I am delighted to announce the publication of Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism.
Here are the details:”From Banksy to Extinction Rebellion, artivism (activism through art) is the art of our era. From international biennale to newspaper pages, artivism is everywhere. Both inside museums and on the streets, global artivism spreads political messages and raises social issues, capturing attention with shocking protests and weird stunts. Yet, is this fusion of art and activism all it seems? Are artivist messages as subversive and anti-authoritarian we assume they are? How has the art trade commodified protest and how have activists parasitised art venues? Is artivism actually an arm of the establishment?
“Using artist statements, theoretical writings, statistical data, historical analysis and insider testimony, British art critic Alexander Adams examines the origins, aims and spread of artivism. He uncovers troubling ethical infractions within public organisations and a culture of complacent self-congratulation in the arts. His findings suggest the perception of artivism – the most influential art practice of the twenty-first century – as a grassroots humanitarian movement could not be more misleading. Adams concludes that artivism erodes the principles underpinning museums, putting their existence at risk.”
Alexander Adams, Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism, Imprint Academic, 2 August 2022, 200pp, paperback, mono illus., £14.95, Kindle version available
“It is increasingly clear that these common-place liberal conceptions have failed to improve life in any lasting way. In fact, they conceal fundamental connections to enslavement, conscription, colonization, moral debt, and ecological devastation. Now we must decide what comes after.”
So announces author and academic Nicholas Gamso, on the back cover of his book Art after Liberalism. From the outset, it is clear that Gamso takes a far-left position, namely that liberalist democracies are playgrounds for capitalists. This position is not too dissimilar to that of the reactionary right, namely that liberalist democracies are playgrounds for corporatists – but that corporatists owe their success not to capitalism but to cronyism and the state-corporatist complex. As James Burnham explains, capitalism is actually a system that decentralises, diffuses and undermines central direction; corporatism relies on lawmakers and civil servants forming stable networks of power and money, with service providers (acting on behalf of the state) exerting control over society at multiple levels.
Gamso suggests that artivism is one route to social justice. “How to wrest control of institutions, to redistribute their resources, or to leave them behind? How to decolonize museums, repatriating their fortunes and recovering the land beneath them? By marshaling the transformative capacities of art and aesthetics, by refusing neoliberal professionalization, by joining with social movements, by creating political community – by living in the world, in short, and not outside of it.” As I explain in my forthcoming book Artivism, social activists are already aided by institutions and already have allies high up in organisations, ones who are rapidly converting art-historical bodies into political centres. Now, whether these allies intend to follow through with activist talk or whether they are simply co-opting activists remains to be seen. However, Gamso takes the usual line that institutions are opposed to radical change, contrary to what I see as the truth – that the elite caste which runs these institutions uses radicals as a vanguard for its progressivist values, which the elite holds in opposition to the majority population.
Gamso cites examples of curators proposing ways of undermining tradition. “In laying bare the colonial origins of modern museums, and thus framing culture and creativity as historical ideas grounded in European supremacism, such recursive curatorial practices highlight and challenge the frames of complicity (genocide, colonialism, and patriarchy) that subsequent modes of collective cultural work can more fully dismantle.” We might frame this argument as, “You only got what you have because you used unfair methods, so we deserve to take it back.” This sounds a variant of political arguments used to justify appropriation of property in socialist and nationalist revolutions. Rather than a rational argument, this seems to be a backward justification: we resent your power and ownership of resources and wish to deprive you of both; we legitimise our position retrospectively by an appeal to fairness. It is exactly the advances that activists have made that demonstrate how institutions agree with activists’ principles.
