Oracles, ignorance and expertise: The struggle over what not to know

review of

McGoey, L. (2019) The unknowers: How strategic ignorance rules the world. London: ZED Books. (PB, pp xiii + 256, £ 12,99, ISBN 9781780326351)

The unknowers certainly addresses a heated contemporary discussion around the rise of populist politics and the state of democratic capitalism. The review of such a book presents a certain challenge; The unknowers attempts a comprehensive interpretation of contemporary social relations all the while oscillating between historical analysis and political intervention. It is this balancing act that makes the book both captivating and provoking. In mixing both intuitive concepts and delving deep into classical social and economic theory, McGoey, who holds a professorship in sociology at the University of Essex, challenges both academic readers as well as the wider audience that she is targeting.

McGoey’s point of departure is a critique of the enlightenment-fuelled self-understanding of Western industrialized democracies as knowing. This modernist narrative of the Kantian ‘sapere aude’ (Kant, 1784: 481) is sharply contrasted by McGoey with the notion that contemporary sociality is indeed far better defined in terms of rational modes of ignorance. The book sets out to explore the defining ‘ignorance pathway’ [15] of contemporary democratic capitalism in the ideas of the ‘free market’ and ‘free trade’. Drawing not only on academic literature but also on illustrative interviews, investigative journalism and media sources, McGoey explores the relation of this ‘macro-ignorance’ and ‘micro-ignorance’ [12], which she finds in contemporary examples drawn primarily from the USA and UK.

The main thrust of the book is to explore the notion of ‘strategic ignorance’, which McGoey understands as

any actions which mobilize, manufacture or exploit unknowns in a wider environment to avoid liability for earlier actions. But I also use strategic ignorance to refer to situations where people create or magnify unknowns in an offensive rather than a defensive way, to generate support for future political initiatives rather than simply avoid liability for a past mistake. [3]

Thus, McGoey understands ignorance not in contrast to knowledge or interest, but as an arena of a social power struggle. She makes no secret of her political stance regarding her study; in fact, it is her explicit intention to settle the score with what she terms the ‘political right’ [4]. More specifically, McGoey opposes epistocratic conceptions of government, which centre around establishing thresholds of expert knowledge required for political participation such as voting. Such perspectives cast ignorance as a stigma of a lack of knowledge or interest and, following McGoey, underestimate ignorance as a general social dynamic.

Analysing strategic ignorance

The first of The unknowers’ thirteen chapters (including the introduction and conclusion) introduce the analytical vocabulary, political stance and general narrative of the book. Using the fire in the Grenfell Tower in London as an example, McGoey introduces the common narrative that ascribes ignorance to the people in a contrast to informed and credible experts. Against this narrative, the Grenfell Tower fire shows how tenants were acutely aware of the problems that plagued their homes but their voices could not compete with the voices of experts consulted on the topic in public discourse; leading to the disastrous fire which sparked public outrage about how glaring safety issues could go ignored for so long. This social construction of expert knowledge entails a form of agenda-setting power: recognized expertise is oftentimes not only regarded as a superior form of knowledge, but also has the power to determine what to remain ignorant of.

Following McGoey, examples such as the Grenfell Tower can be understood as ‘micro-ignorance’ [12], which is embedded in and influences forms of ‘macro-ignorance’ [12], which she understands as ‘the sedimentation of individual ignorance into rigid ideological positions and policy perspectives […] leading to new patterns of individual micro-ignorance’ [12]. Subsequently, McGoey unfolds her analytical vocabulary to explore the dynamic between micro- and macro-ignorance to identify trajectories she calls ‘ignorance-pathways’ [13]. Her central concept is ‘oracular power’, which is understood as ‘the ability to shape social consensus about where the boundary between ignorance and knowledge lies’ [61]. This form of power allows social elites to construct ‘ignorance alibis’ [56] in an effort to defend against claims for responsibility or strategically mobilize ‘useful unknowns’ [51] in the first place. With the nexus of knowledge/ignorance established as a social power struggle, McGoey identifies two societal camps that are primarily involved in the strategic use of ignorance as its profiteers, yet importantly, fail to recognize their own ignorance. These camps are the ‘autocratic strongs and the autocratic smarts’ [69]; the smarts are understood as the proponents of an elitist rule of knowers while the strongs are understood more generally as a societal elite able to leverage uncertainty. These categories are less analytical than political and McGoey primarily enlists them to establish her own political position, which she frames as a defence of democratic, egalitarian politics against the rise of populist politics exemplified by the Brexit-vote and the presidency of Donald Trump.

