My work on risk and justice is central to my approach as a teacher. As a political theorist, I am intrigued by the ways risk captures some of the greater predicaments of present day politics. From environmental degradation to violent conflict or the financial crisis, risk at once politicizes and alienates. It can inhibit action through fear or the use of a technical jargon, but it can also spark an urgent and lingering curiosity after the causes of one’s imperilment. For many, it serves as an entry point into political life. To prepare students for the highly complex worlds of contemporary politics, business, and civil service I draw on the critical and historiographical tools that have helped me study various scientific risk discourses, particularly those drawn from the world of markets and economics.
Syllabi summaries are offered below. Full syllabi and student evaluations are available upon request.
Who Profits: A History of Pain and Gain in Modern Thought
The seminar offers a cross-section of theory and historiography on the concept of ‘profit’ in modern society. ‘Profits’ are ubiquitous in capitalist economies, and yet their meaning is neither fixed nor widely agreed upon. Does anyone deserve to make a profit, or are they the side-effect, or happy accident, of the capitalist mode of production? Is profit always monetary? How should it be measured? Are profits necessary for a free-market society? What is the difference between profits and wages? These are some of the questions we will be discussing, using profits as a framework to discuss the broader concerns of economic and social theory: human welfare, private versus public wealth, the measure of value, and inequality.
The seminar is divided into three main parts. The first will look at the different protagonists posited by classical theories of profit, and the social world built around them, as profits are grounded in the virtue, abstinence, daring or initiative of the entrepreneur, or the surplus value of labor. The second part will begin to take apart some of these classical ideas, using equally ‘classic’ critiques, which highlight the role of radical uncertainty and credit in turning a profit, the inherent instability of a profit-based system, and new technologies of risk-sharing and profit-sharing aimed to mitigate it. The final part of the seminar will look at more radical critiques, examining aspects of race, gender, globalization and inequality, delving deeper into questions of the legitimate limits to profit and the limit of legitimate profits.
Students will produce an original research paper with either an interpretive or a historical focus. Papers can, for example, explore the historical context of a particular theory or debate, trace the development of a particular theory across time, or study a cultural artifact in light of various theories and narratives. Important research skills will be developed throughout, using peer-reviewed exercises, in-class presentations and guided bibliographical work. In addition, we will develop close-reading and analytic-writing skills in our class discussions and in weekly reading responses, focusing on the distinction between primary and secondary sources and identifying the disciplinary and genre markers of a text.
Free Market Democracy
What is the free market and what is its place in a democracy? In this course we will analyze how free-market ideals were shaped by changing political norms and how they affected political struggles and principles like liberty and equality. By looking at the multiple forms of market politics, from intellectual debates to political organizing, we will challenge the common opposition of “state” and “market.” We will also ask why and in what ways commercial activity and market logic became so prominent in shaping modern subjects and determining social hierarchies.
The course traces two parallel histories too often studied apart: neoclassical economic thought and antitrust political battles. Seeming opposites, liberal economics and popular politics throughout the twentieth century shared a common concern with safeguarding competition and extolling its virtues and deeper links to human liberty and political stability. Both, moreover, developed in conversation with alternative views that saw some forms of competition as harmful and advocated for corporate collaboration and, more importantly, for worker organization. By considering the arguments for and against competition we will reflect on the relationship between corporations, consumers, and regulators, the problem of political equality and individual liberty, and contemporary concerns over rising global economic inequality and powerful international monopolies.
The course is divided into six units. The first unit will study the nineteenth-century neoclassical “marginal revolution” in its historical context, between the French Revolution and new scientific developments. The second unit will look at populist antitrust activism and legislation in turn-of-the-century USA against the backdrop of massive corporate consolidation. The third unit will look at the American Institutionalists and their development of a historical, data-driven economic science of competition and social justice in the early-twentieth century. The fourth unit will focus on the politics and fate of labor unions, in theory and in practice, as a fundamental challenge for free-market advocates concerned with the patented asymmetries between labor and capital. The fifth unit is dedicated to the competition question in the rise of neoliberal economic thought since the 1930s. The sixth and final unit will apply the lessons of these competing histories to contemporary problems facing governments, communities, and individuals with the growing monopolization of the high-tech sector.
