Blog logoOkay Takes

Brandon Istenes

What is a mask?


Why is going into a grocery store in rural America now a politically fraught experience?

The political meaning of a mask is not attached to the mask, but to its presence of absence. Alarmingly, it imposes an absolute political dichotomy on Americans, which is utterly public.

The mask itself is devoid of political meaning. "I abide by the suggestions of public health experts." Of course that abiding has very real health implications. But politically it's almost impossible to give a shit about.

The mask is imbued with meaning by a culture war, which has taken it as a prop.

The culture war prevents the formation of solidarity based on economic interests, which would be dangerous to elites on both sides of the COVID crisis management conflict.

The mask-or-its-absence is taken to connote a whole constellation of beliefs and affinities. Despite its intrinsic boringness, its almost unbeleivably milquetoast denotation, by virtue of its signification every American now wears a gang flag in one of two colors, and the attendant violence ensues.

Be kind to your neighbors. Build solidarity that reaches farther than your weird woke clique. The personal... is just not that fucking political.

Seeing like an engineer


Putting aside his rabid, CIA-sponsored anti-communism, I am a big fan of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State. Above all, it’s a useful and well-researched critique of engineering.

What Scott critiques are grand schemes to change systems in which people and nature are deeply implicated. A characteristic such scheme is what was called Scientific Forestry, in which forests were demolished and re-planted as tree monocrops in nice clean lines. The artificial forests withered and wood production crashed. It turns out, Scott argues, that complexity cannot be engineered out of complex systems.

The trouble is that Scott doesn’t call this process "engineering." He calls it science.

Science, properly, is an episteme. The word “science” is also often used to refer to the body of scientific knowledge, which is the set of claims that are believed to be supported by that episteme. This is generally an acceptable conflation. For example, the act of comparing models for gene replication by comparing them with data can be called “science.” Through this process, some of those models gain status as truth claims about genes. They are inaugurated into the set of claims about biology that we think are true, because we did science!

What is essential to science is its epistemological nature. It is a process of research, of learning.

Let’s say that we know how to make humans glow in the dark using CRISPR gene editing. This is a technique, which is a kind of knowledge, which we acquired through a scientific process.

There is nothing scientific about designing and implementing a national program to make every American glow in the dark. It is not about learning (even if Scott would eventually make it into a teachable experience). It is an act of engineering.

Engineering is an act of changing the world materially using claims from the body of scientific knowledge.

It is not often that a failure of engineering indicates a fault of science. The power of science to support knowledge claims is proportional to the simplicity of the system it attempts to describe. The process of science often involves acts of engineering in order to produce experimental contexts that are adequate for the production of knowledge claims. But engineering itself necessarily encounters the world in all its complexity. There are a million things that can go wrong with a machine in the world.

In other words, there was nothing “scientific” about Scientific Forestry. It was a grandiose kind of engineering. The only kinds of “scientific” claims that its failure challenged were claims of total knowledge, which are not scientific in the first place. A scientific claim is one like “within certain parameters, a tree in soil with a certain level of phosphorus will grow faster than in soil with higher or lower levels, all else being equal.” Claims of total knowledge attempt to enumerate or eliminate this “all else.” Scientific Forestry was an engineering project premised on a total knowledge of the factors of wood production.

Scott’s attack on science as a process of knowing, then, is entirely attributable to this conflation of science and engineering.

This ill-founded critique of science is Scott’s contribution to the postmodern discourse supporting ontological relativism. It must be understood that for every anti-science right-wing writer, there is a corresponding "left-wing" academic who spends their career undermining science in the name of the subaltern. This is extremely ironic, given the meaning that science, progress, and communism has had for the oppressed in the 20th century. But given the choice between rejecting the idea that science can justify oppression and rejecting science altogether, they choose the quixotic and self-defeating latter.

The end of progress


After the defeat of communism and its promises for the third world, academics are now finishing the job by painting science and progress as inextricably capitalist. They elide that peoples of the global south once imagined the truly revolutionary possibility of taking the reins of science and of history, instead of being relegated to their own “local knowledges” that pose no threat to imperialism. These academics pose as opening the door for a plurality of alternative epistemes, when they are in effect closing the door on the imaginative possibility of the global south’s endogenous and non-capitalist development, of their taking the reins of knowledge production, and of their breaking free from the sclerotic Orientalist tropes to which those academics chain them.

Anti-maskers and hermeneutic injustice

Were we to appreciate mistrust as an inclination, a cognitive tendency, or a structured disposition (in other words, habitus) towards eluding depredation - not simply as a rational calculation based on 'misinformation' - then its capacity as a mediator in a determinative web of human rights abuses that stretch back in time and link the DRC to distant continents could rise to the level of common sense.

—Eugene Richardon, "On the coloniality of global public health"

There is a powerful and unpleasant lesson for the present moment that can be drawn from Richardson's analysis of local attitudes toward "aid" during the Ebola crisis. This is not to cheapen the murderous and exploitative history of (neo)colonialism in Africa—the parallel I wish to draw is not in degree, but in mechanism.

