Trump’s Tweetopoetics

Donald_Trump_2016_RNC_speech_(4)_(cropped) Tweets

Jan Blommaert

It has been remarked before: when Donald Trump gives a public speech, the units of his speeches are tweets – or at least: he produces chunks of performed rhetoric that can be effortlessly converted into the format of tweets. Thus we can squeeze an almost unaltered fragment from his speech for the H&K Equipment company in Pittsburgh PA (18 January 2018) into the Twitter box:

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But at the same time, this fragment of his speech draws from a tweet he posted the day before the speech:

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That is the point: Trump’s offline, live discourse has an almost natural spillover quality into his online discourse. Talk is tweet, and tweet is talk.

This, then, grants some of his tweets (the most appealing ones, perhaps) an orally-performable dimension. Put simply, some of his tweets appear as chunks of discourse that can be spoken by others. In fact, they contain lots of pointers as to exactly how they can be delivered in spoken speech. In other words, they are instructional, showing his followers how to speak like Trump. Let us consider an example.

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Trump posted this tweet on his official account on 18 January 2018, and it reflects on the same speech in Pittsburgh. The tweet, note, is not a fragment of the speech. In the tweet, we see how he uses upper case for specific words and phrases – a familiar feature for those acquainted with Trump’s tweeting habits. He also uses an exclamation mark at the end of the tweet – once again, a familiar feature. Both features of written discourse, of course, are metapragmatic instructions: they suggest not just content relevance, but they also suggest a way of pronouncing: louder, and with some emphasis.

But there are more metapragmatic pointers in this tweet, and here we need to turn to what is known as “ethnopoetics” – an analytical technique designed to bring out the implicit structure in spoken discourse. When we transcribe the tweet according to ethnopoetic conventions, we get this.

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We now see that the tweet is replete with different forms of rhyme: several kinds of connections tie parts of the text together into powerful features of performance.

  • The tweet opens with “America” (in upper case). This term is repeated twice: once halfway (“shape America’s destiny”), and once in the final (punch) line: “make America great again” (in upper case). America is a central motive.
  • The term “again” – the motive of revival, so powerful in Trump’s rhetoric – reoccurs in the opening phrase and the closing phrase, each time connected to “America”. America is new in this text.
  • The “once again” in the opening line prefigures the “make America great again” of the closing line. Opening and closing are rhetorically connected, they are each other’s echo – hence the highlighting. But the repetition in the closing line is enriched by what precedes – the opening line sets the stage, then comes an argument, after which the opening line is reformulated as the conclusion of the argument. The rhetorical circle is closed.
  • So how is this argument organized? In the opening line, “America” is equated with “nation” (also in upper case). What follows is a classical “triplet” – three repetitive lines – in which he qualifies this nation. He does so by “escalation” (again, a well-known rhetorical trick): “big-bigger-reaches for the stars”. “Reaching for the stars” is also semantically connected to “dreaming” in the previous line.
  • Next, this “nation” is projected onto the audience: “You” (in upper case) followed by “are the ones who”. The term “you (are the ones who)” is the central structuring device in the middle part of the text. Trump again uses a classical “triplet” here: he organizes “you” in three consecutive, repetitive and structurally similar statements. We get a triple rhyme through the repetition of “YOU are the ones who”.
  • You is twice associated with “America” (“America’s destiny” and “making America great again”), and once with “our” in the phrase “our prosperity”. You = us = America.
  • Of these three statements, the first two display sound rhyme (destiny, prosperity), while the third one brings the climax: the central slogan of Trump’s campaign and presidency (“make America great again”). Any doubt that this would be the climax is removed by the exclamation mark. So we get: you = us = America = Trump.

This is a pretty fine example of rhetorical craftsmanship, in which literally nothing is out of place. We get a nice piece of poetically structured – and thus affectively appealing – political discourse here. This degree of poetic structuring makes the text performable: the audience gets loads of cues as to how this text should be, and can be, spoken to others. It is also no longer just a one-liner: it is a far more complex argumentative bit of text, driven by strong and very well elaborated images of good-better-best in a new America under Trump. It’s the stuff of persuasive talk.

But we get all of it in a tweet: a typically written genre of online discourse appears to display dense characteristics of spoken discourse. There is just one thing that cannot be extracted from the online to the offline world of speech: the hashtag #MAGA is the unique Twitter-only feature of the tweet. The rest of the text is exportable.

This shows us how the online and the offline rhetorical world of Donald Trump are profoundly connected. We are witnessing a new format of public broadcasting here, of presidential spoken discourse. Not just for contemplation and admiration by his audience, but for active uptake and repeated offline performance. And not the broadcasting of lengthy stretches of text, but of texts that are formatted as tweets – for retweeting as well as for repeating as tweetable speech. Trump referred to Twitter as “his voice”. Through tweets such as these, he enables his followers to imagine his voice as actually heard, and even spoken collectively as a new nation.

We get a copybook example here of “vox populism”, the version of populism that is centered around manufactured representations of the “voice of the people”: first, I teach you how to talk like me, after which I can claim to talk like you, to represent your voice and turn it into a political, “democratic” program. And virality becomes a crucial infrastructure for such vox populism: look at the many thousands who retweet my words. Surely I must be a democratic politician. I must be the most democratic one ever.

(Thanks are due to Ico Maly and Rob Moore for inspiring comments)

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Ludic membership and orthopractic mobilization: On slacktivism and all that.

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Jan Blommaert

This short research note is part of the Durkheim and the Internet project and attempts to theorize social phenomena emerging from the online-offline nexus. In what follows, I shall add to earlier steps in the project, specifically those related to “light” groups complementing, in socially relevant ways, the “thick” groups of an earlier Durkheimian-Parsonian sociological tradition (Blommaert 2017).

To recapitulate the earlier argument: in the online-offline nexus, we see a tremendous variety of new groups emerge, from social media networks (think of Facebook “friends”) to more specific topically formed groups (e.g. fandom, brand-focused, lifestyle or foodie communities) (e.g. Maly 2017). In addition, we see how ‘offline’ communities get solidified by means of an extensive online infrastructure, the most crucial function of which appears to revolve around the distribution of knowledge and the organizing of elaborate (even if “light”, i.e. not formalized nor institutionalized) learning practices (Maly & Varis 2015; Blommaert 2016). We observed that such “light” groups display “thick” characteristics: they can migrate offline and deploy powerful forms of activism there, in some instances bordering on what can be called “revolutionary” action (e.g. Costea 2017).

There is a literature that tends to be dismissive of such online-offline forms of activism, calling it, alternately, “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” and distinguishing it clearly from “real” sociopolitical mobilization and activism (e.g. Morozov 2011). I do not intend to frontally attack such dismissive statements; what I wish to do, though, is to offer suggestions for a more nuanced and accurate understanding of such forms of social practice – an attempt at reimagining “slacktivism” if you wish, by pointing to some of its crucial features and providing a theoretical vocabulary to describe and generalize them.

I believe there are two issues that demand attention here. One is the issue of group membership, the other of group mobilization. Both issues have been critical topics of social and political-theoretical debate throughout the twentieth century. In fact, they are key issues in revolutionary theory from Lenin to Gramsci, in democratic theory from Dewey to Habermas, as well as in cultural studies. I cannot go into these historical debates here and shall reserve them for future discussion. In what follows, I must confine myself to sketching the skeleton of a larger theoretical structure on what presently might constitute, in important ways, the morphology of “the public” or “the masses” as a sociologically relevant (and agentive) force.

Ludic forms of attachment

What do we know so far? We know that the online-offline nexus has resulted in the mushrooming of technologically mediated social groups of bewildering diversity and without precedent, best imagined (following Castells’ 1996 early characterization) as “networks” and enabling a vast array of new forms of identity performance and experience (boyd 2011). Identity work has acquired an outspoken level of fragmentation and mobility, something that can be imagined as “chronotopic”, in which different resources and normative behavior templates (“microhegemonies”) need to be deployed in specific TimeSpace configurations. The elaborate identity repertoires needed for adequate levels of integration in this ever-expanding field of identity work requires permanent learning and re-learning work, and most online environments can be empirically described as “communities of knowledge”: chronotopes in which specific identity resources can be formed, learned and policed.

We also know that such communities – even if they operate as real communities, including forms of leadership, normative behavioral scripts and levels of integration – are open, undemanding and flexible when it comes to membership, and that older conceptions of what it means to be a member impede a precise understanding of the actual forms of attachment developing between individuals and groups.

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga emphasized what he saw as an important counterpoint to Weber’s rationalization drive in Modernity: the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play (Huizinga 2014: 5).

Huizinga (2014, chapter 1) lists several features of “play”. I shall select a number of them.

  1. Play is significant: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”;
  2. it is, at the same time a voluntary activity often experienced as a site of personal freedom;
  3. it is relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control (distinguishing “play” from a “game” such as chess or poker);
  4. it is an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it outside the range of what is commonly seen as “useful” or “effective” (it is done “just for fun”);
  5. it is enclosed in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities; and finally,
  6. given all the previous characteristics, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill, and it has an inevitable aspect of learning to it.