Gramscian tactics of occupying all fields and refusing to allow exceptions is invoked. “No image shown in a museum, no pursuit of representation, can exist irrespective of these origins. A politics is always at play.” Gamso notes that institutions are part of the political landscape, not separate from it. Museums are complicit in producing “harrowing” conditions, through their share portfolios; therefore they are legitimate targets. By extension, anyone existing in the world today – who consumes fossil fuels, has a bank account, eats farmed meat, uses electronics made in China, has a pension fund – is also a target. Gamso’s logic applies to himself and his fellow activists. Every ethical individual is enmeshed in a system that is unfair, but then every system is unfair in its own ways. No society, however primitive, does not assign superior and inferior roles within its structures; each has its outcasts. Likewise, no society does not take advantage of the deficiencies of neighbouring trading partners or weaknesses of vulnerable occupiers of nearby territory.
Gamso takes artivism made on behalf of migrants – he does not distinguish between economic migrants and refugees, strategically one must assume – and details different projects. #NotABugSplat (2014), organised by Pakistani artists, displayed a giant photograph of a girl who had apparently lost family members to an American drone strike. Less benign interventions were undertaken during the height of the European migration crisis of 2015 onwards. “[…] other artists have turned to satellite technologies in order to lend practical and legal support to migrating populations. Targeted projects like the cell phone app Transborder Immigrant Tool, conceived by the cyber-activist-artist collective Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), combine GPS with performance interventions to contest sovereign border regimes.”
Gamso writes of indigenous European populations resisting mass migration in unsupportive terms; yet, when he writes of Western intervention in Asian and African countries, he is scathing about colonialist interference. What distinguishes the values and right of self-determination of a Western nation from those of a non-Western nation? The social cost to, and suffering of, native Europeans caused by the process of mass migration is downplayed.
There is a chapter on Forensic Architecture’s activities documenting the action by Israeli security forces against Palestinian protestors. Triple-Chaser (2021) is a film about the use of crowd-dispersal material manufactured by American company Safariland, which was deployed against on protestors. This is cited as an example of documentary social practice. One is left with information that does indicate clearly what happened in political terms. “The act of “reporters, activists, inhabitants of Palestine and Ferguson [Missouri, 2014] picking up empty tear gas cannisters with their hands and looking for a corporate logo” was a collaborative form of reconstructive world-making at a global scale with a large number of participants.” And what about same tear gas used against the gilets jaunes in Paris and the anti-lockdown protestors in Victoria, Australia? Do social documentarians treat all protestors even-handedly or do they display implicit support for corporation-aided state violence against acceptable targets?
German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968) is given as an example of artist-as-citizen-of-the-world. “For three decades, the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has personified a prevailing liberal ideal: free movement across national boundaries at the pace of creative innovation. He describes himself as a “product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace, and exchange,” having lived and worked between Germany and the UK for his entire career. Tillmans’s early work documents the casual social observances that sustained his own life and the lives of his friends and romantic companions as they shuttled between Berlin, London, Barcelona, and the Canary Islands. His photographs and curatorial projects visualized public culture, not in cafés and town squares but in postmodern spaces like clubs, alpine cabins, and gay bars.” Tillmans is the archetypal cosmopolitan globalist, unrooted from nation and people, flitting between nodes of universal world culture, surrounded by likeminded “anywheres”. Unsurprisingly, Tillmans was strongly against Brexit and produced posters urging British people to vote to remain in the EU.
Gamos blithely writes of Tillmans’s allegiance to a global civil society. Can’t Gamos see disadvantages to this set of values? So critical of American neo-liberal intervention abroad, can Gamos not recognise that a creed of a global civil society being applied across all peoples might be considered colonisation? What about the unrooted globalist elite not being held responsible for the cultural erosion it not only produces but imposes on poorer people? All of which leaves us to wonder, why is Tillmans – white Western capitalist that he is – not an international exploiter? Why is his share portfolio blameless and his jet-setting carbon footprint insignificant?
