The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.

Historical materialism v. modern scepticism

 An outline of the historical march of the skepticist-materialist argument


1)       Scepticism (From 360 BC, Democritus et al) rests on the idealist epistemological assumption that we can only know an artifice of categories, which may or may not correspond to the world behind it. The world is behind a veil of categories and inaccessible. Therefore we can never know the non-artificial world. All paradigms (and their theories, approaches, etc.) rest upon a foundation; each foundation is a biased selection of these artificial categories, with no guarantees as to their veracity. Therefore no paradigms are truthful, except the paradigm that points out that paradigms are untruthful.


2)       The founding Western materialist Epicurus (307 BCE) follows Democritus, but critiques the logic of the skeptic epistemology, holding that applied consistently it undermines itself and it does not correspond to how we navigate and encounter the world—how we know. (Pace Bhaskar) For realism, we must allow for actual encounters with (and feedback from) a world that can resist artificial constructions and promote innovation in categorical construction. Epicurus elaborates upon the physics foundations that emerge in our characteristic array of human senses and that emerge in but do not fully determine our concepts (constructions). The materialist system is designed to register changing (and distinguish them from consistent) relations, for a fuller discussion see Lewontin, Gould, Levins (but this has ramifications for your critique, see below). (I also have a lecture on this.)


3)       Christianity teams with other Western idealists to destroy almost all materialist texts and expurge from recorded scholarship the materialist tradition for 1,000 years (from the 3rd century AD)–until the Enlightenment recovers the materialist tradition in the 17th century.



4)       In the 1840s Historical Materialism (Marxism) modifies materialism’s sensory epistemology with historically-situated social constructionism—pace The German Ideology (The materialist Feuerbach introduced ahistorical social constructionism to materialist epistemology), see also Marx’s dissertation on Epicureans v. Democritus (Skeptics). Thus the epistemology of historical materialism is distinguished by three forms of recourse to the world behind social categories (which includes social and natural relations): a) categories partially informed by sensory information, b) sensory information, and c) historically-embedded relations. These three historical-materialist epistemological foundations are not held to provide knowledge completely independent from social constructions—they do not preclude social constructions, but rather they can cast into doubt, modify, limit, and check social constructions; although Marxists use social constructionism as a tool (consider the false consciousness argument), Marxism as an historical-materialist paradigm is not a radical social constructionist (idealist) epistemology. As historical materialism does not jettison ontology and its epistemology is a combination of sensory information and historicized social constructionism, its social constructionism is not absolute social constructionism.


5)       In the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the 1968 “collapse” of the French Left, Postmodernism brings the idealist skeptic project to “political intervention” by isolating (and, claiming exclusive ownership of) modern materialism’s social constructionism, while rejecting Hist-mat’s sensory epistemology and its ontology. Postmodernism claims that to know we purely depend upon social constructions, built with power-over, which can only be known as it weaves the veil of artificial constructions absolutely separating human knowledge from the social and natural world. For logical reasons adumbrated below as well as historical-political context reasons, Postmodernism’s frequent political intervention targets Marxists.



6)       Thus targeted, historical materialists (Marxists) have responded to Postmodernism with the Epicurean critique of scepticism, adding the “Healthy Approach” manouever (see below). Insofar as we recognize that all categories are socially-constructed, all approaches and paradigms must rest upon assumptions, and thus scepticism can be applied to any approach or paradigm. Thus when we engage in deconstruction, critique of metanarratives, critique of grand narratives, etc., we are never innocent of politics, we always choose which foundations of which approaches and ideas we attack at which juncture. Ethically, we should be able to defend with integrity why we see the target as either the prime enemy worthy of continuous deconstruction, or as particularly prone to obscure its assumptions (eg. Because it rejects social constructionism). The Hist-mat approach holds that it clearly forwards social constructionism, that postmodernism’s social constructionism is derivative of and not epistemologically superior to Marxim’s, and Marxists clearly have explicitly, repeatedly laid out Marxist epistemology. Marxists point out that as Postmodernism fixates on Marxism as especially needing foundations-exposing political intervention above most other given paradigms, Postmodernism’s scepticism/Deconstruction/critique of metanarratives are subject to critique on the basis of what kind of social relations they support, because they can and they do choose. Although postmodernists assert the claim that the very act of deconstruction alone is definitively ethical, liberatory (as ultimately guaranteed by the skeptic epistemological assumption), nonetheless from the historical materialist epistemological position (a refutation of skepticism), each particular application of skepticism remains vulnerable to a critique of its situational ethics.


