Sunday, September 13, 2009

practicing the “Idea of Human Development”

Habermas notes in his “Author’s Preface” to Europe: The Faltering Project that “The final essay...[which] deals with the structuring infuence that a normative theory of the public sphere can have on the design of empirical particularly close to my heart.”

Normative theory is different from “Critical Theory.” McCarthy, in his new book, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development is involved with Critical Theory.

Published more or less simultaneously with McCarthy’s book, also by Cambridge UP, is a complementary approach to the idea of human development that is directly relevant to normative theory and its empirical correlates: Successful Societes: how institutions and culture affect health. This book is at least symbolic of the real world of human development research and organizations (especially NGOs) exemplified globally by the IMF and various agencies of the UN who live with the pressing need to act consequentially and are, I would argue, not instances of (or prey to) the ideological pathology that circulates marginally in citizen politics (and the news market) that McCarthy apparently historizes. (I’ve just read the PDF portions of his “Introduction” that are available on the publisher site. In the following, I don’t mean to imply that normal development thinking doesn’t deserve critique. But critique of vastly constructive work is a different matter than critique of pathology.)

My enthusiasm for theorizing notions of well-being, dependent on a conception of health and prevailing interest in well-growing life, are reflected by Successful Societies’s normative-empirical pursuit of the cultural economics of health. This is part of a legacy, it seems to me, of transformed thinking in the social sciences, away from purely materialist notions of social reproduction to rich notions of cultural development.

Part of that evolution of thinking, directed to a general audience, was Harrison and Huntington’s Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (2000), which has its philosophical correlate in contemporary theories of practical rationality. Seeing that kind of work in a context of normative theory, rather than critique of ideology, is an instance of my “switching tables” metaphor of social change (end of the previous posting), which involves a switch of conceptual stance, in light of searching out, detailing, and integrating appealing options to development rather than focusing on alienation from the given or critique of pathology.

McCarthy sees Culture Matters as an instance of the social-scientization of neoracial conceptions of social development (p. 10). But, I wager, the academic field of human development (in the sense applicable to UN work which Successful Societies addresses) does not see Culture Matters that way. The conception of cultural economics in a normative idea of human development—geared toward development against destructive marginality (rather than deconstruction of what’s destructive)—is not about historizing pathology. There is such an immense wealth of resources and work applicable to the universal value of human development. Not to dismiss the importance of critique of ideology, it’s vitally important to not forget the primary importance of facilitating development and having critique directly support that primary value. The calling for normative theory is facilitative and integrative.

Successful Societies would be an exemplary venue for dwelling with what is close to Habermas’ heart (though his essay is concerned with media studies). Successful Societies, generally speaking, addresses the question: Why are some types of societies more successful than others at promoting individual and collective well-being? This is a venture in searching out, detailing, and integrating what works.

Normal philosophical work on “practical reason” is overtly interested in that kind of question, it seems to me. Inquiries into “the good” become inquiries in theory of value, which become theories of action. Contemporary philosophy of action seems to me to be about contributing to the development of normative theory.

Close to my heart is the potential fruitfulness of new ways of interdisciplinary thinking and research, which gels with Habermas’ sense of philosophy as facilitator, with his interest in normative theory, and with the overt interdisciplinarity of Successful Societies.

Let me weave together parts of others’ praise quoted at about Successful Societies, as a matter of exemplifying what the calling of normative theory is:
“This work of ‘collaborative public intellectuals’ is a model of outstanding interdisciplinary cooperation and does an outstanding job crossing borders: disciplines, countries, time periods, types of evidence, and modes of reasoning. Successful Societies establishes robust connections among fields that have been examined largely in isolation from one another and shows scholars how—and why—to weave together cultural, institutional and socio-structural analysis. The integrative book links people from anthropology, sociology, and history to epidemiology, medical sociology, and political science. Deploying an enormous range of empirical data, the inspiration of thinkers from Amartya Sen to Pierre Bourdieu, and a newly humanized understanding of societal success, the volume is also an urgently needed normative manifesto for the indispensability of egalitarian and inclusive ‘social imaginaries’ in tandem with institutional foundations for democratic participation.”

