Time For A Social Science Yard Sale

Jesus Christ, look at all this stuff! Where did it come from? Why do we keep it around? 

One of my big problems with all the social scientists under Marxian influence is that they assume an ontology filled with things that don’t actually exist. Don’t fall for the surface critique of “too much jargon.” Jargon is technical terminology. Marxist jargon is a long list of terms that have precise technical meanings... but actually refer to nothing.

From a Jacobin book review

If there’s one lesson to be drawn from Melinda Cooper’s masterful new study of capitalism and the American right, it’s that this supposed opposition between neoliberalism and social conservatism is a caricature. The central argument of Family Values is that a shared normative project united neoliberalism and social conservatism as they arose beginning in the 1970s. At the center of this project was the notion of the family. For Cooper, neoliberalism is far from the amoral, or even radically “antinormative” creed it is often made out to be (including by left-wing theorists such as Wolfgang Streeck and Nancy Fraser). No less than social conservatism, neoliberalism sought in its own way to reestablish the family as the basic unit of social life in response to the crises of the second half of the twentieth century. The two movements were hardly mere allies of convenience, let alone mortal enemies. On the contrary, Family Values reveals how their close conceptual and practical collaboration helped to build the foundations of the contemporary social world. 

To understand why the idea of the family was so central to the neoliberal-conservative project, Cooper argues that we need to begin by looking at the political climate of the late 1960s. At the peak of American Keynesian social democracy, an overwhelming consensus existed in favor of the “Fordist family wage.” That the best way to ensure a decent standard of living was to provide a livable wage to each male breadwinner at the head of a traditional heterosexual family was an idea nearly everybody accepted.

Of course, different variations of this idea were advanced by opposing sides. Through much of the 1960s, the activist left and the liberal center aimed to use the welfare state to extend this family wage to people previously excluded from it, namely African-American male heads of household. Though many Republicans hoped to eliminate welfare programs that they judged to be too generous, the right more or less conceded that “we are all Keynesians now.” The Fordist family wage, Cooper reveals, united everyone from the anti-poverty activist Frances Fox Piven to the New Deal liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the moderate Republican Richard Nixon. Even Milton Friedman — whom Cooper describes during this period as a “pragmatist” willing to compromise with the left and center — was on board with the idea of a moderate welfare state that extended benefits to more and more male-led families.

Some nouns for you: 

capitalism

the American Right

neoliberalism

social conservatism

caricature  

shared normative project

Anti-normative creed

notion of the family

contemporary social world

neoliberal-conservative project

political climate

American Keynesian Social Democracy

”Fordist Family Wage” 

activist left

liberal center

welfare state

African-American male heads of household

Keynesians

Frances Fox Piven

Daniel Patrick Moynihan  

Richard Nixon

Milton Friedman


“Neoliberalism” isn’t a category. It’s not an adjective. It’s an actor. It has a speaking role. 

How would an empirical investigation of the world end up here?

Start with an actual scientist like Jane Goodall. She watches the 20th Century happen and takes notes on the human behavior she observes. What could possibly cause her to write a sentence in her journal where “neoliberalism” is the subject? What scene would she be describing? When does she say, “That’s when I first observed the neoliberalism.”???

 

Compare a law professor reviewing a book by another law professor in the Washington Post:

Magliocca begins his story in the pre-founding era, looking at the early origins of a bill of rights. From the 1689 English Declaration of Rights to the Declaration of Independence to the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, these early bills were soaring, but vague, articulations of general principles of democracy, rights and liberty, directed at legislatures and often coming as a preface to major legal documents, rather than as amendments following the end. They were suggestive and prefatory, not seen as specific, enforceable rights. James Madison himself, the author of those 1791 amendments, did not refer to them as a “bill of rights” at all.

The idea that these amendments constituted a specific Bill of Rights central to the meaning of the Constitution emerged much later. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, the framers of the 14th Amendment invoked the first 10 amendments as a bill of rights that, through the 14th Amendment, needed to be explicitly and directly applied to the states, in response to the experience of state-defended slavery and state suppression of anti-slavery advocacy. During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt invoked the Bill of Rights to help legitimize his wide-ranging efforts to alleviate the Great Drepression; so long as the first 10 amendments were respected, FDR argued, critics of the New Deal were mistaken to view it as a threat to liberty. The Bill of Rights, in this view, became a touchstone for political legitimacy, effectively enabling new forms of expansive state action.

Some nouns: 

pre-founding era  

English Declaration Of Rights

Declaration Of Independence  

Virginia Declaration Of Rights

articulations

general principles

democracy

rights

liberty

legislatures

major legal documents

specific, enforceable rights

James Madison

amendments

meaning of the Constitution  

Civil War

Reconstruction

framers of the 14th Amendment  

first 10 amendments

the experience of state-defended slavery

anti-slavery advocacy

Franklin Roosevelt

wide-ranging efforts to alleviate the Great Depression  

a touchstone for political legitimacy. 

 

Yes, there are some abstract nouns in there. But “rights” aren’t taking any actions. “Liberty” is not the hero of the story. One can easily imagine Jane Goodall noting, “The leader used the words ‘rights’ and ‘liberty’ to describe a set of historical practices and behaviors that he said would continue.”

Even the airy fairy “touchstone for political legitimacy” is made extremely clear and concrete in context. FDR is explicitly justifying his behavior by saying the words “Bill of Rights.” The abstraction comes complete with an empirical example.