7)      When postmodernists are confronted with the ancient materialist critique of skepticism (the modern version being absolute constructionism), they deploy the rhetorical move of temporarily moving down to a “soft” constructivist approach–eg. From “Lyotard’s work is characterised by a persistent opposition to universals, metanarratives, and generality. He is fiercely critical of many of the ‘universalist’ claims of the Enlightenment, and several of his works serve to undermine the fundamental principles that generate these broad claims.” down to “Lyotard’s narrative in The Postmodern Condition declares the decline of only a few defunct ‘narratives of legitimation’ and not of narrative knowledge itself. It is not logically contradictory to say that a statement about narratives is itself a narrative, just as when Lyotard states that “every utterance [in a language game] should be thought of as a ‘move’ in a game” his statement is itself a ‘move’ in a language game.” Here in its soft constructionist version, we have a postmodern admission that recognizes the defensible approach involves not fighting against the tyranny of metanarratives or grand narratives per se, but making political choices (with ethical ramifications) about which community to demand to defend its foundations. This is in essence a reversion to the historical-materialist position, which is more sustainably undergirded by historical-materialist sensory-soft constructionist epistemology, not radical constructionist skepticist epistemology in temporary suspension. If you are going to attack historical materialism on the idealist grounds of scepticism, then you must know that its critique of scepticism’s infinite logical regress is forthcoming, and you can’t in good faith defend your position from that critique by pretending that you invented or you own soft constructionism, which is a partial epistemology forwarded by historical-materialism and designed to require a materialist supplement.




Although they have been in conversation (and in the case of materialism, suspension), over 2500 years, no one has found a way to reconcile materialism to scepticism (of whatever necessarily idealist bent). They are distinct traditions, with distinct epistemologies corresponding to a presence and an absence of ontology. 