Having that kind of example of normative interest in mind, I want to discuss some points in McCarthy's “Introduction” to his book (from the 10 pages I have available to me; the book is on order). This will provide a sense of my waning interest in Critical Theory relative to, in this case, a very active interest in human development itself. At worst, the following will show retrospectively what presumptions of mine about McCarthy's project had to be abandoned, in view of later fair reading (I’ll keep this posting as is, as a matter of humility or self-effacing candor, whatever). In any case, the following provides further context for my own conceptual prospecting.

McCarthy notes in his “Introduction”:

McC: “Sharpening our understanding of [triumphalist] uses of developmental thinking in the past will put us in a better position to recognize and resist its continuing operation in....[among other contexts] social science and social policy....(2)

G: Fine. But I’m easily frustrated by the failure of the critical interest to be attuned to the constructive work it should be facilitating, not primarily focusing on historizing the marginality of the destructive other.

McC: “Ideologies of race and empire may seem now to belong irretrievably to the past...” (ibid).

G: I think it’s important to recognize that focusing on progressive practice does not imply that the world is beyond destructive ideologies. But bypassing them in terms of constructive development is an alternative to expending scarce resources confronting them. Analogously, nation building is the solution to the appeal of extremism, not critique of the domination that implies some political rationale for extremism. The New Left didn’t dwindle away due to effective critique of capitalism or effective critique of the New Left’s naïve sense of evolving (as verb) institutions. It dwindled away because other options were more appealing. The Soviet Union fell apart because European success was more appealing to its public. Fostering development is more promising than critique of domination that doesn’t directly serve a normative venture in good development.

McC: “..this meant to be a contribution to the critical history of the present” (ibid).

G: But critical history should (a) be seen as a supplement to identified work in constructive, good human development (which is to beg the question of “the good” as primary notion for social theory); and (2) work, as critique, to make good constructiveness prevail.

I’m very involved in taking very seriously an interest in developing a notion of social evolution whose conception of evolution avoids the issues that are integral to McCarthy’s topic; so, I don’t merely dismiss what he’s apparently doing (let alone critique of ideology generally). I have no interest in a triumphalist sense of history in my universalistic interest in human development. I appreciate, I think, the ugliness of social darwinism (which has nothing to do with Darwin, by the way). But that appreciation is lived in terms of work that avoids those problems, rather than focusing on critique of them. These aren’t just complementary stances. Critique is only as good as the constructive alternatives it envisions or supports.

McC: “[Contrasted with historical neocolonialism,] the preferred means of advancing geoeconomic and geopolitical interests today are less overtly violent, often indirect exercises of power and influence by strong states and transnational corporations over weaker states, whose sovereignty is nominally respected” (4).

G: I think it’s useless to say that “the preferred means of...advancing often,” etc., because what’s important is the sense in which this is not the case for evolving societies and to identify how this not-the-case works to the benefit of human development. Anyone who follows the news regularly knows that critique of hegemonic tendenices is normal conversation in the public sphere, but it’s part of a prevailing interest in problem-solving and facilitation of development that seeks to trump and bypass hegmonic tendencies. Therefore, I hope that McCarthy’s prevailing interest is constructive.

McC: “The striking imbalances of representation in such bodies as the IMF and World Bank – not to mention the G-7 – is an obvious illustration” (ibid).

G: That’s not an obvious illustration of anything constructive. Imbalances of representation are part of the normal discourse of the IMF and World Bank itself! And there are identifiable efforts to right those imbalances that may deserve critique of what’s being done, but deserve critique of what’s being done. (Part of the problem is that developing nations have nationalist views of economics, which are antedated by the international character of real economics.) It seems to me that the G-8 is quite overtly understood in policy circles relative to the G-20 (which is meeting in Pittsburgh later this month; it will be useful to see what that’s actually about, relative to interest in constructive activity). McCarthy is begging the question of what world he’s referring to. McC: “...the present requirements of global justice include not only establishing relations of non-domination and fair terms of exchange but also, and interdependently, repairing the harmful effects of past injustice” (ibid).

