Modes of Uncertainty: Anthropological Cases

Modes of Uncertainty: Anthropological Cases

by Limor Samimian-Darash, Paul Rabinow (Editor)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226257105
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/16/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Limor Samimian-Darash is assistant professor at the Federman School of Public Policy and Government at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Paul Rabinow is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author or coauthor of many books, including, most recently, Designs on the Contemporary, Demands of the Day, and Designing Human Practices, all published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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Modes of Uncertainty

Anthropological Cases

By Limor Samimian-Darash, Paul Rabinow

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-25710-5


Uncertainty Makes Us Free: Insurance and Liberal Rationality

Pat O'Malley

"Uncertainty makes us free" is the message of Peter L. Bernstein's (1998) best-selling book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. In Bernstein's view, risk — understood as statistical prediction of social and economic phenomena — is problematic for freedom. Probabilistic prediction of the future creates a "prison" that consigns us to an endless repetition of past statistical patterns over which we have no control. Bernstein suggests that if we adopt risk-based governance "nothing we can do, no judgement that we make, no response to our animal spirits, is going to have the slightest influence on the final result" (Bernstein 1998, 229). In his eyes, risk is a deeply troubling technology because to the extent that risk does render the future calculable it renders us unfree. Bernstein therefore celebrates uncertainty. He quotes with approval John Maynard Keynes, who rejected the possibility of using statistical methods to forecast events such as war or stock market prices. These are matters subject to "uncertain knowledge." "About these matters" said Keynes, "there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatsoever. We simply do not know!" (quoted in Bernstein 1998, 229). Bernstein concludes that "a tremendous idea lies buried in the conclusion that we simply do not know. Rather than frightening us, Keynes' words bring great news: we are not prisoners of an inevitable future. Uncertainty makes us free" (Bernstein, 1998, 229).

It is possible from this statement to understand how Bernstein's book on a topic as obscure as the history of probability could so surprisingly have become a runaway best seller in the late 1990s. Its message appeals to those whose policy preferences run strongly against the "managed economy," and for whom risk taking in the free market is close to a religious rite. Although the global financial crisis would temper some of this zeal, for close to twenty years leading up to the publication of Against the Gods and much of the decade following, speculative investment appeared to many as the new Messiah. Triumphing over the planned economies of the Soviet bloc, it seemed that the uncertainties of the "free" market were foundational to a "free" society. At the same time, government was being urged to become more entrepreneurial and less dominated by experts (Osborne and Gaebler 1993). By the turn of the new century, even the US secretary of defense was urging that

we must transform not only our armed forces but also the Department that serves them by encouraging a culture of creativity and intelligent risk-taking. We must promote a more entrepreneurial approach to developing military capabilities, one that encourages people, all people, to be proactive and not reactive, to behave somewhat less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists. (Rumsfeld 2002)

In the years before the GFC, risk taking and uncertainty appeared to be the touchstones of truth for public policy, the foundational principals of good government in all its branches. It would seem that Bernstein's analysis of the history of statistical prediction was successful precisely because it cornered the beast in its lair. Against the Gods showed how it was that statistical probability, the nemesis of speculative uncertainty, was a contingent human invention rather than something given in the nature of the world. In short, we need not be governed thus. Hence the triumphal moment at the end of the book when the author wrests the truth from Maynard Keynes, the Dark Angel of the planned economy: uncertainty makes us free.

Perhaps surprisingly, these are not at all novel concerns. For many years liberal political culture has regarded statistical probability and government through predictive techniques as compromising freedom. In the nineteenth century, concerns were voiced about the implications of statistical prediction for the sanctity of free will. As Theodore Porter (1995, 164–165) argues, after the publication of Henry Thomas Buckle's quantitative History of Civilisation in 1847, debates on this issue became at least as prominent and urgent as those generated by Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Porter quotes an outraged commentator from 1860 protesting against this "modern superstition of arithmetic" that threatened mankind with a "worse blight than any it has yet suffered — not so much a fixed destiny, as a fate falling upon us, not personally, but in averages." The very use of the term "superstition" to refer to statistics gives more than a hint that this was not a technical debate, but a struggle over fundamental values and beliefs. Risk and uncertainty may be different technical operations in the "taming of chance" but they are also cultural artefacts (Douglas 1992), and they play a central role in the culture of liberal freedom.

Fear of the "overly" calculable future is also something that profoundly concerned Max Weber, both as a liberal politician and sociologist. For Weber, the development of modernity was characterized by increasing rationalization. Through scientific, legal, bureaucratic, and economic changes, the process of rendering the future more rationally calculable diminished freedom and consigned us to an "iron cage." For Weber, modernity appears to confront liberalism's core visions of freedom, even while liberalism acts as one of its principal promoters and beneficiaries. And of course, this founding father of modern sociology was writing in the shadow of Karl Marx, setting out a sociology that was in no small measure a political intervention on behalf of liberal freedom. More recently, a new wave of liberal sociologists have renewed such concerns. Consider James Scott's (1998) Seeing Like a State, which identifies key problems in the present with the "high modernism" that arises when state and expertise are aligned against a public that is not mobilized in its own interests. Or again, Anthony Giddens's (2000b) eulogies of the Third Way in which entrepreneurs of society and community as well as economy create new life. They are to invent the future through techniques of uncertainty. An invented future disrupts risk by cutting across the assumption that future patterns of life will repeat those of the past.