Appendix: Skepticism v. Epicureanism
Skepticism (Democritus) rests on the idealist assumption that we can only know an artifice of categories, which may or may not correspond to the world behind it; we shall never know. The world is behind a veil of categories and inaccessible. Therefore we can never know the non-artificial world. All paradigms (and their theories, approaches, etc.) rest upon a necessarily biased selection of these artificial categories. Therefore no paradigms are truthful, except the paradigm that points out that paradigms are untruthful (scepticism!).
While Democritus is the skeptic that Epicureans originally critiqued, the idealist Descartes (Cogito ergo sum) is the first modern skeptic. Descartes’ skeptical hypotheses included “reality” as a dream or alternatively a contrivance of the devil. (Other modern skeptic hypotheses about reality include Brain in a Vat, Matrix, and Last Thursdayism, incl. Creationism. We will get to postmodern scepticism in a moment.)
Most philosophies have weaknesses and can be criticized, and this is a general principle of progression in philosophy. Pierre Le Morvan (2011) has distinguished between three broad philosophical approaches to skepticism. The first he calls the “Foil Approach.” According to the latter, skepticism is treated as a problem to be solved, or challenge to be met, or threat to be parried; skepticism‘s value on this view, insofar as it is deemed to have one, accrues from its role as a foil contrastively illuminating what is required for knowledge and justified belief. The second he calls the “Bypass Approach” according to which skepticism is bypassed as a central concern of epistemology. Le Morvan advocates a third, historical-materialist approach—he dubs it the “Health Approach”–that explores when skepticism is “healthy” and when it is not, or when it is virtuous and when it is vicious.
The Greek Materialist Critique of Skepticism
Epicurus started with Democritus, but had critiques of Democritus’ approach.
Materialist Epistemology is connected to Ontology
Epicurus says that all sensations give us information about the world, but that sensation itself is never in error, since sensation is a purely passive, mechanical reception of images and the like by sense-organs, and the senses themselves do not make judgments ‘that’ the world is this way or that. Instead, error enters in when we make judgments about the world based upon the information received through the senses.
Skepticism-tends-to-Nihilism (Infinite Regress)
Epicurus says that it is impossible to live as a skeptic. If a person really were to believe that he knows nothing, then he would have no reason to engage in one thought or course of action instead of another. Thus, the consistent skeptic would engage in no thought or action whatsoever, and would die.
Epicurus thinks that, in order to make judgments about the world, or even to start any inquiry whatsoever, we must already be in possession of certain basic concepts, which stand in need of no further proof or definition, on pain of entering into an infinite regress. This concern is similar to the Paradox of Inquiry explored by Plato in the Meno, that one must already know about something in order to be able to inquire about it. However, instead of postulating that our immaterial souls had acquaintance with transcendent Forms in a pre-natal existence, as idealist Plato does, Epicurus thinks that we have certain ‘preconceptions’–concepts such as ‘body,’ ‘person,’ ‘usefulness,’ and ‘truth’–which are formed in our (material) minds as the result of repeated sense-experiences of similar objects. Further ideas are formed by processes of analogy or similarity or by compounding these basic concepts. Thus, sense-experience undergirds all concepts, through which sensory data is filtered. (Historical materialists will modify this epistemology by adding a non-absolute social constructionism, but not excising the role of the senses in knowledge formation.)
Epicurus is concerned to refute the skeptical tendencies of Democritus, whose metaphysics and theory of perception were similar to Epicurus’. At least three separate anti-skeptical arguments are given by Epicureans, all basically addressing the problems with vicious scepticism, AKA either infinite regress (No idea or action can be asserted to be true, including this one, because nothing in human understanding can rest upon anything other than unprovable assumptions. A thoroughgoing commitment to scepticism precludes thought and action.) or poor-faith posture scepticism—a postured commitment to absolute scepticism (eg. A stated commitment to critiquing metanarratives.) as a fig leaf over an actual political game, the selective application of scepticism against a political enemy, whether the skeptic is calculating or being used as a tool.
For example, Harvey implicitly critiques (by analogy) a form of vicious skepticism:
“(T)he whole baggage of ideas associated with postmodernism could be deployed to radical ends, and thereby be seen as part of a fundamental drive towards a more liberatory politics, in exactly the same way that the turn to more flexible labour processes could be seen as an opening to a new era of democratic and highly decentralized labour relations and co-operative endeavours” (Harvey 1992: 353).
But though it can be portrayed that way, that is not how it is deployed nor how it operates.
Obviously, there is an alternative to vicious, bad faith, or “unhealthy” scepticism, and that is, for explicit reasons of political choice (which, Historical-materialism holds, can themselves be subject to contextual critique), deploying the sceptical approach, not as a total (totalizing) approach, but to instrumentally identify (and possibly to refine) or critique paradigmatic assumptions. Virtuous skepticism requires political judgement, and a refinement of epistemology to permit social constructionism, and not social constructionism to the epistemological occlusion of all else. (Correctly) identifying assumptions is not a complete manoeuvre, as, explicitly acknowledged or not, all approaches must rest on epistemological assumptions, even scepticism, and this includes postmodernism.
The Epicurean/Materialist Critique of Skepticism (incl. Democritus)
As Skepticism has been modified by postmodern social constructionism, the following 2/3 Epicurean critiques of scepticism pertain:
1) Skepticism is a Self-refutating Argument
If a skeptic claims that nothing can be known, then one should ask whether he knows that nothing can be known. If he says ‘yes,’ then he is contradicting himself. If he doesn’t say yes, then he isn’t making a claim, and we don’t need to listen to him.
2) The Argument from Concept formation
If the skeptic says that nothing can be known, or that we cannot know the truth, we can ask him where he gets his knowledge of concepts such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth.’ If the senses cannot be relied on, as the skeptic claims, then he is not entitled to use concepts such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ in formulating his thesis, since such concepts derive (at least partially-HM) from the senses.
The “Modern Epicurean” (Historical materialist) Response
Given the Epicurean tradition was destroyed for a thousand years by an idealist coalition of Christians & skeptics, materialist assumptions have been modified since the Enlightenment, notably by historical-materialism:
1) Maintenance of insistence on the role of senses in epistemology (Epistemology connects with ontology.), while allowing that social relations (featuring power) also condition the concepts (which are therefore partially social constructions) through which knowledge passes.* See E Scarry, Marxist historical materialism.
2) Maintenance of the Epicurean insistence on the necessity of establishing concepts (paradigmatic assumptions), adding a condition that those concepts should be made explicit (which is NOT understood as a property of postmodernism). The paradigm is not moot when the assumptions are exposed; the paradigm changes when both the sociological relations and the sensations informing the assumptions no longer hold.
*Note: You can see here that false consciousness is a problem for historical materialists because it is produced when power disallows and strips away sensory information from social construction. In effect, Marxists recognize in false consciousness radical social construction, and since radical social constructionism legitimates such concept-stripping (or refuse to recognize a diminishment in concept formation), Marxists do oppose radical social constructionists.
Postmodern scepticism (The aftermath of the 1967 Six-day War and conservatism’s 1969 defeat of the Paris students)
Postmodernism is modified form of scepticism that rests upon rests upon the epistemological assumption (as all positions and approaches, not just Marxism or other “totalizing ideoglogies,” must rest upon characteristic assumptions, pace Kuhn) that we can only know social constructions. This is an assumption because it is not provable against the alternative (Hist-mat) epistemological assumption, sensation interacting with social construction; but it is required to found the postmodern project (to found the view that deconstruction is a particularly, and uniformly liberatory project). It is this epistemological assumption (and the corollary jettisoning of ontology) that distinguishes the skeptic (incl. Postmodern) tradition from the materialist (incl. Historical materialist) tradition.
Postmodernism is a form of scepticism that in adopting historical materialism’s constructionism (a part of the epistemological foundation of historical-materialism, which also retains materialism’s sensory epistemology connected as it is to its ontology), was reformulated in a reaction to the materialist critique of scepticism’s tendency to solipsism (see above). Post-modernism tries to save the idealistic skeptic project by isolating and adoting historical-materialism’s social constructionism and jettisoning Hist-mat’s sensory epistemology and its ontology. Postmodernism claims that while our senses are immaterial to epistemology (sensation is always behind the veil of social constructions), we instead use social constructions, built with power-over. For social science postmoderns, rejecting historical-materialist dual epistemology and clinging to sceptical idealism, material relations do not inform concepts. The social constructions are the pure product of BrainS in a Vat. Social change is a matter of wilfully changing the concepts against a social power that exists only to the extent that we imagine it to. Historical-materialism’s weaker and sensory-supplemented version of social constructionism fails to reach the same political diagnosis.
This idealist diagnosis is what repeatedly leads postmodernists to determine that historical materialism is the most direct and dire political threat to freedom. However, historical-materialists are dissatisfied with the postmodern approach not (just) because it fingers historical-materialism as the problem but because its sceptical epistemological assumption is logically unsatisfactory and postmodernists tend to play fast and loose in alternating between absolute scepticism and soft social constructionism (just as conservative economists interpolate between hard and soft versions of their own assumptions when faced with devastating critique, pace Varoufakis, who also examines further correspondences between the contemporaneous assumptions of postmodernism and conservative economics).

