Sunday, November 15, 2009

Towards an analysis of the paradoxes of libertarian climate change denial

There had, until recently, seemed to be a consensus surrounding the link between carbon pollution and climate change, following the British Stern Review and after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The so-called climate change sceptics and denialists, however, have maintained their position and even advanced their numbers over the last few years. On one level, the powerful coal and oil industries, and the trade unions that organise the labour these industries employ, have agents working to stall and demobilise action that would mitigate pollution, or at least to ensure that any market-schemes to reduce pollution include subsidies and deals that embed a corporatist solution. Tabloid media contrarians—trollumnists!—shock jocks, disaffected academics and the like, compose another bloc in the prosecution of this scepticism and denialism. The shills are easy to dismiss, but the force of their arguments lock into more deeply buried ideas about nature, modernity, economy, political identity and political rationalities. In particular, those that circulate in the forms of liberalism and libertarianism that have come to dominate the political-economy in the last 30 or so years. These ideas are, arguably, what enables the contrarians to appeal to and even constitute publics. While one way to understand these ideas is to see them as ideologies—the unconscious criteria for defining reality by which a society, or social group, serves its own interests—I want to apply Michel Foucault’s modes of analysis to these forms of governmentality, understanding these ideas as forms of reasoning, or rationalities, which are attached to practices, or techniques for acting.

One of the basic concepts in liberalism is the regulation of civil society and its primary mechanism for exchange—the market—by something natural and something invisible to the state and sovereign. I want to explore this concept in terms of Hayek’s concept of catallaxy and investigate what this central theoretical component in Hayek’s liberalism (or perhaps, his libertarianism) does to the natural-ness of classic liberalism’s conception of the relation between the state-sovereign and civil society. So, towards my analysis there are a number of key quotes from Mitchell Dean's analysis on Hayek's conception of freedom in Dean's 1999 book Governmentality, below. (Dean's book has a 2nd edition, with a post-GFC postscript).

Some interpretation and further reflections on Dean's excellent explication, to follow. But, something that does initially occur to me is that when nature itself begins to shift, under conditions of climate change, Hayek's tripartite structure--nature, culture, reason--is fundamentally destablized. What might follow, for Hayekian acolytes, is a mania in the wake of a loss: the loss of a unquestionably stable nature that was assumed to be impervious to the influence of culture--the markets, the family, the spontaneous social orders that culture throws up--and the state.

There might be a right-wing mourning in its early stages.


Freedom as artefact

“Neoliberalism . . . introduces a quite distinctive concept of freedom. As Graham Burchell (1996: 24) has remarked, freedom is no longer the freedom of the ‘system of natural liberty’ of Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment but freedom of ‘artefact’ of F.A. Hayek” (155).

“For neo-liberalism, freedom is no longer a natural attribute of Homo oeconomicus, the rational subject of interest. It is an artefact. Yet Hayek’s position is important because it alerts us to the different ways in which it can be an artefact. For the German post-war ordoliberals such as Alexander von Rustow, freedom is something to be contrived by a ‘vital policy’ that promotes the conditions of the free, entrepreneurial conduct of economically rational individuals (Gordon, 1991: 40-1). Hayek, however, offers a critique of this kind of approach when he conceives of culture as an intermediate and key layer between nature and reason.” (156)

“Freedom for Hayek is a product neither of nature nor of governmental policy and its institutions but of cultural evolution conceived as the development of civilization and its discipline. The introduction of this theme of cultural evolution allows his argument to outflank the either/or logic implied in the opposition between the natural and the artificial conceived as the processes of biological selection and the rational designs of government (Hayek, 1979: 155). He conceives nature, culture and rational design as three separate processes, each of which gives rise to ‘rules of conduct’. These rules are stratified: at base, the ‘instinctual’ drives; above these ‘traditions’ restraining the first; and finally, the ‘thin layer of deliberately adopted or modified rules’ (1979: 159-60). So drives, traditions and consciously adopted rules operate within the respective spheres of nature, culture and reason.” (156)

