Is ‘Agency’ A Red Herring?
I’m writing a new IR module and, being a bit weary of the way that IR debates are usually presented, I’ve been trying to use the structure-agency debate as one of the unifying threads. Reading up on the topic, I found an interesting article by Loyal and Barnes – the latter of whom I first encountered on philosophy of science reading lists when I was an undergraduate. Describing (common uses) of the term ‘agency’ red herrings in social theory, they note some of the unconvincing features of arguments about the political significance of free will:
A voluntaristic style of discourse may have suited the libertarian socialism of Giddens, but it has also suited the objectives of repressive political and religious regimes, which have sought to constrain their subjects precisely by stressing their freedom of action and making them responsible and accountable for what they do—with their lives in some cases. Conversely, fully causal accounts of action, for example, those in the various theological doctrines of predestination and divine determination, have been adopted by collectives concerned precisely to ignore and contravene the authority of church and state and even actively to oppose and overthrow them. Oddly perhaps, but oddly only to us, through and beyond the Reformation, it suited creative and resourceful opponents of the political and institutional status quo to hold that, of themselves, they could not have acted otherwise.
Free will is a will-o’-the-wisp of a concept. I’m with Spinoza, radical democrat and critical theorist: it can play no role in making sense of the world and human freedom is entirely possible in its absence. Although I don’t see ‘agency’ as intrinsically wedded to the idea of free will as Loyal and Barnes do, their alternative of ‘responsible action’ has a lot to recommend it.