Dean Baker’s Critique of Capital Rents

I think “The Rent is Too Damn High” is one of Dean Baker’s best arguments.

But still, Desai’s critical examination of the limitations of the conservative Anglo interpretive and political tendency applies. She recalls the limited sociological imagination that emerged in Britain in response to the Great Depression:

“(During the Great Depression) the ‘responsible and judicious’ British intellect saw the new political task and sought to harness all its native (liberal and individualist) resources to its fulfilment…Thus in Britain, as Elizabeth Durbin has shown, the newly founded microeconomics was used to justify state intervention so as to increase social welfare and the Fabians, who constituted a distinct segment of the new intellectual stratum and who had already examined and rejected Marxism, used it in their theory of ‘rents’ and ‘unearned incomes’ to justify socialist goals” (Desai 1994: 47).

Loyalists: Anglo Anti-intellectualism

The maintenance of a close connection between the embourgifying British aristocracy and the mid-19th century men of arts and letters in Britain

“was seen by the Russian Communist Dimitri Mirsky as implying that ‘the intellectuals made no attempt to think independently of their class, but rather were proud of belonging to it. In short, there were no intellectuals.’…It seems broadly true that, to a far greater extent than was true in France or Germany, not to mention Russia, in Britain mid-Victorian cultural figures tended to be literary or scientific, thus strictly speaking falling outside the sort of intellectual category necessary for a truly hegemonic politics. Moreover, even as they remained closely tied to the ruling class, which was for the great majority their class of origin, they did not, like traditional intellectuals, form a separate social category with an independent institutional structure of its own” Desai 1994: 44.

