Desk stress

One of the key features of this year, the first of my PhD study, has been the inability to secure a comfortable place to study and write. Not a struggle I anticipated. Not something I had even given much thought to prior to starting at the University of Sydney earlier this year. I remember vaguely assuming that things would work like they did at my previous university, where as an undergrad I remember seeing small groups of PhD students sharing offices with their own permanent desks. I now understand that this is not at all a standard arrangement, and that postgraduate students at different institutions around the country work in many different settings.

A first year USyd PhD in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences wishing to study in a designated postgraduate space on campus has two locations to choose from. One is a fitted-out basement – no windows, harsh lighting, often many desks free. The other is also a basement of sorts, but above-ground (has windows) and often a reasonably pleasant place to work, and thus not so many free desks to be found. Both are “hot desk” spaces, which means that no desk is permanently allocated and students need to remove all their things from a desk after finishing work for the day. (Spaces with assigned desks are available to students in the later stages of their PhD. Details of all spaces here).

Simply finding out about these spaces did not happen easily, but poking around the university website led me to information eventually. I had a clearer idea of where to find the windowless spot than the other, so that has been home base for the year to date. I have been productive there through sheer force of will. Many people don’t mind that kind of space and can work there well, but in the past few months I have finally admitted to myself that I am not one of these people.

Having no point of permanence for study combined with a poor working environment has had a strong psychological impact on me. My already-existing anxiety is at a constant hum well above normal levels. I take a remarkably long time to settle down enough to concentrate and do meaningful reading and writing. No windows in my study space means a bizarre relationship with time of day, and regulating my work into productive sections becomes difficult.

I find stoicism an admirable trait and seek to cultivate it in myself where possible, but these efforts sometimes become misplaced. Directing myself to stop being so precious and just do some fucking work is not a sustainable strategy for the three-plus years that this PhD will take me. I find nothing admirable in me forcing myself to put up with a situation that is detrimental to my mental health, to my will to learn, to my passion for writing, and, moreover, that has been imposed on me by a university that has severely mismanaged its intake and provision of facilities for postgraduate students.

I am providing a short personal account of my difficulties here, but I wish to be absolutely clear: this is a structural issue and one that the University of Sydney has created and must solve.

USyd has over 900 arts postgraduate research students and provides about 300 desks for them – I don’t have exact numbers to hand. Some students study at home, others are often away on research trips, some study at uni only on certain days of the week. There are lots of cases of students not requiring permanent desks. This does not explain or mitigate the fact that USyd has enrolled far, far more postgraduate arts students than it can provide facilities for – facilities that it is obliged to provide under its own guidelines and that of the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association.*

I fail to see what can produce this set of circumstances other than the university blindly pursuing a path that is profitable and ignoring the pressure-cooker conditions intensifying as, I can only presume, more and more students have been enrolled and the number of desks has stayed the same. There is a new building on the way with more spaces, due to open in 2019, and while I have heard varying reports about the number of desks this will house, all reports are under 100. A little larger than a drop in the ocean, but not by much.

I have been working with a group of other postgraduate students to try and tackle this issue through collective action. This has been important in bringing together people with similar concerns, and in showing me that there is a history of student action around postgrad study space issues and that many current students share my concerns. Until I made contact with these students I felt like I was shouting into the void. Thankfully I have also had invaluable support from particular staff members who have gone above and beyond in responding to this issue, and I believe that some extremely good news will be delivered shortly about some new spaces.

I don’t and can’t regret coming to Sydney to pursue a PhD. I have found many wonderful welcoming people at USyd, including my excellent supervisor and some great new friends in the postgrad cohort. I am able to pursue my interests easily in the rich cultural and sporting life of the city and in its beautiful natural environment. This said, I can’t help but wonder what life would be like at a university that took its postgraduate research students seriously as valuable members of its academic community and showed this through actions, not just words. I moved to Sydney, and away from family and friends and places I love, to be a part of the academic life of this university. I want to work at uni every day in an environment where I can be comfortable and productive. I live in a small shared flat and have no luxuries like space for a home study, and I carefully live on the federal government “research training programme” scholarship of about $27,000 per year in Australia’s most expensive city. I rely on my university to be a calm and pleasant place to work – nothing outside the bounds of reasonable expectations in my position as a PhD student.

The situation I’ve briefly outlined indicates that there is something extremely wrong with the University of Sydney’s approach to long-term management of its postgraduate student body. It is clear that the university does not take seriously its need to provide decent facilities for these students and in adequate volume, and this in turn means that it does not – it cannot – truly value its postgraduate students. I know that the many passionate supervisors and all members of staff who work with postgraduate students across many areas of the uni absolutely do care about us and have our best interests at heart. It is the university-run-as-corporation and its acolytes that is to blame. This post is a way for me to let out some of my pent-up frustration and to provide a very short overview of this issue for anyone interested. To do the issue justice would require more time than I have right now as my confirmation looms and thousands of archive pictures wait to be sorted through. The battle continues.


* University of Sydney policy – Essential Resources For Higher Degree by Research Students Policy 2016 (link opens a PDF). Also see the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association’s “Space Planning Guidelines” (link opens a PDF).





Lately I’ve been thinking about my own thinking, and specifically about how my education has created some unfortunate infrastructure in my mind that I’m now examining, pulling apart, rearranging, and sometimes throwing away.

