Geography and ethics: the last word

DSCF1152Better late than never, the third and final of my ‘progress reports’ on the theme of Geography and Ethics is now available on the Online First page of Progress in Human Geography. This one is sub-titled ‘From moral geographies to geographies of worth‘ (and was actually completed almost two years ago). It discusses various streams of contemporary social theory in which ‘normative’ questions are approached in more or less ordinary, non-moralistic ways. As I have said previously, I have a sense of these three reviews adding up to a single narrative of sorts, though I’m not quite sure I can now remember what it was exactly, without going back and reading them all in succession. I understand that the next set of reviews on this theme are going to be written by Betsy Olsen, who I’m sure will bring a fresh perspective.

Here is the abstract for my final piece:

“Geographers’ discussions of normative issues oscillate between two poles: the exhortation of ‘moral geography’ and the descriptive detail of ‘moral geographies’. Neither approach gives enough room for ordinarily normative dimensions of action. Recent philosophical discussions of the implicit normativity of practices, and ethnographic discussions of the ordinary, provide resources for developing more modest accounts of normativity and practical reasoning. The relevance to geography of recent re-evaluations of the place of reflection and thought in habitual action is illustrated with reference to the antinomies which shape debates about the ethics and efficacy of behaviour change initiatives. The potential for further developing these insights is explored with reference to the normative turn in contemporary social theory, which includes discussions of conventions, practices of justification, lay normativity, phronesis, recognition and orders of worth. The potential contribution of philosophies of action and intentionality and social theories of the normative for moving geography beyond the impasses of moral geography versus moral geographies depends on suspending an inherited wariness about the normative, which might be helped by thinking of this topic in more ordinary ways. The outlines of a programme for geographies of worth are considered.”

Rancière at criticism

Via Continental Philosophy, here is an audio of Jacques Rancière, talking about the relationship of critical theory and contemorary social movements. It’s only 20 minutes long, but it’s a concise little summary of his position, mainly being rude about what he sees as the sellinof out of the emancipatory promise by current critical theorists, though its unclear sometimes exactly who he has in mind. There is a swipe at the ontological flights of fancy of Sloterdijk, and a slightly more sustained reference to Boltanski and Chiapello’s account of the spirits of capitalism.

His basic argument is that various facets of classical critical theory are now deployed in an inverted way, so that the main objects of criticism in analyses of consumerism or commodity culture are now the subjects of these processes, ordinary people themselves. The main object of critique, Rancière suggests, has become the ignorance and culpability of ordinary people.

This rings true for me, I think it is a feature of a great deal of contemporary theory, forced to find some ‘political’ purchase for its culturalist analyses, to end up focussing on how people have been ‘got at’ in one way or another, and to lament their susceptibility (this is also a feature of many ‘moralised’ fields of social science, on climate change and environmental issues, on behaviour change, on global poverty).

Rancière proposes an alternative, quite old fashioned model of critique, derived from Kant – critique as the reflection on and elaboration of the conditions of possibility of emancipatory action. That’s much the same concept of critique you find in ‘third generation’ big-C, big-T Critical Theorists like Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.

Rancière’s version of this Kantian model of critique is notable of course because of the emphasis he places on the principle of equality of intelligence or competence, specifically of aesthetic judgement. This is the principle contravened by scholastic disdain for ordinary consumer entertainments and commodity cultures.

Rancière’s point against Boltanski and Chiapello seems, however, to replay an older division between a more sociological take on aesthetic discourse, that emphasises aesthetics as a discourse of distinction and differentiation, and a more populist affirmation of the universality of aesthetic competence (in Anglo cultural studies, see Paul Willis or Tony Bennett might stand for different positions on this). Rancière implies that the identification of two styles of critique of capitalism, a social and an aesthetic one, by Boltanski and Chiapello replays a bourgeois disdain for the aesthetic competencies of working people. I’m not sure this is convincing. The sociological analysis of the differentiating deployment of aesthetic values is normally animated by exactly the sort of universalist, egalitarian commitment that Rancière affirms – it’s perhaps less prone to the philosophical presumptions that his egalitarian account of aesthetics reproduces.