Paul Chan (b. 1973) is cited as another artivist who has addressed social issues through animation and performance on geo-political issues. One of his sculptures (Pentasophia (2006)) consists of simple nylon-sheet-forms, which act as animated personages by fluttering over fans. This seems like a creative piece with potentially aesthetic qualities and merit, which makes it stand out in this book. In another chapter, dissident Chinese contemporary art is discussed. Tania Bruguera and others are considered in relation to oppositional activism in Cuba. It is better to pass over without comment a chapter discussing Basquiat, which makes claims of disproportionate suffering of black Americans, except to note that Gamos does not provide a single statistical source for claims of systemic injustice. Gamos does not expect to be called to account by reviewers, just as few will question the motives of Black Lives Matter, the activities of which Gamos seems to regard as incontestably beneficial. Likewise, Gamos does not appear to consider that artivism may have potentially disastrous consequences for public fine-art funding, which relies on consensus.
Art after Liberalism concludes with a transcription of a discussion between Gamso and Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain, two activists who have disrupted museums in New York for political purposes. Art after Liberalism does not present a united thesis or plan of action, which might have been inferred from the rousing introduction and cover text. Instead, the author assesses different strategies and figures within the artivism movement, with some of the texts having appeared previously elsewhere. In that role, the book does a good job of summarising trends and describing intentions of social documentarians working in the art field, with a useful range of photographs. Overall, this book would of use to students and academics researching artivism and politically driven art in the current century.
Nicholas Gamso, Art after Liberalism, Columbia Books on Architecture and the City/Columbia University Press, March 2022, paperback, 232pp, col./mono illus., ISBN 978 1 941 33 2689, $20/£14.99
Artivism (political and social activism using the forms and language of art) is set to become the predominant art movement of the early 21st Century. For both supporters and critics (both large groups that are growing), it is necessary to understand the movement, in order to promote or oppose it. Artivism tends to come from the left of political spectrum, though it remains to be seen if this holds true long term. After all, anti-migrant artivism is as viable as pro-migrant artivism and (judging from public surveys) the former would engender more popular support.
Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future is written by Carlos Garrido Castellano, a Hispano-Lusophone specialist in the intersection of culture and politics in Central and South America and Africa. This book looks at artivism as a branch of “anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial struggles”.[i] The use of Western avant-garde art forms – the installation, conceptual art, land art, performance, street art and other approaches – are ripe for non-Western practitioners to use (or appropriate) to advance their interests. “[…] through excavating “postcolonial” art histories, it becomes impossible to identify socially engaged art as a recent phenomenon, and the idea of this kind of art as an outcome of Western art histories is also called into question.”[ii]
The opening paragraph sets out the racialised identity-politics beliefs of the author. “Following Cedric Robinson’s incisive observation that capitalism is always racial capitalism, and that social inequalities are shaped by (and shape in turn) racial categorizations, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future maintains that art activists and socially engaged artists are equipped with a decades-long experience of challenging the reasoning that lies behind neoliberal capitalism.”[iii] Garrido Castellano notes characteristics of socially engaged art are anti-commodification, pro-collaboration and anti-aestheticism.
The decision to take as a subject art biennales is by no means an obvious one. The author writes, “[…] biennials [are] the main space where art becomes global, where local and transnational art interactions are negotiated.”[iv] Yet the only people who pay attention to biennales are top-level curators and collectors. Most gallerists, artists, collectors, museum visitors, academics and historians ignore them. However, biennales have permitted political curators to showcase their arguments over recent decades, although the only people who notice are other post-colonial activists. “Three central elements can be deduced from here. First, biennials are not the new, nor is the kind of art they promote. Second, the impact of that kind of art goes far beyond the space and time of the biennial itself, directly conditioning what Jones calls “the global work of art” and having an impact on taste, tourism, and consumption. Finally, and this is crucial, the aesthetic resulting from biennials will not be determined so much by the objects as by experience.”[v] The chapter suffers from the excess of perhaps-this-perhaps-that, with the author quoting post-colonial theorists contradicting each other on the subject of biennales.
