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On The Left - Does Knowledge Matter?

On The Left - Does Knowledge Matter?

I am an unlikely fan of Simon Upton. He's a man who has made many, many enemies on the left. While I don't agree with him, he is intelligent and his ideological positions are well thought out and reasoned (unlike those of many of his colleagues). However, reason doesn't help when your underlying structure of thought is rubbish.

He caught my eye with a column in the NBR on the 11th of February. While declaring the new Government to be the most left wing in a very long time, he inadvertently exposed the fundamental flaw he has been trapped with since his prizewinning 1987 essay on neoliberalism - `The Withering of the State'.

Far more of political theory than you might think is related to theories of knowledge. This might seem surprising at first, but to relate the importance of a knowledge theory is pretty simple. I'm going, for this column, to divide ways of thinking about knowledge into two broad types - `dumb' and `smart'. Dumb theories of knowledge are black and white frameworks where knowledge always fits a predetermined scheme. The best example of this `dumb' theory of knowledge is that employed by neo-liberals like Simon Upton. `Smart' theories of knowledge don't try and force ways of knowing into pre-set categories, and I'll discuss one such theory of knowledge below, contrasting it with the neoliberal approach.

What is a theory of knowledge though? It discusses how people know things. And the two examples I'll use are neoliberal and what might be described as a broad left theory of knowledge. The difference between them is the way they focus on the individual. One focuses on single people exclusively, while one focuses on people as they actually are - as members of various groups.

The neoliberal conception of knowledge holds that knowledge is individual. It's probably best expressed by Robert Nozick. Knowledge is theorised like this: it is owned, used, shaped, created, abused by individual people and only by individuals. That very, very simple core leads on to a whole range of the wider assumptions we traditionally associate with the right. For example, if knowledge is individual, then it is obvious that free, unfettered markets are the best way to organise production, distribution and exchange. Any state interference simply has the effect of interfering without knowing. It'd be like getting me to perform brain surgery on you - a subject I know nothing whatsoever about.

This flows on to quite a few more areas. Freedom is about individuals using what they know to benefit themselves as they see fit. Once again, any interference in their free choices must make them worse off, because the collective organisation can have no understanding of how that person thinks or what their desires could possibly be.

All the above sounds superficially rational and acceptable. It doesn't take that much energy to unpick though, and this is where a smarter theory of knowledge comes in. The basic difference is that a left theory of knowledge understands that ideas and facts aren't always held by individuals. Collectives know things too. One example of this is public opinion, and another is the concept of `institutional memory' with which most people are familiar.

You can go on to think of several other ways knowledge isn't individual. Team sports are a classic one. If people can't pool their talents, then no matter how good they are as individual sportspeople, their team won't achieve jack. Democratic organisations embody this understanding of knowledge, with a conscious attempt to pool people's experiences, thoughts and views to gain an outcome that is better than what any one person could come up with. It is this sharing of information that underlies everything from continual teambuilding in companies, to the institution of the House of Representatives.

What does this smart or `social' theory of knowledge imply that is different to the neoliberal or `dumb' theory I outlined first?

The first point isn't so much an implication as an observation. The idea that only individuals hold or control knowledge is clearly ridiculous. It is one of the major flaws of neoliberal ideology, and has a pretty big part in explaining why so much of the rest of the neoliberal viewpoint doesn't stack up. Theories which bear no relation to reality are a problem (see On The Left a few weeks ago for a discussion related to this problem applied to economic thought).

Implications of this `social' way of knowing are that sometimes collectives are justified in controlling a situation where individuals disagree. This is generally accepted in democratic organisations, especially the State, but is not a widespread view elsewhere. It is said to impose on people's freedom. Of course, saying someone is free could merely be the same as saying they don't know what they're talking about, if the above analysis is true.

`Social' knowing also opens the way to public, political involvement in the economy. If not all knowledge is individual, then clearly there is a role for informed, collective bodies in various areas of regulation or social provision of services. In fact, increasing democratic or citizen involvement at a wide variety of levels provides more chance for people's knowledge to be shared, and could result in better decision-making across the board.

Theories of knowledge, in the end, are a pretty obscure part of political theory. They are important because they are the largely ever-present basis of how people think about issues. Putting them up for discussion, and getting people to think about how they know, has to be good for the left. Particularly when, as I have discussed above, the predominant underpinning of right wing ideology is so fundamentally flawed.

Jordan Carter carters@ihug.co.nz

-- Jordan Carter Auckland, New Zealand

Freedom, Justice and Solidarity


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