In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself using the term ‘playbook’ in a number of contexts. It’s typically defined as “a book containing a sports team’s strategies and plays, especially in American football” but I’m not quite sure where I picked up the phrase from as someone who hasn’t had much interest in sport for a long time. 

It’s been on my mind since reading Merchants of Doubt, an incisive historical exploration of a dangerous corporate tendency towards the deliberate cultivation of doubt in relation to pressing issues such as nuclear winter, acid rain, DDT and climate change. As I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago, we can talk meaningfully of a ‘playbook for merchandising doubt’. In fact something akin to this was once explicitly published, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt summarise on pg 144-145:

Bad Science: A Resource Book was a how-to handbook for fact fighters. It contained over two hundred pages of snappy quotes and reprinted editorials, articles, and op-ed pieces that challenged the authority and integrity of science, building to a crescendo in the attack on the EPA’s work on secondhand smoke. It also included a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite. 42 Bad Science was a virtual self-help book for regulated industries, and it began with a set of emphatic sound-bite-sized “MESSAGES”:

1. Too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda.

 2. Government agencies … betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal. 

3. No agency is more guilty of adjusting science to support preconceived public policy prescriptions than the Environmental Protection Agency. 

4. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society. 

5. Like many studies before it, EPA’s recent report concerning environmental tobacco smoke allows political objectives to guide scientific research. 

6. Proposals that seek to improve indoor air quality by singling out tobacco smoke only enable bad science to become a poor excuse for enacting new laws and jeopardizing individual liberties.

Has anyone encountered comparable documents to this? The scale and organisation of doubt merchandising surely means they have been produced. But perhaps there’s a broader category to be explored here: the explicit articulation of surreptitious tactics

It highlights how coordination presupposes communication, suggesting that even the most duplicitous strategies of the powerful will tend to leave a paper trail. Where we see what appears to be organisation, even if the actors involved deny this, do we have reason to believe there may somewhere exist a ‘playbook’ or something akin to it? I would  tentatively define this as the formal articulation of a tactical repertoire that can be drawn upon in informal contests, even if the definition of these elements may be obscured behind a thick veneer of technocratic distance. By ‘informal contests’ I mean those where rules are not defined or a contest actually declared. The existence of a playbook reveals how advantages in organisational capacity might translate to a practical advantage in competition.

I’d be intrigued to know if these ruminations resonate with anyone, particularly those who might be able to furnish further examples 

What is a wonk? It’s a deceptively simple question which it’s worth us attending to. This is the answer given in an excellent Baffler essay by Emmett Rensin:

What, after all, is a wonk? It is not the same thing as an expert, although those are tedious as well. In a 2011 interview with Newsweek, Ezra Klein explained that he gave Wonkblog its name (and accepted the moniker himself) in an “effort to denote that we’re doing something a lot different by covering Washington through a policy lens.” This fits well with what Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Morgan meant when he introduced the term into American political vernacular back in 1992 by applying it to then-candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore: they were politicians, to be sure, but ones with a “preference for arcane policy details over back-slapping and baby-kissing.” Jacobin editor-in-chief Bhaskar Sunkara, in a 2013 essay for In These Times, gave the term a less charitable reading, but the essence is the same. The wonk, he wrote, is a “technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.”

The wonk is defined “by his devotion to the churning irrelevant details of a game that ordinary people watch to see who actually wins and loses”. Rensin makes a powerful case that the wonk is an over-privileged super fan who wishes nothing ever change lest they have to learn the rules of their favourite game all over again:

It was better before they tried to make it so accessible to newbies, they were better before they went mainstream, the real game got lost when they made all those stupid changes to the rules. The wonk’s essential function in technocracy is to explain (they are always, always explaining): why History is Over, why justice is not possible, why evil can’t win and you can’t win either, how a little fix here and there is all we can really hope for. The futility of all of this does not discourage the wonk. The point is that they’re interested, that they’re searching. They’re more interested and more searching and more obsessed than you’ll ever be, poser.

What defines the wonk is not their concern but their concern for what is. Where are they situated though? My first reaction when reading this essay was to wonder about differentiation, with the wonk living and breathing the reality of the field within which they work. But there have always been people defined by their occupations.

What’s different about the wonk? Does it reflect an increasing degree of cultural autonomy, such that one can have an identity and lifestyle built solely in terms of the field they work within? Or a newfound inclination to so exhaustively construct a sense of identity around work? Or is it something about the intersection between fields, with wonks existing at the interface between politics, media, think tanks and academia? Is wonkish-ness a form of subcultural capital (to use Sarah Thornton’s concept) operating at this intersection? Who values wonkishness other than the wonks themselves? Finally, what are we to make of the rise of the higher education wonk? What does that say about the university system?

This podcast discussion is very interesting. I don’t think I’d ever heard leading figures from the think tank world reflect so openly about how they see their work. Any adequate sociology of think tanks has to be able to account for these self-understandings:

The role of think tanks in shaping public policy dates back nearly a century to when the Brookings Institution set up shop in the nation’s capital. The idea was to create a “university without students” that could provide research to lawmakers. Today, there are more than 1,800 think tanks in the United States, 400 in Washington alone. They range from liberal to conservative, scholarly to activist. Recently, outside groups have started to demand a higher level of transparency when it comes to where think tanks get their money. They say citizens deserve to know who is bankrolling the ideas that shape our democracy. A conversation about think tanks, influence and independence.