Garrido Castellano discusses the theoretical foundations of post-colonialism, looking closely at African nationalist Amílcar Cabral and Trinidadian historian-essayist C.L.R. James. These figures are considered as post-colonial thinkers, as they have no connection to art. The author chose Cabral as a case study because he had no cultural hinterland. He was – according to the quotes here from his biographer – a Machiavellian man of action, lacking any ideological encumbrances, dedicated to national unity under rule of a black citizenry. He was a collectivist, materialist and technocrat. “Cabral’s mistrust of individualism in cultural matters remains invaluable as part of a genealogy of socially committed cultural production. For Cabral, culture constituted a perfect and necessary platform for turning his idea of emancipatory and political practice into reality.”[vi] He had a utilitarian, materialist approach to culture. He criticised the bourgeois black Cape Verdeans and Bissau-Guineans for preferring Western Modernism in the visual arts over the collectivist socially functional production of the black proletariat, that Cabral favoured as socially valuable. Cabral, like other post-colonial leaders, advocated an outright rejection of Western taste and thinking. In the following chapter, Garrido Castellano seeks to place James as a key precursor to socially-engaged cultural production.
Ugandan projects Lilian Mary Nabulime’s HIV/AIDS “social sculpture” and the Disability Art Project Uganda are described. The author then considers reactions of writers to the wave of “do-good activism” in Africa, considering if the urge to benefit local people conflicts with a duty to critique a social system or socio-political economy that (supposedly) produced the imbalance in need of correction. Artivist groups Taring Padi, Ruangrupa and Kunci Cultural Studies Center are presented as critical voices negotiating the complex political situation in Indonesia during the 1990s and 2000s. The establishment of democracy after the departure of President Suharto in 1998 and the struggle between regional separatists, Islamists and the national military forces was a time of political and civil turbulence. The heterogenous and conflicting interests of ethnic, regional and religious groups were suppressed by the government until 1998; in the era immediately after Suharto Taring Padi made public street art that raised the possibility of a non-authoritarian society (along the idealistic lines of Western humanism), it is one which actually supports sectarian identification whilst proposing an idealist multiculturalism to contain anyone acting according to that sectarian identification.
Temporary Art Platform, Beirut is “a curatorial and interventionist collective that focuses on producing and researching public art projects. TAP facilitates site-specific art interventions and mediates between artists and private and public powers. Seeking to understand how public art can become more context-sensitive, the platform also conducts research on legal and practical aspects surrounding existing and ongoing initiatives. Finally, TAP has recently started lobbying for production budgets for public art.”[viii] The organisation published a handbook for artivists, explaining the law in layman’s terms and detailing how to acquire permits and funding from public bodies. It was published in Arabic and English. Garrido Castellano outlines the difficulties facing activists in Lebanon in the post-civil war period (after 1990).
“Ensayos is a nomadic educational and research platform located in the southernmost part of Chile. Ensayos was initiated in 2010 through the collaboration of curator Camila Marambio and the scientists and conservationists working at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Karukinka Natural Park in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego.”[ix] Two topics of Marambio were local sovereignty and the impact of introduced species. One problem of deconstruction is that the issue of utility becomes immediately locked into competing claims and definitions. If colonial and post-colonial/indigenous priorities define utility, where does sex, sexuality, religion and age come into the equation? What about trans-species rights, especially pertinent to projects centring on conservation? However rigorous the language of discussion, intersectionality (and standpoint theory) cannot help but nakedly foreground the priorities of speaker’s preferred metric or group allegiance.
