Wednesday, 19 October 2016

On the Clash Between Pluralism and Diversity

Coming back from intense weekends with Rethinking Economics people in the beautiful Peak District has raised a whole range of questions for me, again illustrating my cynical qualms about the entire movement. I'll go into those issues in a further post. For now, I wanna discuss the relationship between diversity and pluralism, as understood in the context of economic ideas. 

To recap, the Rethinking Economics organisation came out of discontent with the way Economics is taught at most (read: all) universities. The abstract and single-minded way in which we learn to play with algebra and take derivatives of strange (read: irrelevant) functions, allegedly representing the real economy, is frustrating to many people inside and outside our field. The criticism isn't only political (though at core, most of it is), but methodological, pointing to the failure of standard Economics models to explain or predict  let alone incorporate – events such as the 2008 crisis (learn to say 'GFC', like the Aussies do...). 

The response has been, rather than calling for a complete overhaul of the economics discipline, the more pragmatic solution of calling for Plurality in economic thinking and the promotion of a wide range of perspectives in teaching Economics; who doesn't like plurality? Officially they (we?) don't want to remove current teaching from the curriculum, but rather complement it with contributions from other schools of thought. There are also frequent calls for History of Economic Thought as well as Economic History in order for students to have an appreciation of plurality, and and understand of context in which ideas evolved, all of which I heartely applaud. So far, so good. 

Now, here's my problem. Most people attending these post-crash events, including our own Glasgow Economic Forum (March 11-12, 2017  it will be amazing!), tend to be angry lefties, with a misfit post-modern mindset seriously detached from any reasonable reality. That's a seperate problem, but it becomes really strange in a setting that formally advocates pluralism. This is most readily seen in the typical discussion of identity politics, where characteristics such as gender, race or sexuality etc., become the main focus – and where (equal or sometimes proportional) representation of a certain group, race, sexuality, religion, origin <insert characteristics of your choice> takes precedence over everything else. 

If people were truly committed to pluralism, meaning that they thoroughly understood economic ideas from a wide range of perspectives, they would be able to make the case for any strand or perspective. In fact, the degree of one's pluralism is could be measured by how well one can make cases or arguments from strands or perspective one does not personally favour. At that point, it becomes obvious that diversity ceases to matter; any perspective that a conservative disabled, black gay woman who was once a man could put forward is already captured by the pluralistic awareness of someone else. There is no need for this meticulous hunt for representation of various groups.

Equivalently, any perfect representation of all imaginable characteristics (race, gender, sexuality, ideology and so on...) means that the need for pluralism is superflous; every idea or perspective is already present, and demanding that everyone is more aware of them becomes both less crucial and less beneficial. 

What does this mean for the Rethinking Economics movement? 

The sheer fact that diversity is a concern for many people within the movement simply illustrate their inability to make cases from certain perspectives, and – I'd argue  ultimately empathise with that group. If you can't understand how a right-wing person would favour balanced budgets, or why feminist economic emphasises domestic work, or you can't make the marxist case for how exploitation has increased – then how can one ever dream of overcoming the diversity issue?

Moreover, if you can't even grasp these things, why are you at a conference calling for pluralism? Or if you do grasp them, why are you obsession about diversity in the first place?

Strangely enough, as is always the case in identity politics, the perspective criticising the need or value of the entire diversity approach is lacking. In other words, if you truly were commited to plurality of thought, you'd understand that there was a good case against advocating plurality and diversity, and you'd be less obsessed with representation of this or that group. 

If I'm right, and there is such a clash between pluralism and diversity, the question becomes which one is more important? And if one can complement the imperfection or failure of the other? I guess, to a certain extent that say diversity can act as a substitute for plurality. But a very imperfect substitute, for which a true call for pluralism would be much better. 

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