Two remarks are in order. One, with respect to the characteristic of authenticity ((4) above), it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucaultian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well.

Two, with respect to (5) above – Huizinga’s requirement of spatiotemporal “isolation” for play – we can emphasize the chronotopic nature of ludic practices. Play is often reserved for, and reliant upon, restricted and elaborately organized TimeSpace configurations. Think of a “play room” or a “play corner”, of “holiday” and “leisure” as segmented TimeSpace configurations reserved for ludic activities, but also of current expressions such as “quality time” or “me time” (a segment of time spent on ludic, non-work activities). Observe, by the way, the strong moral ring of such terms: they refer to things we absolutely need and value highly; denial of such things is often perceived as unacceptable. In online activities, the TimeSpace configuration is present as well, and relatively undemanding in addition: we need an individual and an online device, and little more is required. Which is why “spending time behind your computer” is often perceived as “asocial” or “individualistic”: we perceive an individual alone with his/her device, who is deeply involved, of course, with a community not sharing the physical TimeSpace but very much present and active in the “virtual” one.

If we now take Huizinga’s characteristics and apply them to the “light” forms of membership in online communities, we see a potential for application – perhaps not to all forms of online membership but to many of them. We can see how attachment to online groups is not (in a great many instances) conditioned by permanent, heavily ordered, policed and “total” involvement – one does not have to become an expert in, say, advanced Barbecue techniques just by visiting Barbecue-focused websites or fora, and one does not have to participate in all events on a cosplay forum in order to be a “member”. One can also enter and participate on such online platforms without subscribing to the full range of norms, expectations and cultural premises prevailing there, and one can articulate one’s participation in terms of very different intentions and desired outcomes than the next person. An online gaming forum is not a school, even if we find organized and tightly observed learning practices on the online gaming forum too. It turns the gaming forum into a ludic learning environment in which different forms of knowledge practice are invited, allowed and ratified. Such practices – precisely – are “light” ones too – think of “phatic” expressions of attachments such as the retweet on Twitter and the “likes” on Facebook: knowledge practices not necessarily experienced as such, and rather more frequently seen as “just for fun”.

Note Huizinga’s final characteristic: ludic practice is serious practice. The relatively “light”, mobile and flexible features of online communities do not prevent intense and profoundly focused forms of attachment. The experience of freedom and authenticity, and the absence of obvious “normal” forms of usefulness and efficiency might, on the contrary, precisely contribute to the sometimes phenomenal investments made by members in their attachments to such groups. There is a degree of intimacy evolving from ludic practices (including the “phatic” ones just mentioned): people make friends while playing, because play enables them to show their “authentic” self.[1]This brings us to the next point.

Orthopractic mobilization

With the image of ludic membership, we may have somewhat softened the attribute of “slacktivism” attached to forms of online mobilization. We are not seeing “traditional” groups in action here, but a ludic form of group attachment in which intentions, functions and outcomes may differ greatly, in spite of joined (and strongly experienced) focus of attention and intense learning. It is the nature of such forms of membership that excludes, I believe, traditional notions of “hegemony” as the engine driving individuals to mass action. Such forms of hegemony presuppose levels of organization, leadership, and ultimately of rationality in planning and approach, none of which can be expected in ludic online communities of knowledge.

Yet, considering these moments where online activity went hand in hand with mass offline action – think of the Romanian “revolution” documented by Costea (2017), or of the millions of people taking to the streets in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris (carrying “je Suis Charlie” banners and badges), mass mobilization is not just possible, but possible on a rarely observed scale as well. Hashtag activism is not the Holy Grail of new politics, but it is not an impotent thing either.

In order to grasp its potency, we need to introduce two elements. One: structures of feeling. Rather than the full-blown ideologies, fully understood and shared by the masses in the Gramscian tradition, online-offline mass mobilization might rely on what Raymond Williams (1977) called “structures of feeling”: inchoate mass-shared understandings of a moral/aesthetic kind translated into political reactions. Online resources offer an incredible potential for the ultra-fast sharing of sentiments, instant reactions to events, images and symbols. Those reactions can suffice to bring people out in the street, certainly when they can be generalized to broad passe partout feelings of fear, injustice or fairness.

If we accept this first element, a second one is straightforward. I suggest that we see such forms of online-offline mass mobilization as moments of “orthopractic” mobilization. The term “orthopraxy” is here borrowed from James C. Scott (1990), and refers to a display of ideological agreement not necessarily accompanied by full ideological endorsement. By absence of a full-blown ideology in online mobilization, what appears to be shared is a “common sense” – a common reaction to events easily formatted into mass-shared templates of expression: the use of banners, symbols and slogans often backed up by hashtags (“Je Suis Charlie”), mass marches and rallies, silent wakes, flowers and candlelight displays, and so forth.

The formatted character of such moments of mass action makes them “orthopractic”: people perform the restricted sets of rituals articulating structures of feeling, the codes and templates of which are often produced and distributed online. It thus becomes a mass form of “quality time” – an enclosed moment of shared authenticity, recognizable play and moral valuations to which one attends intensely and with great doses of sincerity. And while the online actions usually largely survive the offline ones, the moments of offline mobilization are impressive as well as politically significant, the more since such moments of mobilization often have a grassroots, “from below”, spontaneous and therefore unexpected nature. The mass mobilization across the EU in the summer of 2015 in favor of a more generous approach towards refugees, for instance, caught the governments by surprise and led, in some instances, to a lasting and well organized transnational solidarity movement.

Reimagination once more

The online-offline nexus produces new forms of social relationships and practices, new forms of cultural performance, and new political formats of action as well. More traditional modes of political organization – political parties, trade unions and so forth – still exist, but their capacity for mass mobilization (based on fixed and permanent membership, full subscription to a program, recognition of leadership structures etc.) is a permanent source of concern for them, while it is still considered to be a major factor of political legitimacy (and thence, of power). Such traditional modes stand, thus, in an uneasy relationship with the new forms of mobilization discussed here. The masses still take to the street, and do so in huge numbers, but not necessarily as a response to the call from parties or unions.

In describing these different forms of group attachment and mobilization I had to draw on two terms carrying, in common parlance, rather negative connotations. The “ludic” is often seen in opposition to the “serious” business of sociopolitical organization and governance. And “orthopraxy” is often seen as a fake form of ideological alignment, a “pretending to” and “doing as if” one subscribes to a political program or ideology. The same goes for the term “light” in expressions such as “light groups”: it stands in opposition to, and is seen as inferior to, “thick” groups such as those defined by nationality, race, gender, class, religion or age.

It is difficult, for the moment, to change the terms. But it is possible to change their indexical vector from negative to, at least, neutral – descriptive. And to simply take the phenomena they cover seriously and responsibly, as social facts demanding analytical attention and comprehension. It is the task of perpetual reimagination of a reality which, damn it or bless it, refuses to sit still.

References

Blommaert, Jan (2016) ‘Meeting of Styles’ and the online infrastructures of graffiti. Applied Linguistics Review 7/2: 99-115

Blommaert, Jan (2017)Durkheim and the Internet: On Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. Working Papers in urban Language and Literacies, paper 204.

boyd, dana (2011), ‘White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook’, in Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (eds), Race after the Internet, 203–22, New York: Routledge.

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell

Costea, Anca (2017) The Online Resources of Contemporary Social Revolutions: The Case of the Romanian #Rezist Revolution. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 190.

Foucault, Michel (2003) Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975. New York: Picador.

Huizinga, Johan (2014 [1950]) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. New York: Roy Publishers.

Maly, Ico (2017) Saabism and Saabists: A Digital Ethnographic Analysis of Saab Culture. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 188.

Maly, Ico and Piia Varis (2015) The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies 19/6: 1-17.

Morozov, Evgeny (2011) The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. London: Penguin.

Scott, James C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Note

[1] This explains the very widespread genre of “confession” on social media. Confession, as Foucault (2003) observed, is a veridictional genre, a genre of truth-speaking in which an uninhibited self communicates fundamental truths to other uninhibited selves.

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Jan Blommaert on ‘morphing’ nationalism and how language helps us to get it

Valorisation B

nationalisme_r One of the early works of Jan on nationalism (1994)

Anti-establishment, anti-immigrant and anti-EU are common messages threading together the ongoing phenomenon of the upsurge of far-right parties all over Europe. We are by now accustomed to hearing in mass media but also within academia (e.g. Bosco & Verney 2012; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2015) that the success of such political parties or extremist organizations is a direct consequence of the combined global financial and refugee crises.

In the southern fringe of the continent, a small country seems to epitomize the problem with Europe. I happen to come from that country, Greece, and spent two and a half months this year doing ethnographic research on the field with members of the currently third biggest Greek political party, Golden Dawn.