G: So, get into details of those “relations,” relative to a WTO regime that works, a Russia and China that don’t try to make the Security Council irrelevant, a global regime of financial regulation that nationalist interests will abide by, etc. This along with a focus on the real dynamics of regional development and human development is what will “repair the harmful effects of past injustice.”

Next, McCarthy introduces the notion of racializing (which is the conceptuality of social racism).

McC: “Dividing the human species into natural kinds has a long and variegated history” (5).

G: But what’s more important is the extent to which that history is now irrelevant to the real work of human development. What reader of philosophy fails to hear echo in “natural kinds” decades of attention to what this can and cannot mean? Who, to McCarthy’s mind, relative to the human sciences that are informed by contemporary evolutionary discourse, has any relevance to McCathy’s historization of pathology? (He cites some studies later in his “Introduction,” but—to my mind—as a matter of overgeneralizing, which I’ll return to below.) For one thing, “Darwin’s idea of naturally selected and transmitted racial traits” (5) is not part of that history of racialism; a gross misconception of Darwin's sense of evolution was part of that history.

Accordingly, McCarthy rightly notes that “though biological essentialism was characteristic of the modern idea of race, the ‘modern synthesis’ in evolutionary biology finally ended the debate by calling into question the very idea that ‘race’ was a useful scientific concept” (5). So, what is called for is better appreciation of that synthesis relative to contemporary human sciences; how it relates to a viable anthropology; and how that feeds into human development studies and organizational work validly. McCarthy notes that the “mental and moral group differences that is characteristic of the modern idea of race under discussion here” doesn’t pertain to contemporary science (5, ftn. 8). But, to his mind, in effect, a pertaining discourse on race, as somehow relevant to contemporary human sciences, gives warrant (if not urgency) to his apparently-historicist story.

McC: “When Aristotle and his medieval followers talked of things being such-and-such ‘by nature,’ the idea of nature in question was articulated primarily in terms of ‘formal’ and ‘final’ causes rather than in terms of the ‘material’ and ‘efficient’ causes that came to dominate in modern science” (5).

G: But contemporary science isn’t “modern science,” in McCarthy's sense. Indeed, the “conceptual and teleological approach to natural kinds” that McCarthy notes of the Aristotelians is quite concordant with contemporary biological thinking (e.g., materials from the Cambridge Series on Philosophy and Biology that I could cite; also, articles from the journal Biology and Philosophy). On the one hand, McCarthy grants that he’s attending to a bygone conception of science (granting the integrity of contemporary evolutionary biology). On the other hand, he depends on an importance of “modern science” that allegedly implicates current work. But American notions of social science are getting displaced by richer notions of human science.

Also, there is the neo-Aristotelian vein in public policy thinking (e.g., Amartya Sen, Nussbaum, the vast literature associated with them, and the quality-of-life, welfarist economics that is normal for public policy) that is backed by work in cognitive science on capabilities and by philosophical work on practical action that focuses on conceptual issues of “well-being” (and even flourishing). This work dissolves the appeal of antedated science.

But these promising trends in thought are apparently to be bypassed by McCarthy, for the sake of a historiographical juggarnaut of extant domination, a veritable telos of crisis without apparent avenue for dissolution (which is typical of Critical Theory):

McC: “And just as the shift to neoimperialism required modes of domination and exploitation that were compatible with the nominal independence and equality of all nations, the shift to neoracism required modes that were compatible with the formal freedom and equality of all individuals” (7).

