.
How is it possible ever knowingly to engage in ideology critique? I would turn that question around: how is it possible not to? For example, the current and previous governments (as well as a compliant media) have invested a great deal of energy in persuading people that their problems are the fault of excessive immigration. This effort has involved dramatic distortions of fact as well as routine self-contradiction – e.g. in the inherent tension between a commitment to the exploitation of migrant labour and the nationalist rhetoric of exclusion. I have no difficulty in saying that this is a case of a distorted and false set of ideas, where that distortion is by no means accidental but systematically produced and encouraged because it serves a valuable purpose for those in positions of power within the existing social order – which is what I mean by ‘ideology’. The greater difficulty is in not reaching that verdict. You would have to think either that anti-migrant formations of thought do not embody any significant falsehood or distortion of reality, and/or that such ways of thinking are of no benefit to dominant interests. Both seem obviously untenable, but if people think otherwise they should come out and say so.
As to the question of whether the resources for evaluating critique come from an ‘internal’ or ‘external’ source, I think the answer is always ‘internal’ – purely because I don’t understand where else they could come from. Nothing is outside the social order. I think what is sometimes behind this worry is the thought that, if we have to get all our ideas from the very thing we’re trying to criticise, i.e. the current social order – and given that we realise that the social order extends into the ‘realm’ of thought – then our tools are contaminated, so to speak. Well, they are. We just have to deal with that. That’s one reason why people have been ‘anti-utopians’: our thought, our imagination and desires are themselves a product stamped with the world that made them; why think that a window into a radically different and liberated kind of society is going to be available to us?
I think perhaps a further element of this worry about the unavailability of ‘external’ standards is an assumption I argue against in the book: that there is an inevitable tension between methodological ‘realism’ and radical politics. The thought, which is as widespread as it is confused, is that if you want your political philosophy to be rooted in a study of the real world, then the ability of that philosophy to criticise the status quo and demand far-reaching change will be correspondingly limited. Almost everybody in political philosophy seems to accept this framing, but I just think it’s completely wrong. You can work from a study of the real world, eschewing ‘external’ normative standards, and criticise society more radically than the most ambitious liberal ‘ideal theorists’ manage. Marx, whether or not you agree with the various things he said, is a clear illustration of this. While it’s true that there is nothing in society that is ‘untainted’ by existing relations of power, it’s equally true that there are always seeds of critique and resistance. Ideology wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t for certain resistant tendencies in human beings.
Q: Feminist Theory vs. Practice. In your 2016 book An Introduction to Feminism, you write that feminist ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ should be understood as two distinct lenses through which to view the world. Could you elaborate on this distinction and the relation between the two? Do you think that it is ever possible for insights from feminist ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ to misalign, and if so, how should we proceed? And is feminist philosophy qualitatively different from mainstream political philosophy in terms of its relation to the political?
A: What I was trying to say is that you can’t separate ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ from each other in a straightforward way. The basic reason is that, as Catharine MacKinnon points out, speech acts and acts speak. Obviously a treatise is not the same thing as a protest. But theoretical interventions are actions, and can have effects – to pretend otherwise is irresponsible as well as dishonest. And practical interventions like protests are not ‘just’ acts, devoid of any theoretical content: they also say things, are often expressive acts as much as they are acts of other kinds.
So the language of ‘lenses’ is meant as a rejection of, and alternative to, the idea that feminist theory and practice are two discrete types of activity that can be sorted into separate boxes. All of feminism – and not only feminism – has both a theoretical and a practical aspect, or can be viewed through either ‘lens’. This might sound a bit esoteric or evasive, and it prompts a question as to what on earth it might mean to ‘look through the lens’ of theory (or of practice). But I don’t actually mean anything very complicated. If you consider something as theory, I think, that means you focus on what it is saying: the ideas or propositions or demands expressed, and implied. This is often the most obvious way to approach a book, for example; but an instance of feminist activism might also be considered in terms of the ideas or message it embodies. Equally, it’s possible to think about a book or piece of feminist writing in terms of what action it is performing. That action may not be reducible to the action of saying whatever it is that the book says. Sometimes the act of writing or talking about certain subjects at all – or of doing so as a woman – is as significant as whatever it is that is said. To consider something ‘as practice’, I suggested in the feminism book (and I haven’t thought of anything better in the meantime), is to look at it with a focus on motivations and causes, effects and functions rather than content or meaning. Yet these still cannot be cleanly separated: each will inform the other. You can’t get a full sense of what something ‘means’ without thinking about its context, the motivations behind it and the effects it furthers.