GD rally getty Golden Dawn rally in Athens

‘Laos, Stratos, Ethinkismos’ (meaning “People, army, nationalism”) ‘Antepithesi, Ethinki antistasi’ (meaning “Counter attack, National resistance”) or…

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25 years of right wing extremism in Belgium: Lessons for the present

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Jan Blommaert

The Brexit, followed by the election of Donald Trump in the US, have raised worldwide concerns about the rise of right wing extremism. The phenomenon is, however, 25 years old in Belgium. Lessons can be drawn from that longitudinal experience.

24 November 1991 is known as “Black Sunday” in Belgium. On that day, a relatively new party called Vlaams Blok radically redefined the electoral landscape in the country with a first massive victory at the polls. Prior to that national breakthrough, the party had won the local elections in Antwerp. But Black Sunday sent shock waves through the Belgian political system, and its effects are enduring.

The Vlaams Blok program

Vlaams Blok (“Flemish Block”, later renamed Vlaams Belang – “Flemish Interest”) won its seats in Parliament due to a mixture of three powerful elements. The mixture will sound familiar to observers of the present.

  1. Extreme nationalism. While in Flemish Belgium moderate forms of nationalism had been common – most Flemish parties would support a degree of autonomy for Flanders, and some more radical ones would demand a federal structure for Belgium – Vlaams Blok demanded the unspeakable: Flemish independence.
  2. An anti-immigrant program. Vlaams Blok was the party that put immigration and Islam not just on the political agenda, but made it into THE electoral trump card.
  3. Charismatic and undisputed leadership. Vlaams Blok won its first election with two highly articulate and technically competent young politicians, Filip Dewinter and Gerolf Annemans. Unbeatable in media debates and easily perceived as champions of the “common man”, these two figureheads survived several generations of politicians and are still active today. Their leadership in the party remained unqualified until very recently.

The main innovation brought by Vlaams Blok was point (2) in this list. Until 1988, immigration and multiculturalism were marginal as political themes. As a policy domain of very modest scope, these themes had emerged in Belgium in the late 1970s only, and they had emerged in the broader context of the socio-economic issues following the economic recession of the mid-1970s. Immigrants had been particularly hard-hit by the economic contraction, and politicians felt that specific measures should be taken. The problem with immigrants was defined as a socio-economic one.

Vlaams Blok brought a radically different definition of the problem. Immigrants presented a cultural and political threat to Flemish society. Their presence distorted and threatened the fundamental identity of Flanders as a white, Christian and Dutch-speaking region characterized by a set of values and preferences with which those of – notably Muslim – minorities were profoundly at odds. Since, in addition to this, the economic role of immigrants had declined due to the recession, immigrants should be turned back to their countries of origin.

Onto this anti-immigrant theme, several others could be grafted.

  1. Vlaams Blok strongly advocated a law-and-order approach openly focused on immigrant youth, seen as the source of urban unrest, waves of petty crime (often drugs-related) and widespread feelings of insecurity in some urban neighborhoods. Of course, 9/11 and the proclamation of the worldwide War on (Muslim) Terror provided powerful boosts to this aspect of the Vlaams Blok agenda.
  2. The party also advocated the restrictions of social welfare benefits and civil and political rights to “native” Flemish people, excluding immigrants from the welfare state and/or creating a dual system of social policy. Naturally, full citizenship (including the right to vote and seek political mandates) should be the privilege of “native” Flemish people only.

The most dramatic impact of Vlaams Blok, however, was more general:

  1. They redefined the meaning of “democracy”. They did so with a simple slogan: “we are saying what you are thinking”. And they added a simple argument to that, directed at their political adversaries: since we win elections, we represent “the voice of the people” and you don’t. The other parties were defined as “traditional”, an enclosed “political elite” alienated from the “common man”, and this traditional elite politics had created a “gap between citizens and politics” which Vlaams Blok had filled. The party systematically presented itself as the champion of freedom of speech, and would never stop complaining about media censorship and silencing tactics performed against them by the “elites”.

Vlaams Blok was proud of its extreme right-wing roots and program; prominent members would attend events celebrating Flemish SS-veterans of World War II, and the party established a strong network with other extreme right-wing and neofascist movements across Europe. Vlaams Blok members would proudly call themselves “right wing”, “radical” and “uncompromising”, thus adding previously unheard political self-qualifications to the political-discursive register of Belgian politics.

The impact of Vlaams Blok

The political adversaries of the Vlaams Blok reacted swiftly to the electoral shockwave of Black Sunday. A cordon sanitaire was declared by all other parties, promising never to enter into formal political collaboration with the party. Politicians would, until this day, explicitly proclaim their fundamental differences with Vlaams Blok and their refusal to enter into coalitions with them. Much later, in 2004, the party was brought to court on racism charges. The controversial trial led to a conviction, and the party was forced to change its name into Vlaams Belang.

Implicitly, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments.

This was the explicit part of the reaction. Implicitly, however, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments, in a kind of pied-piper reflex aimed at regaining the lost electoral ground. Even more: the six points listed above have, 25 years after the electoral breakthrough of this right-wing extremist party, become mainstream. Thus, while the cordon sanitaire excluded the party from power, its influence was pervasive and persistent. The party caused a decisive political-discursive shift – the same shift as the one now witnessed elsewhere in Europe and the US.

By opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted

This shift can be described as follows. By introducing new “extreme” topics and modes of political speech (qualified, systematically, as “simply stating facts” and therefore matters of “freedom of speech”), all previously “extremist” positions became “moderate”. Thus by opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted along. Concretely, when one demands that all illegal aliens ought to be deported, every proposal for repression short of deportation becomes “moderate” and reasonable in comparison to the “extreme” one. Similarly, if one demands independence for Flanders, proposals for a confederal state can be presented as moderate and reasonable, even if they are vastly more radical than previously held plans for a federal state. And so forth. The entire specter of Belgian politics moved, quite dramatically, in that direction.

Thus, after 1991, all parties embarked on large-scale exercises of rebranding and reorganization, aimed at “closing the gap” with the citizens defined by Vlaams Blok. The traditional system in which parties articulated the interests of large and well-organized civil society organizations (trade unions, religious and socio-economically defined communities, local and regional constituencies) and relied on a large membership of militants was rapidly replaced by an entirely new format of political practice based on high-profile personalities, marketing, polling and mass mediatized propaganda, later significantly expanded by the use of internet-based new media. Politicians became celebrities (and celebrities became politicians), and the voter was, henceforth, approached as a “customer” rather than as an ideologically affiliated fellow-traveler. The era of the glib and quotable one-liner and “politics-as-lifestyle-option” had arrived, replacing that of the slow and careful technical explanation of policy options. All parties desperately wished to avoid being trapped in the label of “elite”, and all claimed to express “the voice of the common man”. Populism, in short, became the default mode of politics. New types of political leaders, new types of political style, discourse, tactics and strategy were established, and new themes started dominating the political landscape.

For the same shift towards the Vlaams Blok could be seen in all the thematic domains listed above. Far more radical versions of Flemish nationalism became mainstream. And when an erstwhile “moderate” Flemish-nationalist party exploded in the early years of the millennium, a far more radical one succeeded it, called N-VA. Article 1 of their Statute identifies Flemish independence as the ultimate political goal. This party is currently the largest Flemish party, and dominates both the Flemish and the Federal Governments. More on this below.

Immigration and multiculturalism became overwhelmingly culturalized, and the socio-economic line previously followed was all but entirely abandoned and replaced by Huntington-ian discourses of “integration problems” caused by fundamental cultural-religious differences between “us” and – increasingly but incessantly – Muslims. Law-and-order repression replaced softer approaches aimed at employability, education and training, and improved social mobility for minority members. Voting rights became a taboo issue, and immigrants acquired voting rights only as part of the implementation of EU-directives in 2004. The dominant discursive and policy model now is that minority members “need to take responsibility” for their own position of inequality, that racism is too often used as an excuse for failing to use the opportunities “we” offer “them”, and that Muslim “extremism” means that “integration has failed” and that a more coercive approach is warranted.

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too. Black Sunday was explained in the media in precisely the terms defined by Vlaams Blok: yes, there was a problem of democratic legitimacy for the “traditional” parties, and yes, Vlaams Blok asked “the right questions” (but gave undesirable answers). Throughout the 1990, the mass media provided encouraging commentary for the shift towards populism and the adoption of important parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda. In a political system increasingly dominated by mass-mediatization, this support mattered, it mattered a great deal.

Lessons for today?

Vlaams Blok became the single most consistently successful political formation in Belgian politics since World War II. From its first electoral success in 1988 until 2006, the party won 13 consecutive electoral victories. It did so in spite of a cordon sanitaire which deprived voters from any hope of real executive power, and in spite of the mass copying and imitation acts of all other parties. This success story also turned Vlaams Blok from an early mover in the European extreme-right-wing universe into an exceptionally consistent political formation, and a model for several more recent similar European parties.