Regrettably, Garrido Castellano misuses the term “alt right” to refer to populist movements in the UK, USA and Brazil. In October 2017 in Lisbon a statue of Padre António Vieira was the centre of a protest by left-wing activists and conservatives and rightists, this is compared to the events of Charlottesville, in 2017, “where the alt-right protestors impeded any approach to the statue, gathering in a circle around it in order to “protect” it from defacement.”[x] The protestors were not exclusively alt right; they also included conservatives, traditionalists and local residents. Preventing vandalism or iconoclasm is protection; there is no need for the scare quotes. Whether one approves of defacement or not, protection is protection. “[…] the attitude of the persons supposedly “protecting” the sculpture of Vieira was only the result of a more widespread defensive nationalism that despite the articulation of new iterations of portugalidade remains alive and well in broader segments of present-day Portuguese society.”[xi] One only has to look at the violence and defacement of colonial statuary common during this period in the USA and Europe to understand that those who wished to preserve their physical culture from attack were justified in being highly concerned. As the author of the book Iconoclasm, I can attest to this, having thoroughly researched the subject.
There is ambiguity in the political impact of activism through art. In what respect is agitation for Western liberalist values of egalitarianism, universal suffrage, state-provided healthcare, parliamentary democracy and freedom of conscience actually rooted in native cultures and to what degree is it imported by NGOs, activists and academics? Does a Lebanese agitator for collectivism have to drop the tenet of religious superiority ingrained in his people’s culture? Is he permitted to pick and choose between native beliefs and enmities? What if an Indonesian artivist wished to lobby for reinstatement of royalty, sharia, a strict caste system or expulsion of a tribe historically in competition with his tribe? As with the question of agency, the question of legitimacy of native causes is very much a case of post-colonial theorists being highly selective about what they consider authentic and appropriate. What if a local population wanted individualistic laissez-faire capitalism as route to independence, provision of healthcare and material comfort? It is often the case that such aspirations are dismissed by post-colonialists, temperamentally opposed to capitalism and individualism. We hit again the Neo-Marxist dismissal of the proletariat’s attachment to capitalism as “false consciousness”, that term used to discredit its opponents.
How much of post-colonial theory is simply taking away the role of gatekeeping from governments, museums and local leaders (colonial and decolonised) and giving it to artists, curators, critics and academics, as arbitrators of agency and commitment? After all, it is this latter group that designates itself as assessors of self-determined artistic activism carried out in the field, applying (often abstruse) theoretical measures without recourse to dialogue with local people.
One suspects that much of post-colonial theory is post facto justification for the occupation of spaces and use of resources by political actors. After all, as Marxists and Neo-Marxists admit, theory is nothing if not backed by power and their theory is almost solely concerned with power. Engaging with the post-colonial theory could be viewed as beside the point, as the theory is never the proximate cause – or even the explanation – for a tactical seizure of space, be that space academic, artistic, financial, civic, economic or any other category.
This book is a useful demonstration of that. Post-colonial artivism cannot remain at the theoretical level; it cannot be framed by a Western perspective; it must be applied or it is useless; it must be taught to students as a tool for liberation and agency. These positions are not so much Garrido Castellano’s, as the sources he quotes; he seeks to set out these positions in Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future. The book includes thorough endnotes, a bibliography and index. Unreliable as the author is on iconoclasm and contemporary politics, Garrido Castellano knows his field well and has read the latest literature in depth. He seeks to avoid jargon where possible but some passages will mean more to academics and students in his field than to the general reader. Overall, this is a stimulating and serious study of the reception and understanding of post-colonial artivism in non-Western settings.
The artivism discussed in this book offers a template for indigenous populations across the world; there is no reason it should be restricted to those in the political Global South. Nativist causes, self-determination and freedom from globalist interference provide counter-narratives opposed to international capital – all of these are causes of the political right in the West. It remains to be seen if progressivist positions will dominate the field of artivism wholly.
Carlos Garrido Castellano, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, State University of New York Press, 2021, 338pp + x, 24 mono illus., hardback, $95, ISBN 978 1 4384 85737
Alexander Adams’s book Artivism will be published by Imprint Academic in 2022. Details here.
“Colchester and Ipswich Museums held a video conference event on the subject of decolonisation and democratisation. The organisers invited two activist historians to give talks. The organisers revealed their view by staging the event, as well as in their choice of speakers. Heritage organisations are run by managerial leftist elites, who dislike compromised artefacts and resent the populations they serve.