One of the more bizarre experiences of my high school education was taking English Extension in Year 12. I tried to find the 2008 syllabus online but no dice. I think it’s maybe more fun to reflect on it using just my memories, rather than delving back into it all in a more concrete sense. The subject was primarily about getting students to produce readings of texts – so, pick a book or a film or whatever and pick a theory and do a reading of that text through the lens of that theory – in a more sophisticated way than was being taught in regular English classes. Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, and Foucault, among others, were presented to us with minimal background information, really just as tools of sorts. Impose this over the book you’ve chosen and you will have your reading.

I have always been the kind of person who needs to know more and needs to know why, so the way this subject was taught was extremely disorienting. I can’t just read a bit of theory and take it at face value and dive in to applying it. I need to really understand who wrote it and what they were doing in writing it, and then I need to be able to correctly place it on my mental map of thinkers and ideas and history and so on. I need to understand what I’m doing.

This subject and my difficulties with it became deeply upsetting, and I turned to trusted teachers from other courses to help me. One pointed me down the path of “lit crit is a sophistic scam”, which was extremely reassuring at the time. For a while I was someone who would quite seriously cite the Sokal hoax as proof of the failings of academia. I certainly didn’t know any better. I was seventeen, an overachiever who was becoming lazy and complacent, feeling the pressure of needing to do well in my final exams, and bewildered by my inability to understand this material.

I had been given things that I didn’t know what to do with. Last week I opened The Archaeology of Knowledge and had to smile as, for whatever reason, Year 12 English Extension came rushing back. I don’t mind the idea of introducing post-structuralism or whatever to high school students, but I hope the Queensland education department has scrapped whatever they were doing with it in 2008.

My undergraduate years were messy and featured a few strange changes in degree. I strayed from and returned to political science, eventually completing an extended major and honours in this field. A particularly strong memory is of a course that seemed to be built around the core idea of universalism vs cultural relativism. I don’t remember details but I have a feeling it was a course about human rights, which would make sense. Students were heavily encouraged to view the topics and events in the course with u vs c.r. in mind. Tutorials were basically footy matches: we all chose sides and debated forcefully. This all had an enormous impact on me, and I think quite a damaging one. The way that the course was framed simply did not and could not encourage much in the way of creative and critical thinking. It took much effort to move beyond the dichotomy presented. For some time I didn’t have the knowledge or the tools to do so.

In my final semester of my undergrad degree I was introduced to contextual intellectual history through two avenues: one, by an academic in my school who had agreed to take me on to do a research project, and two, in one lecture in the last weeks of the capstone course. I soon wondered why I wasn’t handed “Meaning and Understanding” the day I began my degree. Later I understood, but still. I felt like I’d somehow been waiting my entire degree to read this stuff. Training myself to think as an intellectual historian is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever undertaken, and it involves radically updating or completely jettisoning many of the ideas I absorbed during undergraduate courses. Not everyone taking those courses wants or needs to be an intellectual historian, of course, but an understanding of the history of political thought is vital for a student wishing to coherently discuss that thought as it exists and can be used today. The ubiquitous “intro to pol sci” course (a week for liberalism, for conservatism, for whatever else) really is an absurd kind of survey that sets the unfortunate scene early on. How else to proceed, though?

In one of our early meetings, I asked my research project supervisor (later my honours supervisor) if he might help out with a political economy reading group that I was trying to set up. He politely declined, explaining that his research required him to think about texts in a historically-informed way that made it difficult to then think about them and teach them as relevant to the present day. I was immensely intrigued – no one had ever said this sort of thing to me before. That incident folded itself up and sent itself deep into my brain and has lived there ever since.

Unsurprisingly, I find myself now similarly afflicted. Sorting out the relationship between my academic work and my political ideas and commitments is often difficult and causes me a not insignificant amount of worry and anxiety. Something to write about once I know what to write.



Music & History

I’ve been thinking lately about how my musical education as a young person primed me to embrace intellectual history as enthusiastically as I have.

My long-term interest in classical music (that frustrating catch-all term) includes a significant interest in baroque music and historically informed performance. From a very young age I was drawn to Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, and others, including somewhat obscure names that I dug up on Youtube and in piles of sheet music.

It became clear to me early on that there are a range of approaches taken to the interpretation and performance of baroque music. It was fascinating to compare different versions of the same piece and consider what had gone into making each sound as it did. Why did some conductors and performers care about historical accuracy? Why were others unconcerned?

When I was 13 I received a life-changing Christmas gift from my father: a recording of Handel’s Messiah, the 1959 one conducted by Malcolm Sargent with the Huddersfield Choral Society and Liverpool Philharmonic. The booklet inside the CD case had a blurb about the recording and the artists, which included discussion of choices made to not stick to original instrumentation and to abridge the work. I read it over many times. I was fascinating by this glimpse behind the curtains. I had no idea that so much about classical music performance was up for debate.

Youtube, live performances, and my own experiences as a violist and a chorister have shown me many different productions of Messiah over the years, performed with a range of soloists and ensembles and performance philosophies. Some of these have been historically-accurate performances, where everything from the kind of instruments used to interpretation of written directions to use of vibrato is carefully considered, with a view to recreating the kind of sounds a 1740s audience would have heard when listening to Handel’s glorious new creation

Every time I hear Messiah it’s like hearing it for the first time, yet of course so very familiar. It is still Messiah regardless of how it’s performed. I’m still profoundly moved whether I’m hearing a baroque ensemble or an orchestra in a modern configuration. Comparing the aesthetic qualities of the different performances I’ve seen over the years is quite enjoyable.

