On the Unruly Relationship Between Individual Agency and Political Agency[1]

Noah G. Zilberg
Aug 23 · 10 min read

NB: Nothing in this essay is novel. There’s sophisticated social science research and game theory work that is not cited here. These are just my quick thoughts jotted down after reading people’s comments on a post about not eating meat in light of cattle ranchers setting the Amazon of fire in Brazil.

  1. The Structuralist View

Against those who advocate an individual altering their life in response to the climate crisis, many argue that structural change is the sole route to averting ecological collapse. Structural change, they argue, can be achieved only via state action (the state here is any governmental and quasi-governmental body that can muster both massive incentives and reliably impose effective regulation). State action, the argument goes, is unresponsive to individual alterations in behavior, especially when it comes to marginal shifts in consumption patterns. So, there is no climate-crisis-grounded reason for any individual to adjust their life.[2] Call this the structuralist view.

The structuralist view sometimes is presented via claims about sources of carbon and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GHG emissions are caused mostly by mass industry and not by individual consumption. It’s not everyone driving cars that primarily contributes to GHG emissions, the argument goes, but instead the processes by which cars and roads are built and designed to function that contributes to GHG emissions. These processes are governed only to the logic of capitalist production and cannot be disciplined by modest preference shifts amongst consumers, much less by symbolic expressions of personal virtue. The logic of capitalist production must either be wholly subverted (or at least perverted) in ways that make it more sensible. This requires powerful and directed political intervention.

For example, consider energy consumption. We can urge people to switch out their lightbulbs to LEDs and to keep their AC units running at lower levels, but this is all really beside the point. What is required is massive investment in renewable energy production and provision. This is an infrastructural transformation. The political process that initiates and guides such transformations are entirely unresponsive to trivial market signals associated with shifts in consumer preference. It’d be like trying to change the course of a river by changing the direction one sails on it.

This view therefore rests on a claim about political agency, namely, that individual action, even in aggregate, cannot shape political processes except via direct advocacy for a particular policy. To put it more carefully, the claim appears to be that nothing other than direct advocacy for some policy is ever necessary, much less sufficient, for forcing some state to adopt that policy.

This claim suggests a pneumatic view of politics: pressure placed on this end of the tube will move stuff out of this end of the tube. I think that is too simplistic. There is an unruly relationship between individual agency and political agency. Political agency is not emergent in the traditional sense of the term (whereby a property emerges ‘from below’ and whose causal efficacy is untethered to its ‘base’ properties). Rather, it is emergent in the sense that there is not a strict one-to-one relationship between the intentions and self-understandings of the individual subjects taking the actions and the actions taken by the ‘political agent’. What follow are a few thoughts on this.

2. Stag Hunts

First, consider the problem of cooperation in collective efforts to achieve a political end. These often take the form of iterated social dilemmas in which less intense individual preferences can be satisfied individually, but the most preferred option can be realized through collective action. These are stag hunts: several people working together is required to successfully hunt a highly desired stag, but each can peel away and catch a less desirable rabbit on their own. Opportunities for reciprocation are required for successful stag hunts — people must know that cooperation is not only an option but that it is a viable option. How, in short, do we get from individual agency to cooperative agency?

A common solution — the structuralist one, in fact — is to rely on third-party enforcement. But, the problem both the stag hunters and those interested in addressing climate change face is that there is no reliable third party enforcement. What to do?

The ‘solution’ is for the parties to trust one another enough to risk defection. For this to be rational each party must publicly demonstrate commitment to the shared end. These demonstrations should be modestly costly. Observers can then see each other as reliable cooperators. Within the context of responding to the climate crisis, a natural signal is to enact some sacrifice, such as being a vegetarian or using a high efficiency car or something like that.

As a side note, I suspect that if behavior is best interpreted purely as a form of status signaling, as perhaps driving a Tesla or building a fancy LEED-certified house would be, then trust may not be generated (and in fact, distrust may follow). Vegetarianism, on the other hand, is a powerful signal. This is largely because it is both costly — it concerns significant food preferences — and public — we typically eat together.

Furthermore, when the problem is a collective action problem, behaving as if the desired equilibrium has been reached even when it has not can make it more rational for others to shift in favor of that equilibrium. Quitting meat eating on one’s own on climate-crisis grounded reasons may seem stupid if no one else is going along with you. But, suppose it is a signal to others that if they quit as well then they will be joining in. This is a signal, in short, that you are on board with the most desired equilibrium. It therefore becomes rational (or at least less risky) for others to join in. Within this framing, the apparently pointless individual action, even if the initial action, turns out to be an effective move to make as an attempt to build political agency. What seems inert is, in fact, quite ‘ert’.

3. Leadership

Collective action is not always purely horizontal, i.e., without leaders. Leaders can be especially important in focusing political energy on these particular goals as opposed to those others. Leadership, though, requires the trust of the followers. Furthermore, leadership as often takes the form of enacting an ideal as it does issuing commands. That is, emulation is often as powerful as strict obedience. There is therefore at least a two-factor condition on effective leadership: trustworthiness and proper modeling.

On trustworthiness, we often judge someone to be trustworthy with respect to some end if they are regularly willing to sacrifice for the sake of that end. Thus, the parent who regularly sacrifices comfort for the sake of improving their child’s life prospects is trustworthy with respect to the child’s life prospects but the parent who regularly chooses their own comfort over increasing the life prospects of the child is not trustworthy in that respect.

