Abstraction as ideology

This morning, The Girlfriend asked a question about the Supreme Court proceedings surrounding Health Care Reform, and I felt a twinge of shame at knowing the answer. The reason is that I’ve been trying my best to avoid following news stories where the coverage depends on sifting and resifting new scraps of evidence to attempt to predict an outcome that, once it comes, will be more or less definitive. The Supreme Court is either going to overturn the individual mandate or not; they will either decide this invalidates the entire law or not. Reading the tea leaves beforehand is of absolutely no use.

One could say the same of election stories: someone will win. Maybe, in a particularly close race, there will be a recount and it will take longer to decide who wins — but inevitably, someone will be declared the winner and that will be the end of it. At that point, who will care about what one would have thought about the likely outcome given the available information three months prior to the election? What really matters is what the winner does with the power gained through the election. That is, presumably, what will determine whether we want to reelect that person — how effective or beneficial their policies have been. Yet in a short-circuit, all the coverage of policies is precisely geared toward how they might effect election outcomes.

Hence all political coverage is essentially worthless. It is a total waste of all our time. It takes place in total abstraction from actual governance and thus gives us no information on which we can base the few decisions that we are empowered to make.

The same goes for political debate, which is dominated by the use of relative terms as though they were absolute. We learn, for instance, that a given policy is “too expensive,” full stop. It’s not that it costs too much relative to the benefits it would bring, nor that it would compromise other priorities — it’s just that its price tag is above a certain hard limit (which is itself never specified). The same could be said of qualities like “efficiency.” Surely no one would prefer to be inefficient if given the choice, but efficient at what? Health insurance companies are super-efficient, for instance — at rejecting claims. Or we want to promote “economic growth,” but obviously not everyone benefits equally from economic growth. One could argue that the majority of people would benefit more from the redistribution of existing income flows, even in situations of low or negative growth.

In education, an admirable clarity reigns: we want to equip students (at least on the lower tiers of the system) with the skills employers need. Here, finally, the unexpressed referent of “efficient at what,” “necessary for what,” “too costly for whom” comes to the surface! Yet again, we might ask why we need to provide those skills for free to what are, after all, for-profit concerns. Because it will promote “economic growth”? Because then we’ll be more “globally competitive”? Again, competitive at what?

Political coverage is nothing but empty prognostication, with no indication about why we should even care about the outcome. Meanwhile, political debate is conducted via empty abstractions that are supposed to be vaguely “good.” All of it is utterly meaningless and useless. Yet I assume that basically all of us reading follow it all avidly. Why?

18 thoughts on “Abstraction as ideology

  1. Well, I don’t follow any of it. If I know any of the details, it’s purely by accident, or perhaps because my twitter feed is full of it.

    I imagine people follow it because they still hold onto some hope that the system itself is redeemable, that it can be manipulated to some positive end. So this endless pointless coverage is followed in hopes that that belief has some validity, that the actors can be cajoled to suck less.

  2. As somebody who had previously felt some shame for how little I follow these things, I welcome this viewpoint. As for the question posed, I suspect many of us follow so that we are properly armed in case we should find ourselves caught in a discussion about it. Of course, “winning” or “losing” these arguments with co-workers, friends or relatives is also pointless.

  3. When I first moved to the States, it was exciting (even if in a terrifying key) that people could be so invested in what kind of society they belonged to that they would go to town hall meetings and get in fights with old ladies and call people Hitler (I moved down in the summer of 2009). What seems disturbing about it now is not that the dominant ideologies are ugly ones, but that the whole of American political passion is directed at what doesn’t matter concretely. So people in my neighborhood could come to blows over whether Obama is a socialist Muslim, but couldn’t care less about local urban planning decisions that would actually affect their lives.

    Yet neither can I avoid or ignore the passion for abstraction, in which the urgency of “reading the tea leaves” can be included. It’s how the system stays a system, by raising the stakes where we really have no stake, so we will be too spent to give a shit about its concrete underbelly.

  4. The standards by which such things are judged are also unclear — though of course the mainstream media can apparently directly intuit public opinion on a moment-by-moment basis, at least according to the way they talk.

  5. ‘Meanwhile, political debate is conducted via empty abstractions that are supposed to be vaguely “good.” All of it is utterly meaningless and useless. Yet I assume that basically all of us reading follow it all avidly. Why? ‘

    Because if we didn’t follow it, we would become detached from the society in a way that would soon crash the entire social system. Imagine legislators passing laws that no-one has ever heard about, presidents giving speeches to empty seats and media just refusing to investigate anything. It’s in the structure of the society that we are “obsessed” about following news and politics.

    I think losing hope in current politics and realizing it’s completely abstract is a good thing, as we begin to think how we could be more concrete. I consider Wittgensteinian clarity essential in this: “What can be said at all can be said clearly.”

  6. Adam,

    Isn’t the problem much deeper that this? That is, everything in modernity is, either implicitly or explicitly, designed to maximize utility. But aggregated utility (the utility of multiple different people added together) is simply a nothing – it was an attempt to create a mathematical equation to replace the discourse over some sort of common good. And that equation simply does not actually exist: the economic theorists Debreu, Sonneschein and Mantel proved that you can’t add one person’s utility equation to another’s.

  7. Sure, there are 9 people who are going to go one way or the other and for about 8 we all know where they will go and for the 9th it can go either way and there is no way to know which way he will go.

    But it being an important point it is important that it is discussed (even if most of the discussion will be futile) because by the fact that it is discussed people will make up their minds and vote one way or the other, determining a.o. which 9 people will be judging the case (or a related case) at a future point of time.

    I find all of the fuzz about markets, debt, invasions and so on just hysterical fuzz. I also find the dramatic suggestion that any discussion on it cannot be but fuzz to be just useless drama.

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