As part of the event, a video talk was given by Tristram Hunt, Director of The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) on the September 29th. He spoke positively about adapting museum presentations to target “new communities”. When asked about the possibility of laws allowing mass deaccessioning of artefacts, he stepped carefully and pointed out that this would require an Act of Parliament. He also avoided fully endorsing a question that advocated making audiences uncomfortable – a reframing of the “no white comfort” slogan of BLM – calling it “a very great question”, saying: “I get the point and I think that intellectual challenge and feeling uncomfortable about some of these histories is part of what we should do but I think at the same time don’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve trusted institutions to make that happen.”…”
“When a mob toppled a statue of merchant and slave trader Edward Colston in central Bristol on Sunday, the scenes were reminiscent of the collapse of a tyrannical regime. The mob stamped the fallen statue with rage and delight. Yet the mob was composed of individuals who had experienced no struggle or strife, and live in one of the safest, most prosperous nations in history.
“Most of the crowd were white, middle-class university students who have never done anything to oppose actual slavery. Not one of those warriors against slavery will offer a word of criticism regarding the (internally disputed) Islamic practice of slavery, which persists in some parts of Africa to this day. Toppling a statue is a summer carnival; researching and criticising a world religion is a little less of a rush. For most people today, virtue is not embodied through persistent and difficult private acts. Rather, it is demonstrated through momentary public performance and posted on Instagram.
“Far from fighting the power, the mob was acting in accordance with guidance it has received from schools, universities and mainstream media. Bristol council and the mayor did not decry destruction of public property, but applauded it….“
At the The Battle of Ideas on 2 November AA and James Delingpole chat comics, canon, Culture War, Goldsmiths, Bristol and the shortcomings of the Rijskmuseum – all related to my book Culture War. Hear the podcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcbGsPdohAA . It is also available on various podcast platforms.
A revised and enlarged edition of Thomas Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities, first published last year, has been published. This is not a full review. My review of that first edition see “Poisoned by Welfare”, The Salisbury Review, vol. 37 no. 1, pp. 49-51, Autumn 2018. The main changes are the addition of two new chapters (nos. five and seven), though there are other changes throughout. This edition of 308pp compares to the 179pp of the first edition, although the second edition has marginally larger font. We should recap Sowell’s arguments.
Sowell describes how discrimination can be interpreted two ways. The first is the exercise of general prejudice; the other is as informed judgment. Sowell’s point is that these are variations of the same function: discerning differences. The question is merely the accuracy and detail of these assessments. He sorts discrimination into judgment at an individual level and at a group level. So a person can judge another person on their individual qualities, skills and personality or he/she can judge on broader group criteria: age, gender, place of residence, nationality, ethnicity and so forth. Obviously, the first level provides more detailed and accurate information about the subject but the cost (in terms of money and time) is much higher to assessing at a group level. Sometimes sorting individuals at a low-detail group level is the only viable method when time or money is short.
Sowell points out that disparities exist in all areas of geography and human geography. Some countries are rich in resources and others poor. Mountain regions have poor populations; lowland areas by navigable waterways have richer ones. Wealth and crime are also unevenly spread. Among people height, health conditions, physical attributes and so forth vary between populations and between individuals. A startling fact is that there is a measurable and constant pattern of (on average) first-born children being more intelligent than their younger siblings, with an average of declining intelligence for later-born children. Even within the same settings, social conditioning and genetic make-up in family members, uneven but predictable distributions form.
Sowell uses statistics on crime and income to show that culture rather than residual or active racism are the main contribution to the disparities that black Americans face. He shows that in certain circumstances that blacks do better than whites.