In popular discourse there exists a category of "liberal elites." These are the people for whom the economy has worked the last 40 years. They live in cities because they can afford to. Many of them are "technocrats," in the sense that they exercise decision-making power that impacts others and that sees itself as unbiased, professional, and technical. Many of them are intellectual workers, who produce justifications for the decisions of the technocrats. Since they live in cities, they share the liberal cultural dispositions that are particular to cities.

The cracks in the technocratic hegemony machine have only gotten wider. In the 90s, economists sold the US on international free trade deals, and everyone who worked in manufacturing got screwed. In the 00s, climate change experts urged action while neglecting to offer anything but the vaguest possible ideas about what to do with coal miners when their industry ceased to exist. In 2008 Americans were assured that, for reasons inscrutiably technical, their own survival depended on a mass transfer of wealth to the handful of people that had crashed the economy. And now in 2020, another gang of professionals is calling the shots, and suggesting that everyone simply make peace with the inevitable collapse of the economy.

As an employee of a global health organization, I am a member of that gang. We are a class of people who hardly noticed the crash of 2008. We therefore lack the experience to know that, in this age where Capital enjoys absolute dominance over Labor, the burden of a crashing economy is borne entirely by the most precaratized.

As Alex Hochuli tweets,

No one is going to be held to account for their disastrous handling of Covid, because the only options presented are [1.] obey the govt while it destroys the economy or  [2.] big shrug and other people die... I think it's natural that people default to the latter, given the options. Certain economic ruin or possibility of illness? No brainer for all but the comfortably-off.

To remix Richardson, then, we might write—

Were we to appreciate mistrust as an inclination, a cognitive tendency, or a structured disposition (in other words, habitus) towards eluding depredation - not simply as a rational calculation based on 'misinformation' - then its capacity as a mediator in a determinative web of economic exploitation that stretches back in time and links the extraurban US to distant metropoles could rise to the level of common sense.

What might we learn from this experience? Perhaps that a healthy popular response to a pandemic depends on the existence of popular economic solidarity. For this time though, our colleagues across campus have foreclosed on that possibility.

Defund the police, not the working class


Most workers see current calls to defund the police as against their interests. They may be right. That’s why we need to advocate an anti-police politics that empowers the working class. The killing of George Floyd sparked a radical shift in the way we talk about policing in the read on...



Defining the boundaries of acceptable opinion for you and your friends is not politics. Creating alliances as human relationships is.

A schema of intersectionalist claims


Intersectionality came up a lot in a discussion of Feminism for the 99% by by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser. I suspect that some of our disagreement about what they really meant about its implications for capitalism was muddled by not having a clear ontology of intersectionalist claims (by "intersectionalist" I just mean "people who support intersectionality as a critical framework"). So here's a crack at it. Note that only the first one or two are really universal among intersectionalists. Some of the others might be totally made up.

The core:

  • Emergent phenomena: New and specific forms of oppression occur at the intersection of systems of oppression. Like synergy, but bad. This is what Kimberlé Crenshaw was originally proposing as "intersectionality" when she coined the word.
  • Attacking one system of oppression without also attacking others will fail to be liberatory.


  • Critically inclusive: Systems of oppression are ontologically independent; none merely spring forth from others. This is opposed to traditional Marxism, where other forms of oppression are epiphenomena of the class relation.
  • Critically egalitarian: Systems of oppression are on ontologically equal footing. This is opposed, for example, to Marxist intersectionalists like Angela Davis and Nancy Fraser, who hold that capitalism is a "master frame;" and to Afro-pessimism, which holds that the world is structured fundamentally by the slave relation which is instantiated in anti-blackness.
  • Not very critical: That systems of oppression are all relatively analagous to each other. This would imply by necesity a liberal orientation toward them, since any radical analyses would break down the analogies pretty quickly. I don't think this gets put forth seriously, but I think it usefully describes many people's attitudes toward analyzing systems of oppression.

Claims about capitalism which may or may not be seriously made:

  • Destroying (insert system of oppression here) is a necessary but not sufficient condition to ending capitalism.
  • Destroying (insert system of oppression here) is a sufficient condition to ending capitalism.

Not intersectionality:

  • That the impacts of systems of oppression on people's lives are merely additive. That's the idea of "double jeopardy," which predates intersectionality.

By way of epilogue, I want to note that the common conservative critiques of intersectionality don't actually have content that is specific to intersectionality. These critiques are against the perceived threats of a new hierarchy of knowing (via standpoint epistemology), of justice, or of society, which "places straight white men at the bottom." This is just the application of longstanding conservative critiques of anti-oppression politics to a different concept of oppression. These critiques have with little distinguishing subtlety been aimed at feminism, racial justice, and Marxism, and we shouldn't be surprised to see them rehashed against intersectionality.

Let me know if you think there are important claims I'm missing, or if you can cite an example author for any of them!