Utopianism, Conservatism, Ideal Theory: Who is Trying to Get Where, From Here?

by John Holbo on March 18, 2013

This is my contribution to the Erik Olin Wright Envisioning Real Utopias book event. One note: our event was originally supposed to kick off round about February 1st. You know how it goes with utopia. Delays, delays. I mention this because my rhetorical trick was going to be to check the newspapers, a week before our event, for signs of utopia. As a result, as of today, I’m quoting 7-week old newspapers. (I could have rewritten the post to suit last week’s news. But I find I like my even-more-vintage fish and chip papers better. I’m sticking with ‘em.)

Let’s start by locating our author’s project – Envisioning Real Utopias – with respect to a familiar dilemma.

On the one hand, the Marx option: we can rationally theorize our way to utopia in a strong sense. The problem with this option is: who believes it, these 21st Century days? But wait: why pick on Marx – rather than, say, Plato, or any other pie-in-the-sky political dreamer? Marx was a great one for scourging idle utopianism in others. I paste his name on this position, nevertheless, because of that famous line from Theses on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” If you add ‘in a utopian spirit’, you get the thing no one believes anymore.

It’s idle to scheme every detail in advance. (Everyone can see that philosophers look silly when they sublimate into philosophy the sort of energy more healthily and naturally expended building an elaborate HO-scale model train set in their parents’ basement.) But beyond that: there’s no such thing as a rational, practical-minded way to aim at utopia at all. No rational scheme for utopia has a decent shot at causing – inspiring – change in the world, such that the world comes to look substantially more like the rational scheme. That’s just not how the world goes, because we just don’t know enough about how the world goes.

If it bothers you that I am calling this the Marx option, just because ‘Marxism’ is how everyone tags the failed leftist dreams of the 20th Century, let’s just call it the M-option or something. Let’s not get sidetracked by Marx exegesis, shall we?

On the other hand, there’s what I would call the Zizek option. Revolution as leap of faith. You see the cynic sitting there, waiting to say ‘you can’t get there from here’, in that irritating tone of complacent mock-regret. ‘I don’t know where the hell I’m going!’ That oughta wipe that smirk off his neoliberal face. But this is too anti-rational. It’s romantic posturing. In response to the criticism that no cost/benefit analysis makes any particular plan for revolution look like a good bet, because no plausible utopian benefit plan can be offered, you cultivate absurd indifference to costs and then act as though the dramatic distinctiveness of this indifference is actually, in itself, some kind of solution. I stick Zizek’s name on because book covers like this remind me of videos like this.

(You may say the Zizek book just has a bad cover. Yes and no. It’s a good cover, if the job of the cover is to express the spirit of the book. It’s a bad cover if the job is to make the book look like it’s worth taking seriously.)

A better Z-style option than Zizek himself might be Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street. OWS was criticized for failing to make demands, which looks like a confession that no reasonable, utopian demands can be made. I think in this case it is reasonable to respond that OWS made real grievances and concerns and aspirations unignorable to many people who would have preferred to ignore them. It shifted the Overton Window. That’s not nothing. But it isn’t philosophical utopianism, in a theoretical sense. OWS is not silly, but neither is it proof-of-concept that utopian theory can be practical.

Feel free to lecture me, in comments, about how I have just been unfair to Marx and/or Zizek and/or OWS. But our subject is Wright and Envisioning Real Utopias. Oh, and here’s something worth mentioning right at the start. I’ve read the book, and then I read Wright’s 2011 ASA Presidential Address, and I wish I’d done it the other way round. The book contains a lot more detail, obviously, but I think most readers – including myself – feel the need to satisfy ourselves first about the big picture methodology, the ‘philosophy’ of the thing. I think the Presidential Address does a good job of laying that out. I don’t really feel there are major theoretical complications that are dealt with, with substantially greater nuance, in the book. This sounds like back-handed criticism of the book, and I suppose it is, but it is also sincere praise of the Presidential Address, which gets it all out there pretty efficiently.

Moving right along: my criticism of the book is that it doesn’t succeed in threading the needle between these unsatisfactory alternatives – Marx and Zizek. How not? I think Wright does avoid the problems on both sides but doesn’t find a third way that is more winning, plausibly. I will conclude by arguing that this may be due to failure to size up the likely opposition, in a realistic way. Wright suggests that conservatives are all Burkeans. So we need to break the Burkean back, as it were. But they aren’t. Conservatives tend to be utopians, of a weird, cognitively dissonant sort. Wright’s strategy isn’t calibrated to deal with that, but that’s what we are in fact likely to be dealing with.

That’s where we’ll end up. But for starters, consider a very negative review of the book, by Russell Jacoby, in which he argues basically that Wright is plain old impaled on the old-fashioned Marx/Zizek horns:

“Real utopias” for Wright exist as a subset of the broader enterprise of developing an emancipatory social science. It is dirty and difficult work but some conceptually rugged professor has to do it. In fact a macho element wafts through his “Real Utopias Project,” which Wright has launched as an ongoing discussion and series of books. Real Men think about Real Utopias—or at least their punishing theoretical implications and lessons.”