The tactic of copying and imitation, thus, did not pay off for the other political parties. The Flemish Social-Democrats, for instance, lost half of their electorate in the period since Black Sunday. Filip Dewinter himself would provide a simple explanation: people would always prefer the authentic brand product above its imitations or counterfeit versions. He was right, of course: given their adoption of substantial parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda, parties found it increasingly difficult to wage a convincing and consistent opposition against Vlaams Blok. And given the technical brilliance of the latter’s leaders in media performances, defeat was almost inevitable for the “traditional” parties.

The party lost some of its electoral force after the worldwide crisis of 2008, when socio-economic themes regained prominence in political discourse and programs. But the first really bad defeat only occurred in 2014, when the previously mentioned recently created N-VA party captured about one third of the Flemish electorate, led by a charismatic and highly media-friendly leader Bart de Wever. Interestingly, this party did copy and imitate Vlaams Blok – it did so almost entirely in the six domains sketched earlier – but it combined this Vlaams Blok agenda with an outspoken and radical neoliberal economic platform. Thus, the Vlaams Blok program has now acquired executive power. N-VA has cleverly exploited the huge discursive shift mentioned earlier, moving as closely as possible to the positions held by Vlaams Blok, and just adding a “moderate” (essentially a more “rational”) stylistic inflection. And it drew most of its voters in the 2014 ballot from the existing Vlaams Blok electorate.

Copying and imitation does pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift performed by “illegitimate” political actors has been normalized.

Thus, copying and imitation does appear to pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift – the expansion of what is politically thinkable and publicly sayable, performed by “illegitimate” political actors such as Vlaams Blok – has been normalized. N-VA needed the overtly extremist (and legally racist) Vlaams Blok in order to create a “normal” political place for itself. Likewise, Boris Johnson can only be explained by Nigel Farage and the English Defence League; and Donald Trump capitalizes on the efforts of an extremely radical neoconservative movement that started under Clinton and took the shape of the Tea Party under Obama. Thus, the new, radical right-wing politicians we now have emerge in a new, reshaped discursive field in which much of what was seen as shocking and politically transgressive two decades ago can be presented now as just a statement of fact, the performance of which is a matter of freedom of speech, and, ultimately, a vital sign of of a true and vibrant democracy.

“We are saying what you are thinking” has become the single most powerful political motif in recent years. In Belgium, it has profoundly transformed the political arena for 25 years, and it has been consistently successful. Witnessing the more recent re-enactments of this process of transformation elsewhere in the world is, therefore, a highly frustrating experience – the same patterns evolved, the same errors were made, and the same outcomes define a present which, looking back, was in fact highly predictable.

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TINA undressed 2: History without agency

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Jan Blommaert 

This morning, ING Bank announced a worldwide restructuration in which 7,000 jobs will be cut, about half of which in its Belgian branch. The restructuration did not come as a surprise to many employees and observers, in spite of ING having done not too badly at all – the last decade saw a net profit of around 11 billion Euro, with over 7 billion in dividend, and a 30% increase in the CEO’s remuneration last year. So it is not that the bank is on the brink of collapse or that its shares are nosediving. Thus, why this range of deep-cutting measures?

ING communicated its decision in a statement called “Accelerating Think Forward“. The restructuration is part of a strategy implemented since 2014 (“Think Forward”), which now demands acceleration, more specifically “a number of initiatives to further improve the customer experience, further grow primary customers and lending, and increase efficiency”. The bank has done quite well, as we have seen. However, says CEO Ralph Hamers, “[w]e also promised to keep getting better and that is exactly what today’s steps are aimed at. Our recent successes allow us to do so from a position of strength.”

The past is, thus, just the take-off for the future. This future is by definition not known. But nevertheless, ING reads the signs:

“Customers are increasingly digital and bank with us more and more through mobile devices. Their needs and expectations are the same, all over the world, and they expect us to adopt new technology as fast as companies in other sectors. In order to continue to lead in digital banking, we need to offer a better customer experience, that’s instant, personal, frictionless and relevant. At the same time, banks are confronted with continuous regulatory burden and a prolonged period of ultra-low interest rates. These factors put pressure on the returns which are necessary to fund growth and investments, and cover our cost of capital.”

Observe how ING suggests that the prime mover behind this plan is the customer, whose preferences, demands and expectations have shifted into a direction that demands “a better customer experience, that’s instant, personal, frictionless and relevant”. Money only appears at the very end of the statement:

“In line with our strategy, we will be introducing ING Group financial targets for 2020. We will maintain our ING Group CET1 ratio above the prevailing fully-loaded requirement, currently 12.5%, with a leverage ratio above 4%. Our target for the cost/income ratio is 50-52%. In light of the continuing regulatory uncertainty, we are not updating our RoE target (currently 10-13% of ING Bank IFRS-EU equity), but we reiterate our intention to pay a progressive dividend over time.”

Given that we are talking about a bank operating in a competitive global banking universe and owned by shareholders demanding specific levels of return on investment, it is relatively safe to suspect that the real prime mover is profit, and that the new customer experience is a means to that end.

The reversal of those two elements brings us to the TINA (There is no alternative) frame. In an earlier piece I discussed how a particular discursive use of identity forms part of the TINA frame; here we see similar things happening with history. And to summarize the point, we see how in the ING statement, a particular distinction is made between

  • history with agency, and
  • history without agency

The history-with-agency is the strategy presented by the bank. Its plan “Thinking Forward” already incorporates a clear agentive frame – it’s the bankers who think – and “accelerating” that plan is obviously also something decided more or les sovereignly by the bank’s executives. The strategy, in short, articulates how the bank intends to control a future through specific measures designed to benefit from…. a history over which they have no agency. And this history-without-agency is described in the paragraph in which the developments in customer expectations and market circumstances are given.

From a purely factual viewpoint, the bank has co-shaped all the conditions presented in that paragraph. ING customers have, for years, been pushed towards more digital and less branch-based banking activities through measures implemented by no one else but the bank (and often contested by the customers themselves). The same goes for the “regulatory context” referred to, including the “ultra-low interest rates”, which occured often both in response to existing banking problems, as well as at the request of banking lobbies. None of these forces, thus, can structly be depicted as alien, outside forces over which the bank has no control. The same counts a fortiori for the elephant in the room: profitability target setting. The shareholders are the bank, and as we have seen in the fragment above, they have received 10-13% percent “Return on Equity” – a quite extraordinary level of profit, reflecting, one could say, quite unrealistic levels of expected profit growth. And these target settings are not forced upon the bank by outside forces.

The paradox, however, is that ING presents the entire operation as a rational response – their agency – to forces of history that they can only follow, by trying to remain ahead of them. In other words: they are suggesting that they respond to historical forces by shaping them. “Sorry, but there is no other way to respond to future challenges than to create them ourselves.” This paradox is nicely woven into the delicate discourse of cause-and-effect in the statement, and this particular discursive move feeds into the TINA frame: things are what they are, there is no alternative for history than a future shaped by us. We can see this nicely in this final fragment:

“While not all plans we present today are finalized, the intended initiatives are expected to result in a reduction of ING´s workforce in Belgium by around 3,500 FTEs and by around 2,300 FTEs in the Netherlands for the years 2016-2021. These numbers include the intended move to an integrated banking platform, with the remainder of functions affected spread over intended programmes in IT, operations, Wholesale Banking and various business support functions. At the same time, we will add colleagues in parts of our business where we expect to accelerate growth given our plans to continue to attract new customers and increase lending to support the economies we are active in.”

It’s all about agency here, and incidentally the agency articulated here touches precisely those causal forces previously described as beyond the grasp of the bank – the objective directions of history in the banking world.

At the heart of TINA, there is a lie – we all know that. The lie revolves around the suggestion of non-agency, of absolute and uncontrollable actors shaping fields of action in which those using the TINA frame claim to have just minimal, responsive, and therefore rational agency. While in fact, they are the actors. In other words: they pretend to be the victims of a future they themselves are engineering. And this future is, of course, an absolute and undisputable given, to which they can only adjust their course of action.

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TINA undressed 1: Identity politics as identity without politics

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Jan Blommaert 

On a hot day in July 2016, four policemen walked onto a beach in Nice, France, ordered a Muslim woman to take off part of her hijab dress, in full view of dozens of other tourists, and fined her for violations of the local decency regulations. The incident was captured by a photographer (which makes the public undressing even more disconcerting) and the images went viral. They triggered a fierce international debate on the why and how of such interventions, in which Muslim female dress is seen as a direct index of a deeper threat – that of jihadism.

How could these four policemen see their intervention as “normal”? After all, one can question, on grounds of common sense, quite a few aspects of a situation in which four armed men order a woman to publicly undress, and sanction her “over-dressedness” on a beach as an act of indecency. The answer can be found elsewhere, in a feature of public debate which has become pervasive whenever Islam and its (real or imagined) characteristics are the theme. There is a highly peculiar use of identity in such arguments, and I shall attempt to sketch it in what follows.