Focusing on these two examples, McGoey reconstructs how both the Brexit-Vote as well as the 2016 presidential elections in the USA were surrounded by a discourse that accused the masses of ignorance. McGoey claims that the masses where painted ignorant largely for their lack of cultural and economic capital, making them susceptible to fearmongering concerning economic insecurity. As a consequence, stigmata such as a lack of knowledge on the question of Brexit or being knowledgeable about Trump’s racism and misogyny and supporting it are cast as problems of a populace of low social status. McGoey takes a firm stance against these ascriptions of ignorance to the masses and instead sets out to explore elite forms of ignorance such as government misinformation and a sensationalist media discourse. McGoey’s diagnosis is clear: the primary contemporary struggle in Western industrialized societies is about what not to know.

From Adam Smith to Rupert Murdoch

In the following chapters, McGoey takes her reader for a ride that starts at the end of the 18th century with the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith and his famous The wealth of nations and goes all the way into contemporary political-economic thought, interweaving her central narrative of the ignorance-pathway of the free market with issues such as discrimination, economic inequality and corporate scandal. McGoey proposes a re-reading of Smith’s classic that has indeed not been able to garner widespread public attention: that The wealth of nations is as much about market regulation and economic and social equality as it is about the free market and its often-cited invisible hand. McGoey traces this reading through 19th and 20th century thinking, referencing influential authors such as Mills, Burke, Tocqueville and Popper as well thinkers that have been historically silenced in academic discourse like Mary Wollstonecraft.

McGoey criticizes the mainstream reading of historic sources on political-economic thinking not only as a silencing of female thinkers, but also as a misreading of its perceived protagonists: following her argument, Smith, Tocqueville and others were acutely aware of the dangers of unregulated free markets but, at the same time, largely failed to reflect upon their own social positions. Historical reception of those classics has concentrated on the apparently natural asymmetrical distribution of wealth, mostly completely disregarding oppression by colonial powers or even social and economic inequality in Europe. In effect, McGoey deconstructs contemporary neoliberal theory about the free market as ideological and contingent rather than natural or fixed.

Interestingly, she illustrates the trajectory of such entrenched thinking about the free markets by reflecting on the 2011 News of the World scandal, during which it came to light that employees of News International, a major UK news corporation, had illegally wiretapped a huge number of politicians, officials and prominent persons alongside allegations of corruption. McGoey retells this incident in light of her ignorance-pathway of the free market: the regulatory agency tasked with supervising corporations such as News International and journalistic (mis)conduct became aware of the illegal activities of News of the World journalists. However, following McGoey’s argument, the regulatory agency was ill-equipped to deal with illegal conduct of such proportions in terms of financial power and manpower, owing to policies aiming at the idea of a self-regulating market. Confronted with this dilemma, the agency walked the thin line between complicity and strategic ignorance in choosing not to investigate the most severe allegations against News of the World to ensure their own organizational survival.

A self-fulfilling prophecy and the social ‘elite’

In the later chapters, McGoey explores what has already been hinted at with the News International case: in the UK and the USA, regulatory entities have become increasingly dependent on market financing, driven by the idea of the free market as superior distributive mechanism to the benefit of all. Much corporate governance is also realized within the market, as, for example, through professional audit firms. By reconstructing the cases of Enron and the FDA[1], McGoey sheds light on how corporations can mobilize complex regulatory arrangements to their advantage. Questions of responsibility in case of misbehaviour can be distributed to a wide network of contractors, audit firms or legal loopholes to avoid legal consequences in what truly seems like strategic ignorance. Even more, McGoey explores how corporations attempt to establish forms of ignorance towards possible consequences of business decisions and misbehaviour as unknowable and thus exempt from legal punishment.