I think this is nuts. Wright isn’t the least little bit like Zizek. One thing that seems to have ticked off Jacoby (one can only speculate) is a blurb on the back cover of the book, about which he grumbles: “In a blurb, Michael Burawoy, a previous president of the American Sociological Association and a prominent leftist sociologist, calls the book “encyclopedic” in its breadth and “daunting” in its ambition. He states, ‘Only a thinker of Wright’s genius could sustain such a badly needed political imagination without losing analytical clarity and precision.’”

I agree with Jacoby: that’s some seriously over-the-top blurbage. ‘Scattershot’ would be closer to the mark, where Wright’s evidence set is concerned (although one of his examples is Wikipedia, so I suppose the book is ‘encyclopedic in its breadth’, if you like misleading puns.) Just to be clear what I mean by ‘scattershot’, Wright’s other cases are: participatory city budgeting in Brazil, Mondragon worker-owned cooperatives in Spain, and a guaranteed basic income. Nothing wrong with a grab-bag of examples, but inductive proof of the viability of socialism in a more general sense this ain’t. This ain’t your great-grandfather’s M-option utopianism.

But I wouldn’t blame Wright for the fact that someone – a friend, I take it – falsely puffs him up as doing something that, realistically, no one could be, and that Wright is at pains to say he is not: to wit, capturing the Big Picture about this subject without sacrificing analytic rigor. If you could do that, you could blueprint utopia, or draw a map from here to there (as Marx thought he could.) Wright’s whole point is to ask and try to answer: given that we aren’t such omnicompetent geniuses as all that, what lesser thing is the most we can do – rationally, theoretically, yet practically?

Let me amend that. I don’t entirely blame Wright for confusion as to what he is up to. But a little bit. Wright knows ‘real utopias’ is an oxymoron; no point pointing that out. But what is the non-oxymoronic, more modest thing he really has in mind? Envisioning reasonably ambitious reform? That’s fine: why call it ‘utopianism’?

Wright can tell me if he thinks I’m wrong to say that, in the following quote, ‘waystations’ is doing all the distinctive lifting. ‘Real utopias’ refers to: “utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potentials of humanity, utopian destinations that have accessible waystations, utopian designs of institutions that can inform our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change.”

Should the book title be Waystations To Utopia, then? I think that would, indeed, be a more descriptively accurate title.

The problem with this, seems to me, is that Wright needs us to build not just way stations but, as it were, weigh stations. At every resting place we need to drive up onto the scales and verify that in enough ways, if not every way, we are getting better and better. (Sort of a backwards metaphor. Weigh stations weigh trucks. We need something more like a truck that weighs stations, as it pulls into them. Well, never mind.) This seems to be the implication of the compass metaphor that Wright likes:

Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, perhaps the best we can do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change as a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that shows us the direction we want to go, and an odometer which tells us how far from our point of departure we have traveled, but without a map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination. This has perils, of course: we may encounter chasms we cannot cross, unforeseen obstacles which force us to move in a direction we had not planned. We may have to backtrack and try a new route. There will be moments when we reach high ground, with clear views towards the horizon, and this will greatly facilitate our navigation for a while. But at other times we must pick our way through confusing terrain and dense forests with little ability to see where we are going. Perhaps with technologies we invent along the way we can create some artificial high ground and see somewhat into the distance. And, in the end, we may discover that there are absolute limits to how far we can move in the hoped-for direction. While we cannot know in advance how far we can go, we can know if we are moving in the right direction.

A number of Wright’s critics have faulted this compass metaphor. I predict others participating in this book event will do so. Well, here goes: the problem is that it is, at once, too demanding and not demanding enough.

It’s too demanding in the sense that it’s all too likely that things will have to get worse, before they get better. Not necessarily in a ‘heighten the contradictions’, Leninist sort of way (which I realize is not what Wright has in mind.) Just in a ‘turning apples into oranges, incrementally, is likely to result in some hybrids that are worse, as apples, and no better, as oranges, along the way’ sort of way. The compass metaphor provides no guidance whatsoever, if we are not on a path of steady improvement with respect to an unambiguous benchmark. I don’t mean to wallow in the proverbial imponderables of apples vs. oranges, as an excuse for not nurturing the ambition of transitioning from one system to another. I just think the compass metaphor is pretty empty, as it stands. (I don’t mean to hint that what Wright wants is impossible, because apples can’t be turned into oranges. He emphasizes, rightly, that political economies are always hybrid beasts, hence readily hybridized. He’s quite right about that much.)

I can only make sense of the metaphor if I read Wright as basically offering a strategic rule-of-thumb. If, ultimately, you would like a lot of change, don’t settle for halfway measures that look likely to lock you in. Always be looking for the gain that can double as a lever, to get you more gains. If you really, really want a loaf, and someone offers you either half a loaf, but no chance of getting a loaf tomorrow, or else just a slice, but some chance of getting a loaf tomorrow, take the slice. This makes sense, but it’s still just a rule of thumb; worse, it’s philosophically thin. In a sense, it’s just common sense. All good utopians need to take this heuristic nugget on board, but merely taking it on board doesn’t yet even make you a utopian. You might just be a shrewd operator (nothing wrong with that. Wright’s point is basically that utopians need to be ambitious yet shrewd. But you can’t define utopianism in those terms.)