I think I can only say banal things about the question of what to do when theory and practice come into conflict, as long as that question remains at a general level. I mean, I would say that sometimes our thinking (which may be more or less organised or ‘theoretical’) is thrown into question by situations we encounter in practice – whether because our thinking has given us what seems to us the wrong answer as to what to do in that situation, or perhaps because it gives us no practical guidance at all when we feel it should. When this happens, we sometimes revise our thinking or theories in the light of practice, just as we sometimes change our practice in the light of our thinking or theorising. But that’s obvious. Thinking about particular examples where this has happened to us might be more illuminating. One that springs to mind in the case of feminism is attitudes to sex work. Many feminists have an attitude to sex work and sex workers that is based on a version of radical feminist theory. I say ‘based on’ and ‘a version’, because in fact, many of the feminists in question are basically liberals who have taken on and run with a thought that is often associated with the term ‘radical feminism’ (not a term I find very clear anyway). The thought is, basically, that central to women’s oppression is the construction an identity for women as objects of sexual use by men, and that the linked industries of pornography and sex work are central to this construction. Now, you can think that there is truth in this analysis without drawing from it a conclusion in favour of the kinds of ‘carceral’ response to sex work, including the so-called Nordic Model, that have been condemned by sex workers themselves as antithetical to their interests and safety, reducing their control over their lives and rendering them more rather than less at risk of sexual violence. But it’s quite easy to follow the theoretical path to carceral feminism if you ignore what happens in practice. If you only look at the Nordic Model ‘on paper’, it can be difficult to see the problem with it: it only criminalises the buyer of sex, after all, not the seller; so what could be the complaint, if not just a tired apologism for sex work as an unobjectionable ‘free choice’ (which a more critical eye can see is a far cry from the reality)? It takes careful attention to the realities of sex work, as told by sex workers themselves – many of whom are far from uncritical of the ‘happy hooker’ mythology – to see why the approach favoured by many mainstream feminists and politicians will intensify rather than alleviate women’s oppression, as well as exacerbating a number of other forms of social violence and exclusion. I encourage anyone who is interested in this issue to read Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes. It’s a great example of realist political philosophy, in my view, even though it’s not explicitly presented that way. It’s a great example of how something can be both philosophical and grounded in real relations of power, both realist and radical.
On the question of whether feminist philosophy has a relationship to the political that differs from that of political philosophy more generally: I think that’s variable, and dependent on what we count as ‘feminist philosophy’. There’s a lot of feminist political analysis and polemic that I would call philosophical, but for most of its history, feminist thought has been excluded from the category of ‘philosophy’. It’s only from the late twentieth century that ‘feminist philosophy’ really exists as an academic subfield, at least within the analytic tradition. Some of this, I would argue, is as remote from real politics as is liberal analytic political philosophy more generally.
Q: Feminist Account of Sex. In your 2014 article ‘How to Screw Things With Words’, you write the following:
“The particular system of unequal power between men and women, to which porn contributes (or of which it forms a part), is one in which women’s agency and worth is denied in such a way that their protest or refusal (not just to sex or to sexual advance, but especially to these) is effectively defused or nullified in ways that are not always easy to detect, let alone to articulate or to combat, but that have to do with the social status and identity that are accorded to women and, relatedly, with the way in which their attempts at protest and refusal are interpreted. And that, I would suggest, is what happens – happens so much that all but the most disruptive, traumatic or inconvenient instances of it are virtually invisible.” (pp.781-782)
I find this paragraph fascinating; it reminds me of Catharine MacKinnon’s argument in ‘Rape Redefined’, in which she contends that the sexual violation of women is so thoroughly normalised that we fail to recognise it as such. What sorts of things did you have in mind when you alluded to “ways that are not always easy to detect”? The psychological and/or social pressure on women to have sex, or something else? And what implications does your analysis have for a feminist account of sex?