An example for such a case is a class of antidepressants, which was shown to produce significant harmful side effects after it had gone to mass use when approved by the FDA. Despite early warning signs the drugs approval was not revoked; in fact, the FDA tried hard to ignore the evidence that surfaced. McGoey avoids simplifying accounts of this story, as she shows how the FDA’s failure was not necessarily one of malicious intent, but rather entangled in a very complex web of inter-dependencies and path-dependencies. The FDA had to navigate their increasing dependency on industry money, their reputation as a competent government agency and their shortcomings in terms of established scientific routines for the testing and approval of new drugs which had failed to detect the side-effects. McGoey shows also how this established arrangement was mobilized strategically by the pharmaceutical firms producing the drugs to ignore inconvenient findings even though they seemed apparent. FDA management was willing to comply in this strategic use of ignorance and even went as far as punishing internal voices of protest.

What seems puzzling about this report is how a network of experts with significant education and resources failed to appropriately respond to a severe social problem. This leads McGoey right back to her larger political point: that ignorance is by no means a problem of the masses but permeates all realms of society; and powerful actors such as multinational corporations are in a much more advantageous position to exploit it.

Ignorance and politics

The unknowers makes very convincing points. Indeed, while many academics might be at least familiar with the skewed reception of Adam Smith and the silencing of certain strands of theory, contemporary democratic capitalism is still hailed as the only and natural form of modern societies, thus cementing existing inequalities as unquestionable. McGoey’s book is an intervention into this belief that seeks to suspend the naturalness of this historical interpretation. She unfolds a powerful critique towards essentialist notions of knowing (such as knowing the best form of sociality) especially in the face of an emerging discourse that argues for privileged access to voting rights based on expert political knowledge.[2] The argument for expert voting is based on the assumption that informed voting decisions would necessarily lead to better political decisions and more just politics. McGoey refutes this point by arguing that ignorance is not neutral, but a constitutive part of political struggles. Expert voters, she argues, are not necessarily more reflected and impartial, they are simply entrenched in forms of ignorance that are more in line with socially accepted pathways of macro-ignorance. The question is thus not only what is unknown but also how the negotiation of what is worthy of (un)knowing unfolds and how different social actors mobilize this oracular power.

To open up this debate and provide a though-provoking counterpoint to the neutrality of ignorance is indeed meritorious and reason enough to wish The unknowers brought reception. McGoey argues that currently, there is already too little democracy rather than too much, with public institutions undermined by a mainstream of anti-regulatory rhetoric which has conferred a lot of regulatory power mechanisms to market actors and thus weakened the means of political decision making. In this respect, her argument is fairly social-democratic in highlighting the virtues of public bureaucratic regulation as a balance of power between corporate elites and other social groups. She shows how, against common interpretation, such ideas can be found in classic economic thought currently mobilized to justify the exact opposite line of thinking around the free market. For McGoey, this twist is ’perhaps the greatest academic hoax in modern western history’ [311].

‘Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast’[3]

McGoey’s reconstruction of contemporary ignorance is thought provoking and offers a persuasive twist on the commonly held assumption that knowledge is power. Indeed, it might be much more powerful a strategy to enlist ignorance in one’s own favour. This book on strategic ignorance is strongest when McGoey reconstructs tangible examples from recent history. Here, she can fill her overarching narrative of the ignorance-pathways of the free market with life and convince her readers that even the power to ignore is asymmetrically distributed in contemporary western societies and fierce struggles are fought over what not to know.

Yet, the way in which McGoey approaches her investigation is marked by a tension that is felt throughout the book and not always easily reconciled. Just as Goethe’s Faust struggles with the two souls dwelling in his breast, torn between his desire of carnal and visceral involvement in the world on the one hand and his pursuit of transcendental knowledge on the other hand, the reader gets to know two Lindsey McGoeys: one seeking activist involvement and impact in the lived world, the other aspiring to analytical clarity and more abstract theorization. One of McGoey’s souls is a passionate public intellectual that fiercely criticizes the way in which the notion of expert knowledge is mobilized as an attack on the rights of democratic participation, as certain societal groups are marked as ignorant. This McGoey coins a strong and convincing metaphor in her use of strategic ignorance. Her reconstructions of the scandal around News of the World as well as her explorations of the relationships of the British and US-American pharmaceutical industry with their respective regulating bodies make her descriptions of strategic ignorance tangible and intuitively understandable.