Compare Wright’s compass metaphor with Seth Ackerman’s maze metaphor, from his recent – on the whole very good! – Jacobin essay:

Maybe the most fundamental reason the Left has been suspicious of such [utopian] visions is that they have so often been presented as historical endpoints – and endpoints will always be disappointing. The notion that history will reach some final destination where social conflict will disappear and politics come to a close has been a misguided fantasy on the Left since its genesis. Scenarios for the future must never be thought of as final, or even irreversible; rather than regard them as blueprints for some future destination, it would be better to see them simply as maps sketching possible routes out of a maze. Once we exit the labyrinth, it’s up to us to decide what to do next.

This is quite a different, metaphorical way of rejecting the map/blueprint metaphor as unsuitable. Ackerman is saying, in a nutshell: we need to be repulsed by some non-ideal point. Namely, where we are. The point of utopian theory is not to tell us how to get there from here, ideally, just how to get anywhere, from here, in practice. That’s very different from saying, in nutshell: we need to be attracted to a specific place (that’s what compasses do.)

I find Ackerman’s metaphor as unsatisfying as Wright’s. It’s easy enough to imagine plausible alternatives to what we’ve got. It’s just that they usually look worse – chaos, dictatorship. It’s only hard to imagine exiting the labyrinth at a point that looks better. So you need to specify your ideal implicitly if not explicitly. The question is not how to dispense with the need for ideal visions, then, but how to distinguish fruitful idealism from arid twiddling with implausible and/or delusive endpoints. I think both Wright and Ackerman get this, intuitively. That is, I don’t think they affirm the somewhat implausible things it seems to me their metaphors risk implying. I just think these metaphors – maze, compass! – to replace the unsatisfactory ones – blueprint! map! – are not much good. And the reasons they pick bad metaphors is that they genuinely are having trouble figuring out what they should say about this, because it’s really very hard to say. (It’s not that they know what they want, only they carelessly picked sloppy metaphors for it.)

Let me make a suggestion, which is mostly directed at Wright. He distinguishes three criteria, which are really possible points of utopian focus: desirability, viability, achievability. Wright mildly deprecates ‘ideal theory’ that focuses primarily on ideal desirability. Clarifying your ideals is well and good, but it is more critical to articulate what is ‘viable’, by way of building a waystation between any castle in the sky and what is truly achievable.

Let me defend the alternative view that, in fact, being clear about what is ideally desirable is the proper point of focus. I must like to quote this bit from G. K. Chesterton, because I keep doing it:

No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency, it also prevents any really practical compromise. One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still. We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want.

I take this to be a basically sound defense of the virtues of ‘ideal theory’ on grounds of practicality. I wish political philosophers offered it more often, instead of some other things they say that I regard as less plausible. But never mind that. For present purposes, this passage may be taken to express an argument that focus on ‘viability’ will have a hazardous tendency to decay into ‘pliability’. We are letting our ideals fade from view, obscured by pragmatic considerations, and this is likely to make us forgetful of what we truly want. Since obviously Wright wants the nearest thing we can get to what Chesterton calls ‘heroic consistency’, this would be a bad result. (For good measure, the politicians will have an analogous complaint, coming from the other direction. Focus on ‘viability’ takes the accent off achievability, hence takes the edge off our success and vigor.)

Wright’s response is obvious, so I’ll presume to give it on his behalf. No guarantees! Obviously you may start in life with high ideals and end as David Broder. That would be the death of utopianism, yes. The truth is that healthy utopianism is a three-legged stool. You have to have ideals, and they have to be the right ones. They have to be related to something viable. And the viable thing has to be related to something achievable. If any of the legs fails to a significant degree, the stool will collapse. This is not only possible, it is likely. (If it weren’t likely, we wouldn’t call it ‘utopianism’.) Chesterton is worried about the idealism leg breaking. The others can break, too, unfortunately.

Every politician (every activist) needs a philosopher whispering in her ear, reminding her what she really believes. For that matter, every utopian philosopher needs a politician in whose ear she can whisper. And the politician needs, as well, someone who can tell her what is viable, as opposed to ideal, as opposed to achievable. These being complicated questions, we expect a degree of division of labor. Some will focus more on philosophy, some on practical politics, some on sociology. But the whole business is so interrelated that everyone who thinks about any of these matters should think about them all. Philosophers should not be mooncalves about politics. Politicians should be able to see more than six inches in front of their noses. And those who consider the abstract range of viable social possibilities should not wander aimlessly in this wide field but keep a weather eye on the possibilities that look good, and the ones that might be – or might become – achievable.

