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Why I am writing this Substack
Some call this an age of conformism. Though certain forms of orthodoxy have strengthened, following political stratification and growing censoriousness, this judgement overlooks countertrends. Dissenting voices have also emerged, reflecting the strength of liberal traditions.
My voice will be one of these. In this Substack, I will write about politics from a heterodox perspective, rejecting groupthink. I shall do so with reference to theories of institutions, values and ideology, these being areas of academic expertise. Though some identify my approach as rationalist and non-ideological, I take issue with both terms; rationality is socially embedded and everyone is ideological. But if labels must be assigned, there are worse ones.
My politics are eclectic. Economically, I am left-wing. For reasons of justice and cohesion, I prefer economically equal societies. The concerns of low-income voters particularly interest me, left-wing parties overlooking these as they have attracted wealthier supporters. Culturally, I tilt slightly to the right. This is hard to define, the median British voter supporting gay marriage and the death penalty, but I occupy this space on the spectrum which one finds in political and media establishments. In contrast with many liberals, I appreciate the functions of cultural conservatism.
But my persisting concern is liberal democracy. The tyrannies of the twentieth century have always fascinated me, my grandfather and an excellent history teacher encouraging me to draw moral lessons from them. Later, I married a Polish woman who grew up under Communism and joined Solidarność protests as a child, deepening this interest. As liberal democracy has faced new threats, I have been active, campaigning against Brexit and the Polish PiS government. Recently, left-wing intolerance has concerned me; I think that the left has become censorious, associated with the rise of identity politics.
Many writers adopt heterodox perspectives, famous ones including Scott Alexander, Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan. In a crowded field, I must stake out space. Generally, I will make extensive use of academic theories and data. This is a weakness of existing writers, reflecting journalistic backgrounds. I am an academic, working as a Reader (Associate Professor) in European social policy at Cardiff University, meaning that I have relevant training. My initial publications were in the field of employment and social policy, but I am increasingly interested in the relationship between occupations, values and ideology, this featuring in my recent book. In my next book, I examine the relationship between liberalism and occupational stratification within sociocultural sectors. But I will write in a reader-friendly way, avoiding unnecessary jargon. Tell me if I do not!
Specifically, I will use institutional and evolutionary theories, these approaches underpinning my academic work. Institutional theory sounds fancy, but it is not. The approach explains the origins, functions and development of human institutions, ranging from grammar to fashion, enabling analysis of why societies function as they do. Evolutionary theory is complementary. Though social scientists have traditionally rejected biological explanations, a recent fashion for generalizing Darwinism has led some to merge institutional and evolutionary interpretations. According to a prominent account, humans generate new rules (variation), strategically choose between different institutional schemas (selection) and repeat successful behaviours (replication).
These approaches enable original insight into current affairs. For example, such theories entail a particular view of human agency. Reflecting advances in evolutionary neuroscience, I think little of the human brain; it is biased and tends to confirm emotions. Institutions further limit space for agency, human culture restricting our range of choices. In my recent book, I argued that we overestimated human agency, encouraging interpretations which are excessively moralistic. In this Substack, I shall expand this argument.
I will cover a range of topics, reflecting my interests and current affairs. I am something of a contrarian. Contrarianism can go too far. Politics deals with issues of life and death. On a topic such as Coronavirus, some contrarians have been highly irresponsible. Such figures can also be predictable, defeating the point of contrarianism.
But there is a need for responsible contrarians. Humans are prone to groupthink. We emulate peers, craving their approval, meaning that policy reflects this bias. In these conditions, instinctual dissenters are important. This is particularly the case in an age of educational and political stratification. As Ronald Inglehart demonstrated, higher concentrations of people with similar values create pressure for conformity. Gadflies can be irritating, yet have their place in the ecosystem.
Substack is commonly used by authors who wish to monetize content. I am sympathetic to this. Not only do authors need to eat, even those with whom we disagree(!), but this model encourages editorial independence. In an age in which orthodoxies are embedded within large institutions, this is crucial. I have no plans to monetize this Substack in the short term, but may do so in the longer term. I would do this to fund content expansion. But core content will always be free; paying subscribers would secure access to additional content. Initially, I will publish one essay of about 1000 words every week, this appearing on Wednesday at 2pm.
Please think about subscribing! This merely alerts you to the publication of a new post; everything is free. And if you are feeling very kind, please consider spreading the word. You can do this in several ways, but retweets of my promotional tweet would be particularly appreciated.
The very best,