And yet, and yet. If pressed, I will opt for a historically informed performance. I want something nuanced and thoughtful, not bloated and verging on a kind of performative self-consciousness (Yes, We Are Performing A Very Famous Piece). Not the kindest appraisal and not universally correct, but correct enough to have shaped my preferences.

Thinking about these things so deeply as a young person surely went some way in making me extremely receptive to the ideas of Cambridge school intellectual historians. Quentin Skinner urges us to uncover the often neglected riches of our intellectual heritage; when I heard that for the first time I thought, you know, I think I understand what you mean.


I think there is a very interesting comparison to be made between historically informed musical performance and contextual intellectual history. It’s not one-to-one, for many obvious reasons, but there is something there. Musicians and historians in these traditions are both working to uncover, restore, and re-create the past as faithfully as they can. They are each piecing together a puzzle of sorts. They seek to leave modern prejudices behind and carefully collect and collate evidence that shapes their output in the image (for it will only ever be an image) of the past.

Similar questions face each type of historical enquiry, especially when these contextualists of either field are perceived as elitist or antiquarian. Why does it all matter? Who cares? Essays, operas, concerti, treatises of the past: their authors are long dead, and so are their target audiences.

But consider the riches we uncover by taking slow and careful hands to the task of excavating the nuances of past thought. If a composer intended a note be played this way and not that, it can transform a piece of music entirely. We show respect to the composer’s vision by seeking to reproduce their music as faithfully as we can, and we are rewarded richly for doing so. Or, if present-day political rhetoric is backed by the authority of a long-dead theorist whose work can’t possibly be considered to be supporting it, this appropriation needs to be challenged and original intentions of the author revealed. We in the present day are then forced to use our own brains to address our own issues instead of asking a giant of the past to do it for us.

Perhaps I just deify the author too much. I want to know what Bach meant when he wrote what he did. I want to hear what he wanted his music to sound like to an audience. I want to understand our intellectual heritage of a given topic rather than crudely wondering what the texts on that topic can offer in the present day. No one in the past was writing specifically for me, and I don’t believe there is anything to be gained from treating their work as though they were.

Listen to Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12 in the hands of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra under Paul Dyer, and then to the Münchener Bach-Orchester under Karl Richter. Listen especially to the aria, the third movement. It’s a beautiful piece of music, in either rendition, but hear how different interpretations transform a piece entirely:

I have a particular affection and respect for Richter style interpretations of baroque work, but it’s hard to deny the sheer brilliance and sophistication of the Brandenburg Orchestra’s playing. They draw out tensions and beauty that aren’t present in other interpretations.

Use of Weapons


I recently had the great pleasure of reading Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks for the first time. He’s an extraordinary writer and this is an extraordinary book. He masterfully handles two timelines unfolding in alternating chapters, slowly converging, each telling part of a richly detailed and ultimately heartbreaking story.

As in much of his work, Banks is not holding the reader’s hand. He leaves it to us to negotiate jumps in time and space, but I sense that he doesn’t want to give his readers a stressful experience. It seemed most natural to let the changing cast of characters and places, bizarre events, humour and tragedy wash over me instead of obsessively worrying about keeping track of each detail. Use of Weapons is an unhurried book and I didn’t fight it.

I would say that the story plays its hand close, but it’s hardly playing a game. The concealment of the true nature of certain characters and events isn’t a cheap gimmick here. Banks is not out to deceive the reader. He is honest about what he’s doing, and eventually shows us that it was done in the service of a higher purpose. Trust and patience is rewarded.

I often think about how the reading experience is impacted by the physical nature of a book: a reader can literally see and feel the unread section of a book growing smaller, and this surely has some psychological effect on how we read a novel and anticipate its ending. As the pages disappeared in Use of Weapons I knew that answers must be coming, but, as is usual in his work, Banks will not present them neatly packaged. Each timeline in is infused with a hazy sense of something-not-quite-right from the start, and I became almost weary with dread as the book progressed but refused to accelerate.

Answers came in shocking bursts. I wept hopelessly at the book’s most shocking reveal and again at its devastating conclusion. It was a punch to the stomach followed by a liver shot.

Banks has a precious gift: he shapes and directs his readers’ emotional responses with incredible delicacy and intelligence. His books aren’t packed with explicit themes and subject matter, but he knows how to deliver sudden moments of unbearable horror and pain and bittersweet sadness that leave an indelible impression. The enormity of events becomes clearer the further away I get from them. I’m still turning this book over and over in my mind, weeks after I finished it.

The story is like a grand saga – not in the sense of some massive modern-day multi-book series, but a myth, a cultural artifact. It feels temporally ambiguous, standing outside any particular time and place. It’s already happened and might never happen at all. Unlike much science fiction, it’s not about one single world- or galaxy- or universe-changing event, but about people and history and purpose. Small details and minor plot points contribute to the sprawling story as much as its most impressive turns, and the whole becomes an offering to the tragic figure at its centre. (See the end for a comment that is also a spoiler). I didn’t feel like a participant in this book, but a witness to its events.