As I said, the incident triggered a massive debate in mass and social media, in which broadly two camps could be discerned. One camp saw the police action as normal and argued that hijab does not belong in our society, since it is an emblem of Islamic backwardness regarding male-female equality. The other camp saw it as a transgression of civil liberties – the freedom of religion – and as an illustration of the absurdities to which the War on Terror (read: the West versus Islam) had led. Both camps overlap to some extent (but certainly not in absolute terms, as we shall see) with the traditional Right-Left distinctions in the political field.

In Belgium, too, this debate raged, and the Belgian-Flemish Social-democrats took a position which largely sided with the first camp. For this, evidently, they were attacked by fractions of the Left. And on 15 August, a member of the Social Democratic party posted the following update on Facebook (Dutch original, my translation).

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There is, in se, nothing remarkable about the text, other than that it combines several arguments found in hundreds of other interventions in these discussion. I summarize them as follows:

  1. The text makes a neat distinction between “us and them”, and both parties are treated in a fundamentally different way.
  2. The “us” party is characterized by epistemic superiority: we know how wrong “they” are, and we know what “they” should do in response to that.
  3. The “they” party is described as a situated entity in the “here-and-now” chronotope. Their actual and concrete behavior is the focus of discussion.
  4. The “we” party, in contrast, is described as absolute and timeless, in a “here-always” chronotope, by invoking “our” history (Enlightenment) and “our” values.
  5. “Their” behavior is political: concrete forms of behavior are seen as an immediate and distinct threat to “democracy”. Our reaction to this, in contrast, is explicitly depoliticized and presented as a simple factual, rational, observation.

This neat (and recurrent) separation of different universes for “us” and “them” enables the author to conclude that the Social-Democratic emphasis on law and order has nothing to do with traditional political Left-Right distinctions. It is a matter of rational reasoning – a simple statement of “problems” – which refers not to specific really-existing political directions, but to our fundamental identity. Thus, it wasn’t President Hollande’s socialism that motivated the four policemen’s action, it was the values of Enlightenment.

We see here how identity is used as a very powerful argument, suggested to transcend everyday politics and to be played out at an existential and timeless level of essential identity. Small features of “their” behavior can now be seen as absolute challenges to who we are, and as in need of responses that protect that fundamental identity. Such responses can – or must – be given by political actors of all shades and colors: actual political positions (and traditions) do not matter here, for our very essence is at stake. And just like in economic matters, addressing the threat of Islam is captured in the TINA frame – there is only one way to respond to it, and that is to defend the absolute status of “our way” and accept no compromise, let alone an alternative strategy, in that battle. Since there is just one way, this way must be “rational”.

Decades ago, scholars such as Manuel Castells, Immanuel Wallerstein and Eric Hobsbawm warned us that identity would become the battlefield of the globalized political world. They were right, and we begin to see how this battlefield is organized: by a politics of identity which denies its political – contestable and debatable – nature, and instead offers itself as an absolute feature.

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Mathematics and its ideologies (an anthropologist’s observations)

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Jan Blommaert 

What is science? The question has been debated in tons of papers written over about two centuries and resulting in widely different views. Most people practicing science, consequently, prefer a rather prudent answer to the question, leaving some space for views of science that do not necessarily coincide with their own, but at least appear to share some of its basic features – the assumption, for instance, that knowledge is scientific when it has been constructed by means of methodologies that are shared intersubjectively by a community of scientific peers. The peer-group sharedness of such methodologies enables scientific knowledge to be circulated for critical inspection by these peers; and the use of such ratified methodologies and the principle of peer-group critique together form the “discipline” – the idea of science as disciplined knowledge construction.

There are, however, scientists who have no patience for such delicate musings and take a much narrower and more doctrinaire view of science and its limits. I already knew that – everyone, I suppose, has colleagues who believe that science is what they do, and that’s it. But a small recent reading offensive on the broad social science tradition called Rational Choice (henceforth RC) made me understand that such colleagues are only a minor nuisance compared to hardcore RC believers. For the likes of Arrow, Riker, Buchanan and their disciples, now spanning three generations,”scientific” equals “mathematical”, period. Whatever is not expressed mathematically cannot be scientific; even worse, it is just “intuition”, “metaphysics” or “normativity”. And in that sense it is even dangerous: since “bad” science operates from such intuitive, metaphysical or normative assumptions, it sells ideology under the veil of objectivity and will open the door to totalitarian oppression. What follows is a critique of mathematics as used in RC.

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Sonja Amadae (2003), in a book I enjoyed reading, tells the story of how RC emerged out of Cold War concerns in the US. It was the RAND Corporation that sought, at the end of World War II and the beginning of the nuclear era, to create a new scientific paradigm that would satisfy two major ambitions. First, it should provide an objective, scientific grounding for decision-making in the nuclear era, when an ill-considered action by a soldier or a politician could provoke the end of the world as we knew it. Second, it should also provide a scientific basis for refuting the ideological (“scientific”) foundations of communism, and so become the scientific bedrock for liberal capitalist democracy and the “proof” of its superiority. This meant nothing less than a new political science, one that had its basis in pure “rational” objectivity rather than in partisan, “irrational” a priori’s. Mathematics rose to the challenge and would provide the answer.

Central to the problem facing those intent on constructing such a new political science was what Durkheim called “the social fact” – the fact that social phenomena cannot be reduced to individual actions, developments or concerns – or, converted into a political science jargon, the idea of the “public” or “masses” performing collective action driven by collective interests. This idea was of course central to Marxism, but also pervaded mainstream social and political science, including the (then largely US-based) Frankfurt School and the work of influential American thinkers such as Dewey. Doing away with it involved a shift in the fundamental imagery of human beings and social life, henceforth revolving around absolute (methodological) individualism and competitiveness modeled on economic transactions in a “free market” by people driven exclusively by self-interest. Amadae describes how this shift was partly driven by a desire for technocratic government performed by “a supposedly ‘objective’ technocratic elite” free from the whims and idiosyncracies of elected officials (2003: 31). These technocrats should use abstract models – read mathematical models – of “systems analysis”, and RAND did more than its share developing them. “Rational management” quickly became the key term in the newly reorganized US administration, and the term stood for the widespread use of abstract policy and decision-making models.

These models, as I said, involved a radically different image of humans and their social actions. The models, thus, did not just bring a new level of efficiency to policy making, they reformulated its ideological foundations. And Kenneth Arrow provided the key for that with his so-called “impossibility theorem”, published in his Social Choice and Individual Values (1951; I use the 1963 edition in what follows). Arrow’s theorem quickly became the basis for thousands of studies in various disciplines, and a weapon of mass political destruction used against the Cold War enemies of the West.

Arrow opens his book with a question about the two (in his view) fundamental modes of social choice: voting (for political decisions) and market transactions (for economic decisions). Both modes are seemingly collective, and thus opposed to dictatorship and cultural convention, where a single individual determines the choices. Single individuals, Arrow asserts, can be rational in their choices; but “[c]an such consistency be attributed to collective modes of choice, where the wills of many people are involved?” (1963:2). He announces that only the formal aspects of this issue will be discussed. But look what happens.

Using set-theoretical tools and starting from a hypothetical instance where two, then three perfectly rational individuals need to reach agreement, observing a number of criteria, he demonstrates that logically, such a rational collective agreement is impossible.  Even more: in a smart and surely premeditated lexical move, in which one of Arrow’s criteria was “non-dictatorship” (i.e. no collective choice should be based on the preferences of one individual), Arrow demonstrated that the only possible “collective” choices would in fact be dictatorial ones. A political system, in other words, based on the notion of the common will or common good, would of necessity be a dictatorship. In the age of Joseph Stalin, this message was hard to misunderstand.

And he elaborates this, then, in about hundred pages of prose, of which the following two fragments can be an illustration. (I shall provide them as visual images, because I am about ready to embark on my own little analysis, drawn from contemporary semiotic anthropology.)

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Fig 1: from p90, Arrow 1963

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Fig. 2: From p79, Arrow 1963.

The prose on these pages became epochal: in it, one read the undeniable proof that collective rational social action was impossible, unless as a thinly veiled dictatorship – a death blow to Marxism of course, but also the definitive end of Durkheim’s “social fact” – and that basing policy on such a collective rationality (as in welfare policy) was bound to be futile. This was now objectively, scientifically proven fact, established by the unimpeachable rigor of mathematical logic, of which Arrow and his disciples believed that it could be applied to any aspect of reality.

Arrow, we saw, mentioned the limitations of his inquiry; evidently, he also used several assumptions. Amadae (2003: 84) lists four of them:

“that science is objective; that it yields universal laws; that reason is not culturally relative; and that the individuals’ preferences are both inviolable and incomparable”.