The same holds for leadership. The leader who regularly sacrifices for some end is a more trustworthy leader than the one who does not. Followers can trust the leader with respect to that end. The sacrifice needn’t be systematic and it needn’t be related directly to the policy goal. Someone who aims to lead a change in energy policy needn’t sacrifice something valuable by attempting to directly sabotage coal fired power plants. But, we might expect that person not to drive an SUV and instead drive a high efficiency car. Or we might expect that person to have solar panels and to be a vegetarian, and so on. These indicate a level of seriousness with respect to the general aim of the project. What sacrifice is most salient is not obvious and has as much to do with the immediate cultural context as with the logic of the goal itself.

Additionally, followers may find motivation by ideal to be a crucial step to overcome resistance to collective action. In this way, people will be willing to move to the equilibrium not because they’ve rationally calculated that this is how to ‘win’ the game, but instead because they are interested in being like someone whom they respect or admire. Thus, they shift their behavior to suit collective action over individual benefit. This is not quite an argument from anti-hypocrisy. Rather, it is an argument from the arationality of players in collective action problems. Motivation by ideal needn’t be a rational response to a stag hunt game, but it can solve it.

These considerations suggest that some form of signaling can play a crucial role in constructing the sort of collective agency that most take to be necessary for substantive political change. (I’ve not mentioned anything so far on this relationship between collective agency and political change but I am assuming that it is necessary and sometimes sufficient for change.) There is not a strictly rational connection between this signaling and the aim of political change, which is to say that the signaling behavior needn’t embody the policy activists aim to institute.

4. Democratic Institutions

A further line of argument is available. Political activism preferably takes a democratic form. But, democratic institutions require more than proper systems of suffrage and voting aggregation. A standard view is that democratic institutions involve a certain level of sincere, respectful, and effective deliberation. This requires a certain level of trust.

Rational trust regarding sharing some endeavor requires at least some demonstrated by counterparties of their seriousness about the endeavor. In this case, parties must have some grounds for trusting each other as committed to the shared goal of causing a certain political change. Shared backgrounds can provide a rational basis for this trust. And so white, educated, and wealthy people dressed in Patagonia gear are rational in initially trusting one another’s avowals about their respective commitment to the cause. If one of those white, educated, and wealthy people drove up in a Hummer, though, and had a MAGA hat on, then we might reasonable withhold or even activity distrust that person.

For people who do not share backgrounds, or when the stakes become higher, some other form of signaling is required for the sort of trust necessary for sincere, effective, and respectful democratic deliberation. After all, why spend time engaging with others in a pointless meeting to plan action when those others are likely to abandon the project once the deliberation becomes less tractable? Here, a costly signal is valuable. People who have already committed themselves to some sort of practice related to the aim of the activism are more likely, overall, to be reliable partners in the deliberative process governing the activist project.

This commitment needn’t be the same across all people in the group, but it should take some form to bolster trust. Over time, the form it takes is costly investment into the group’s proper functioning. We would not expect a gardener who tends their plot over a season to abandon it right before the harvest, and similarly we would not expect an activist who spends time engaged in a project to abandon it once the deliberative process stalls.

The problem, though, is the initial phase of bringing people together. This phase is ongoing in growing movements. Consequently, signaling to potential contributors that one is committed often requires something cognizable from beyond the internal perception of the group. Here, again, a familiar behavior fitting the aims of the organization can be beneficial.

For example, a recruiter being a vegetarian may be just the sort of thing that is initially recognizable as a sign of trustworthiness for someone interested in that recruiter’s environmentalist group. The recruiter who pulls up wearing a MAGA hat and riding in a Hummer is reasonably judged as an untrustworthy potential partner.

5. Conclusion

When we debate ecological collapse, we often see people insisting that all individual action in response must have some climate crisis grounded reason to justify it. Since individual action considered on its own is unlikely to directly shift policy, there are no reasons for individuals to adjust their behavior in light of the climate crisis. At best, individuals ought to spend their time investigating the best climate policy and then, perhaps for fun, debating about it on social media. Even here, though, one wonders the point of it all. Why not just live exactly how one wishes to live: eat what one wants, drive what one wants, fly as much as one wants, and so on. For, individual agency is inert with respect to having any impact one way or another on the climate crisis. This, I think, is the upshot of the structuralist view of political change.

But, even a basic move away from this view of agency towards familiar models of cooperative behavior, such as the stag hunt, indicates that the road from individual actions to political agency is crooked and multiplicative. Much of what we do must be to produce shared meanings and networks of trust. This, in turn, can be leveraged into substantive political action. Civil disobedience, after all, needn’t be aimed at overturning the law violated by the activists. When SEIU members and their allies were arrested for protesting unfair policies governing janitorial workers, the laws broken were simple traffic laws governing where pedestrians were allowed to sit (namely, not in the middle of the street). But, among the policies they aimed to change were administrative rules governing what counted as a potential bargaining unit.

In the present case of the climate disaster, there is good reason for parties to publicly adopt policies signaling a seriousness about acting on this issue. Among these policies could be a loud vegetarianism, a pledge not to travel much by plane, and so on. There could be mass protests at steakhouses demanding that people not eat beef until, for example, policymakers use whatever tools they have to pressure Brazil’s president to halt the forest fires in the Amazon. These ‘symbolic’ actions are not effective as boycotts. Rather, they are signs effectively transmitting one’s seriousness about the climate crisis.

At the level of specific tactics, there can be many debates. For example, one might judge a beef boycott as playing into the raging propaganda of the Right. This is fair enough. But, that argument does not rest on a claim about the pointlessness of symbolic action. Rather, it rests on a claim about the power of symbolic action.

[1] Thanks to Rory Smead for discussions on this topic.

[2] There may be other reasons to adjust one’s life in ways that appear to be climate-crisis-grounded: one might have conclusive reason to be a vegetarian because one believes that killing sentient beings simply to consume them is morally objectionable.

Noah G. Zilberg

Written by

also known as Matthew Noah Smith: http://matthewnoahsmith.net

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