Apolitical Politics and the Perestroika Movement: Once More Unto the Behaviouralist Breach.

Whatever happened to the perestroika movement in political science? It has not achieved its objectives, many sadly lament.

Man is a political animal, or so wrote Aristotle in his Politics. Much that passes for “science” in political science, game theory and large N regression analysis, ignores this central Aristotelian insight.

By politics, of course, Aristotle meant “the good life.” Politics among humans is not a game of strategy conducted by instrumentally rational players nor is it subject to laws discernible through statistical analysis (this does not even apply in the natural sciences).

I preface my remarks by stating that I am a card carrying naturalist, that I think science is pretty special, and that a science of politics is possible. These matters I will leave for another day.

I myself, precisely because of all of the above, support the perestroika movement sparked by an acerbic email by an anonymous “Mr Perestroika” way back in October 2000 to two prestigious US political science journals.

I especially like this part

At a time when the free market models of economics are being challenged in IMF and World Bank, discredited in much of Asia, and protested by numerous groups; why are simple, baby-stuff models of political science being propogated in our discipline. If these psuedo-economists know their Maths so well–let them present at the University of Chicago’s Economics Workshop–I assure you every single political science article will be trashed and thrown into the dustbin. Then why are these people allowed to throw their weight around based on undergrad maths and stats–an Econ 101. We are in the business of Political Science and not failed Economics.

The email was written well before the Global Financial Crisis, which exposed the weaknesses of axiomatic economics and econometric modelling within economics. A really good critique of the limitations of modelling in economics is due to a political scientist.

Yet rational choice theory and statistical model building continues to hold sway in US political science.

The perestroika movement, as noted, has gone by the wayside.

We might ask; why?

The debate on quantitative methods in political science reminds me of an earlier debate on scientific approaches to political behaviour. I refer to behaviouralist approaches to politics that held sway during the heyday of logical positivism and behaviourism in the sciences, prior to the mid to late 1960s.

At the time McCarthyism was rampant and the “end of ideology” thesis was a dominant one in studies of society and politics. This dominance suitably reflected the conservative temper of the times, and the technocratic basis of higher education which sought to train future pragmatic planners of empire.

By the late 1960s, rightly, behaviourlism was widely dismissed as being a type of “apolitical politics” in that the empirical study of political behaviour, as opposed to say political philosophy, or political institutions-structures (reflective of a realist as opposed to positivist philosophy of science), neglected the conception of “politics” due to Aristotle. This process was facilitated by the outburst of politics occasioned by the antiwar movement, and other social movements. The new generation of political thinkers yearned to study politics.

At the same time logical positivism and the hypothetico-deductive model was put to the sword in philosophy of science.

Whatever you think of rational choice theory and large N regression analyses as such, they of course have their charms, the underlying philosophy of science of the apolitical era is once again dominant

Many social scientists contend that science has a method, and if you want to be scientific, you should adopt it. The method requires you to devise a theoretical model, deduce a testable hypothesis from the model and then test the hypothesis against the world. If the hypothesis is confirmed, the theoretical model holds; if the hypothesis is not confirmed, the theoretical model does not hold. If your discipline does not operate by this method — known as hypothetico-deductivism — then in the minds of many, it’s not scientific.

The hypothetico-deductive model in the philosophy of science has long been discredited. The behaviouarlist, I don’t hesitate calling them this, approaches of today proceed as if time stopped; everything after Carl Hempel is out of history.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a proliferation of interpretative research across a broad range of social and political inquiry, which included the revival of political philosophy. That was partly fired by the critique of positivist epistemology in the philosophy of science. However, such humanist forms of social and political inquiry were made possible, first and foremost, because of the advent of social movements on and off university campuses.

In other words, politics in the study of political science roared back to life because politics arose from its elite imposed slumber.

However, we have, evidently, gone back to apolitical politics, with its scientific pretensions, precisely at the same time as we shifted to the neoliberal era. This was especially stark in the US because the US is the centre of global power; what happens in the academy in the US matters so much more compared to elsewhere.

So in the 1940s and 1950s we had a wave of right wing conservativism and behaviouarlist apolitical politics that was functional for the power elite. From 1980 to today we have had neoliberalism, founded in part upon neoclassical economics, and yet another period of behaviourlist apolitical politics, that also is functional for the power elite.

You might want to call this a.

Wait for it.

I know the suspense is maddening.

You guessed it.

A correlation!

Pointing out the flawed methodological foundations and pseudoscience of contemporary quantitative political science will not reverse the trend.

That trend will be reversed through the development of organised movements; a movement within the discipline, such as the perestroika movement, a movement within the academy against the corporatisation of the university which affects so many disciplines not just political science, and, most crucially of all, a movement among society more broadly against obscene, and growing, concentrations of wealth and power.

The rich and powerful, to put it simply, want us to talk about everything bar politics.

That makes sense. In an era when we are told markets know best there can be no place for politics, so the study of politics itself becomes a type of economics.

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