The first three assumptions touch on his conception of science; in other words, they describe his belief in what mathematical methods do. I will return to them below. The fourth assumption is probably one of the most radical formulations of Methodological Individualism (henceforth MI). MI is the label attached to the theory complex in which every human activity is in fine reduced to individual interests, motives, concerns and decisions. In the case of Arrow and his followers, MI leads to the assumption that “society” is merely an aggregate of individuals. It is clear that this MI assumption – an ideological one, in fact a highly specific ideology of the nature of human beings and their social actions – underlies the “proof”, makes it circular, and from an anthropological viewpoint frankly ridiculous, certainly when each of such individuals is a perfectly rational actor who

“will always pursue his advantage, however he defines it, no matter what the circumstances; concepts of duty and responsibility are alien to the instrumental agent pursuing his goals” (Amadae 2003: 272)

Note that Arrow does not allow comparison between individuals (he will do so, grudgingly and conditionally, in 1977 in response to Rawls’ discussion of justice: Amadae 2003: 270). This is important in three ways. One: it is a key motif in his “objective” approach, in which any normative judgment (e.g. a value judgment about preferences of individuals) needs to be excluded from the analysis, because any such judgment would bring in “irrational” elements and open the door to totalitarian policy options. Two: it thus underscores and constructs the case for mathematics as a method, about which more below. And three: it also provides a second-order ideological argument in favor of Man-the-individualist, for if individuals cannot be scientifically compared, they surely cannot be scientifically grouped into collectives.

And so, on the basis of a mathematical “proof” grounded in a set of highly questionable assumptions and operating on an entirely imaginary case, Arrow decided that society – the real one – is made up of a large number of individuals bearing remarkable similarities to Mr Spock. And this, then, was seen as the definitive scientific argument against Marxism, against the Durkheimian social fact, against the welfare state, socialism and communism, and in favor of liberal democracy and free market economics. It is, carefully considered, a simple ideological propaganda treatise covered up by the visual emblems of mathematics-as-objective-science. The assumptions it takes on board as axiomatic givens constitute its ideological core, the mathematical “proof” its discourse, and both are dialectically interacting. His assumptions contain everything he claims to reject: they are profoundly normative, idealistic, and metaphysical. Every form of subjectivity becomes objective as long as it can be formulated mathematically.

The fact that his “impossibility theorem” is, till today, highly influential among people claiming to do social science, is mysterious, certainly given the limitations specified by Arrow himself and the questionable nature of the assumptions he used – the most questionable of which is that of universality, that mathematics could be used to say something sensible on the nature of humans and their societies. The fact that these people often also appear to firmly believe that Arrow’s formal modeling of social reality, with its multitude of Mr Spocks, is a pretty accurate description of social reality, is perplexing, certainly knowing that this mathematical exercise was (and is) taken, along with its overtly ideological assumptions,  to be simple social and political fact (observable or not). Notably the MI postulate of individuals behaving (or being) like entirely sovereign and unaffected consumers in a free market of political choices, “proven” by Arrow and turned into a factual (and normative) definition, leads Adamae (2003: 107) to conclude “that Arrow’s set-theoretical definition of citizens’ sovereignty is one of the least philosophically examined concepts in the history of political theory”. (To Arrow’s credit, he was ready to revise this assumption in later years; Richard Thaler (2015: 162) quotes him saying “We have the curious situation that scientific analysis imputes scientific behavior to its subjects”). Nonetheless, this definition promptly and effectively eliminated a number of items from the purview of new political science: the public sphere, the common good, and even society as such – Arrovians would use the simple argument that since society was not human (read: not individual and rational), it could not be seen as an actor in its own right. Margaret Thatcher, decades later, agreed.

Arrow and his followers set new standards of political debate, arguing that political issues (think of social welfare) were not “real” if they didn’t stand the test of logical analysis. Unless facts agreed with mathematical coherence (as shown in Fig. 2 above), they were not  proven facts; mathematics became the standard for defining reality, and the phrase “theoretically impossible” became synonymous for impossible in reality, separating fact from fiction. I find this unbelievable. But the point becomes slightly more understandable when we broaden the discussion a bit and examine more closely the particular role of mathematics in all of this. And here, I turn to semiotic anthropology.

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My modest reading offensive also brought Izhtak Gilboa’s Rational Choice (2010) to my table. Gilboa – a third-generation RC scholar with basic training in mathematics – offers us a view of what I prefer to see as the ideology of mathematics in all its splendor and naiveté. Before I review his opinions, I hasten to add that Gilboa is quite critical of radical interpretations of Arrovian choice, including Game Theory, admitting that the complexity of real cases often defies the elegance of established theory, and that we should “keep in mind that even theoretically, we don’t have magic solutions” (2010: 85). Yet he declares himself a full blown adept of RC as a “paradigm, a system of thought, a way of organizing the world in our minds” (2010: 9). And this paradigm is encoded in mathematical language.

Gilboa expresses an unquestioned faith in mathematics, and he gives several reasons for this.

  1. Accuracy: Mathematics is believed to afford the most accurate way of formulating arguments. “The more inaccurate our theories are, and the more we rely on intuition and qualitative arguments, the more important is mathematical analysis, which allows us to view theories in more than one way” (20). Theories not stated in mathematical terms, thus, are suggested not to allow more than one way of viewing. Too bad for Darwin.
  2. Rigor: Mathematics brings order in the chaos. Such chaos is an effect of “intuitive reasoning” (29). Thus, mathematical formulations are rigorous, ordering modes of expressing elaborate conglomerates of facts, not prone to misunderstanding. They form the theoretical tools of research, bringing clear and unambiguous structure in fields of knowledge in ways not offered by “intuitive reasoning”. The latter is a curious category term, frequently used by Gilboa to describe, essentially, any form of knowledge construction that cannot yet be expressed in mathematical language.
  3. Superiority. This follows from (1) and (2). There is mathematics and there is the rest. The rest is muddled and merely serves to test the mathematical theory. Thus (and note the evolutionary discourse here, marked in italics), when a mathematical theoretical model is thrown into “more elaborate research”, such research may prove to be “too complicated to carry out, and we will only make do with intuitive reasoning. In this case we try to focus on the insights that we feel we understand well enough to be able to explain verbally, and independently of the specific mathematical model we started out with” (29). Non-mathematically expressed knowledge is obviously inferior to mathematically expressed knowledge: it is “intuitive”. Yet, it has its importance in theory testing: “mathematical analysis has to be followed by intuitive reasoning, which may sort out the robust insights from those that only hold under very specific assumptions” (ibid).
  4. Simplification: throughout the entire book, but actually throughout most of what we see in RC at large, there is a marked preference for mathematically expressed simplicity. Complex real-world problems are reduced to extremely simple hypothetical cases involving pairs or triplets, as when complex market transactions are reduced to two people bargaining in a game-theoretical example, or the three Spocks in Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem who are supposed to instantiate millions of voters or consumers in large-scale political and economic processes. Such mathematical simplifications often bear names – the Prisoners’ Paradox, Condorcet’s Paradox, the Pareto Optimality or the Von Neumann-Morgenstern Axioms – and are presented (be it with qualifications) as “laws” with universal validity. The simple cases of mathematical theory are proposed as accurate, rigorous and superior modes of describing (and predicting) complex realities.
  5. Psychological realism. Not only are the mathematical formulations accurate descriptive and predictive models of actual social realities, they are also an accurate reflection of human cognitive folk methods, even if people are not aware of it: “Statistics is used to estimate probabilities explicitly in scientific and nonscientific studies as well as implicitly by most of us in everyday life” (56-57). Gilboa as well as many other authors doing this kind of work have the amusing habit of describing people who apply the Von Neumann-Morgenstern Axioms in deciding where to take their holidays and experience very severe logical problems when their behavior violates the Prisoners’ Paradox or exhausts the limits of objective reasoning.
  6. Convincing-conclusive. Finally, Gilboa makes a somewhat curious point about “positive” versus “negative rhetoric”. Negative rhetoric consists of “tricks that make one lose the debate but for which one has good replies the morning after the debate”, while “positive rhetoric consists of devices that you can take from the debate and later use to convince others of what you were convinced of yourself. Mathematics is such a device” (19).

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The six features of Gilboa’s approach to mathematics are, I would argue, an ideology of mathematics. They articulate a socioculturally entrenched set of beliefs about mathematics as a scientific project. And while I am the first to express admiration for mathematics as a scientific tool which, indeed, allows a tremendous and unique parsimony, transparency and stability in notation, I think the broader ideology of mathematics needs to be put up for critical examination. For mathematics, here, is not presented as a scientific tool – call it “method” or even “methodology” – but as an ontology, a statement on how reality “really” is. We already encountered this earlier when I discussed the mystery of Arrow’s Theorem: no facts are “real” unless they can be expressed in mathematical, formal language. And to this, I intend to attach some critical reflections.

Let me first describe the ontology I detect in views such as the ones expressed by Gilboa, occasionally returning to Arrow’s first three assumptions mentioned earlier. I see two dimensions to it.