Fair is Fair

Everybody’s talking about fairness, these days, as my colleague John Clarke observes. It’s been a central and recurring motif in discussions of the end of universal child benefit, the Browne review of higher education funding, and Nick Clegg’s announcement of the Pupil Premium. All this fairness talk is part of general break-out of explicitly normative political discourse in the last 6 months, or at least the surfacing of themes which have been floating around for a while – The Big Society, with it’s Burkean heritage and ‘Red Tory’ sheen of radicalism is just one example; Ian Duncan-Smith’s catholic inflected social justice agenda is another; David Willets’ account of intergenerational justice yet another, the latter two more obviously having policy relevance than Cameron’s more flaky sounding Big Society.  A key question here is whether it is wise to think of these discourses as simply ‘cover’ for spending cuts, simply means of legitimating more fundamental decisions.

John worries that fairness is too airy, lacking the incisiveness of a value like equality for example. I’m not so sure. Firstly, I think fairness is a term through which intuitive values of equality and justice is ordinarily expressed – these aren’t opposed terms at all. John Rawls’ egalitarian liberalism revolves around a notion of fairness, for example (a rather opaque account admittedly). But the principle of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ also expresses an egalitarian sense of fairness. I think the intimate relationship between fairness and from abstract notions of equality or justice is worth considering more carefully as the politics of ‘the new politics’ begins to unfold, starting tomorrow with the comprehensive spending review. Last week, The Guardian’s right-wing provocateur Julian Glover managed to concoct a mean-spirited response to the ECHR’s report, How Fair is Britain?. What exercised Glover was precisely the coupling of fairness with equality in this report, leading him to argue that since fairness is a woolly idea, and since it is too easily mistaken as ‘equality’, we should do away with both notions. Glover’s self-serving argument elicited a debate , which underscored again the close relationship between these two different values.

My point is that we might do well to take seriously the different meanings of fairness, and attend to their changing deployment in public culture and in different contexts. But more than this, might usefully think of this break-out of fairness talk not so much as merely ‘legitimating’ economic decision-making, but as a form of justificatory discourse – in the sense that justificatory practices are understood by economic sociologists such as Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Laurent Thévenot, as crucial mediums for the coordination of social life. From their perspective, justificatory discourses need to be understood as exerting real constraints on the exercise of unfettered capitalist logics, and as indices of fields of contestation and critique to which selective responses are made. From this sort of perspective, all this fairness talk is notable precisely because it is an index of the terrain of conflict and contestation to which an emerging, half-baked political programme feels itself obliged to respond in the hope of circumventing other modes of critique. Fairness is not meaningless, and certainly not an empty signifier. It has as set of intuitive associations, which the Coalition is doing its best to both make use of and control. David Cameron talks of fairness as ‘giving people what they deserve, and what people deserve depends on how they behave’. This definition ties fairness to a notion of individual responsibility, but it articulates a broader sense of fairness having to do with desert – an idea that is easily inflected in egoistically ‘meritocratic’ ways for sure, but which is also open to re-inscription.

So fairness might be worth taking more seriously than the urge to question all this woolly moralism leads us to think it should, if only because this is one terrain in which ‘the new politics’ is about to be articulated – not just spending cuts, but the coming debate about electoral reform too. It’s not the only one, of course, and there is no good reason to restrict oneself to the terms laid down by those in formal political control of events. In this respect, too, though, it is notable that there are some funny things happening in political discourse just now. For example, the reaction to the announcement of the end of universal child benefit by right-wing columnists in The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph is interesting not least because the challenge to the narrowly ‘transactional’ view of fairness expressed by Osborne and Cameron at the Tory conference was presented through a clear statement of a principle of public value – the defence of ‘stay at home mums’ receiving child benefit irrespective of personal or household income levels was made in the name of the principle that engaging in an activity that benefitted the collective life of the community deserved reward and support. This is a gendered, nationalistic, paternalistic vision of public value, no doubt, but a vision of public value it certainly is – it is in marked contrast to the ruling principle behind the Browne review of higher education, for example, which confirms an already evident drift to thinking of the public function of Universities primarily in terms of the efficiency with which they distribute private benefits to those who pass through their doors – a trend tracked by OU colleagues in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, and theorised by Craig Calhoun. If the ‘stay at home mum’ logic was applied to higher education, the proposals for University funding would look markedly different. All of which is to suggest that one task for a critical response to ‘the new politics’ of spending cuts, austerity, re-moralisation of the poor, electoral reform, and much else is to carefully track the modes of justification presented for different decisions, for it is here that one will be able to track the genealogies of vulnerability to which this idiosyncratic political project is responding and the opportunities for opposition it is helping to generate in its wake.