I’ve been reading science fiction since my early teens but I’m glad that I came to Iain M Banks a bit later in life. I’m not sure my younger self would have known how to appreciate his work quite so fully as I can now. Each time I pick up a Banks book I haven’t read, I’m a little sad. Excited to read it, of course, but aware that what we have now is it. I’m savouring the unread titles. He is missed.









To be clear: the tragic figure, to me, is Cheradenine Zakalwe, not Elethiomel. When the twist was finally revealed, I was completely heartbroken. I like to see Use of Weapons as an atonement of sorts for Cheradenine’s grim life and death. I don’t think Iain M Banks would necessarily agree with this interpretation, but I’m incurably soft-hearted with this sort of thing.

Something something lies and statistics

Have a read: Spreadsheets are people too: statistics and reality. I quite like this blog post.* I see this issue come up time and again in political discussions, and it usually boils down to a “feels vs reals” kind of debate, or perhaps a subsection of the Two Cultures question. Like Professor Portes, I think that there is a lot of unnecessary and misguided antagonism between the stats and anti-stats crowd.

As someone who is, broadly speaking, found on the left side of politics, I’m sadly used to political bedfellows of the anti-stats persuasion. This doesn’t mean a literal hostility to statistics or science and maths more broadly; in fact, I’d say that many of these people would say they like science very much. The anti-stats attitude is something most easily seen in the midst of debate; for some, making an argument based in ethics or morality is more important than making a case using empirical tools. When this view meets opposition from the stats crowd, things can deteriorate fast.

I can’t help but think of my time spent in internet forums and Facebook groups that are focused on discussion between people of different political beliefs. These are weird little microcosms where real-world political dynamics are replicated, amplified, and played out in often predictable fashion. Often it seemed like the lefties showed up prepared to have debates centred on ethics and morality and expecting certain axioms of theirs to go unchallenged, while a certain set of the right/libertarian crew seemed to have piles of links and papers ready to go at all times on most topics (of varying quality). That Stefan Molyneux catchphrase, “not an argument”, is instructive here. In these spaces, arguments based on non-empirical foundations (for lack of a better term) were perceived as weak and illegitimate – not “real” arguments – whereas a position backed up with statistics and other scientific evidence was considered respectable.

I see interesting parallels here with wider cultural tensions between the hard sciences and humanities. Serious work is conducted using the scientific method; expendable, even indulgent work is done by those who spend their time, say, pouring through old poetry books, or theorising about gender. So goes one popular line of thought.

I’ve noticed this dynamic in debates online and in real life. I’ve tried to explain it to myself and ended up frustrated. Surely it’s problematic to view all this in a framework where left-wing politics is grouped with the humanities and right-wing politics is grouped with the hard sciences and they’re all fighting in some grand battle, but that seems to be what I’m implying. To help it all make sense I ended up using Nietzsche in a slightly spurious way, or at least employ/bastardise some of his ideas in ways perhaps not quite intended by him. I’m certainly no scholar of his work, but I’ve found his concept of master-slave morality to be useful in trying to make sense of why we see particular divides along political and cultural lines.

I see parts of the political left as beholden to a kind of slave morality which manifests in various ways including shaping the way that they argue. Whipping out a spreadsheet isn’t nearly as meaningful to some as a solid argument based in political philosophy, or something derived from an ethical framework, or testimony from lived experience. Further, arguing in the same way as their political opponents is uncomfortable; not only are they perhaps not well-versed in these techniques, but the act of simply adopting them seems like a tacit acknowledgement that their opponents’ tools of argument are effective – effective enough to want to copy and use right back at them. This is a concession that’s far too dangerous to make in a situation where gaining and holding on to points of legitimacy is paramount.

Many are reluctant to buy into a view that they perceive to be cold and sanitised. They doubt that graphs and numbers can give a true picture of people’s lives, solve the problems facing them, and ultimately provide justice. Perhaps they’ve seen these tools employed to do the opposite of that. The picture of, say, a heartless, hyper-rational government cutting welfare benefits based on advice from a wonkish grey paper is a powerful one (and it’s certainly not based on total fantasy).

So, the master’s tools can only be used for his own ends; the slave feels compelled to reject them and use his own. This is an enormous mistake for the political left to make. We must utilise a range of tactics in our political battles and avoid a mindset which prompts us to view the use of particular tools as a concession to our opponents. Perhaps a hackneyed point, but: statistics can be used to tell a range of stories, and it’s impossible to challenge or confirm these stories without knowing how to speak the language they’re told in.

Numbers are not a neoliberal conspiracy (to paraphrase a great tweet I saw recently and now can’t find). Those on the left are unwise to dismiss an indispensable source of information about the world. Of course, this is a complex issue with more dimensions than what I’ve touched on: consider how different priorities and ideological paradigms become popular, why certain research gets funding, how the concept of expertise is built and maintained, or why evidence for particular things might be pushed by powerful voices. Just… like I said, not everything is a conspiracy, and using statistics doesn’t make us heartless or cold or legitimise political opponents. It helps us understand the reality of our world in different and powerful ways.


*Though it’s worth highlighting the section about “spreadsheet-driven policy” on poverty: I take issue with this approach for particular (socialist) reasons that I’d like to discuss more in another post.