Likewise in the neoliberal and "new management" literature, enterprise is equated with uncertainty and is eulogized. Best-selling author Tom Peters, of Thriving on Chaos fame, pays tribute to the entrepreneur and promotes a new market-based liberalism. He sees the interventionist state and the planned economy as defeated by a resurgent liberal-capitalism driven forward to prosperity by enterprise. Peters "pays tribute to the entrepreneur," quoting George Gilder:

Entrepreneurs sustain the world. In their careers there is little of the optimizing calculation, nothing of the delicate balance of markets. ... The prevailing theory of capitalism suffers from one central and disabling flaw: a profound distrust and incomprehension of capitalists. With its circular flows of purchasing power, its invisible handed markets, its intricate plays of goods and moneys, all modern economics, in fact, resembles a vast mathematical drama, on an elaborate stage of theory, without a protagonist to animate the play. (Peters 1987, 245)

In place of a scientifically calculated future epitomized by risk, uncertainty provides the creative art of the possible that will drive prosperity and innovation. This neoliberal vision of uncertainty involves techniques of flexibility and adaptability, and requires a certain kind of "vision" explicated at great length by other gurus such as Osborne and Gaebler in their iconic Reinventing Government. Dispensing with technocracy, they promote "anticipatory government" and "governing with foresight" (Osborne and Gaebler 1993, 229). They also promote "communities" over experts in the governance of local problems. They suggest that scientists do not govern as well as communities, but have created a kind of learned helplessness that must be overcome by ordinary people taking back the reins of power from experts. As such writings make clear, there is to be a resubordination of technocracy to the uncertain direction of enterprise and popular preferences.

"Uncertainty makes us free" thus emerges not simply as an easy exercise in sloganeering coined for an airport best seller. It is an expression of a set of cultural and philosophical beliefs that are integral to political liberalism. However, they exist alongside a faith in modernization, with its value on rendering the future calculable, that has also been embraced by liberalism. While there is no shortage of evidence of a profound suspicion of modernism, as outlined earlier, of course liberalism from its inception has provided a favorable environment for the development of scientific knowledge, technological growth, the independence of the technocratic professions, and so on. Scientific and technological expertise are understood to be essential to good governance. For liberal policy makers this tension has been present from the start, an integral dilemma of liberal mentalities of government. For the modernist, technocratic strand in liberalism, uncertainty appears as a problem to be overcome. It needs to be rendered predictable. Set against this is a mind-set for which freedom and uncertainty are two sides of the same coin, in which the fundamental problem for liberal freedom is the strain toward rendering it too calculable.

This chapter will explore how the struggles between these two philosophical and cultural currents in liberal mentalities have been translated into practice, with specific reference to the nature and place of insurance in British social and economic policy. This is not simply because insurance is one of the central institutionalizations for governing uncertainty in liberal polities, although this fact renders it an obvious focus. Equally it is because of its corollary: insurance has been an institutional site through which British liberalism itself has been shaped. Changes in insurance since the early nineteenth century are closely bound up with changing assessments of the place and nature of risk and uncertainty, and of the relationship between the two. In turn, these changes are imbricated with understandings of what it is to be free, particularly with respect to changing assumptions about whether or not uncertainty is what makes us free.

Freedom of Contract, Independence, and Uncertainty

In Britain, insurance for the working classes emerged during the late eighteenth century with the activities of the Friendly Societies — fraternal and benevolent insurance arrangements formed among skilled artisans. Despite some liberal suspicions of the Friendly Societies as a form of combination in restraint of market relations, during the early part of the nineteenth century successive political administrations legislated to encourage the societies' role in providing life, burial, and sickness insurance for the working class. This was regarded not only as fostering self-help and industry but also as alleviating the financial costs to taxpayers of supporting the destitute. Fraternal societies were characterized by "intentionally organising themselves around notions of 'friendship, brotherly-love, charity'" in which "any self-understanding in terms of 'risk' or 'insurance' [was] largely absent" (Doran 1994, 134). It was clear at the time that the frequent failures of these funds followed from an inability of fund managers to predict liabilities and to balance these against contributions and funds in hand. The reason for this lay in the benevolent principles of the early societies, which distributed payment of benefits to members according to their need rather than in proportion to their premiums or levels of risk.