To my mind, “The Romantic emphasis on the unique spirit, mentality, and character of each people earlier in the [nineteenth] century,” that McCarthy notes, contributed to a sense of shared humanity in progressive movements within democracies that, don’t forget, won the war against racism that was so much a part of the 20th century. The question is: How do we make that last? But McCarthy’s story is one where that spirit “tended to get displaced by, or combined with, a naturalistic emphasis on common ancestry and shared ‘blood’”(8) that did not prevail, is not ascendent in this century though continuing marginally), and is countered by the ever-increasing communicative transparency of our planetary metropolis and our common ground of humanistic interests (e.g., a reliabily healthy economy) on a very shared planet.

But I digress (an idiom I take from the loveable and incisively smart Gail Collins, columnist for The New York Times). Back to McCarthy...

McC: “By the end of the [nineteenth] century, with the near-total triumph of scientific racism in its post-Darwinian forms, race theory was applied...” (ibid).

G: But there was nothing Darwinian about race concepts in the first place, so the positing of post-Darwinian forms is just rhetoric that occludes gaining appreciation of real biology.

McCarthy is apparently entering into a historization of pathology that is valuable inasmuch as that’s useful for diagnostics in Cultural Studies. But it’s important to not mistake the understanding of past pathology for the contemporary challenges of human development in global society. Cultural Studies is best served by understanding good human development. Detailing the historicality of pathology in the 20th century is marginal to that. But, again, I don’t intend to imply that diagnostic critique of ideological pathology is not an important supplement to advancing “The Idea of Human Development.” No doubt, ...

McC: “...some variants of contemporary neoracism construct ‘race’ in ways similar to some constructions of ‘ethnicity’” (8, ftn. 15).

G: But that is countered by better understanding valid senses of ethnicity, in terms of “culturally transmitted customs, traditions, language, [and] religion” (ibid.), not by detailing a pathology of construction. In other words, neoracialist constructions of ‘ethnicity’ are not about ethnicity at all! Attending to the “logic” of pathology is just that. It has no theoretical merit other than to understand pathology. There is no Force of History backing racist illiteracy, and there is no Neoimperialism dominating world society.

Inasmuch as “this type of culturally, genealogically, and somatically constructed identity/difference has tended to become salient in situations of domination, resistance, and conflict,” it expresses a failure to promote valid understanding of ethnicity. So, the problem for human development is how to promote valid understanding of ethnicity, not historicization of pathology. The challenge for human development is educational and developmental. That can dissolve what critique willfully battles. (One could respond that education must include critique. Sure, but in supplement to building understanding that dissolves interest in that which critique has to otherwise confront.)

McC: “My reasons for accentuating the ‘racism’ component will become evident [further on].”

G: OK. But the proper challenge is that such accentuating should contribute to better understanding for constructions of good human development. Inasmuch as diagnosis of pathology doesn’t supplement better understanding of human development, then it’s unproductive for the Idea.

My fear is that giving importance to “contexts of contemporary neoracism” (9) just serves neoracism, giving it historical “merit,” unless such diagnoses are directly correlated with real efforts to advance good human development.

One could retort that such diagnoses aren’t meant to stand alone, apart from other educational endeavors. So, the question is: How do such diagnoses fit with what prevailing educational endeavors? No degree of reconstructing the history of “heavily segregated housing patterns that gave rise to ethnoracial urban ghettos” is going to contribute to understanding how to avoid that in the future. It seems to uselessly assert, in effect: “Just don’t let that happen again.” How?

McCarthy seems too interested in historicizing marginality (e.g., “campaign posters” [9, ftn. 16] that is “only one example” of some presumed mass of signs that marginality is gonna get you.).

And, as a matter of balance (for understanding extremism), let’s not forget the relationship that disgusting anti-Muslim sentiment (ftn. 17) has to disgusting “Muslim” sentiment toward modernity (including the confusion of valid holy striving with war mongering and dying to gain purity in heaven that is made into an aura of “jihad”).

McC: “The point of applying the term ‘neoracist’ to these and other recent discourses is to emphasize their logical and functional similarities to the classical paradigm” (10).