A: Little things, like the way in which ordinary signs of discomfort – shifting in your seat, nervous laughter, avoiding eye-contact, changing the subject – are read as indicators of barely suppressed desire. But I wasn’t just thinking about the area of sex. What about the women who have been classified and treated as ‘mad’ as a response to their refusal to conform to their socially expected roles? That’s a stark example, but my thought was that there are infinitely many subtle ways in which women’s refusals or gestures and acts of resistance can be neutralised. If you make political points then you’re ‘feisty’. Things that are belittling, but with enough plausible deniability that you’ll be seen as unreasonable or paranoid if you object to them. In the same way that your ears adjust to a constant humming noise in the background, we probably tune a lot of it out without even noticing, precisely because it’s normal. But every so often you notice that, somehow, you don’t quite count as a full person in the way that at least some men count, men who are always ‘complicated’ or have ‘a good heart’ when they behave badly towards women – women who are either wronged or wrong’uns (temptresses), but less often recognised as truly complicated, three-dimensional persons in their own right. ‘In her own right’ is a phrase that often has to be inserted, whereas ‘in his own right’ rarely does. Women are derivatives, perpetual wags, to be managed or indulged, more or less skilfully or extravagantly, yet never quite seen or heard. I can’t prove any of this, and to some it will sound totally overblown. In a way it sounds totally overblown to me. A lot of the time I’m not conscious of being treated any differently at all on account of gender, and I get a lot more respectful treatment, in many contexts, than lots of men I know. Except from time to time when something happens to make you aware of that low hum, and it dawns on you that it’s there all the time and may even be deafening.
Childhood & Education
Q: Childhood. In a recent LRB article entitled ‘I was a Child Liberationist’, you wrote about your experience of leaving formal school education at the age of 13. Between leaving school and enrolling full-time in a further education college, what was your daily life like? What was especially valuable about this experience?
A: It wasn’t a lot of fun, actually. I was pretty depressed and lonely, though that was the case when I was in school too. I also felt like a failure, not for dropping out of school, but for not being the autodidact I would have liked to have been. I wanted to be the kind of person who is unmoved by the push and pull of external evaluation – in the form of grades or whatever – and who just goes to the library and picks up books. I got as far as the library but I had a troubled relationship with the books themselves. You hear about people ‘devouring’ books as children, and that always gives me a twinge of envy because it was like I struggled to keep anything down. I’m not entirely sure why. I would open a book and think about everything but what was on the page. I would get distracted by everything – even by the fact of me reading a book, or by my posture or position or the light in the room. It’s a problem I still have. I’ve worked around it as far as I can, but reading is still mostly a slow and painful process.
Q: Child Liberation. You also wrote in your LRB article about the radical philosophies of childhood. How should child liberationists think about children and relate to them? Who should we be reading on child liberation? And finally, why do you think that the issue of child liberation has not seen the kind of resurgence which radical philosophies of prisons and police have had?
A: I don’t pretend to have a worked out view on all this. It feels like something I’ve had to put on ice for a long time. But I’ve always wanted to come back to it. It seems to me to be one of those things that people were getting somewhere with in the 60s and 70s – the books I would dig out of the library as a teenager were mostly from that time – but which have been almost completely forgotten since, replaced with the most conventional thoughtless platitudes. I remember getting a lot out of A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society and John Holt’s Escape From Childhood. More recently, I read a wonderful book by Martin Hoyles, The Politics of Childhood, a fascinating and unpretentious illustrated history. I’ve just blown my book budget on a load more, mostly second-hand books on children and schooling. There’s a lot there, but nobody seems to talk about it. Even people like Tolstoy and Emma Goldman: they wrote about this, but you don’t really hear about it, or maybe I just haven’t been in the right circles.
I think there are probably all sorts of reasons why radical philosophies of childhood are so studiously ignored or ridiculed. I think adult society has invested a lot in its constructions of childhood, so that its own self-conception depends on it. Society’s treatment of children says less about children themselves than about adults, what they need childhood and children to be. It has a lot to do with fear and loss as well as violence – that’s my feeling anyway. These points also apply to other forms of domination, but there are certain features of the case of childhood that are distinctive: the universal and guaranteed movement of people from one ‘class’ (‘children’) to another (‘adults’), for example; I’d like to think more about how this plays out. In any case, I think the most obvious reason why there isn’t a ‘school abolitionist’ movement in the way that there is a police and prison abolitionist movement is that the issue of school is not racialised in the same way. I mean, schooling is obviously inflected by race and racism in all sorts of ways, but concerns over that most naturally take the form of demands for equality and an end to racist practices in schooling, rather than a critique of schooling as such.