Wright is, I see, the C. Wright Mills professor at the University of Wisconsin. As Mills writes, in The Sociological Imagination: “Were the ‘philosopher’ king, I should be tempted to leave his kingdom; but when kings are without any philosophy, are they not incapable of responsible rule?” Can’t we all just get along?

But there is still a question here, one that might be asked in the spirit of disciplinary jealousy, but let me do my best to rise above all that for the sake of methodological clarity.

Why does Wright think a focus on viability is likely to do more of the utopian pushing, at least at present?

From Wright’s 2011 Presidential Address to the ASA:

At this particular moment in history, I think it is especially important to focus on the viability problem. It might seem sensible to begin by establishing whether an alternative is really achievable and only then discuss its viability. Why waste time exploring the viability of unachievable alternatives? It turns out that the achievability problem is simply too difficult, at least if we want to understand whether something might be achievable beyond the immediate future. What public policy innovations and institutional transformations might be achievable in, say, 2040? There are too many contingencies to even begin to answer that question in an interesting way. But there is an even more fundamental reason why I think the question of viability should have priority over the question of achievability: developing credible ideas about viable alternatives is one way of enhancing their achievability. People are more likely to mobilize around alternatives they believe will work than around alternatives they think are pie in the sky. Moreover, such widely circulated discussions may enhance cultural resonance for actions in line with such viable ideas. Viability affects achievability. This reflects an interesting aspect of the notion of the “limits of possibility” in social contexts in contrast to the natural world. Before Einstein demonstrated that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, it was still true that the speed of light was the absolute limit of possibility. The reality of those limits of possibility did not depend on their discovery. Limits of social possibility are not quite like that because beliefs about the limits of social possibility are one of the things that affect what in fact becomes possible. Evidence for the viability of alternatives has the potential to shape such beliefs.

That’s an argument. But why isn’t G. K. Chesterton right that being very explicit about our ideals – doing ideal theory, in effect – is the way to keep the utopian flame at least flickering (if not positively burning)? Thinking about what is viable is necessary but not, in itself, the engine part that keeps a utopian engine utopian. Why does Wright think his viability concerns are, in fact, more pressing?

Wright says less about this, but at several points – and in the above passage – he drops strong hints that he thinks resistance to his anti-capitalist, social-democratic, socialist ‘real utopias’ will be, by and large, pessimistically pragmatic, not philosophically idealistic. He has two epigraphs to his ASA Presidential Address:

Margaret Thatcher: “There is no alternative”.

World Social Forum motto: “Another world is possible”.

‘Viability’ is what separates these two, so if you can just get a breakthrough there, you may tip the balance from Thatcherism to socialism.

Stating the argument more fully. Conservatives (let’s just focus on conservatives, although liberals will also be mighty skeptical) are basically Burkeans/Hayekians at heart. They don’t so much object to Wright’s values as they doubt that we can get there from here. Certainly they doubt that we can plan/theorize our way much of anywhere. ‘It always looks good on paper; it never works.’ If the real argument against utopia is, in effect, this sociological one; if the reason socialist arguments are rhetorically unpersuasive is that people (Americans, in particular) are allergic to ‘let’s clean the slate’ talk; then the way to break through all that is to expand everyone’s ‘sociological imaginations’, to use a Millsian term. Indeed, the whole ‘way station’ strategy is, in effect, this style of argument-by-example writ large. Seed the existing system with little reforms that are incremental/interstitial, not ruptural in themselves (to borrow some terms Wright uses in his Presidential Address). If they work, people will see this kind of thing can actually work and they will naturally want more. That’s the form of Wright’s proposed slippery slope to socialism. It is lubricated with the fact of viability, which was previously denied, but will no longer be, in the face of real evidence to the contrary. Real utopias, writ small.

This is Wright’s argument. But the counter-argument runs as follows: conservatives aren’t actually – never have been, aren’t now, probably will never be, in significant numbers – conservatives in the sense Wright seems to assume they mostly are. They aren’t Burkean (starting with Burke himself). This is basically Corey Robin’s thesis, in The Reactionary Mind. We’ve posted about it quite a bit here at CT. Let me just jog your memory (or give you the gist, if you missed all that, first time around.) Robin writes: “For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” And: “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of … animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.”

At greater length:

Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty—or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever-changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere.

This event is for Wright, not Robin, so I’m not going to argue for Robin. But I do think there’s a lot of truth in what Robin argues. And if that’s right, then Wright is wrong to think focus on viability is the most promising strategy (least unpromising. There isn’t any such thing as a promising utopian strategy.) There’s no harm in what Wright is doing, if he does it well. Also, he’s a sociologist, so that in itself is a sufficient reason for him, personally, to bear down on sociology. But has he given anyone else a reason to think this is the most workable angle?