“The poverty rate of married blacks is not only lower than that of blacks as a whole, but in some years has also been lower than that of whites as a whole. In 2016, for example, the poverty rate for blacks was 22 percent, for whites was 11 percent, and for black married couples was 7.5 percent. Do racists care whether someone black is married or unmarried? If not, then why do married blacks escape poverty so much more often than other blacks, if racism is the main reason for black poverty? If the continuing effects of past evils such as slavery play a major causal role today, were the ancestors of today’s black married couples exempt from slavery and other injustices?”
He suggests a number of factors which contribute to blacks having lower income than whites, noting that at certain times and locations black Americans overall had higher income than white Americans. Sowell’s position is that cultural and actuarial factors influence the disparities noted in income differences by ethnicity. Incomes vary partly according to age, with young workers being more junior and lower skilled, thus lower paid than older workers. The median age of Japanese Americans is 51; the median age of Mexican Americans is 27. Therefore at least some of the disparity in median income between the groups is due to career progression. Sowell adduces from the notable successes of Asian-Americans and Indian-British transcend any supposed racism and that a culture of hard work, educational attainment and familial stability leave this group with decided advantages over other ethnic groups. Sowell provides little comfort to those seeking a genetic/racial explanation for disparities, just as he likewise undermines those who believe “structural racism” or “the legacy of slavery” have systematically disadvantaged groups.
In the new chapter 5, “The World of Words”, the author looks at the way words are distorted and redefined by elites (principally through education and the media) to strengthen the preferred cases or misrepresent detrimental actions in a positive light. Sowell has previously expressed his suspicion of elites imposing their visions upon the general population and preventing revealed preferences of individuals influencing the markets. In relation to explaining disparities and discrimination, language is used to disguise the truth. Those with an authoritarian outlook justify tightening their grip on control and directing power by presenting that as a matter of assisting the disadvantaged, all the while assuming they know what the causal factors for the disparities are.
Sowell points out that the famed “1%” is an income category which individuals move in and out of, not a lifelong descriptor of specific individuals. Couples and families have financial mobility, as do individuals who progress (and sometimes regress) in terms of financial income throughout their careers. “The 1%” is shorthand for the undeserving rich. This group is viewed as a “problem” and groups of the self-righteous discuss how they might punitively appropriate the goods of the 1%. “Privilege” is a description not derived from statistical standards but a vague term applied tactically as an argumentative device. Nowadays we are acquainted with the use of “violence” to mean the upset caused by an infraction or insult (actual or perceived). It seems like a neologism, so readers may be surprised to learn that this conflation of physical injury and metaphorical harm dates back at least as far as 1964.
The final chapter tackles “solutions” to the “problems” of disparities. As anyone familiar with Sowell’s work will be unsurprised to learn, Sowell places little trust in the efficacy of imposed systems derived without evidence. Such solutions often fail to produce the expected results, sometimes produce detrimental results and even unintended consequences that cause difficulties. (“Surrogate decision-makers often pay no price for being wrong, no matter how wrong or how catastrophic the consequences for those whose decisions they have pre-empted.”) So Sowell’s suggestions are to evaluate people according to productivity not moral merit and advocate for better education. He states that we do better to have process goals (free markets, transparent laws) rather than outcome goals (income equality, gender parity in employment). The latter approach smacks of an ideologue’s shaping of the world to the way he/she thinks it ought to be, as opposed to the liberal pragmatist who sees life as a matter of trade-offs and attempting to reduce interference in private choice.
As is usual for Sowell’s books, Discrimination and Disparities is written in lucid plain English, with thorough statistical grounding given in the footnotes. Sowell’s considerable work in this area while researching previous books serves him well. Using his knowledge of the international employment, wealth, productivity and legal discrimination give him perspective that American-centred commentators lack. The book provides a timely warning about our proclivity to interpret unknowns as evidence supporting our personal politically-orientated outlooks on society.
Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (revised and enlarged version), Basic Books, 2019, hardback, 308pp, $30, ISBN 978 1 5416 4563 9