The Unknowers is a fascinating exploration of the many ways in which our societies are built on strategic lack of knowledge, writes Joshua Newman

Linsey McGoey, The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World (Zed Books 2019), xiii, 369pp.

If anyone were to read Linsey McGoey’s most recent book, The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World, looking for a dismissal of ignorant Brexiteers and Trump voters that confirms technocratic prejudice, they will be looking in the wrong place. Not only does the book not do so but it turns an uncomfortable light on this kind of ‘rule-by-experts’ mentality (which she refers to as epistocracy) so prevalent in liberal social commentary. Refreshingly, she points out that ‘the proclaimed newness of post-truth politics is a myth in itself’ (p.17).

The book is a bold project in two main senses. It deliberately confronts scholarly intuitions about knowledge, which will no doubt irritate a section of its readership, and has to contend with the obvious difficulty of writing a lengthy book about ignorance without falling into hypocrisy.

With a rich bag of examples from mainly political and legal history, McGoey illustrates how different kinds of ignorance dominate every level of our society. There is the basic point that everyone’s ignorance in general, including experts in particular fields, necessarily overshadows their knowledge. However, much of the defining work done by this book is on the power of those who ‘know what not to know’.

Power of defining ignorance

McGoey introduces a few concepts early on that will take us through the rest of the book. These first of these is the loose grouping of societies into ‘the strongs, the smarts, and the greats’.One of the only jarring elements of The Unknowers is that this seems to be presented as a defining conceptual framework for what is to follow but turns out to be relatively superfluous and the book would do perfectly well without it. However, these groups are defined by their relationship to what McGoey terms ‘oracular power’ which is a key element of the book. She also develops ideas of ‘micro-ignorance’ and ‘macro-ignorance’ in combination with the really crucial ‘useful unknowns’.

Oracular power is ‘defined as the capacity to determine where the boundary between knowledge and ignorance lies’ (p.16). In a well-functioning democracy, McGoey argues, this capacity would be widely disseminated among the population. In reality of course, it is tightly controlled by a tiny group of the wealthy elite. This feeds into one of the most important points of the book which is that not all ignorance is created equal. Intellectual discussion of ignorance tends not to look further than the notion of an individual person or group of people who do not know a particular fact.

McGoey does not deny that this kind of ignorance is worth talking about, but terms it ‘micro-ignorance’ and says it is only part of the story. Micro-ignorance exists with its counterpart, macro-ignorance. Though she does not use traditional Marxist terminology (indeed Marx and Marxism more broadly are notable for their absence), McGoey points to a dialectical relationship between these two in which broad, top-down policy and narratives inevitably leave out more than they include, which creates a cycle of perpetuated ignorance at the micro and macro levels.

A major component of this book that will be a fascinating surprise for many (it certainly was for me) is McGoey’s effort to show that the legacy of Adam Smith has been completely altered, such that a huge amount of economic activity that benefits the ruling class is justified in his name, when in fact he took great pains to recommend that society should not be run in this way.

For context, Adam Smith is often seen as the darling of various pro-capitalist voices including neoliberals, classical liberals, libertarians, and neoconservatives. This essentially comes down to him being famous for claiming that a completely free, unfettered market was the best route to human flourishing. This is supposed to be because the efficiency of supply and demand in a free market is much more able to meet people’s needs than human planning. It is the bedrock of the way modern economics is taught at higher-education institutions. McGoey demonstrates that this is amounts to a fabrication loosely based on his writing, as it leaves out the fact that he frequently called for government controls to restrict the formation of monopolies and landlordism.

She even goes as far as to refer to this interpretation of his work as ‘something of a two-century-long academic hoax’ in which ‘the irony is that the so-called wealth-creators are still getting away with the exact trick that Smith first warned governments to watch out for’ (p.138). McGoey has done meticulous research on this and the implications are much broader reaching than a minor academic quibble. For a deeper understanding of free-market mythology alone this book would be well worth reading.

Ignorance and imperial legacies

Crucially important, also, is the work done on how Britain has manufactured staggering ignorance about its colonial history at all levels of society. With fully referenced sources she refers to how:

‘British officials drowned and burned incriminating files; then, in the mid-twentieth century, as colonies gained independence … British civil servants were told to fabricate false files to replace ones that had been removed’ (p.42).

Whilst this is a gruesome fact on its own, the importance of it is rooted in how powerful individuals and organisations consistently evade consequences for their actions by knowing how and where to spread knowledge and ignorance to remove their own agency. The book is filled with far more cases like this, including much more recent examples from across the United States and Great Britain.

In a practical sense, two of the most useful aspects of this book are the comprehensive way in which it tackles liberal obsession with voter ignorance, rule by experts, and the wealth of documentary examples for the ways in which the British and American ruling classes have manufactured ignorance to cover up unpleasant behaviours at home and abroad.

This book is emphatically not a manifesto for a modern form of socialism. McGoey is at pains to point out that capitalism and socialism share the problem of being ‘harmony ideologies’ and therefore must involve ‘strategic ignorance among dogmatic believers’ (p.13). Although there is more of a dialectic approach to The Unknowers than is openly discussed, it is not a Marxist text. That does not mean it cannot be of enormous value to all kinds of socialists. Indeed, I would suggest that the kinds of strategic ignorance McGoey talks about here have to be seriously considered by any group trying to make an ideological stamp on society if they are to avoid falling into all of the traps that McGoey outlines.

It is difficult to sum up the concept of strategic ignorance briefly as, by its very nature, it is supposed to be inherent in the way that we all think and also the way in which we are taught to think. This is the book’s greatest strength and its greatest challenge for the reader. McGoey does not ignore the day-to-day ways in which a banal form of ignorance permeates our lives but her focus is directed firmly at the elites who enforce the boundaries of ignorance and knowledge for the whole of society, despite being dangerously ignorant themselves.

Anyone who reads The Unknowers in good faith should finish it much more discerning than before they read it. McGoey leaves the reader with the need to honestly confront the limitless scale of our ignorance but also gives the reader an excellent set of tools for deconstructing the ways in which powerful people manipulate ignorance to keep themselves on top.

Josh Newman

Josh Newman is a teacher, musician, and writer from East Kent who now runs Counterfire and Stop the War branches in Oxford