Contested territory: Trump, Corn Laws, expertise

[As with all my posts here, this is not meant to be an academic paper – it’s simply a collection of ideas that I’ve typed out in my spare time. I do have some academic knowledge in this area, but not enough to assure you that I’ve not made any mistakes. For the sake of brevity and making this interesting enough for a wide range of people to read, some points are glossed over – but not distorted.]

About a year ago I wrote my honours thesis on the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws in the United Kingdom. There were two key ideas underpinning my work:

a) That the rise of free trade is often and unfairly given a teleological treatment by historians. Doing so sidelines the role of people and institutions and legislation (among other things) in enabling free trade doctrine to move out of the realm of theory and into practice.

b) That the economics profession has historically occupied a contested place in public discourse and continues to do so today. The tension from this can be seen played out in public discourse; the Parliamentary debates on the Corn Laws show hostility between arguments that were derived from academic work in the field of political economy (out of which grew the economics field we know today), and arguments rooted in things like ethics, religion, foreign relations, etc. I believe that we still have not resolved this tension to this very day.

Point b) is something I’ve been extremely interested in for a few years now, but I was only able to begin thinking about it in a somewhat sophisticated way thanks to guidance from my honours supervisor, to whom I owe a great intellectual debt. I’ve now begun a PhD that will further explore issues of free trade and empire in mid-19th century Britain, and already I’m looking back on my previous undergrad work with a sceptical eye… I did pretty well in trying to make some high-stakes arguments with only one year and 16,000 words to work with, but suffice to say I look forward to returning to some of those topics when I’m better-equipped to handle them.

Recent political events in the United States have got me thinking back on this work, and especially on point b).

It’s perhaps not the most pressing news right at this moment, but President Donald Trump still has not picked a chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisors. Even when (if…) he does, it looks like this person will not be a part of Trump’s cabinet (though cabinet inclusion is not a requirement – Barack Obama just set a precedent for this). Past presidents have relied on and valued the expertise of the CEA team, which is comprised of the Chair, two Members, and a staff of economists and statisticians, and which provides empirical economic data, advice on economic policy, and more. The list of previous Chairs include superstar names like Alan Greenspan, Joseph Stiglitz, Janet Yellen, Greg Mankiw, and Ben Bernanke.

Trump has filled some key relevant positions, however. Gary Cohn, former Goldman Sachs CEO, is Trump’s chief economic advisor and director of the National Economic Council. Steve Mnuchin, former Goldman Sachs chief information officer, is the US Secretary of the Treasury. Peter Narravo, professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, is the Director of the newly-created US National Trade Council. Hey, there’s one economist! Alas, one who has produced no peer-reviewed work in trade economics or macro, and whose views on those things are not well-regarded in the mainstream.

As many have noted, Trump seems spectacularly uninterested in taking advice or guidance from economists or shaping his policy around convention. He hasn’t released any particularly detailed economic policy but we’ve seen snapshots of an ethnonationalist-protectionist outlook, deep suspicion of free trade deals, and a determination to re-create/re-nationalise aspects of the US economy that have long been lost to globalised trade and capital. Some relevant pages: (I know, wikipedia, but it’s a good page)

Extricating itself so forcefully and suddenly from the global economy seems foolish, at best, for the nation that occupies such a vital role within it. Adam Tooze has a fantastic post on this – America’s Political Economy: Trump and the Global Dollar. It includes a link to and discussion of the extraordinary letter sent by Republican congressman Patrick McHenry to Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve, in which McHenry heavily criticises the Fed’s participation in international forums/agreements including the Basel Accords (banking regulation). He demands that the Fed discontinue its involvement in such things “until President Trump has had an opportunity to nominate and appoint officials that prioritize American’s best interests”. It really has to be read to be believed.

Trump, and many of his team, have taken part in economic debates and discussions but have rarely made “economic” arguments within these debates. By this I mean that they’re not holding up graphs and academic papers and grey literature. They’re not looking to the economic orthodoxy for support or demonstrating that they even think they should be. They’re promising that “trade policies will be implemented by and for the people, and will put America first”. They are concerned with America’s “devastated manufacturing base” and want to “revitalize our nation’s suffering communities”. They tell us that “Americans have been forced to accept trade deals that put the interests of insiders and the Washington elite over the hard-working men and women of this country” (all quotes from White House page on trade; I feel they’re pretty typical of Trump’s rhetoric on trade and economics).

While certain topics like infant industry protection are contested within academia and the professional world, you’d be hard pressed to find a mainstream economist willing to go in to bat for Trumpian protectionism (and I’m sure not many in the heterodoxy would either). Does Trump care? Hell no. That’s the whole point. He’s giving two fingers to a group that he’s basically painted as a sinister cabal who plot to enrich themselves and their buddies at the expense of blue-collar American jobs and families. Important to turf them out of the White House, limit their power in institutions like the Federal Reserve, and then get to work Making American Great Again. I’m highly critical of claims that Trump is a true populist, but his language on trade and jobs is firmly in that vein.

As much as we have reason to be sceptical about Trump’s economic policies, we must recognise the sheer power of his arguments. There is no real indication that he can actually do what he’s promised to do – restore jobs, MAGA, etc – but people are passionate about the mere idea of it. They don’t want to hear wonkish arguments and read graphs. They want to hear things that mean something to them.

