William Davies is a writer I have grown to respect whose third book “Nervous States – democracy and the Decline of Reason” (2018) is a highly original analysis of how feelings seem in recent years to have overwhelmed western societies.
It is perhaps best seen as a trilogy with “The Happiness Industry – how the Government and Big Business sold us Well-Being” (2015) and “The Limits of Neoliberalism – authority, sovereignty and the logic of competition” (2014) being its predecessors.
“Nervous States” was one of the first books I read from the latest Amazon arrival and certainly encourages me to read his earlier two books. There have been surprisingly few serious reviews of the book – LRB, certainly, didn’t take it seriously and the Jacobin review from which I initially quote disappears up its own arse in the second half. The Point mag (to which I am currently subscribed) has a very good interview with the author (translated from Die Merkur) which does justice to the richness of the book.
But the first question and answer in the New Yorker’s interview gave a good sense of the book’s originality
What was it in the seventeenth century that changed how we organize our society, and that we’re now at risk of losing or have already lost today?
A different mentality, a different political project, emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century, which was one that essentially trusted a certain group of people—and this is the same group that is routinely denigrated as being some kind of élite or liberal élite nowadays—to set aside their own personal opinions or feelings or preferences in order to observe and report on the state of the world in an objective, impartial fashion.
We’ve taken that for granted for some time, that this is possible, and this is something that is present not only in the institutions of the state, such as public administration and the judiciary, but it’s also something that scholarship, academic science depends on, that journalism to a greater or lesser extent depends on.
There needs to be some kind of trust: these people are not acting in their own private or political interests when they’re doing this but are able to park their feelings, their own perspective. One of the claims I make in the book is that this is a peacekeeping mentality.
A veteran scholar of neoliberalism, Davies has drawn on a wide set of genres — history, philosophy, political science, medicine — to explain the “decline of reason” subtitle of his book.
In the seventeenth century, a twin set of abstracted languages were born: the abstract system of signs set up by modern commerce and science and the system of “abstract” representative government. Each of these moments has its own protagonists in Davies’s book. Not just Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes and Francis Bacon but, arguably, the first technocrat William Petty’s “political arithmetic” - as inventors of the modern state, commerce and modern science.
Then there is the anti-rationalist camp, in which we find Friedrich Hayek, Sigmund Freud, Gustave Le Bon, Napoléon, and Donald Trump, who together initiate the much-lamented “decline of reason.”
Modernity’s twin system of representation (modern science and the representative state) has seen a dramatic loss of legitimacy in the last thirty years.
- Science has lost its glow and has retreated into a citadel of expertise.
- Party-politics and parliaments, in turn, have lost their attraction, with decreasing memberships and increasing popularity for referendums from populists.
The result is a two-pronged “crisis of representation,” both on scientific and political fronts.
Davies is very good on how trade led to the development of the system of trust which allowed bills to be issued and exchanged; and subsequently to the wider system of trust of middlemen and experts. I was less convinced by his attempt to explain the new emotionality and polarisation which has crept into politics with reference to bodily functions…..I don’t know why he doesn’t run with the story told so well in “Fantasyland – how America went haywire – a 500 year history” which I wrote about only last week
For me, the crucial issue is that the expertise that guides decision-making is completely detached from popular control.
The knowledge used for central bank policy, for instance, is determined in tight-knit think tanks, not open public assemblies.
One of Davies’s central players in this story is the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek - one of the earliest voices to recognize the distinct role emotions play in our economic lives. In Hayek’s view, if one wanted “to understand economic and social changes,” one was
“far better off consulting the people who actually make the changes happen — the consumers, entrepreneurs, managers — than experts looking at these events from some presumed position of neutral objectivity.”
This, of course, is the “tacit knowledge” celebrated by the likes of James C Scott, Ivan Illich and anarchists such as David Graeber…….