Cover image for Appeals to Interest: Language, Contestation, and the Shaping of Political Agency By Dean Mathiowetz

Appeals to Interest

Language, Contestation, and the Shaping of Political Agency

Dean Mathiowetz


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240 pages
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Appeals to Interest

Language, Contestation, and the Shaping of Political Agency

Dean Mathiowetz

“For some political theorists, interests are the nitty-gritty of political life, the bedrock beneath the airy fantasies of culture and identity. For others, interest-talk is a sign of the corruption of the political by a crass, narrow rationalism that can't do justice to the larger stakes of life in common. Dean Mathiowetz's new book—as meticulous in its readings as it is revolutionary in its consequences—challenges both sides of this all-too-familiar argument by showing that appeals to interest have always been about much more than their most influential defenders and critics have thought. Erudite and gripping, Appeals to Interest is an exemplary bridge between the history of political thought and critical engagement with contemporary political problems.”


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It has become a commonplace assumption in modern political debate that white and rural working- and middle-class citizens in the United States who have been rallied by Republicans in the “culture wars” to vote Republican have been voting “against their interests.” But what, exactly, are these “interests” that these voters are supposed to have been voting against? It reveals a lot about the role of the notion of interest in political debate today to realize that these “interests” are taken for granted to be the narrowly self-regarding, primarily economic “interests” of the individual. Exposing and contesting this view of interests, Dean Mathiowetz finds in the language of interest an already potent critique of neoliberal political, theoretical, and methodological imperatives—and shows how such a critique has long been active in the term’s rich history. Through an innovative historical investigation of the language of interest, Mathiowetz shows that appeals to interest are always politically contestable claims about “who” somebody is—and a provocation to action on behalf of that “who.” Appeals to Interest exposes the theoretical and political costs of our widespread denial of this crucial role of interest-talk in the constitution of political identity, in political theory and social science alike.
“For some political theorists, interests are the nitty-gritty of political life, the bedrock beneath the airy fantasies of culture and identity. For others, interest-talk is a sign of the corruption of the political by a crass, narrow rationalism that can't do justice to the larger stakes of life in common. Dean Mathiowetz's new book—as meticulous in its readings as it is revolutionary in its consequences—challenges both sides of this all-too-familiar argument by showing that appeals to interest have always been about much more than their most influential defenders and critics have thought. Erudite and gripping, Appeals to Interest is an exemplary bridge between the history of political thought and critical engagement with contemporary political problems.”
“In a feat of conceptual restoration, Dean Mathiowetz rescues a genuinely political language of interest from its confinement as calculating self-regard in (neo)liberal political science and political theory. The scholarship of Appeals to Interest is truly impressive, and its surprising findings will engage audiences across law, social science, and the humanities.”
Appeals to Interest is a stunning accomplishment, a deeply scholarly and highly original work of historical analysis and political theory that will provoke intellectual controversy for years to come. It is also a great read. Bringing the insights associated with Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Foucault together with impressive expertise in the fields of economic history and the intellectual history of liberal political thought, Dean Mathiowetz shows us the hidden ‘juridical and plural’ side of the concept of interest as it develops over centuries of political arguments. We learn how the concept of interest as self-regarding rational calculation has illegitimately supplanted alternative uses of the word, and we experience the unfortunate consequences of the suppression of these alternatives. Appeals to Interest makes substantial contributions to the intellectual history of liberalism, to the methodology of the history of concepts, and to the study of politics generally. Combining wisdom culled from the linguistic turn with an astonishingly high level of scholarship, Appeals to Interest reveals the present world to us by redescribing familiar events and ideas. We understand our world as the product of the past as never before.”
“Why don't citizens vote in their interests? On what grounds can anyone other than the citizen herself say what her interest might be? Mathiowetz’s eloquent book breaks through this stalemated debate, explaining the seeming intransigence of these questions as a conceptual confusion rooted in the dominant individualist and psychological conception of interest as calculating self-regard. Bringing the linguistic turn to the study of interest, Mathiowetz recovers the ‘juridical,’ contestatory, and action-oriented uses of the word that make appeals to interest a site of contests over identity rather than a fixed ground of political demands. This insightful, exciting work brings interest to the center of democratic political thought.”
“Dean Mathiowetz’s careful and creative reconstruction of the history of the related, but evolving, concepts to which the word ‘interest’ has been applied provides an effective critical perspective on the contemporary narrow understanding of this crucial element of our political language. At the same time, he reveals the richer possibilities that have been immanent in earlier formulations.”
Appeals to Interest is a meticulous work, compelling and full of insight. It provides a resoundingly astute analysis of how and why appeals to interest depend on agency, specifically in terms of ‘who’ an agent is. There is no doubt that this book has the potential to add substantially to our understanding of the ever-evolving realm of politics.”