It’s clear that the authority of expertise doesn’t always carry the weight that many assume it does. Holding a particular job title or set of qualifications isn’t a guarantee that people will listen to you or respect you. Much can influence the standing of a given group in the public’s esteem.

One example that comes to my mind here is the Global Financial Crisis. The enormous shock of the GFC is still fresh in the minds of many. I think it’s fair to say that it cost economists a great deal of cultural capital (whether they deserved to lose it or not). The general public seems to consider them to be some kind of all-knowing, all-seeing wizards of money and markets, which isn’t a particularly good or correct thing to think, but here we are. With this impression in mind, the public watched the crisis unfold – and then they saw the wizards working their magic, not to stop the terrible events of 2007 and beyond, but to bail out the banks afterwards. The perception for many was that economists weren’t equipped to prevent what was likely the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and didn’t then lead the charge to punish those responsible for it but chose to give them handouts instead. Perhaps the GFC fallout led to a Wizard of Oz kind of moment for some: the curtain was pulled back, and behind it there were only mere mortals.

Of course, this version of events is not quite what happened – I’m simply trying to create a picture of what popular public perception was. That’s what I’m interested in, after all: how people viewed the economics profession historically and in the present day.

In the 1800s, “economics” didn’t quite exist as we know it. Work done by luminaries such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, etc was referred to as “political economy”. The boundaries between academic fields that we’re familiar with did not delineate intellectual work in this time (these boundaries are very recent inventions, but that’s a topic for another post). A political economist was never just that – he wrote on philosophy, politics, religion, science, and often many of these things together.

The period around the mid 1800s is of particular interest because it was a time of fierce debate, lobbying, campaigning, and agitating around repealing the Corn Laws, which can be seen as part of a push towards Britain shaking off its mercantilist chains and adopting free trade. In 1815 Parliament had enacted the tariffs known as the Corn Laws; these restricted importation of foreign grain and created a lucrative environment for British landowners who could continue to enjoy the high prices for their land’s produce which had been the norm during the Napoleonic Wars and were now artificially propped up by the Laws.

The Parliamentary debates over repeal give us a wonderful glimpse into the way that political economy was treated in political discourse in the 1840s. Note that this really is just a glimpse! I pored over thousands of pages of Hansard just to dig up these bits and pieces, mostly from 1846 (which spoiler alert was the year of repeal). In the future I plan to revisit this material to get a bigger and better picture of how political economy was received in the UK Parliament. For now – see how it was treated by politicians at the height of the Parliamentary debates over repealing the Corn Laws.

A little background, courtesy of Charles Pelham Villiers. Villiers was a prominent Liberal politician and one of the key proponents of repealing the Corn Laws. He outlined the tension between the goals of protectionists and supporters of repeal in his Parliamentary speeches: protectionists sought high prices for produce to ensure the livelihoods of farmers and income of landowners, but supporters of repeal sought lower prices for produce to ensure that workers could purchase food at affordable prices and have money left for other items. If food prices remained high, a large portion of a worker’s wage needed to go towards this necessary good, which left only a small amount to spend on manufactured goods. In this way, home markets were compromised by high prices for grain and other food goods. Compounding these issues, Villiers noted that the population of Britain has been growing throughout the nineteenth century and that those extra people would need employment and the usual necessities of life. The situation of low manufacturing wages and high food prices was unsustainable for all these reasons.

Some politicians, including Prime Minister and repeal champion Robert Peel, invoked the field of political economy and names such as Adam Smith as sources of authority. Some, like John Russell, leader of the Opposition, argued against protectionism with what we could slightly anachronistically call economic arguments. He criticised the tired-out, decades-old theories for protectionism being put forward and championed the progressive and modern ideas of free trade that had been developed in response to the changing nation and its economic condition. As to be expected, Richard Cobden, Radical and founder of the Anti-Corn Law League, considered political economy “the highest exercise of the human mind” and said so in Parliament. He stated that, barring “want of [mental] capacity, and having a sinister interest – I defy any man to look into this question [of repeal] honestly, and come to any other than one conclusion”. If a politician was of keen intellect and good character, and thus able to appreciate the academic work of political economy, Cobden felt that there was no reason for this man to come to any conclusion other than one in favour of repeal of the Corn Laws.

Chief among the critics of political economy was Benjamin Disraeli, who acknowledged its use but described it as comprised of “theories which never influenced human conduct, and which are incapable of ever doing so”. He was suspicious of the motives of those politicians who praised political economy, painting them as deceitful, and even suggested that “we ought to invent a limbo for political economists, where we might hang up all those arguments that have served their purpose, and which have turned out to be sophistries”. Seems a bit harsh, but pretty much par for the course for Disraeli. Others including Edward Smith-Stanley cast political economy as a dangerous, experimental field that could not be relied upon for sound policy guidance and would produce “hazardous and doubtful policy”. Henry Seymer even begged the House “not to be imposed upon by the scientific jargon of the political economists”!

William Rashleigh took a bleak view, warning that fellow parliamentarians “may rejoice and indulge in those theories of modern philosophy and political economy; but when you have endangered and destroyed the peace and happiness of a nation, you will have but a sorry return for your pains.” Others spoke of political economy as sophistry, charlatanism, or a purely esoteric pursuit with little connection to the real world.