If I’m right about Robin being right, conservatives differ with Wright about basic values more than sociology – about ideal theory more than about the abstract possibility that different ways of running the place might be viable. Conservatives don’t mind utopianism, so Wright is banging on an open door. They only say they are opposed to utopianism when it’s the other fellow’s style of utopianism that is in question. (Ideal markets are fine, after all. Indeed, they are believed to be approximately actual. Very sunny hypothesis, locating us near the Form of the Good.) This isn’t to say that conservatives aren’t sincere when they say socialism is always doomed. But their conviction is a hybrid complaint: socialism would be inefficient because utopias conservatives disapprove of always are; and they disapprove because its values are inherently repugnant. So even if it worked as advertised, it would be a hideous Brave New World, to trap us all. Just showing it would be viable, after all, is not a winning argument against this type of resistance.

Of course, if this is right, it might seem just as useless to argue with conservatives about ideal values as about sociological viability. If they don’t think ‘may all human beings enjoy freedom and the opportunity to flourish!’ is appealing, then to hell with them, at least philosophically (and presumably in the afterlife, should there prove to be one.) There’s nowhere to start, if we can’t get an ‘amen!’ to something as basic as that. But this is obviously not quite the situation we are in. Conservatism, it seems to me, is in a perpetual and strikingly deep state of cognitive dissonance about all this. The objection to socialism is always, officially, on behalf of freedom and opportunity, which socialism allegedly destroys. But the deeper truth is that conservatives constantly paper over conflict between the values Wright espouses – freedom, equality, opportunity for all! – and the values that Robin correctly attributes to conservatives – hierarchy and privilege. This papering over is managed with anti-viability arguments. Perverse consequences arguments. ‘If we gave the poor more money it would only make everyone, including them, poorer.’

Since most of these arguments are bad, we should rip back the paper to see the sorry mix of confused values conservatives are concealing back there. We should argue about ‘viability’, as Wright says. And yet: since conservatives can always generate new, bad arguments of this sort, the fight on this front is eternal. I don’t see that Wright-style meditations on ‘real utopias’ are likely to do much more than set off another chorus of ‘unintended consequences’ wailing. (And some of that wailing is likely to prove valid, even if it is self-interested confabulation.)

I am actually inclined to say that going straight to the ideal theory level may be the more winning utopian strategy, for more or less Chestertonian reasons. Don’t worry so much about what is achievable, or even viable. Just force people to be clear about what they truly want, in principle. Don’t let them derail that question onto the ‘viability’ track, because that actually makes it easier to conceal the sorry state of their ultimate value commitments.

Let me conclude this post with clippings from the newspaper, and a few final thoughts about conservative utopianism. While I was preparing to write this post I resolved to keep an eye out for utopianism in the news, to illustrate or complicate my thesis. I came up with two bits, one from the Democrats, one from the Republicans.

From the WaPo, January 21: “Let’s not focus on what’s possible or doable,” Obama has advised, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “Tell me what our goal should be, and let me worry about the politics.”

Good for Obama! But do I hear the ghost of Chesterton, having a good laugh? The very notion that an Obama-ite would only confess, on condition of anonymity, that Obama did anything as extreme as convene a meeting to consider what would be (cue spooky music!) … best! Liberals truly are too shy, where utopia is concerned. They are concerned that they will be painted as unrealistic dreamers. But the truth is: they should cultivate a rhetoric of ‘ideal theory’ to strip the paint off anyone who tries it. ‘Are you actually opposed to people having ideals? Do you yourself not know what you want? If so, how do you decide between the things you can get? What sort of a crazy person are you?’

Conservatives, on the other hand, are consistently enthusiastic when it comes to wiping the slate clean, in a thought-experimental way, to highlight what’s viable, hence make it more achievable. Bobby Jindal gave a speech last week, generally recognized as an opening salvo in the 2016 Republican Presidential race.

Read the whole thing, if you haven’t. It’s all about how none of the options actually on the table are serious, so the only options people consider to be ‘serious’ are the unserious ones. It’s all about how weird our system looks if you step back from it and try to see it from the outside. It’s all about how we should have the courage to put ‘all our eggs in the basket’ of something we don’t actually have, but we might get if we are willing to go for it. It’s all about how we need a utopian ‘compass’, in effect.

In short, it’s all stuff that flows from “If any rational human being were to create our government anew, today, from a blank piece of paper …” (Yes, that is a quote from the speech.)

No liberal could get away with that sort of metaphor. But the response to Jindal’s speech has not been that it is dangerously utopian but that it is conservative red meat – entrepreneurship! growth! – or (if you don’t buy it) tired conservative boilerplate – entrepreneurship, growth. (Didn’t Reagan give this speech already in 1980?)

Only Nixon can go to China. Only conservatives can go to Utopia. And they like it so well they never leave.

Not that they really are utopians. Not real utopians.

It’s so confusing that the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is down to a few percent, tax-wise. And yet this must be painted as a deep, philosophical divide – socialism! Capitalism! (Not that it doesn’t matter who is elected. I don’t buy that Ralph Nader line. As Kevin Drum remarks: “Should federal spending be limited to around 19 percent of GDP—Paul Ryan’s preferred goal—or should we accept the fact that society is aging and we’re eventually going to need to spend 23 percent of GDP whether we like it or not? I think the latter makes a lot more sense, but we all need to understand that this really is what the argument is about.” It’s a big deal, but, to repeat, not a divide that is generated by a clear difference in philosophical first principles.)