  1. Mathematics expressions are the Truth since mathematics represents the perfect overlap of facts and knowledge of facts. And this Truth is rationality: mathematical expressions are expressions of fundamental rationality, devoid of all forms of subjectivity and context-dependence. This enables mathematical expressions to be called “laws”, and to qualify such laws as eternal, universal, and expressions of extreme certainty and accuracy. Recall now Arrow’s second and third assumption: that science (i.e. mathematics) yields universal laws, and that reason is not culturally relative – since it can be described in a universal mathematical code.
  2. Mathematics as an ontology has both esoteric and practical dimensions, and these dimensions make it science. Concretely, mathematics is not something everyone can simply access because it is esoteric – see Fig 2 above for a graphic illustration – and it is practical because it can be applied, as a set of “laws” flawlessly describing and predicting states of reality, to a very broad range of concrete issues, always and everywhere.

Combined with the first point, mathematics as the (rational) Truth, we understand not just Arrow’s first assumption – that science is objective – but his wider (political) project as well. The scientific underpinning of a new social and political science had to be mathematic, because that was the way to avoid ideological, cultural or other forms of “subjectivity” which would make such a science “irrational”, and may lead it towards totalitarian realities. Mathematically stated laws (on any topic) are – so it is suggested – independent of the person formulating them or the place in the world from where they are formulated; their truth value is unconditional and unchallengeable; accepting them is not a matter of personal conviction or political preference, it is a matter of universal reason. This is why Gilboa found mathematics convincing and conclusive: confronted with mathematical proof, no reasonable person could deny the truth, for, as expressed by Gilboa, mathematical formulations reflected – esoterically – the folk reason present in every normal human being. And so we see the comprehensive nature of the ontology: mathematics describes human beings and by extension social life in a truthful, unchallengeable way.

It is at this last point – the “postulate of rationality” as it is known in RC – that this modern ideology of mathematics appears to have its foundations in Enlightenment beliefs about reason as fundamentally and universally human, and so deviates from older ideologies of mathematics. These are well documented, and there is no need here to review an extensive literature, for a key point running through this history is that mathematics was frequently presented as the search for the true and fundamental structure of nature, the universe and (if one was a believer) God’s creation. This fundamental structure could be expressed in rigorous symbolic operations: specific shapes, proportions, figures and relations between figures – they were expressed by means of abstract symbols that created the esoteric dimension of mathematics. Doing mathematics was (and continues to be) often qualified as the equivalent of being “a scientist” or “a wise man”, and if we remember Newton, the distinction between scientific mathematics and other esoteric occupations such as alchemy was often rather blurred.

It is in the age of Enlightenment that all human beings are defined as endowed with reason, and that mathematics can assume the posture of the science describing the fundamental features and structures of this uniquely human feature, as well as of the science that will push this unique human faculty forward. It is also from this period that the modern individual, as a concept, emerges, and the American Declaration of Independence is often seen as the birth certificate of this rational, sovereign individual. Emphasis on rationality very often walks hand in hand with methodological individualism, and this is not a coincidence.

Observe that this ideology of mathematics is pervasive, and even appears to be on the rise globally. Mathematics is, everywhere, an element of formal education, and universally seen as “difficult”. Training in mathematics is presented in policy papers as well as in folk discourse as the necessary step-up towards demanding professions involving rigorous scientific reasoning, and success or failure in mathematics at school is often understood as an effect of the success/failure to enter, through mathematics, a “different mode of thinking” than that characterizing other subjects of learning. Mathematics, in short, often serves as a yardstick for appraising “intelligence”.

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From the viewpoint of contemporary semiotic anthropology, this ideology of mathematics is just another, specific, language ideology: a set of socioculturally embedded and entrenched beliefs attached to specific forms of language use. The specific form of language use, in the case of mathematics, is a form of literacy, of writing and reading. So let us first look at that, keeping an eye on Figures 1 and 2 above.

Mathematics as we know it gradually developed over centuries as a separate notation system in which random symbols became systematic encoders of abstract concepts – quantities, volumes, relations. Hardcore believers will no doubt object to this, claiming that the notational aspect is just an “instrumental”, ancillary aspect and that the core of mathematics is a special form of reasoning, a special kind of cognitive process. They are wrong, since the notational system is the very essence of the cognitive process claimed to be involved, which is why mathematicians must use the notational systems, and why school children can “understand” quite precisely what they are being told in mathematics classes but fail their tests when they are unable to convert this understanding into the correct notation. Seeing knowledge as in se detached from its infrastructures and methods of production and transmission is tantamount to declaring the latter irrelevant – which begs the question as to why mathematics uses (and insists on the use of) a separate notation system. More on this below.

The system, furthermore, is a socioculturally marked one, and the evidence for that should be entirely obvious. Recall Figure 2. The mathematical notation system follows the left-to-right writing vector of alphabetical scripts (not that, for instance, of Arabic or Chinese); unless I am very much mistaken “written” mathematical symbols (as opposed to e.g. geometrical figures) are alphabetical and not, e.g. hieroglyphic, cuneiform or ideographic (like Chinese characters); and they are drawn from a limited number of alphabets, notably Greek and Latin alphabets. Just click the “special symbols – mathematical symbols” icon in your wordprocessor now for double-checking. In spite of historical influences from Ancient Egypt and Babylonia, the Arab world, India and China, 19th century codification and institutionalization of mathematics (like other sciences) involved the Europeanization of its conventions.

The system is separate in the sense that, in spite of its obvious origins, it cannot be reduced to the “ordinary” writing system of existing languages: the fact that the symbol “0” for “zero” is of Indian origins doesn’t make that symbol Sanskrit, just as the Greek origins of the symbol for “pi” do not load this symbol with vernacular Greek meanings; they are mathematical symbols. But it can be incorporated (in principle) in any such writing system – Figures 1 and 2 show incorporation in English, for instance – and translated, if you wish, in the spoken varieties of any language (something it shares with Morse code). The symbol “<” for instance, can be translated in English as “less/smaller than”. Figure 1 above shows how Arrow translates ordinary English terms into mathematical terms, and the language-ideological assumption involved here is that this translation involves perfect denotational equivalence (the symbols mean exactly what the words express), as well as a superior level of accuracy and generalizability (the concrete of ordinary language becomes the abstract-theoretical of mathematical notation – the words become concepts). Here, we see what language ideologies are all about: they are a synergy of concrete language forms with beliefs about what they perform in the way of meaning. Thus, the difference between ordinary writing and mathematical writing is the belief we have that the latter signals abstraction, theory, and superior accuracy (something for which logical positivism provided ample motivational rhetoric).

This notation system is, in contemporary anthropological vocabulary, best seen as a specialized graphic register. That means that it can be used for a limited set of specific written expressions, as opposed to an “ordinary” writing system in which, in principle, anything can be expressed. We see it in action in the way I just described – reformulating ordinary expressions into “concepts” – in Figure 1, while Figure 2 shows that the register can be used for entire “textual” constructions in the genre of “proof”. The register is parsimonious and, in that sense, efficient. Writing “125364” requires just six symbols; writing “one hundred and twenty-five thousand three hundred and sixty-four” demands almost ten times that number of symbols.

It is, as a graphic register, extremely normative; it is an “ortho-graphy”. Mathematics deploys a closed and finite set of standardized symbols that have to be used in rigorously uniform ways – the symbol “<” can never mean “more than”; both their individual meaning and the ways in which they can be syntactically combined are subject to uniform and rigid rules. Consequently, while in “ordinary” writing some errors do not necessarily distort the meaning of an expression (most people would understand that “I cam home” means “I came home”), a writing error in mathematical notation renders the expression meaningless. So many of us painfully experienced this in the mathematics classes we took: our understanding of the fundamentals of mathematics did not include any degree of freedom in choosing the ways to write it up, since mathematics is normative, orthographic notation. This, too, is part of its specialized nature as well as of its esoteric nature: mathematics must be acquired through disciplined – nonrandom and highly regimented – learning procedures, and knowledge of specific bits of the register are identity-attributive. Some mathematicians are specialists of calculus, others of logic, for instance, while the identity label of “genius” would be stuck on outstanding mathematicians of any branch.

That is the specific form of language we see in mathematics; the language-ideological values attributed to it are, like any other language ideology, sociocultural constructs that emerged, are consolidated and develop by observing socioculturally ratified rules and procedures; and these are (like any other sociocultural convention) highly sensitive to developments over time and place. Very few contemporary mathematicians would be ready to defend the claim that mathematics reveals the fundamental structure of God’s creation, for instance, but it is good to remember that this language-ideological value was once attached to it, and that the people who attached it to mathematics were profoundly convinced that this was what mathematics was all about. Similarly, not too many contemporary mathematicians would perceive alchemy as an occupation compatible with the scientific discipline of mathematics, while Isaac Newton appeared not to have too many doubts about that.

There is nothing eternal, absolute or undisputable to the language-ideological assumptions accompanying mathematics. The suggestion, as I noted a widespread one, that mathematics would involve a “different way of thinking” is a quite questionable one. It is a different way of writing, to which a specific set of language-ideological values are attached. Children who are “not good at mathematics” at school, probably have more of a literacy problem than of a cognitive one – let alone one of inferior intelligence.