This gives us an idea of some of the professed attitudes towards political economy that were held by UK politicians, but it’s what was not said that is also of great interest. While I haven’t done enough research to say anything conclusive, I am comfortable saying that political economy just didn’t feature that much in the Corn Law debates, as a topic of discussion or as a source from which arguments were derived. Much more time was given to discussion of the Irish Potato Famine, food security, welfare, and relations with foreign nations – topics which are certainly within the purview of political economy, but the salient point is that they were not being discussed and debated on principles taken from academic work and there was no need for or expectation of politicians doing so. An argument based on moral principles or religion or foreign policy concerns or whatever else was much more common and likely to be better received than a quote from Wealth of Nations.

The field of economics is clearly going through a rough time under the Trump administration. Its place in public discourse is always contested, but at the moment it’s taking quite a beating. Recently, economist Justin Wolfers tweeted about Trump’s failure to nominate someone for CEA Chairperson (and here’s a column he wrote about economists’ concerns about Trump). In noting the demotion of economic advice in the current administration, Wolfers said, “For all the valid criticisms of economists, it’s worth remembering our defense: We’re bad at understanding the economy, but others are worse“. Hard to argue with that. I myself have been known to partake in heated critique of the economic orthodoxy from time to time (considering my politics it would be a little surprising if I hadn’t), but it’s simply foolish to do what Trump is doing: dismissing an entire academic and professional field, jettisoning expertise and bodies of research entirely. Perhaps unfairly for it, economics has a lot of work ahead to rehabilitate its image (and interestingly, I’ve read a lot of articles and columns recently from economists critiquing their field and suggesting ways it can change). Its future challenges under Trump remain to be seen.



Having your feminist cake and eating it too

There’s a common line of questioning that opponents of feminism will periodically put forward which goes something like this: why won’t feminists support [successful and prominent woman who is ambivalent or outright hostile towards feminism and/or has conservative political leanings]?

It’s a pretty good question. If feminism means equality for all women, as feminists frequently remind us, then why don’t feminists celebrate Margaret Thatcher, or Julie Bishop, or Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign in her role as Donald Trump’s campaign manager? All intelligent, ambitious women in the upper echelons of their careers, but because they don’t subscribe to progressive politics they miss out on the support of the feminist movement. I guess feminism isn’t really for all women then, hmmm?

Of course, this is put forward with a generous layer of faked concern by people who are desperate to execute a gotcha. Most feminists won’t respond to this kind of thing seriously, and it’s not really designed for a serious answer. It’s one of many ideas floating around in the cultural space of feminist debates that are plucked down and used as needed but never really fleshed out. There’s no need to add any detail to these arguments because they’re not intended for thoughtful deployment or engagement. They’re dumbly-thrown hand grenades intended to make a bang rather than achieve anything tactically sophisticated.

However, I am completely serious when I say that the question above is a good one. Digging into it leads us to some interesting suggestions about feminism and the reactionary forces opposing it. This is a big issue that I’ve been stewing on for some time now and I’m trying to keep this post short-ish, so there are about a million caveats and tangents and “i.e.”s that I’ve simply had to leave out. I’ve striven to word things as best I can in a post intended as a page in a scratch-pad rather than a fully-formed argument.

Feminists are fond of using very short, generalised definitions of feminism to address criticism about its scope and concerns about its internal debates, and to express incredulity at people who say they are not feminists. This is a problem, and it’s more of a problem than many feminists would probably like to admit.

For example: imagine someone saying “I am broadly supportive of gender equality, but I don’t think women should be elevated above men in society, so I don’t call myself a feminist.” Or “I am not interested in a social movement that doesn’t take my class and my race into account.” Or “I don’t believe that pornography and sexualisation of our bodies is empowering for women, and I see a lot of feminist messages that say otherwise, so I don’t really use the word “feminist” for myself.” Chances are that you’ve heard someone say something like this or said it yourself. Chances are, too, that you’ve responded with something like, “But feminism just means the political, economic, and social equality of women. If you believe in achieving this, you’re a feminist.” Maybe you’ve also said, “I don’t know why you’d be reluctant to call yourself a feminist when the definition is so simple. How is it even controversial?”

I see this as an instance of the so-called “motte and bailey” – a debate tactic where Person A offers a controversial point, then Person B critically engages with that point, then Person A switches to a more simple and uncontroversial form of their original point and claims that this is what their argument was based around all along. Blogger Scott Alexander describes this nicely in the post “All in All, Another Brick in the Motte” on his site Slate Star Codex.

Feminists spend a huge amount of time hashing out internal debates, developing theory, suggesting new ideas, and so on. When others (feminists or not) then note this activity and criticise it – especially when they cite aspects of it as reasons for not wanting to be a part of a feminist movement – it’s common to see a retreat away from controversial ideas and hear cries of “Uh do you have a problem with basic rights for women??”

The meaning of “feminism” is increasingly unclear. As feminist activity around the world grows and changes, this becomes even more so. We may all be nominally collected under the same banner but the differences between some strains of feminist thought are simply irreconcilable, and the debates between these strains are often more complex and fiercely fought than debates between feminists and anti-feminists. Moreover, the feminist ideas that have gained mainstream traction and prominence today are not always particularly good ones (and like many feminists, I believe these ideas have been allowed to grow and flourish due to their complicity with the social/cultural effects of neoliberalism and the interests of capital).