Dean Mathiowetz is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.



1. Introduction: The Politics of Interest

2. Property, Usury, and the Juridical Subject of Interest

3. Appeals to Interest in Seventeenth-Century England

4. Contesting Sovereignty: Interest in Thomas Hobbes

5. A Historiography of Liberal Interest and the Neoliberal Self

6. Interest in Political Studies: Action, Grouping, and Government

Epilogue: The Language of Interest as a Critical Theory of Politics

Selected Bibliography



The Politics of Interest

When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.

—William Hazlitt, “The Spirit of Controversy”

What’s the Matter with Interest?

Thomas Frank’s 2004 best seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? spoke to the puzzlement of many Democratic voters regarding the ability of the Republicans to win the votes of people who were harmed financially by GOP policies.1 Frank claims that white and rural working- and middle-class Kansans—and their counterparts in states whose electoral votes are up for grabs—act “against their interests” when they support Republican candidates at the polls. The power of Republicans to induce these folks to vote “against their interests” seemed, to many observers, a formidable barrier to the pursuit of better economic and social policies for all Americans.2 Frank points to the “culture war” that began with Nixon, and then to the galvanization of abortion opponents in Wichita in the early 1990s, to explain this subversion of interest. This political development was fatefully turned to the advantage of the Right when the Democratic Leadership Council began to drop planks of economic benefit to the middle class from the party platform. All of these developments, he says, “turned the politics of this country upside down.”3 Turning politics right side up again, as Frank sees it, means restoring rationality by convincing voters to attend to their bottom line when calculating how to spend their votes—getting them to act, once again, in their interests.

While the cultural turn played out in American politics and academic disciplines over several decades, the financial crisis of fall 2008 also brought the centrality of interest to economy and government into sharp relief, and again at the point when interest became a puzzle. In the wake of cascading bank failures, the demise of Wall Street giant Bear Stearns, and an unprecedented government bailout of financial institutions like the American Insurance Group, Alan Greenspan testified before the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform on October 23, 2008. Greenspan’s thousand-word statement addressed several areas of concern, but just twenty-five of those words became the sound bite that was played and replayed across the news media. “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity—myself especially,” he said, “are in a state of shocked disbelief.” With these words, Greenspan registered the degree to which the primacy of self-interest had been an article of faith among policymakers, as well as a linchpin of finance capitalism, while at the same time attesting to its fallibility—an admission all the more notable coming from a self-professed disciple of Ayn Rand. This potent morsel was mostly ignored by the Right, but was greeted by a chorus of self-satisfaction by a few left commentators in the media and academia. To these latter critics, Greenspan’s confession exposed the fundamental bankruptcy at the heart of neoclassical economics and the neoliberal free-market policy prescriptions that had defined American policymaking since Ronald Reagan.

