Recently I came across the work of the political economist, William Davies
-- who is at Goldsmiths, University of London. I have to say I am a major fan.
In particular, I really like his new book, NERVOUS STATES: Democracy and the Decline of Reason
-- which you can read about for yourself on Davies's website (along with his other books and recent new media articles, which are very good.)
SUMMARY OF BOOK
Here is a summary of the work, as presented on the W.W. Norton website: "In this age of intense political conflict, we sense objective fact is
growing less important. Experts are attacked as partisan, statistics
and scientific findings are decried as propaganda, and public debate
devolves into personal assaults. How did we get here, and what can we do
"In this sweeping and provocative work, political economist
William Davies draws on a four-hundred-year history of ideas to reframe
our understanding of the contemporary world. He argues that global
trends decades and even centuries in the making have reduced a world of
logic and fact into one driven by emotions—particularly fear and
anxiety. This has ushered in an age of “nervous states,” both in our
individual bodies and our body politic."
"Eloquently tracing the
history of accounting, statistics, science, and human anatomy from the
Enlightenment to the present, Davies shows how we invented expertise in
the seventeenth century to calm the violent disputes—over God and the
nature of reality—that ravaged Europe. By separating truth from emotion,
scientific, testable facts paved a way out of constant warfare and
established a basis for consensus, which became the bedrock of modern
politics, business, and democracy.
Informed by research on
psychology and economics, Davies reveals how widespread feelings of
fear, vulnerability, physical and psychological pain, and growing
inequality reshaped our politics, upending these centuries-old ideals of
how we understand the world and organize society. Yet Davies suggests
that the rise of emotion may open new possibilities for confronting
humanity’s greatest challenges. Ambitious and compelling, Nervous States
is a perceptive and enduring account of our turbulent times." (FOR MORE, SEE ALSO HIS INTERVIEW WITH THE NEW YORKER)
MY OWN TWO PENCE WORTH
What I particularly like about Davies's work is that he has turned to the work of psychology and some of the latest research in cognitions and emotions to make sense of policy and politics today.
But not in a reductionist fashion that excludes the social or political.
Davies is not advocating, for example, some rediculous pop-variation of evolutionary psychology or behavioral economics -- which, for
the most part, basically ignores social and political context, opting instead to go searching in our neurons (instead of acknowlding the obvious) for why poor people living in a post-industrial community, for example, with no viable plan for improving their health and wellbeing are so anxious -- and therefore fall prey to the arguments of nationalistic populism.
Instead, he takes these 'latest ideas' emerging out of cognitive sicence, evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology and integrates them with cutting-edge thinking in political sciences, sociology, philosophy and political history. The result is a rather rigorous political psychology
(or, alternatively, a psychology of public policy
) in interaction its wider socio-political context -- which, for those new to these ideas, has a very strong tradition across fields and areas of study, going all the way back to the early work of Sigmund Freud and Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, and even further back to such pivotal figures as Vilfredo Pareto, Friedrich
Nietzsche, Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, and Graham Wallas.
To me, if we are going to make sense of what is happing throughout western societies today in the global north, particularly vis-à-vis
political and policy decision making, then it is only through such a lens that we will find our best answers and, as well, our solutions. In short, we need a new therapeutic politics that truly takes the fears and worries and anxieties of people seriously (irrational or not) and then, in response, respecfully offers policies and political options that heal and progress, rather than delude and divide.
As such, as you can guess, I strongly recommend reading NERVOUS STATES