Feminism has such a broad scope that squishing it into a sentence or two can’t tell us anything particularly useful (outside perhaps a dictionary. I don’t deny the use of some kinds of definition, but do question their use in rhetorical battles and their effects on the intellectual character of mainstream feminism). Difficult feminist debates exist and it’s unavoidable that people who aren’t intimately acquainted with these issues will encounter them and form opinions about them. Perhaps they’ll misunderstand, perhaps they’ll create an unfair view from an out-of-context snippet – or perhaps they’ll raise valid concerns about views that some feminists hold.

It is certainly tempting to try and create a united feminist front to present to the wider world – an invaluable aid in political activism – but it’s misguided to do so when the only thing holding some of us together under the “feminist” banner might be a good faith acknowledgement that we all believe we’re searching for a better life for women.

To head back towards the original premise of this post: aside from the problems already outlined, the “short definition” rebuttal technique is a poor rhetorical move for feminists to make as it opens space for the kind of attack described in my opening section. If feminism is concerned with political opportunities for all women, why do many feminists not acknowledge the achievements of conservative women in the same way that that they do for, say, Hillary Clinton?

Here I need to profess a certain kind of admiration for women who are prominent conservative politicians and pundits. The decision of these women to have the careers they do runs contrary to the core of their belief system. They are not occupying the roles that they presumably see as the best for women to have in order to maintain a tightly-woven social fabric. Many are intelligent and politically savvy, and often more so than many of the truly mediocre men who rise to the upper echelons of the conservative commentariat and political ranks. I find Phyllis Schlafly a compelling example: an American constitutional lawyer and activist who ran the sophisticated and successful campaign opposing ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The way she juggled the contradictions between her rhetoric and the reality of her life and work was clever and sensitive, if not always totally convincing.

These women are no friends of feminism and are often openly disdainful of feminist activism and organising – even as they benefit from the enormous cultural and social shifts that occurred in no small part due to feminist efforts (boys clubs certainly didn’t open up their ranks due to the overwhelming merit of these women). Margaret Thatcher famously stated that she owed nothing to women’s lib, and her and other conservative women in public life have never asked for or shown any expectation of receiving feminist support in their careers. Very well.

Conservative women don’t want feminist support. Feminists don’t want to support them. But, uhh, I thought feminism is for equality of all women? When am I gonna get an answer to this contradiction?

Using lines like “But feminism is just gender equality” does two interesting and dangerous things: it elides dense webs of inter-feminist debate, and it seeks to present feminism as an almost non-political entity. It presents feminism re-formed into an axiom: “gender equality is good and must be achieved” is the self-evident truth. On its own, devoid of context and whys and hows, such a sentiment is as good as meaningless.

See, feminists who offer these “short definitions” of feminism don’t mean just what they’re saying. There’s a complex backdrop of beliefs and values sitting behind this kind of definition, obscured by its axiomatic presentation. I don’t suggest that this is being concealed in an underhanded way, but that their view of gender equality as a “motherhood and apple pie” idea results in feminists assuming all right-thinking people will treat it as such. There must, then, be something seriously wrong with anyone who wants to question it. Fredrik deBoer has a series of good posts on this stuff as it pertains to broad left-leaning political behaviour. Many feminists believe that their own ideas are absolutely above questioning – hence “But you believe in gender equality? So you’re a feminist!” Sure, feminists can fairly say that their goal is the political, economic, and social equality of all women, but the unspoken element of this statement generally specifies that this goal will not be achieved through conservative political ideas and actions. The implication is that it will be achieved by mainstream, liberal feminism. Therein lies the rub: it won’t.

Conservative women don’t deserve feminist support because their political ideas and actions are harmful to women, but adhering to simplistic feminist messaging makes it difficult to assert this without looking hypocritical. However, many ostensibly progressive/liberal/left-leaning women politicians, like Hillary Clinton, also don’t deserve feminist support because their political ideas and actions are harmful to women. Feminists largely align themselves with the latter and not the former due to rank tribalism and dominance of liberal thought among the broad range of feminist ideas. A true and thoughtful commitment to feminism requires a critical eye to be taken to all politics, even that which you feel particularly committed to. A couple of wise men once said “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, and much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies”.

Right now, it doesn’t really matter who mainstream, liberal feminism lends its support to. Its intellectual limits ensure it remains complicit with oppression through its own inability to ask hard questions and foster radical thought. It is difficult to take its professed goal of gender equality seriously when liberal feminism entertains and endorses ideas that point towards an atomised, soulless society rather than one which enables women to live meaningfully. Value-free celebration of women’s success in any area. Obsession with getting women onto company boards. Cold, callous abortion rhetoric. Support for financial abortions for men. Preoccupation with minutiae. Power-worship. Idolising politicians and pundits.

This feminism that won’t support conservative women is doing nothing to counter many of the most pervasive material effects of reactionary politics. It carries on with handing out ostensibly apolitical mission statements while maintaining a cosy relationship with the status quo. The “short definition” rebuttal tactic I described earlier is an short-term tool with long-term repercussions: repeat a simplistic statement loud and often enough and contribute to the creation of a flimsy movement that reflects it.

As difficult (futile…) as it is to form a definition of feminism, we must be prepared to make certain commitments to what feminism is and is not in order to make an effective movement. Feminism cannot be a blank slate on which anyone can write something worthwhile merely by virtue of them being a woman.