Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A telling problem with scolding Sanders about economic determinism

This idea that Bernie Sanders is an economic determinist is obvious baloney and leans on a stereotype of radicals that's more than a hundred years out of date, but it's also worth noting that even the people concern trolling him about this aren't actually concerned.

The proof is obvious if you just think about it for two seconds. If Sanders and his supporters are actually economic determinists, then any sincere normative dialogue with them has to begin by debunking economic determinism. Otherwise, you're just talking past them, and blaming them for behavior that they obviously understand as dictated by external economic forces.

If the concern trolls actually believed their critique, the debate over Sanders would be a completely philosophical debate about human agency. They would be laying out causal chains for human behavior that aren't conditioned by the material economy, which ultimately turns on invoking some fairly ambitious ontology. This isn't some impossible or even unreasonable task; most people are intellectually disposed to reject determinism of any sort, and there are all kinds of well-known, venerable arguments for free will that they could easily rely on. But this is necessarily how the conversation would need to go.

Of course, no one bothers with that conversation, because no one actually believes in economic determinism, nor seriously suspects it of anyone else. Sanders and his supporters obviously accept a significant role for things like political conviction, intellectual persuasion, and human agency; their critics know this about them perfectly well, which is why the critique invariably skips over the ontological questions and fixates on normative issues. Concern trolls who bring morality and politics into critiques of economic determinism are either being dishonest or simply have not thought through their position enough to make an internally consistent argument.

I get that this is an absurd argument to have to make, but it's the argument that insane allegations about economic determinism deserve.