This hand-wringing over the culture war and the failure of financial regulation by self-interest alone says much, not only about the drift of American politics at the turn of the twenty-first century, but also about the very terms that structure our understanding of political life. Our astonishment that interest fails us, tendered at moments of crisis, speaks to the absolute and self-evident salience of interest as a fundamental concept for narrating our lives. It is a fundamental part of our language of explanation and justification. But while interest seems to forsake that narrative time and again, a rigidly narrow view of what interests are, of what their role in politics and government is, nonetheless typically carries the day. Interest, the story goes, is a rational motivation, universal among modern persons (if not among persons everywhere and at all times). Interest, according to observers of politics from the armchair to the academy, is a psychology of calculating self-regard for which economic benefit is paradigmatic, if not the whole story. Interest, we are assured, is inside of each of us; it is the spring of individual action. It is the reliable, true, and right foundation of modern political and economic practices and institutions. Viewed in a historical register, interest is the great seventeenth-century discovery finally assimilated by eighteenth-century philosophy. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay’s parsing of constitutional power in the Federalist Papers and Adam Smith’s defense of laissez-faire economics in Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations stand at the gateway to our modern life of checked-and-balanced powers and the free flow of commodities in a global market—regulated by none other than the spontaneously rational machinations of interest. Such a conception of interest provides the puzzle that lies at the heart of Frank’s account, and the anxiety of Democratic partisans and left-leaning observers for the last quarter-century.

By now it should be clear that there are deep fissures in this bedrock of interest. But what to make of the cracks, and how deeply they run, is a muddled affair. Consider again Greenspan’s brief remark, which bore both the man’s and the concept’s characteristic ambiguity: did self-interest induce financial catastrophe—in which case, greed is the problem—or did financial markets prevent the bankers, traders, and investors from following (or even knowing) their interests? Each of these possibilities in Greenspan’s statement hews to interest as calculating self-regard. And each has engendered a predictable response. Business schools begin to urge their graduates to sign oaths of ethical conduct. Bernard Madoff is sentenced to 125 years in prison for orchestrating a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. Congress is called upon to regulate complex financial derivatives that are blamed for catastrophically masking the risks posed by “toxic assets.” The link between self-interest and the financial collapse, drawn most prominently by Greenspan but claimed by many, poses a problem not only for neoliberal regulatory regimes, but also for the ethical underpinnings of liberal government and theories more generally. What if greed is not good? And what if the ability to know one’s own interests, indeed to know oneself, is dramatically limited?

Scholarly response to Frank’s New York Times article “The Culture Crusade of Kansas” opened similar lines of questioning—and similarly left untouched a conception of interest as essentially about calculating self-regard. Finding that the Kansan political climate examined at length by Frank does not represent trends in the American electorate as a whole, Larry Bartels promptly shored up the self-interestedness of the electorate by parsing electoral surveys.4 In the course of a subsequent exchange, Frank and Bartels redrew the markers of class, from differences in income to differences in educational attainment. This redrawing suggested that perhaps the problem of interest could be settled by settling a question of identity: what is the working class? The implication was that Kansans voted against their interests out of ignorance.5 While even this revised claim did not, in the end, satisfy Bartels as a good account of American politics as a whole, it does highlight questions that have provoked political theorists for generations. These questions concern who has an interest, who or what determines that interest, and how we know either—points at which questions of interests become questions of politics.

To speak only in the broadest terms for now, Marx distilled one tradition of handling these questions by applying the philosophical language of “subjective” and “objective” to interests, and by invoking ideology as an explanation for the difference between the two.6 In the twentieth century, the prevailing response of liberals—whether approached by way of Rawls or Dworkin, or via the tradition of critical theory that ends with Habermas—has been to articulate systems of normatively objective principles against which to gauge perceptions and articulations of interests. So aside from interest in its subjective guise, as a motivation, we encounter objective interests in justice, in autonomy, or in communicative competence.7 In other words, we limn the extent to which interests conform to proper selves, properly understood. The impulse of political philosophy, in short, has been to remove the question of interest from politics and quarantine it instead in the realm of theory. Of course, skeptics abound, as critics continue to raise the questions of who knows what these interests are, by what means they are known, who decides, and by what modes of power these interests are made effective.