In order to promote values and practices of thrift and self-help, legislation "encouraged" the societies to replace their traditional emphasis on fraternalism and benevolence with actuarially based principles of fund management. From 1819 onward statutes required that the data tables and distribution guidelines of societies applying for registration be approved by two persons at least, known to be professional actuaries or persons skilled in calculation. The uneven contest between the representatives of these competing principles — the workers on the one hand and the government and the actuaries on the other — resulted in the displacement of a horizontal, fraternally based, and essentially amateur organization by a hierarchical, actuarial, and managerial form of insurance that distanced the rank-and-file members from the professionals who operated the funds. The monthly meeting in the local inn, which was simultaneously a convivial social gathering and a business committee, had largely disappeared by the mid-nineteenth century (Gosden 1973, 23). In its place there emerged the domination of this field by large-scale fraternal orders, which operated out of centralized offices and held annual meetings at which the membership was rarely able to wield effective power. More than that, the principles of actuarial methods that were set in place further eroded benevolent ideas and introduced a "disciplinary element into membership" (Doran 1994, 175). In particular, graduated contributions were imposed, and members became divided and ordered according to their levels of contribution and risk categorizations. Likewise, the help in kind that had characterized early mutual societies — for example, through the provision of food or work on allotments by fellow members — disappeared. The form of solidarity of fraternal orders of old was thus fragmented and transformed. While the resulting insurance arrangements were still collective, this collectivity was increasingly abstract, individuated, fiscal, and mediated by third parties. By the early part of the twentieth century, such "industrial life insurance" had become the principal institution for governing working class thrift, and few households were not enlisted in this regime (O'Malley 2002).

It is easy to read this as the triumph of risk over uncertainty, and in limited respects this is true. As Doran (1994) and others have shown, many in the working men's associations were aware of the financial benefits of actuarialism, but valued the political and social solidarities associated with the uncertainties of their form of insurance. Their little fraternities of uncertainty gradually dwindled and died. However, it may be more important to note that risk was valued and promoted by governments not just because it worked, but because this rendered insurance a technology that promoted thrift and foresight among the working classes. By reducing the "wasted thrift" and the assumed demoralizing experience that went with the failure of each little "uncertain" insurance fund, risk-based insurance was imagined by policy makers to encourage the practices of foresight and prudence among working people. Liberals of the time did not find the "triumph" of risk as problematic for freedom because it fostered and defended a kind of freedom particularly valorized in the nineteenth century: economic independence.

Yet it should be recognized that the transformation in insurance was part of another, peculiarly liberal, freedom: the triumph of freedom of contract. With the rise of the insurance companies, formal insurance contracts and contractual arrangements displaced informal mutuality. Contract was very much about governing uncertainty by quite different means than statistical calculations of risk. Indeed, in order to understand just why risk-based insurance was so acceptable to the Victorian liberal imagination, we need to recognize that actuarial insurance was a commodity provided through a contractual relationship freely entered into by both parties. In this sense, actuarialism in insurance was no more problematic to freedom than the fact that engineering deployed statistics to increase the reliability of machinery. Actuarial insurance in this form was a commodity purchased by those with sufficient foresight to protect their financial independence. And foresight, as Bernstein and his allies would doubtlessly concur, is also the nonstatistical, entrepreneurial mode of dealing with uncertainty.

During the nineteenth century, contract law came to embody specific expectations about what "foresight" means. Previously, while its importance to liberal subjectivities was well understood, it had been formulated only in abstract ways by such liberal philosophers as Jeremy Bentham. In contract law, foresight was developed primarily in relation to the requirement that subjects take into account the foreseeable impact of a breach of contract on contractual partners. Conversely, none should be accountable for outcomes that were not "reasonably" foreseeable. The courts elaborated on exactly what "reasonable foresight" entailed: What kinds of eventuality should be foreseen? How unlikely should a possible event appear in order that it can be ignored? What should parties tell each other so that each can make "reasonable" forecasts of the future? What should count as the level of prudence and foresight that can be expected of "reasonable" people? (O'Malley 2000b).


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Table of Contents

Introduction Limor Samimian-Darash Paul Rabinow 1

Economics and Entrepreneurialism

1 Uncertainty Makes Us Free: Insurance and Liberal Rationality Pat O'Malley 13

2 The "Cool" Organization Man: Incorporating Uncertainty from Jazz Music into the Business World Eitan Wilf 29

3 The Gaming of Chance: Online Poker Software and the Potentialization of Uncertainty Natasha Dow Sciiüll 46

Security and Humanitarianism

4 Policing Uncertainty: On Suspicious Activity Reporting Meg Stalcup 69

5 Guantánamo's Catch-22: The Uncertain Interrogation Subject Rebecca Lemov 88

6 Global Humanitarian Interventions: Managing Uncertain Trajectories of Cambodian Mental Health Carol A. Kidron 105

7 The Malicious and the Uncertain: Biosecurity, Self-Justification, and the Arts of Living Gaymon Bennett 123

Environment and Health

8 What Is a Horizon? Navigating Thresholds in Climate Change Uncertainty Adriana Petryna 147

9 Sentinel Devices: Managing Uncertainty in Species Barrier Zones Frédéric Keck 165

10 Spaces of Uncertainty: Governing Urban Environmental Hazards Austin Zeiderman 182

Afterword Paul Rabinow Limor Samimian-Darash 201

Notes 209

References 221

List of Contributors 239

Index 243

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