Against the background of such illustrations, McGoey makes a case to defend equal rights of democratic participation against epistocratic conceptions of rule. Such notions of the rule of expert knowers effectively declares parts of the populace unfit to make democratic decisions on their own life and position in society. McGoey, on the other hand, sees democracy as an ‘epistemologically superior’ [297] form of rule that inherently dispels the ascription of ignorance to the masses, as it values different forms of knowledge as equally legitimate exactly through the equal integration of different groups into the political decision-making process. The verve with which McGoey presents her argument, I believe, sometimes disregards academic rigor, but it is well in line with questioning her own position as an expert knower in her role as an academically educated sociologist.

Yet, this analytical sociologist is the other McGoey that the reader gets to know over the course of the book. This McGoey is not content with an intellectual intervention into contemporary discourse and instead pursues a line of investigation probably more akin to the expectations of the academically interested readership. Especially in her second chapter, she outlines a promising conceptual vocabulary around ‘oracular power’ and ‘useful unknowns’ and continues to work conceptually later on in the book, as for example when she differentiates strategic ignorance from secrecy: ‘Secrecy hides; strategic ignorance creates: constructing plausible rationales […] for why problems should not exist, and therefore do not require closer investigation or penalization’ [294].

Furthermore, this McGoey seeks to embed the study of strategic ignorance historically through a re-reading of classical authors in national economics, political theory and sociology. McGoey makes visible that the reception of classic theories is also part, both today as well as historically, of political negotiations about which parts of a theory are deemed worthy of knowing and which parts are deemed worthy of not knowing. This re-reading stresses the contingent character of expert knowledge about society and how academic discourse, something that might seem quite abstract for certain readers, is grounded in its own regulating practices such as editing and re-editing over the course of which parts of a theory can slowly but surely vanish from edited volume to edited volume (or be rediscovered, for that matter).

To have your cake and eat it

In light of such a setup, to expect a book that can successfully marry interventionist mind-set with sociological analysis seems reasonable. Yet, along with much deserved praise, some critical aspects about The unknowers must be raised: as mentioned at the outset, walking the line between academic analysis and political intervention is an ambitious task that probably offers as many dangers as it promises insights. And indeed, The unkowers is not always a happy marriage. Throughout the book, McGoey’s two souls, the sociologist on the one hand and the public intellectual on the other hand, seem to be locked into eternal struggle. The public intellectual sometimes draws fairly direct comparisons of historical accounts and contemporary thinking as well as political phenomena, which are illustrative of her argument and used against her political enemies. Yet, the sociologist is aware that such linear comparisons are not sufficiently complex and academically untenable, oftentimes repudiating them on the following pages. In these instances, McGoey’s stated intent to settle the score with the ‘political right’ battles with her analytical precision. Two logics compete in this struggle: while the political commentary of the public intellectual requires some amount of closure to evoke the ‘political right’ as opposing position, the sociological analysis strives to reveal the complexity around different forms of ignorance that subverts such friend/foe-patterns. Instead, it seeks to resist closure and illuminate the issue from different perspectives.