Did I just contradict myself by admitting that Republicans really aren’t utopians, but I said they were?

Maybe.

I hope I just entangled myself in their contradictions for illustrative purposes. (But contradiction is contagious, admittedly, so maybe I’ve caught the bug.) Conservatism is, characteristically, an extremely volitile mix of unviablism – Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” – and utopian optimism. Jindal, in his speech, says American exceptionalism means, simply “the idea that this country is better and different than any other on the planet.” Utopia is not just viable, not just achievable, but substantially achieved. And yet: we stand on the cusp of dystopian nightmare. Stephen Colbert’s book title, America Again: Re-becoming The Greatness We Never Weren’t, comes to mind.

Getting back to Wright: what’s my point? If your goal is to get people to accept socialism, as viable, or even as notionally ideal – or even if you just wish they would stop taking Bobby Jindal seriously – it seems to me that trying to get very clear about basic philosophical commitments is a less hopeless strategy than trying to argue about ‘viability’, which I fear will just get lost in the shuffle of conservative contradictions, at conservative convenience. You have to bring out how ‘rebecoming the greatness we never weren’t’ doesn’t make sense. Talking about how the Mondragon worker cooperatives really works is not going to cut it, I think.

Get everyone to say what they really, really want. Don’t let them paper it over with excuses about what is viable, as opposed to ideal. If they say that America is perfect as she stands, then don’t let them play generic anti-utopian cards. It is evidently not a sin to dream that what is exceptional could be real. If they say America is in a wretched state, and we must transform her, then don’t let them play generic anti-utopian cards. It is evidently not a sin to dream of something much better than we’ve got. Now that we’ve got that cleared away and we are all utopians here: what would be best?

Suppose Bobby Jindal sought credible, intellectual, philosophical backing for his boilerplate? Where might he look? Just for example – hell, there are so many! This shelf of conservative utopian tracts is groaning – he might pick Luigi Zingales’ recent book, A Capitalism For The People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity. That seems about the right level: academically respectable, but popular. (He left off the ‘that was never truly lost’ bit of the title, preserving himself from obvious Colbertianism. But that extra bit of the title is strongly implied in the book itself. It’s an important piece of his argument that Americans still possess this species of lost genius. Otherwise, we couldn’t hope to get it back.)

Suppose Wright wants to argue with Zingales’ really rather pie-in-the-sky vision of an ideal capitalism, unfettered by the unfortunate cronyism and imperfection of our existing system? A lot of Zingales’ rhetoric – populism, democracy, enabling human flourishing! – is like Wright’s, yet in a right-wing register. We now have dueling real utopianisms.

Would it be most effective to meet Zingales on grounds of ‘viability’? I don’t deny Wright might score a few points that way, but Zingales is full of things to say about what ‘works’, or at least might. Therefore, I would recommend starting with Zingales’ strong commitment to equality of opportunity. He tries to paint this as a distinctively conservative value, to which liberals and leftists are hostile. But that depends on conflating the drawbacks of second-best affirmative action measures with liberal first-best ideals. If he is really, truly committed to equality of opportunity, in a first-best sense, he is on the hook for more leftism, ideally, than leftists are currently holding out serious hope for, in practice.

Is that truly the case?

I’m not suggesting that Zingales ever says, or strictly implies, that he shares all of Wright’s socialist ideals, just because he is in favor of equal opportunity. Wright is quite clear that he doesn’t regard equal opportunity as sufficient. He wants ‘equal access’, which is something a bit different. Maybe Zingales commits himself to that, too? He starts his book with a personal story about how much he loathed the Italian academic system, with its cronyism and ‘bag carrying’; how relieved he was to get to the U.S., where access to opportunities was not a function of who you were ‘connected to’. He could climb the ladder of success based on what he himself achieved, largely in an educational sense. What irritated him about Italy – what struck him as fundamentally unjust – was the unfair lack of access he suffered, in more or less Wright’s sense.

I’m skating over a lot of technical detail, to put it mildly. But the point I am making is precisely that if we skate over all that, it’s clear at what level Wright is most likely to win the argument against Zingales. Namely, at the level of ‘ideal’ theory. If they start trying to negotiate the distance between equal opportunity and equal access, they will both be arguing far to the left of the Democratic Party, in terms of policy implications (should any of this ideal stuff ever come down to earth).

After all, the US is a country in which the best predictor of your financial success is your parents’ income-level.

I just finished reading Seth’s Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea, his illustrated, edited volume of his father’s bitter recollections of a Depression childhood. “It is unfortunate that we cannot select our own parents and the time and place of our birth. If we could, I would never have picked my parents nor would I have been born and raised in St. Charles in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Whoever made that decision made an awful mess of it for me and he should have been fired.”

Capitalism, in which family membership determines who gets a leg up, is crony capitalism. (It’s who you are connected to, not what you’ve got in you.) Whoever permitted Seth’s grandparents to raise his father that sorry way should have been fired.