Here Desai is discussing how the aristocratic-based and aristocratic-values-proliferating British Romantic literary movement quickly eviscerated the middle class Utilitarian program for thoroughgoing  social change. “The dominant cultural tendency became a sort of unsystematic, self-consciously untheoretical, romantic conservatism, opposed to rationalism, to grand theory, and above all to Benthamite ideas: ‘For the next hundred years, every poet, novelist and philosopher knew how to do at least one thing: to refute and deride Utilitarianism'” (Desai 1994: 42). Even today we knee-jerk dismiss Bentham’s program–indeed any progressive, ambitious social change vision and program–as ipso facto tyrannical (Foucauldians and anti-communists coalesce to keep this alive.), which was also the conservative Romantics’ dogma. Significance:

1) Britain’s bourgeois class did not produce an adequate effort at envisioning and advancing social change aimed at propagating freedoms. You could see this as the exceptional Anglo institutional capacity to repress revolt, or you could hypothesize: Bentham’s program was in fact not worthy of pursuing–Perhaps because, with the middle class Benthamite revolutionary aspirations, there was not sufficient coalition and interchange with the working class. The convergence, in exceptional Britain, was always already between the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie. The working class and peasantry were totally shut out–you know, as in a totalitarian way–except to the extent that they could be romanced by the aristocrat-dominated vision of land-based freedom.

2) As opposed to the English department consensus, Desai, following Anderson and Gramsci, is emphasizing that literary producers (and scientists as well–see Oppenheimer’s eye-opening, frustrated efforts at becoming a public intellectual) do not have the institutional and identity independence to form a properly-independent intellectual class capable of a) co-opting some elites to the cause of revolution, and b) significantly challenging hegemony.

The relationship between the Victorian literary establishment and political-economic elites was incestuous. English reform is what the US Civil Rights Movement would have been with Kathryn Stockett (“The Help”) at the helm, instead of MLK, the women bridge leaders, and Malcolm X.

Yet we have a tendency, in Anglo-american societies, to imagine, quite conservatively, that reformist literature–not intellectual schools that break with the dominant class’ interest, coalesce with the exploited class, and foster action — is all the social imagination we need or normatively should produce. We have seen pure middle class Bentham, and didn’t like it, and that’s all we need to know–It’s back to conservatism (freedom for a few, enthrallment for most) for us!

3) I’m sure quite shockingly it is never the case that elite opposition to rationalism or grand theory translates into beautiful anarchy. No, because you see there’s always the undead army of conservatism behind that opposition. Coleridge’s conservative, Durkheimian policy suggestion for governance: A “clerisy” institution, composed of nationalist “cultivated men,” “a morally and religiously sound clergy and aristocracy to serve as a cultural elite that would restore the community of England” (Coleridge).

Arabia & the West: Painful Lessons from Media History

In the solid “The Arab Spring and the West: Seven Lessons from History,” The Guardian‘s Seamus Milne reaches into the British Pathe News Video Archive to recall the oil-dependent fundamentals of West-Middle East Relations.

1) The West never gives up its drive to control the Middle East, whatever the setbacks.

2) Imperial powers can usually be relied on to delude themselves about what Arabs actually think.

3) The Big Powers are old hands at prettifying client regimes to keep the oil flowing.

4) People in the Middle East don’t forget their history – even when the US and Europe (conveniently) does.

5) The West has always presented Arabs who insist on running their own affairs as fanatics.

6) Foreign military intervention in the Middle East brings death, destruction, and divide and rule.

7) Western sponsorship of Palestine’s colonisation is a permanent block on normal relations with the Arab world.

Hacker & Pierson: The Making of American Inequality


Hacker, Jacob S. and Paul Pierson. 2010. “Winner-Take-All Politics: Public Policy, Political Organization, and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United States.” Politics & Society 38: 152-204.

In which Hacker and Pierson show that US inequality is all about gains to the top at the expense of everyone else; and they show how this was accomplished through government policy.
Specifically, they introduce the concept of policy drift. Policy drift occurs when a) changes in the market or society render existing policy incapable of achieving its substantive goals, and b) organized interests (eg. politicized capital) successfully lobby against updating policy, thereby rendering policy counterproductive or ineffective.
The abstract is here at Politics & Society.