Black Swan future?

Black Swan

Rowland Atkinson and Don Mitchell in ‘Fracturing Societies‘ paint a rather bleak picture:

The world feels like it is falling apart, and maybe it really is. Maybe the weight of human misery, the collapse of civil societies, ethno-national tensions and divisions, political exits and polarization and the accelerating ecological crisis, maybe all of this make things different this time” .

…I personally struggle to see the positive: Rockstrom et al on the Anthropocene, ‘safe operating space for humanity’; Jared Diamond in ‘Collapse’; Wolfgang Streeck….

Of course, and acknowledging confirmation bias, there are many pessimistic voices. One might say that ever since the rise of capitalism in its various guises there have been jeremiads – we know who they are – and the optimist (Indur Goklany, Daniel ben -Ami, Martin Wolf) can say ‘they were proved wrong’. This depends on inductive logic and a certain time frame.

Martin Wolf for example, in his review of Wolfgang Streeck, argues that we will not descend into a new ‘Dark Ages’ due to the progress we have already made, and points to the benefits of globalisation accrued to China and India. He also makes the (bourgeois) argument regarding democracy and capitalism:

“…the relationship between democracy and capitalism is not, as Streeck seems to believe, unnatural. On the contrary, both systems derive from a belief in the role of people as active citizens and economic agents. In the former role, they make decisions together; in the latter, they make decisions for themselves….both are essential. Moreover, democracy cannot function without a market economy”. 

Does it though? Does a market economy always defend democracy? ‘Active citizens and economic agents‘ are bourgeois myths, they are ‘abstracted ideal types’ rooted in neoclassical economics. It might be correct to say ‘democracy cannot function without a market economy’ but what is the evidence? We might want to consider that right now in 2017 liberal democracy has died, or is at least in critical care, right at the time when we tried to establish (neoliberal) market economies in the US and the UK.

Tell me the critics, like Streeck, were wrong in another 100 years. Progress enjoyed by Europeans and Americans might be easily swept aside by an event we are currently not aware of. Globalisation already has inner contradictions (viz Rust Belt and Silicon Valley America) playing out and manifest as authoritarian populism.  Some of us think we can just see perhaps a Black Swan (or a flock!).

“A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was”.

So, we should be on the look out for what seems impossible, what we don’t know. Large events continue to surprise us because we are looking in the wrong directions. In 2015 both Brexit and the Trump Presidency were Black Swans that few predicted or took seriously. Now, after the event everyone is an expert.

So what were we doing in Universities? Were we so wrapped up in trying to solve technical questions and academic navel gazing as we compete in a market for customers?

Not everyone. I count the likes of Zygmund Bauman, David Harvey, Slavoj Žižek and of course Nicolas Taleb, as some engaged with the bigger picture.

The role of the academy is to support and encourage Gramsci’s organic intellectual and not weigh them down with nonsensical Research Exercise Frameworks or Teaching Exercise Frameworks (or whatever neoliberal metrics your University uses).

C Wright Mills argued:

“It is the political task of the social scientist — as of any liberal educator — continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals”. (1959 p187).

If we accept this task, as social scientists, liberal educators, can we translate the personal troubles of people into public issues and then act upon this interrogation of cultural, social and political forms; can we reveal both the structural transformations currently taking place and the personal stories as experienced?

Following on from Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the organic activist v the traditionalist academic and Noam Chomsky’s entreaty that it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies, Brock argued the role of the social movement academic is to “to debunk the knowledge on which the powerful rest”. Although written many decades ago, Gramsci’s archetype may well be seen within the corporate university (Bill Readings) which supports and encourages the traditional and ignores the activist, and in which, too many are far too obedient to the established order of the corporate university.

Graham Scambler argues that academics can be but are generally not intellectuals, the distinction is important because the latter are so because:

1) They possess an academically credible vision and pathway for a better state of affairs.
2) This is argued in public.
3) They are unwilling to compromise except in the ‘face of a better argument’.
4) They reject sophistry and demagoguery in pursuit of their ends.

Basing his analysis on Burawoy’s ‘four sociologies’ – professional (the scholar), policy (the reformer), critical (the radical) and public (the democrat)’, Scambler adds a fifth: action (the activist) sociology, but suggests that intellectuals may operate across all 5, but there are few engaged in public and action sociology. To what degree we are academics or intellectuals perhaps is a moot point but is worth some critical reflection. It is suggested here that the structures in which they operate discourages debunking, overlooking its funding while focusing in high impact publishing and research grants.

To engage in the debunking Brock suggests, may require ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, ‘critical practice’ as critical analysis/action/reflexivity important for critical enquiry in the ‘paraversity’. This assumes that academics see themselves as a) intellectuals or b) engaged in critical transformative pedagogy with their students and communities, as much as some sociologists do. This latter is problematic as education may be overly reliant, in practice if not in espoused theory, on transmissive, competency, instrumentally based pedagogies.

If the University cannot rise to the challenge by having an impact of political decision making, we may the first civilization to scientifically document our own demise.




    1. Benny Goodman *

      Many thanks for pointing that out and I have put that link into the blog. My use of the metaphor was to suggest that back in 2015 and before, Trump was a Black Swan with less than a 50/50 chance, as he was not even the GOP’s nomination until July 2016. I’m not sure what odds one would get for a bet on Trump back in 2015? According to Fortune “The odds of a Trump win closed from around 25 to 1 in August 2015 when he first announced his campaign”. Now I’ll bow to Taleb every time, but 25:1 seems highly improbable. In 2014, what were the odds then. Nonexistent, because he has not even a candidate. So, from the perspective of 2014 Trump was massive black swan?

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