“In the course of cultural evolution, Hayek argues, rules of conduct are selected that help human groups adapt to their social environment, prosper and expand. The development of civilization is thus dependent on the capacity to learn and pass on these rules of conduct. Cultural evolution is a kind of ongoing learning process. These rules change in the course of the transition to an ‘abstract and open’ society in which relations among strangers are governed by abstract rules (forming the basis of laws) and impersonal signals (such as those provided by prices) (1979: 162). Such cultural rules of conduct are learnt not from rationally constructed institutions but from the ‘spontaneous social orders’ [catallaxies] of the market, language, morals and the law. An important consequence follows. Reason does not lead to civilisation; it is its effect. Reason is the consequence of those learnt rules of conduct by which humans become intelligent and it is by submitting to their discipline that humans can become free (1979: 163). This is one point at which neo-liberalism meets neo-conservatism and the concern of communitarianism for the ‘moral order’. In response to the claim that freedom involves a kind of romantic notion of self-fulfilment, Hayek shows that freedom depends on the disciplining effects of social orders that have developed through cultural evolution. It is by observing the rules of conduct learnt in the course of that evolution – around the market and the family, in particular – that we learn how to practise our freedom.” (156-57)

“The specificity of Hayek’s conception of freedom is that it is both negative, in that it is freedom from coercion by the arbitrary will of others, and anti-naturalist, in that its conditions are not found in the natural state of humankind. Hayek is thus able to criticize what he calls the ‘constructivism’ of the type Foucault finds in the ordoliberals and which, coming from a very different political stance, might best be represented by Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1957), which showed how the historical establishment of markets in labour, money and land requires active legal and governmental reform.” (157)

“For Hayek . . . the market is neither a natural sphere of the relations between exchanging individuals nor an artificial contrivance of appropriate policies but a spontaneous social order governed by customary rules selected by a complex learning process. He uses the German word Bildung to designate a social order that is not a consciously designed institution but is established in the course of its own development. The question of the political conditions of the market is one of developing the appropriate constitutional framework according to the ‘rule of law’. This means that government exercises coercion and restraint of individuals only in accordance with the rules learnt from the process of cultural evolution, or, as he puts it, ‘the recognized rules of just conduct designed to define and protect the domain of all individuals’ (Hayek, 1979: 109). The rule of law means that government is limited to applying universal rules announced in advance to an unknown number of cases and in an unknown number of future instances. One consequence of this is that it is not possible to make laws which discriminate in favour or against any particular class of individuals and so avoid parliaments and laws becoming the ‘playball of group interests’ (1979: 99). Another is that is creates the conditions by which the cultural rules of conduct contained within the spontaneous orders of the market – and indeed of morals, language and law itself – can be reinforced and not abandoned or transgressed. Hayek thus agrees with the ordoliberals on the need for definite political and legal conditions of the market. However, for Hayek these are to be secured by a constitutional framework that limits governmental regulation by a conception of the rule of law that is derived from the rules of conduct arrived at in the process of cultural evolution.” (157-58)

“Hayek succeeds in providing an anti-naturalistic conception of freedom that bypasses processes of social reform and which restricts political reform to imposing limits on the action of government. Yet, as we have seen, reform is cultural not simply because this neo-liberalism has run out of alternatives. It is cultural because what is at issue are the values and rules of conduct that have been developed in the course of the evolution of spontaneous social orders. This is why the ethos of neo-liberalism is at once conservative and radical. It is conservative in its revival and restoration of the values (or ‘virtues’) and rules of conduct associated with these orders, particularly those of the market. And it is radical because, by the process of reduplication and folding back, it multiplies and ramifies these values and rules into ever-new spheres including its own instruments and agencies.” (162)

“Hayek’s philosophy makes intelligible the goals of contemporary neo-liberalism as no less than the deployment of the culturally acquired rules of conduct to safeguard our civilization and the freedom it secures. In its invocation of virtues associated with the spontaneous social orders of the market and family, neo-liberalism is clearly consistent with neo-conservatism. The clearest difference would be in the different conceptions of the means of eliciting these virtues. Here neo-conservatism only has exhortation, sovereign measures and a ‘statist’ imposition of morality that often runs counter to its anti-political impulses. Contemporary liberalism, by contrast, operationalizes culturally acquired values by reforming ever-new spheres so they are accountable to the imperatives of learnt rules of conduct, including and especially the institutions of national government themselves. When public authority must act, it must be sure that it does so in conformity with the rules of conduct associated with markets. For example, according to one influential US text ‘reinventing government’ is about making it ‘entrepreneurial’ (Osborne and Gaebler, 1993). In Australia, the public employment service is replaced by a network of employment placement enterprises, in which the public agency is now in competition with private and community enterprises. Because change can no longer be a rationally directed process of social reform, for neo-liberalism it must be conducted according to cultural values, rules and norms. So far these rules and values have been best condensed into the cultural form of ‘enterprise’ and the ‘consumer’.” (163-64)

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