Ideally, Zingales wants to uproot crony capitalism. You do the utopian math. (Yes, maybe it would be impractical to fire all the bad parents, as Plato originally proposed. I can anticipate the storm of anti-viability arguments Zingales is preparing to unleash. I quite agree, actually. Child protective services can only be expected to do so much. But we are asking about ideals here. Ideally, every kid should get a fair start in life. Once you have admitted that, you’ve admitted a lot.)

Zingales to the far left of the Democratic Party, then? Dare I say it – a new Z-option, to rival Zizek’s own? Obviously not. But, stepping down a level from that: Zingales’ ‘ideal theory’ is not honestly advertised. It’s a bait-and-switch. He opens by making the case for justice. His treatment under the Italian system was unfair. Thank goodness he escaped. But once he gets to America, he sloughs off that easily-punctured skin of justice and a hard carapace of efficiency forms in its place. Now a lot of things you could do for justice are dismissed, not even considered, because they are not maximally market inefficient. (You can’t help all these kids! All you can do is work to make a perfect market! Classic mix of unviabilism and perfectionism.)

Keeping the accent on ideal theory – on justice – means not letting the bait-and-switch happen. Arguing that the Mondragon cooperative is actually viable means letting the switch happen, then trying make up a lot of fallaciously lost ground.

Conservatives suffer from severe cognitive dissonance regarding their ideals. (Liberals do, too. Everyone does except utopians.) Bringing this out is, I think, the best way to make a leftist case for utopia. By contrast, focusing on ‘viability’ provides only more opportunities for losing track of your ideals in the thicket of sociology that lies between should and can.

Then again, I could be wrong about what is most likely to work, as an argument. And it’s probably not absolutely necessary, when people are weighing very slim chances for success, to get in knock-down, drag-out arguments about which chances are the utterly slimmest, and which ones are merely very, very slim indeed. Utopians should agree to disagree about what the least unlikely strategy might be.

Pulling together the first and the second halves of this post, here is what I have argued: Wright’s approach is distinctive. He’s neither Marx nor Zizek, at any rate. But his approach is not distinctively winning. In a world in which the opponents of utopianism were conservatives Burkeans, the Wright way might be the right way. But we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world in which conservatives are more like Luigi Zingales. So maybe that bad old thing, ‘ideal theory’, still deserves a serious a look-in.

Did I just resuscitate the M-option, after all? Doing ‘ideal theory’ is, by definition, theorizing our way to Utopia in a strong sense? “If you worry about desirability and ignore viability or achievability, then you are just a plain utopian.” That’s what Wright says in his Presidential Address. I don’t agree. (This is the fallacy those poor Obama-ites are falling for, afraid to say what they want, lest they get tarred and feathered for flying to Cloud Cuckooland.) Saying what you want is not utopian at all. Articulating your first-best ideals is not the same as drawing a blueprint of an ideal state, let alone drawing a map from where we are to a place where we could start to lay the foundations. Done right, it has no tendency to confuse you about all that. It may be more useful than you might think for winning arguments against people who pretend that their objection to utopianism is that nothing of the sort could be viable.

{ 38 comments }

1

Tom L 03.18.13 at 5:48 am

I haven’t read Wright’s work, but I have something to add here. Yesterday that old quote from The Economist in the mid 19C about slavery was doing the rounds on Twitter. Can’t find the link, but in essence it says ‘slavery is inevitable, and indeed a foundation of our economy, and there’s more or less nothing we can do both about it and similar vices of humanity.’

Clearly they were wrong about that – at least wrong enough that to the extent conditions akin to slavery exist today in the US, they’re part of an implicit, rather than an explicit and legally enshrined social relation and one which the slaves themselves can more easily challenge or escape. Slavery was viably abolished.

This is one of the main pitfalls of arguments about viability, which is that power and privilege controls which ideas are subject to such scrutiny. That’s the main reason I question whether progressives should discuss the viability of ideas at length with the more vehement part of the conservative side of politics.

Firstly, if viability is discussed, generally the wrong ideas will be scrutinised. We’ll be discussing whether universal health care and education are a pipedream while the question of whether free markets are an efficient way to distribute wealth goes unasked.

Secondly, the arguments on both sides will not and cannot be sound up front. Too few speakers have the information or the intellectual resources to honestly assess the viability of a wide-ranging social programme.

A utopian programme should perhaps therefore be more agile in its implementation: aim for the simplest and closest thing that seems the most plausible, work towards it, adapt as you go measuring present outcomes and keeping the goal in mind.

2

Luis 03.18.13 at 6:56 am

Seed the existing system with little reforms that are incremental/interstitial, not ruptural in themselves (to borrow some terms Wright uses in his Presidential Address)

And that are all chapter titles in the book ;)

the counter-argument runs as follows: conservatives aren’t actually – never have been, aren’t now, probably will never be, in significant numbers – conservatives in the sense Wright seems to assume they mostly are.

