Structure and Optimism
August 4, 2021
When it comes to social theory I tend to lean more towards structure than agency, and often encounter those who consider this to be pessimistic. At a superficial level I can see where they’re coming from—after all, it is structural critique that has given us all those images of a system so totalising it pre-emptively circumscribes all attempts to resist it, of an all-pervasive ideology or a capitalist realism. Against the prospect of an iron cage of power, the humanist who stresses the role of human action in shaping the social world certainly seems to hold out more hope for changing it.
Ultimately though, I disagree: I think it is the humanist who is the cynic. To hold that human actors are the authors of the social world is to hold that they are also the authors of its problems: when shit’s messed up the blame can only lie with people. Perhaps they’re uneducated, perhaps they’re bigots, perhaps they’re manipulated, perhaps they’re spiritually inhibited, perhaps they simply have incorrect desires—all tempting suggestions in that they make the world’s problems seem tractable (like many animals, broken humans can be fixed with training), but only at the price of a supposition that somewhere out there, or perhaps in here, are a bunch of people who are hard failing.
This pattern of reasoning feels very familiar these days, though it is curious that the sedimentation of humanist assumptions in public conversation has coincided with the breakthrough of ideas with a distinctively structuralist tenor and history, most explosively on topics of race and gender. Much of the toxicity of contemporary debate seems to result from placing structuralist ideas in humanist frames—for example, construing structural racism as if it were a failing of individuals, a kind of internalised or unconsciousness version of overt racism, something that could in principle be fixed with the right kind of personal development. Humanist assumptions underly a variety of recurring tropes on the merry-go-round of public debate, from the dismissal of Trump or Brexit supporters as stupid or worse to self-flagellating Guardian columns in which the author laments their own inability to stop eating avocados. All attempt to posit causal mechanisms which would account for why people are misbehaving, a rhetorical stance whose hopelessness is exhibited by the fact that it never actually provides anyone with any reasons to behave differently. It is the political equivalent of that guy from the 60’s who thinks the only reason women won’t sleep with him is because they’re repressed.
Rhetorical inadequacies aside, there’s a separate question to be raised about whether the humanist’s general conclusion is even true. If there’s big problems with society, then the humanist is forced to conclude that there’s big problems with people. But are there any independent reasons to believe this? I think not. Let’s call the belief that people are basically alright structuralist optimism. I label this optimism ‘structuralist’ to highlight what I think is one of the least understood aspects of structural critique, and is in fact the very impetus behind it: the attempt to reconcile the obvious presence of huge problems in society with the empirically founded intuition that most people are basically alright. I saw this misunderstanding illustrated vividly in a recent reddit thread. The original commenter was perplexed by a video in which Žižek had expressed warmth for normal everyday Joe Briefcase types, which jarred with their image of the Slovenian philosopher as some kind of arch-cynic. Of course, the cited ‘cynicism’ was a reference to his structuralism—to his insistence on the totalising role of ideology in shaping the social world. But to characterise this insistence as cynical is to miss the thing that motivates it. The reason Žižek has such an elaborate theory of ideology is precisely to preserve his commitment to the basic alrightness of people.
Unlike the humanist, the structuralist takes the banality of evil seriously. The force of this point was originally driven home to me not by critical theory—and this no doubt speaks to my own background in mathematics and analytic philosophy—but by decision theory, and by the prisoner’s dilemma in particular. Dan Dennett once described Darwin’s concept of natural selection as a ‘universal acid,’ an idea so deep and pervasive that it rewires the way you think about everything. I think something similar could be said of the prisoner’s dilemma, which gives a deceptively simple yet mathematically robust explanation of the intrinsic difficulty of cooperation (even where it is mutually beneficial), making clear that failures of group cooperation can occur for reasons other than failures of individual rationality or integrity. It shows why we need not posit malice or selfishness or stupidity or a ‘zero-sum mindset’ to account for the Malthusian struggle that blights many aspects of human existence. Cooperation is inherently difficult, and requires social technologies both costly and fragile. Many human behaviours which seem irrational or tribalistic or just downright weird start to display a deep logical coherence once seen as heuristic solutions to prisoner’s dilemmas and other coordination problems. Appreciating this gives us all the more reason to believe that people are basically alright.
Still, if this insight from the prisoner’s dilemma can be taken as representative of the kind of insights that structural critique can deliver in general, then we can perhaps appreciate some of the prima facie appeal of humanism. Roughly, humanists construe social problems as deriving from psychological problems, whereas structuralists construe them as autonomous logical problems. On first glance, where human psychology (or its expression in behaviour) may be malleable, something that can be shaped by education or practice, logical problems seem much more stubborn. Where the humanist makes concrete suggestions, it is often more difficult to articulate a practical strategy off the back of a structural critique. Many humanist tendencies on the contemporary left can be traced as a reaction to the heavy emphasis placed on structure in the political theory of the late 20th century, and the apparently futile places to which this can lead. The risk of structural critique is that it reveal the iron cage of power without providing any means of unlocking it, deflating humanist ambition for the sake of nothing more than melancholic paralysis.
While the presence of a certain melancholy on the left cannot be denied, it is a mistake to say that structural critique can provide no guidance for action. It is true that the structuralist believes we should look to structural dynamics rather than human-level action to understand the shape of the social world, but this claim should be understood in light of the fact that structural dynamics are themselves composed of human-level actions. For the structuralist, the proper frame in which to consider individual action is not the consequential relations between actions and world, but rather the compositional relations between actions and social structures. This is a far cry from the the cynicism structuralists are regularly accused of. Often what it amounts to in practice is a recommendation to stop doing something, rather than a recommendation to do something. So when a man has a feminist awakening after being confronted over his tendency to absorb all the space in conversations, then immediately starts charging around and talking over everyone to extol the virtues of women’s liberation, he has misunderstood the structuralist point by interpreting it as a humanist call to action. He wasn’t being asked to do something; he was being asked to stop doing something.
From the humanist perspective a recommendation to stop doing something can look suspiciously like a recommendation to not do anything, which perhaps accounts for the marginalisation of structuralist ideas in mainstream left discourse (or their reduction to incoherence through humanist framings, which amounts to the same). In stressing agency, the humanist places emphasis on the causal dimension of action, on the direct material consequences of our activities. But the significance of stopping or refusing or negating shows up not in the causal dimension, but in the communicative dimension of action stressed by the structuralist. One need only consider the arguments that can break out over ‘awareness raising’, or whether protest movements should attempt to leverage marketing techniques, or whether effective political organisation is possible on social media, or whether abstaining from the vote is a legitimate political act, to see the conflict between these two dimensions play out.
The great point of convergence between structuralist critique and decision theory is the insight that the possibility of collective action is tightly enmeshed with the communicative dimension of individual action. The production of a collective subject is not just a question of what individuals do, but how those doings are socially articulated by the communication structures in which we stage them. It is with this insight that the structuralist can resist the cynical inference of the humanist (that social problems imply psychological problems), without undermining their own ability to advance practical strategies.