The aspirations of political intervention and sociological analysis come at a further price from this reviewer’s perspective: the book will be measured both against academic expectations and standards as well as against the expectations of a broader audience. From a sociological perspective, McGoey’s analytical potential remains largely unexplored. The analytical categories in relation to strategic ignorance that she develops in chapter two are sparsely used in the following chapters and make mostly illustrative appearances. And the categories of the ‘autocratic strongs’ and the ‘autocratic smarts’ remain rather blurry as well. McGoey repeatedly distinguishes between ‘the wealthy’ [226] and ‘poorer groups’ [245] or uses similar vocabulary such as ‘America’s power elite’ [240] to gauge the factions in the social struggle for unknowing. This terminology does oftentimes not seem sufficiently complex in the face of the wide networks of ignorance that are reconstructed, and McGoey subsequently oscillates between studying strategic forms of ignorance and forms of ignorance, which seem rather unintentional or embedded in a wider social logic (such as adherence to established rules, even if they are not optimal or, at worst, dysfunctional). While in line with her analysis of the relation between micro- and macro-ignorance, the analytical distinction between intentional ignorance and unintentional ignorance becomes blurry and it is not always clear how the two interrelate. Furthermore, through the combination of a vocabulary of an abstract elite and the stated focus on strategic forms of ignorance, this blurriness is sometimes in danger of evoking an imagery of a social elite that can somehow freely combine historical interpretations and contemporary knowledge to suit their goals. The conflictual character of this struggle over interpretational sovereignty seems underappreciated in the book, even though McGoey reconstructs it in her examples, and the heated political climate in both the USA and UK specifically seem to pay testament to it. Some aspects of the critique here presented might also be due to the fact that some passages in the book are republications of McGoey’s earlier work, reworked into a larger narrative.

For academic readers, The unknowers might thus provide a fertile analytical vocabulary waiting to be explored in further studies. In the field of management and organization studies, the notion of strategic ignorance seems especially apt to connect to recent literature on organizational secrecy that conceptualizes secrecy as performative social process (Costas and Grey, 2014; Costas and Grey 2016). Otto et al. (2019: 11) further emphasises the notion of ‘the secret as such’ in this line of research and its strategic effects in the social practices of its (re)production. Given McGoey’s interest in the organization of (strategic) ignorance, as in the case of the FDA, her concepts might be productively adapted to further explore secrecy and ignorance in organization and management.

From the perspective of a general audience, the book provides a thought-provoking perspective on the notion of knowledge in contemporary society. Without a doubt, McGoey contributes to an important social debate that is marked by buzzwords such as fake-news or post-truth. The unknowers illuminates some of the social practices around seemingly self-understood knowledge and their history. In other instances, the book might seem daunting to many readers. While the chapters that describe real-world examples of strategic ignorance are accessible and informative, significant parts of the book closely interweave these events with fairly demanding academic theories. For an audience less familiar with the writings of Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Popper and, in fact, many others, it will probably be quite difficult to follow the narrative of the book at all times.

McGoey’s projection of a possible way to construe ignorance in a politically empowering way is ‘enlargement’, as ‘the capacity to imagine one’s circumstances differently and the human will and capacity to do so’ [312]. She sees Smith and other classic thinkers in line with a form of solidarity that is ‘to see and to speak when it is least in one’s self-interest to do so, even when others may deride or try to harm you’ [321]. Even when one might be sceptical against such idealizations and the attribution of such qualities to the group of the ‘greats’ [312], it is the contingency of both knowledge and ignorance that McGoey sees as politically empowering: that the boundary of what is considered legitimate knowledge and what is considered ignorance is by no means natural.

[1] The US-American Food and Drug Administration.

[2] Most prominently maybe the philosopher and political scientist Jason Brennan, who is referenced repeatedly by McGoey and who has recently proposed different strategies for the distribution of knowledge-based access to voting in his 2016 book Against democracy.

[3] (Goethe, 1962: 145).

references 

Brennan, J. (2016) Against democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Costas, J. and C. Grey (2014) ‘Bringing secrecy into the open: Towards a theorization of the social processes of organizational secrecy’, Organization Studies, 35(10): 1423-1447.

Costas, J. and C. Grey (2016) Secrecy at work: The hidden architecture of organizational life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Goethe, J.W. von (1962) Goethe’s Faust. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Kant, I. (1784) ’Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?’, in J.E. Biester and F. Gedike (eds.) Berlinische Monatsschrift. Berlin: Haude und Spener/ Unger.

Otto, B., J.G. Pors and R. Johnsen (2019) ‘Hidden in full view: The organization of public secrecy in Miéville’s The city and the city’, Culture and Organization, 25(2): 91-103.

the author(s)  

Philipp Arnold is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Business Administration and Economics of the European University Viadrina. He currently studies private security contractors and their activities and role in German Arrival Centres for refugees and asylum seekers. His research interests include politics, violence and aesthetics in management and organization as well as links between organization theory and sociological theory.

Email: parnold AT europa-uni.de