William Antholis

managing director, Brookings Institution

Eric Lipton

reporter in The New York Times Washington bureau who covers lobbying, ethics and corporate agendas

Tevi Troy

president, American Health Policy Institute; former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

This is the second in a series of posts about the public sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I wrote yesterday about his arguments concerning globalisation and social movements. This provides the political context in relation to which he saw a scholarship with commitment as important. In this post I’m going to discuss what he saw this as entailing in intellectual, ethical and practical terms. As with yesterday’s post, all the material I’m discussing is from Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market.

The Responsibilities of Intellectuals

In an argument redolent of C Wright Mills, Bourdieu maintains that “those who have the good fortune to be able to devote their lives to the study of the social world cannot stand aside, neutral and indifferent, from the struggles in which the future of the world is at stake” (pg 11). However this engagement inevitably poses challenges, as seen in the personal tensions Bourdieu recognises in his own position, 

I have often warned against the prophetic temptation and the pretension of social scientists to announce, so as to denounce them, present and future ills. But I find myself led by the logic of my work to exceed the limits I had set for myself in the name of a conception of objectivity that has gradually appeared to me as a form of censorship. (pg 66)

But what does he mean by ‘censorship’? His target is the notion of ‘axiological neutrality’ which, he argues, represents a “scientifically unimpeachable form of escapism” rather than a necessary condition for social science. Bourdieu calls for a scholarship with commitment, in opposition to a dominant tendency which sees scholarship and commitment as antipathetic. This is a point I found inspiring when I first read it and it has stuck with me since. It’s an important corrective to a tendency Burawoy describes for the original commitments which lead people towards sociology to be marginalised by the pressures of completing a PhD and pursuing a career: 

The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

However with these engagements come responsibilities. Bourdieu argues that the intellectual world “must engage in a permanent critique of all the abuses of power or authority committed in the name of intellectual authority”. It must also resist the temptation to “mistake revolutions in the order of words or texts for revolutions in the order of things, verbal sparring at conferences for ‘interventions’ in the affairs of the polis” (pg 19-20).

Resisting the Rise of Think Tanks 

The role of think tanks is too often overlooked or their study marginalised as a specialism. Whereas the case can be made that think tanks were integral to the consolidation of late capitalism, as well as to the neoliberal counter-revolution that began in the 1970s. This is certainly Bourdieu’s view and he calls for resistance to the “paradoxical doxa” produced through the intellectual activity of think tanks:

In order to break with the tradition of the welfare state, the ‘think tanks’ from which have emerged the political programs of Reagan and Thatcher, and, after them, of Clinton, Blair, Schröder, and Jospin, have had to effect a veritable symbolic counterrevolution and to produce a paradoxical doxa. This doxa is conservative but presents itself as progressive; it seeks the restoration of the past order in some of its most archaic aspects (especially as regards economic relations), yet it passes regressions, reversals and surrenders off as forward looking reforms or revolutions leading to a whole new age of abundance and liberty. (pg 22)

As I’ve written elsewhere, the influence of think tanks has expanded rather than contracted in an age of austerity. We should also be aware of the direct and indirect ways in which think tanks are participating in an the project of ‘reforming’ higher education. But how can it be resisted? The first step is to “break out of the academic microcosm and enter resolutely into sustained exchange with the outside world (that is, especially with unions, grassroots organisations, and issue-orientated activist groups) instead of being content with waging the ‘political’ battles, at once intimate and ultimate, and always a bit unreal, of the scholastic university” (pg 24).

This renewed engagement cannot be the work of a “master thinker endowed with the sole resources of his singular thought” but through collective work seeking to “create the social conditions for the collective production of realist utopias” and “joint research on novel forms of political action, on new manners of mobilizing and of making mobilized people work together, on new ways of elaborating projects and bringing them to fruition together” (pg 21). There is also a negative function, involving work “to produce and disseminate instruments of defence against symbolic domination that relies increasingly on the authority of science (real or faked) (pg 20). This would involve critique of neoliberal thought, it rhetoric and mode of reasoning, as well as sociological analysis aimed at uncovering the social determinants shaping its production.

One of the ideas I like most in Bourdieu’s public sociology is the call for giving “symbolic force, by way of artistic form, to critical ideas and analyses”. By this I think he means social scientists collaborating with artists, drawing on other ways of telling about society (as Becker would put it) in order to disseminate critical analysis of the operations of power. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s particular attuned to the role of cultural works in potentially resisting the seemingly irrevocable marketisation of cultural production:

If I recall now that the possibility of stopping this infernal machine in its tracks lies with all those who, having some power over cultural, artistic, and literary matters, can, each in their own place and their own fashion, and to however small an extent, throw their grain of sand into the well-oiled machinery of resigned complicities. (pg 65)

The accumulation of ‘grains of sand’ is not a particularly inspiring theory of change but I suspect it’s an accurate one. We need to disrupt the ‘machinery of resigned complicities’ to open up space for collective action orientated towards loftier purposes. As well as alliances with cultural producers, Bourdieu explores the potential role that social scientists can play in alliance with social movements. He suggests that social scientists could play the role of “organizational advisors to the social movements” as they pursue integration at the international level by “helping the various groups to overcome their disagreements” (pg 43). I think Bourdieu’s vision here has three aspects: scholarship working towards the elaboration of real utopias, constituting a sort of ‘applied research division’ of international social movements and acting as critical voices in public debates in alliance with the agendas of social movements.