The Politics of Risk from Markets to Social Movements
The seminar will look at various contemporary risk categories to pose some of the fundamental questions in political theory: What is politics? Is the state primarily responsible for justice, or for order? What can markets teach us about our social values and obligations? The course will be divided along two fundamental frameworks by which these questions have been answered: governmentality, or the idea that politics is fundamentally about the proper governing and management of a society; and justice, the idea that our political arrangements should promote the core ethical commitments of a society.
In the first part we will examine four different cases in which risk plays an important role in how human lives and populations are managed in the modern state. We will see how insurance, criminology, environmentalism and finance all provide methods for dealing with the risks of our day-to-day lives and the threats to our future prosperity. In so doing, we will also look at the ways they determine what social categories and hierarchies we will value, which types of profit-making we will deem legitimate and illegitimate and what kind of life each individual may imagine for herself. In this part, we will be guided primarily by the governmentalist approach to the study of risk, which combines institutional history and the history of science.
The second part will look more deeply into these examples to ask – are these categories fair? Do the apparatuses of risk management spell out a future we can live with? We will ask what kind of values a risk society ranks highest: security? wealth? equality? What kind of commitments does it make towards its members, past, present and future? This part of the seminar will allow us to rethink and reframe some of the more technical aspects of risk management as the proper sites for reflection on justice. We will survey some of the cutting-edge work on justice done today in the social sciences, and deal more directly with questions of class, race and gender, as well as future generations. We will also look at forms of political praxis which attach to these theoretical bodies and are crucial to their understanding.
Should the management of risk fall under the jurisdiction of technical and policy experts, or should it be a matter for public debate and core legislation? In their final papers, students will choose one type of risk and analyze its institutional set-up and social consequences using both primary and secondary sources. Leading up to the final paper we will conduct a primary-resource workshop where students will analyze four primary resources, two of which were cited in a reading and two additional ones which they will locate themselves. The workshop is the place for students of different fields to bring their own interests and expertise to the table, and gain a new perspective on them.
Introduction to American Political Thought
What is unique to the American tradition of political thought? Where does it break with other Western traditions? What has it incorporated from non-Western traditions? In this introductory course, we will examine the ways this heterogeneous corpus of theoretical and literary works has dealt with questions of political persons, communities, and their boundaries. We will begin with the constitutional project and ask what the unique challenges of the American political system were and are, and how they are expressed in the constitution and its heritage. We will study the Federalist Papers as well as three later interpretations of the constitutional project: Frederick Douglass’ critique of the inherent injustices of the founding moment, John Rawls’ revival of its core concepts in the late-twentieth century, and the Citizens United ruling which extended fundamental constitutional rights to corporations.
The next two units will explore the extensive interaction between American political thought and science. The second unit will be dedicated to the pragmatist tradition and its broad challenge to ‘continental’ dogma, bridging political thought, ethics and innovations in the natural sciences, logic, and statistics. The third unit will look at the ways liberty and the pursuit of happiness where translated into American economic thinking, and its emphasis on uncertainty, instability, and the search for a truly free market. From Gilman’s social Darwinism to Du Bois’ analysis of race and class, we will get a sense of the challenges and advantages that American geography, history, and legal structure have had in understanding its national economy.
In the fourth and final unit we will look at the problem of ‘positionality’: the ways regimes of knowledge and power are anchored in various embodied subject positions and shaped by a diversity of perspectives. This unit will bring together some of the prominent strands of a rich tradition of critical thought which has been extensively developed in, and applied to, the American context, including feminism, critical race theory, environmental justice, queer theory, and intersectionality. The unit will bring to a close our broader inquiry into the meaning of a political community, paying special attention to the way communities negotiate their own boundaries and their place and voice within society.