There’s also a tendency for radical ideas about schools and childhood to be seen as a middle-class hippie indulgence, which is understandable. Some of it is, and it’s inevitable that some of these ideas get co-opted or can only survive in the form of luxury goods for the wealthy – apparently, ‘micro-schools’ and ‘learning pods’ are all the rage in Silicon Valley now. But when you look at the history, it’s clear that this isn’t at all the full picture. The ‘Modern School Movement’ inspired by the anarchist Francisco Ferrer, for example, was a predominantly working-class initiative. But it’s always important to be clear-eyed about the broader politics of radical or progressive interventions in education. I think the case is parallel to that of feminism in some ways. I’m always saying that a feminism that is only really about the high-level ‘representation’ of women within existing societal hierarchies is no feminism at all – it has nothing to offer most women, beyond the prospect of having a female boss. In the same kind of way, a child liberationism worth the name should start from the situations of children in general, and not just white, ‘bright’, middle-class kids who feel stifled at school. It’s not only middle-class white kids who have that kind of problem, though. At the moment, with a kind of neo-traditionalist disciplinarianism very much in political vogue, ‘failing’ or ‘turned around’ schools catering to majority poor kids are often the most brutally repressive – ostensibly for the kids’ own good, of course. But child liberationism shouldn’t just be about schools, either. If you start by asking what are the biggest problems facing kids, then other things come up too, starting with the fact that so many in a rich country like the UK don’t have enough to eat because their parents are too poor to be able to afford to feed them properly. These are problems that don’t only affect children, but often hit children hardest. And children are in a position of almost total powerlessness: they can’t work (or where they can, they can legally be paid less), they can’t go anywhere, they can’t vote – nothing. In the same way as it was necessary to point out that austerity is a feminist issue, I think those interested in child liberationism should be interested in these things too.
Q: University. University professors and students can often strike up a genuine friendship of sorts, despite the fact that the relationship is technically mediated by the transfer of money from student to university. This seems importantly different from many other market transactions. Why do you think this is, and what can it tell us about the impact of marketisation on how we relate to others?
A: I don’t know, I think in a way there are two separate issues here that have come to intersect. One is the question of how the pedagogical relationship can affect and sometimes coexist with or produce friendship. It seems clear to me that this can happen. The essential asymmetry involved can be problematic, but then life is problematic. And this is only one of innumerable ways in which our interpersonal relationships can be asymmetrical – I don’t think that absolute symmetry ever exists in such things. The other issue is the money factor. That’s another asymmetry I suppose – one person pays, the other is paid (if not directly by the ‘customer’ then by a third party such as a boss or manager). That’s now part of the nature of universities, very much to the detriment of all involved. I don’t think the element of money in itself precludes friendship – I’m good friends with the barman from when I was at university. It’s not precluded in the case of the student-lecturer relationship, either, but I think that other consequences of marketisation make it much more difficult in practice. Most basically, as teaching staff get more and more overloaded and are expected to deal with more and more students, it gets harder for us to get to know any one of them. It’s more a case of getting through to the end of term without a mutiny – students are increasingly both anxious and litigious, and you can’t really blame them for it, but the effect is that teaching staff get more defensive, protective of their time, often resentful (again understandably). There is less and less time for hanging around and chatting, which is how friendships naturally arise. It’s only going to get worse. The latest push by university managements is a war on offices: they want everyone to ‘hot desk’. That is likely to be the final nail in the coffin for collegiality and for any really spontaneous human interactions between teachers and students.
Q: Most overrated thinker?
A: It’s a toss up between Rawls and Jordan Peterson.
Q: Most underrated thinker?
A: R. D. Laing.
Q: Which public intellectual has most influenced your work in an unexpected way?
A: Maybe Laing again. His work isn’t just about schizophrenia. I think it’s about much more than that: it’s about politics, the family, life in general.
Q: What books have been most transformative for you?
A: Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival made a big impression on me when I was an undergraduate. Manufacturing Consent even more so. He makes such a painstaking, unanswerable case that you can’t see the world the same way again.
Q: What current trends in philosophy are you excited about?
A: There is some interesting critical work on policing and prisons going on. Koshka Duff, for instance, has some good stuff on this. Also some of the emerging work on ‘neuro-diversity’.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to a student hoping to pursue an academic career in socially engaged philosophy, what would it be?
A: I feel bad for anyone starting out in academia now. Things have got so much worse even in the last ten years. If I had to give any advice, I would say don’t be intimidated. The thing is mostly a sham. Fire things off to journals until something sticks, ideally before you finish your PhD. Do what you have to do to put food on the table, but be wary of flashy projects claiming ‘impact’. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t let others dictate to you what counts as ‘socially engaged’. It’s more important to carve out a position from which it’s possible to remain somewhat critical than to climb the ladder. Make sure you’re pissing off the right people. If you’re not pissing anyone off, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Q: What are you most afraid of?
A: In immediate political terms, the destruction of the National Health Service, increased surveillance and police powers and the general ratcheting up towards fascism. In only slightly less immediate terms, ecological disaster.
Q: What is your utopia?
A: I don’t really do utopia. Even if I could imagine a perfect society, I’m not sure I’d be cut out for it. Complaining is too central to my personality.