And if we return to Gilboa’s six features above, we might perhaps agree that his first two features – accuracy and rigor – are intrinsic affordances of the specific register of mathematics (things mathematics indeed can do quite well). The third feature (superiority) is a belief probably shared by members of the community of mathematicians, but not per se demonstrable, quite the contrary. Because the fourth feature – simplification – points to a limitation of the register, i.e. the fact that not everything can be appropriately written in the code. Ordinary language writing offers an infinitely vaster set of affordances. It is, at this point, good to remind ourselves of the fact that abstraction involves “stripping down”, i.e. the deletion of features from a chunk of reality; that this deletion may touch essential features; and that this deletion is often done on the basis of unproven assumptions.

The fifth feature – psychological realism – cries out for evidence, and those familiar with (to name just one) Alexander Luria‘s 1920s research on modes of thought will be inclined to take a more sobering and prudent view on this topic. There is no reason why the fundamental structures of rationality would not be expressed, for example, in narrative-poetic patterns rather than in mathematical-logical ones. And as for the sixth feature – the conclusive nature of mathematical proof: this, I suppose, depends on whom one submits it to. If the addressee of a mathematical argument shares the ideological assumption that such an argument is conclusive, s/he will accept it; if not, submitting mathematical proof might be not more conclusive than singing a Dean Martin song.

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Language-ideological attributions are always sociocultural constructs, and therefore they are never unchallengeable and they can always be deconstructed. What we believe certain forms of language do, does not necessarily correspond to what they effectively do. There is, for example, a quite widely shared language-ideological assumption that grammatical, orthographic or other forms of “correctness” are strict conditions for understandability (“you can only make yourself understood if you speak standard language!”), while realities of human interaction show that tremendous largesse often prevails, without impeding relatively smooth mutual understanding. There is also a widespread language-ideological belief that societies are monolingual (think of the official languages specified in national legislations and, e.g., adopted by the EU), while in actual fact dozens of languages are being used. It is the job of my kind of anthropologists and sociolinguists to identify the gaps between facts and beliefs in this field.

Seen from that perspective, there is nothing in se that makes a mathematical proof more “objective” than, say, a poem (it is good to remember that in the Indian Vedic tradition, mathematical statements were written as sutra poetry, and that even today “elegance”, an aesthetic quality, appears to be a criterium for assessing mathematical proof). The status of “objectivity”, indeed the very meaning of that term, emerges by sociocultural agreement within specific communities, and none of the features of the register are in themselves and directly elements of “objectivity”. The notion of objectivity as well as the symbols that are proposed as “indexes” of objectivity, are all sociocultural constructs.

Paradoxically, thus, if we recall Kenneth Arrow’s extraordinarily far-reaching claims, the status of objectivity attributed to mathematics is a vintage Durkheimian “social fact”: something produced by societies and accepted by individuals for reasons they themselves often ignore – it’s a sociocultural convention wrapped, over time, in institutional infrastructures perpetuating and enforcing the convention (in the case of mathematics, the education system plays first violin here). Its power – hegemony we would say – does not turn it into an absolute fact. It remains perpetually challengeable, dynamic, an object of controversy and contention as well as a proposition that can be verified and falsified. Saying this is nothing more than stating the critical principles of science as an Enlightenment product, of re-search as literally meaning “search again” even if you believe you have discovered the laws of nature. These critical principles, we will recall, were the weapons used against religious and dictatorial (“irrational”) postures towards the Truth. They are the very spirit of science and the engine behind the development of sciences.

The intimate union between RC, mathematics, MI and the specific views of human nature and social action that were articulated in this movement, cannot escape this critique. Practitioners of this kind of science would do well to keep in mind that a very great number of their assumptions, claims and findings are, from the viewpoint of other disciplines involved in the study of humans and their societies, simply absurd or ridiculous. The axiomatic nature of rationality, the impossibility of collective choice and action, the preference for extraordinarily pessimistic views of human beings as potential traitors, thieves and opportunists – to name just these – are contradicted by mountains of evidence, and no amount of deductive theorizing can escape the falsifications entailed by this (inductive and not at all, pace Gilboa, “intuitive”) evidence.

MI, leading, as in Arrow’s work, to the refusal to compare individuals’ preferences and to isolate human beings from the complex patterns of interaction that make up their lives, is simply ludicrous when we consider, for instance, language – a system of shared normatively organized sociocultural codes (a “social fact”, once more) which is rather hard to delete from any consideration of what it is to be human or dismiss as a detail in human existence. Here we see how the “stripping down” involved in mathematical abstraction touches essential features of the object of inquiry, making it entirely unrealistic. We have also seen that the language in which such “truths” are expressed is, in itself, a pretty obvious falsification of MI and other RC asssumptions. And more generally, facts gathered through modes of science that Gilboa tartly qualifies as “intuitive reasoning” are also always evidence of something, and usually not of what is claimed to be true in RC.

Such critiques have, of course, been brought to RC scholars (an important example is Green & Shapiro 1994). They were often answered with definitional acrobatics in which, for instance, the concept of “rationality” was stretched to the point where it included almost everything, so as to save the theory (but of course, when a term is supposed to mean everything it effectively means nothing). Other responses included unbearably complex operations, attempting to keep the core theory intact while, like someone extending his/her house on a small budget, adding makeshift annexes, windows, rooms and floors to it, so as to cope with the flurry of exceptions and unsolvable complexities raised against it. I found, for instance, Lindenberg’s “method of decreasing abstraction” (1992) particularly entertaining. Recognizing the complexity of real-world issues, and aiming (as anyone should) at realism in his science, Lindenberg constructs a terrifically Byzantine theoretical compound in which the scientist gradually moves away from simple and rigid mathematical formulations towards less formal and more variable formulations  – hence “decreasing abstraction” or “increasing closeness to reality” (Lindenberg 1992: 3). He thus achieves, through admirably laborious theoretical devotion, what any competent anthropologist achieves in his/her fieldnotes at the end of a good day of ethnographic fieldwork.

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This brings me to a final point. Mathematics is a formal system, and a peripheral language-ideological attribution it carries is that of “theory”. Theory, many people believe, must be abstract, and whatever is abstract must be theoretical. People working in the RC paradigm like to believe that (theoretical) “generalization” in science can only be done through, and is synonymous with, abstraction – mathematical expression in formulas, theorems, or statistical recipes.

In dialogues with such people, it took me a while before I detected the cause of the perpetual misunderstandings whenever we tried to talk about issues of generalization and theorization across disciplines, for we were using the same words but attached them to entirely different cultures of interpretation. Their culture was usually a deductive one, in which theory came first and facts followed, while mine operated precisely the other way around. I had to remind them of the existence of such different cultures, and that their view of theoretical generalization – necessarily through abstraction – was an idiosyncrasy not shared by the majority of scientific disciplines.

Theoretical statements are, in their essence, general statements, i.e. statements that take insights from concrete data (cases, in our culture of interpretation) to a level of plausible extrapolation. Since every case one studies is only a case because it is a case of something – an actual and unique instantiation of more generally occurring phenomena – even a single case can be “representative” of millions of other cases. This generalization is always conjectural (something even hardliners from the other camp admit) and demands further testing, in ever more cases. I usually add to this that this method – a scientific one, to be sure – is actually used by your doctor whenever s/he examines you. Your symptoms are always an actual (and unique) instantiation of, say, flu or bronchitis, and your doctor usually concludes the diagnosis on the basis of plausible extrapolation: although s/he can never be 100% sure, the combination of symptoms a, b and c strongly suggests flu. If the prescribed medicine works, this hypothesis is proven correct; if not, the conjectural nature of this exercise is demonstrated. Unless you want to see your doctor as a quack or an alchemist who can’t possibly speak the truth (which would make it highly irrational to go and see him/her when you’re ill), it may be safe to see him/her as an inductive scientist working from facts to theory and usually doing a pretty accurate job at that.

People who believe that mathematics, and only mathematics, equals science, are in actual fact a small but vocal and assertive minority in the scientific community. If they wish to dismiss, say, 70% of what is produced as science as “unscientific”, they do so at their peril (and sound pretty unscientific, even stupid, when they do so). That includes Mr Popper too. The question “what is science?” is answered in very many forms, as a sovereign rational choice of most of its practitioners. Enforcing the preferences of one member of that community, we heard from Kenneth Arrow, is dictatorial. And since we believe that science is an elementary ingredient of a free and democratic society, and that pluralism in reasoned dialogue, including in science, is such an elementary element as well – we really don’t want that, do we?

References

AMADAE, Sonja, N. (2003) Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

ARROW, Kenneth (1951) Social Choice and Individual Values. New York: Wiley (2nd ed. 1963).

GILBOA, Itzhak (2010) Rational Choice. Cambridge MA: MIT Press

GREEN, Donald & Ian SHAPIRO (1994) Pathologies of Rational Choice: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. New Haven: Yale University Press

LINDENBERG, Siegwart (1992) The Method of Decreasing Abstraction. In James S. Coleman & Thomas J. Fararo (eds.) Rational Choice Theory: Advocacy and Critique: 3-20. Newbury Park: Sage.

THALER, Richard A. (2015) Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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