Fifty years into the linguistic turn in theory, we know by now that if interest lies at the foundation of political and social order, then it is also a point at which this foundation encounters language. And in language we confront the persistence, indeed the indispensability of the language of interest in political argument and its intransigence in political philosophy. The very word “interest,” we find, is a contradiction: it opposes itself as soon as it is voiced. When viewed as individual preference, “interest” implies an impenetrable interiority, a hidden origin of desire, but this very invocation of interest is always an opening into the idea of an external standard. So, for example, we see a poor Kansan woman voting Republican as revealing her interest as a purely individual preference. Yet in the face of Republican economic policies, we aver, voting Republican cannot truly be in this woman’s interest. The same problem can be writ on a collective scale, where perhaps it reveals itself more readily: to end an argument by invoking, say, “the national interest” easily raises in many the incongruence of this interest with a competing view and the space to disagree. Is the American national interest a robust national defense, or a robust defense of civil liberties? We are apt to suppose that such a question can be answered, or indeed its dilemma dissolved, by a clear picture of who this Kansan woman is, or what America truly is. Identity will lead to us to interest. And yet, despite all the powers of social science, these questions go unresolved.

Though the linguistic turn has matured, we have not come to grips with the insights it holds for these questions. This instability of “interest,” the inevitable sliding of its senses and jostling of its referents, is enormously important to politics. It reveals, at the level of everyday language, how the claims that we stake in the face of the pervasive uncertainty of political life are ever provisional, but no less powerful for that. Appeals to interest are action-oriented; in appealing to interest, we say, “Here, and not there, is where we should be going,” understanding only partly or not at all that the “we” that appears as prior to the claim is, in truth, the called-for effect. It is one complex America that can be said both to have an interest in a powerful national defense apparatus and in robust civil liberties, but a different America is likely to emerge tomorrow, depending upon which of these appeals to interest carries the day. Tracing the source of this power in appeals to interest to provoke identity, exploring its effects in political life, and tallying the cost of its denial are my objectives in this book. My fundamental argument is that appeals to interest are sites of identity formation, rather than simply products of calculating self-regard. In other words, the usual priority that we accord to identities in the pairing of identities and interests must be turned around. The ambiguities and slippages in the language of interest (as well as the pretense of interest claims to stand above dispute) are all necessary conditions if appeals to interest are to have any power in political argument.

The best way to understand the instability of this language of interest and its importance to politics is to consider the concept of interest at the junctures of its history—and the junctures at which the instability of this language have been obscured and denied, perhaps out of hope that the contingency and uncertainty of politics can be held at bay. And so while the conceptual history of interest is a terrain that appears to have been well mapped, the recurrent theme of these explorations has been to reassure us that interest, by virtue of its amalgamation of individualism and rationality, provides a clear and even path from the interiority of the modern self to the institutions and events of politics. The source of this individualism, we may be told, is private property: Karl Marx’s analysis of the bourgeois language of interest in The German Ideology is perhaps the most prominent example. The source of interest’s rationalism, Albert O. Hirschman tells us, derives from the origin of the term “interest” as a euphemism for “usury.” In other words, the financial roots of interest ground its fundamental rationality. Its individualism intrudes from an altogether different vector: the early modern reason-of-state literature, with its focus on rightly directing the action of a prince. Hirschman describes the confluence of these uses of the term in a moral vocabulary as securing interest’s fundamental political character as an individual, rational motivation.8 As such, interest is a prime marker of individual rationality and autonomy.

Hirschman’s conceptual history of interest is a linchpin of his broader and widely admired thesis regarding the emergence of moral justifications for commercial society. Hirschman finds this justification in the regularity, rationality, and inevitability of self-interested behavior that are typically characteristic of markets and trade, and he shows the deep roots of this justification in earlier discourses of morality and reason-of-state. However entangled its history, the conception of interest at the center of his tale is dazzling in its simplicity and self-evidence. “Interest has stood for the fundamental forces,” he writes, “based on the drive for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, that motivate or should motivate actions of the prince or the state, [and] of the individual.”9 With this notion of interest as a backdrop, he cites as a “simple fact” that “each person is best informed about his or her own [interests],” because he or she is “best informed about his or her own desires, satisfactions, disappointments, and sufferings.”10 Part of the burden of my argument is to show that this “simple fact” is a prejudice of a recent, broadly liberal discourse. It is, moreover, a prejudice that induces a late modern blindness to what the language of interest does in and for political discourse. In the shadow of this prejudice, both the rich histories of the concept of interest, and the richness of the patterns of the term’s usage in present-day political talk, have become inaudible to us.