G: I suspect that this is a bogus project: linking contemporary marginality with a Force of History (“the classical paradigm”). The historization gives diffuse, confused, and illiterate pathologies a structural integrity they don’t have and don’t deserve.

McC: “Real or ascribed somatic markers are taken as signs of deeper differences” (ibid).

G: Why?

McC: “Stereotypical representations combining phenotypic features with cultural and behavioral traits are used to include and exclude” (ibid).

G: But that’s no matter of “deeper differences”; that’s just a functional coherence of pathology at the surface level, which one would expect of shallow, animal prejudice.

McC: “And the negative stereotyping of ‘others’ functions to explain and legitimate ongoing racial stratification” (ibid).

G: Legitmate? By whom? The IMF? No. European governments? I doubt it. (I see no effort to legitimate racial stratification by U.S. government). Is McCarthy endeavoring to justify a historicization of marginality that’s posited?

McC: “Raced bodies signifying differences in culture and psychology; racially inflected structures of inequality; and racialized grammars of difference serving as ideological justifications thereof seem grounds enough to continue to speak of racism after the demise of its relatively short-lived scientific version” (10).

G: I think there are better grounds for putting one’s energy into speaking more about real bodies signifying integrities among validly different cultures and psychologies; giving more “substance” of humanity to thin notions of formal equality; and enriching narratives of human coherence relative to shared human interests, etc.

McC: “To be more precise, ....what is referred to as ‘neoracism’ or ‘cultural racism’ does, in fact, come in social-scientific versions.”

G: Marginally. That’s dissolved by doing good science and teaching good science. I would bet that hints of cultural racism are altogether missing in the real work of influential public policy formation, the design of appropriate development programs, cost-effective implementations, dealing with real politics, and doing useful evaluations of development programs. That’s not to say that there aren’t “ethnic myths” circulating and people “whitewashing race” (10, ftn. 18). But bad faith is countered by good work, better than by battling bad faith on its own ground.

So, I do not find plausible that there is a “general pattern of ethnoracial thinking in social science and social policy” (10). Such a claim, couched in terms of buzz phrases (10) from decades I lived through, too, Tom (we’ve corresponded a little over the years), do nothing to contribute to better understanding the reality of poverty in terms of prospects for human development in terms of real programs and the normative theoretical backing such programs can have (relating to health care, education, regional economic development, etc.).

McC: “The links [in the “general pattern”] were forged historically in various systems of racial oppression, adaptation to which by those oppressed gave rise to “cultural pathologies” of various sorts” (ibid).

G: Such a notion of pathology being “forged” to become a general pattern in our complexly diffuse societies is not made credible by McCarthy’s entrance into his topic. I know the arguments for systematically distorted communication that are supposed to be engineered by domination. But I found that critique of fascism increasingly invalid as the 20th century muddled toward the end of the Cold War. I see McCarthy writing to the past. McC: According to the views I am characterizing as neoracist ideologies, such oppressive systems have long since been dismantled;...(ibid).

G: Well, godforbid I would be an instance of neoracism for not finding his entrance into his topic to indicate a general pattern.

In any case, practicing the idea of human development is about other things.

McCarthy may have done definitive work in critical explication of racialist thinking relative to the 20th century. The emeritus philosopher, leading voice for Critical Theory in the U.S., and dear friend of Jürgen Habermas is surely exemplary of his time and the New Left legacy in academic philosophy. I honor that, even as I differentiate the constructive interest in human development from his critical project. I don’t mean to dismiss his project. He may be doing a great service for Cultural Studies' understanding of the historicality of racialism.

But I don't find credible the rhetoric of neoimperialist domination, etc., that’s supposed to give urgency to his project for a 21st century audience, beyond being a study in the historicality of racialism that may be valuable in its own right for Cultural Studies or critical anthropology, etc. I hope that his book has as much interest in the Idea of Human Development itself as he apparently has in polemic.

My polemic echoes too many years of leftism in the 20th century.