I don’t think Wright thinks that conservatives, in the sense you’re talking about, are the key group that needs to be motivated – whose sociological imagination needs to be exercised. Instead, I think his key group is the great undifferentiated middle- people who aren’t conservative, per se, but whose only knowledge of “socialism” is “well, it didn’t work in Russia”, and who are surrounded by a capitalism that (at least on the surface) seems to them to work. Persuade this silent plurality, and it doesn’t matter whether Corey is right or not about conservatives.

I don’t see that Wright-style meditations on ‘real utopias’ are likely to do much more than set off another chorus of ‘unintended consequences’ wailing.

But part of the whole point of focusing on “writ small” utopias is that conservative wailing is inconsequential, as long as the utopias are viable! It doesn’t matter if the conservatives don’t like Mondragon or Wikipedia- by placing the locus of the utopia out of the scope of government, all they can do is whine and hope they fail. And if, in fact, Mondragon and Wikipedia succeed, then the reactionary whining is not just inconsequential, it is actually counter-productive- they are revealed to be small of mind and soul, as well as wrong, in a way that is much more telling and persuasive than any amount of philosophizing.

Suppose Bobby Jindal sought credible, intellectual, philosophical backing for his boilerplate? Where might he look? Just for example – hell, there are so many!

But Jindal doesn’t need any such backing. For most Americans, for the core of Jindal’s philosophy, they only think they have to look around them at The Real Economy, which provides (for them) the support they need. They don’t look around and see real socialism in action (or don’t think they do; obligatory “get your government out of my medicare” reference goes here). Zingales’s philosophizing doesn’t have one bit of anything to do with why Jindal-types win elections, and ideal theory won’t help the left either. There have to be concrete examples of socialism that actually work. And that’s again where viability (and PR, not ideal theory) matters.

“If you worry about desirability and ignore viability or achievability, then you are just a plain utopian.” … (This is the fallacy those poor Obama-ites are falling for, afraid to say what they want, lest they get tarred and feathered for flying to Cloud Cuckooland.)

I don’t think any fair reading of Wright has him saying that you should not talk about your goals. Rather, he thinks that if you can’t also articulate the (writ small) ways in which you will create a viable, small-scale system, showing that your goals work and are good, you’re going to lose.

Don’t get me wrong: despite my kvetching, I think this post gets almost to the heart of Wright’s project. But it seems to miss something essential by analyzing it in terms of how conservatives and political power will react, when so much of Wright’s thinking is about how to build things that are outside of those limitations – that inspire and educate as much by doing as by talking, in ways that take advantage of the (relative) freedoms many of us have in this particular time and place.

3

John Holbo 03.18.13 at 7:37 am

Quick response to Luis: you are right that the focus is too much on conservatism in my post. It’s a personal hobbyhorse. The Thatcher epigraph for the ASA address does suggest Wright is saying what I say he is saying. But, then again, epigraphs aren’t everything. Probably I am distorting the focus somewhat by leaving liberalism out, when of course convincing liberals is as big a part of the project, for him. (I can sort of beg off on the grounds that the post is too damn long already. That’s not fully convincing.) I am somewhat skeptical about the reality of the ‘undifferentiated middle’ who are neither conservative nor liberal but merely know that Russian communism was a disaster.

“I don’t think any fair reading of Wright has him saying that you should not talk about your goals.”

I’m sure Wright would say that, of course, one must have ideals and goals, but he really does slip on this point, per the quote. “If you worry about desirability and ignore viability or achievability, then you are just a plain utopian.” I say that’s plain wrong.

4

Jacob McM 03.18.13 at 7:52 am

If they don’t think ‘may all human beings enjoy freedom and the opportunity to flourish!’ is appealing, then to hell with them, at least philosophically (and presumably in the afterlife, should there prove to be one.) There’s nowhere to start, if we can’t get an ‘amen!’ to something as basic as that. But this is obviously not quite the situation we are in. Conservatism, it seems to me, is in a perpetual and strikingly deep state of cognitive dissonance about all this. The objection to socialism is always, officially, on behalf of freedom and opportunity, which socialism allegedly destroys. But the deeper truth is that conservatives constantly paper over conflict between the values Wright espouses – freedom, equality, opportunity for all! – and the values that Robin correctly attributes to conservatives – hierarchy and privilege.

Well, they weren’t always so disingenuous about where their hostility was directed…

In short: Socialism is preformed in Democracy. For Socialism is but Individualism with a different emphasis. There is the same insistence amongst Italian Fascists on the individualist and Liberal origins of Socialism. Take Mussolini himself: “Free-Masonry, Liberalism, Democracy, and Socialism are the enemy.” Or the Catholic Fascist, Malaparte: “It is originally Anglo-Saxon civilisation which has recently triumphed in democratic Liberalism and Socialism.” Finally, the reactionary aristocrat, the Baron Julius Evola: “The Reformation supplanted Hierarchy by the spiritual priesthood of the Believers, which threw off the shackles of authority, made everybody his own judge and the equal of his fellow. This is the starting-point of ‘Socialist’ decay in Europe.” But an identical attitude is apparent also in political National-Socialism. To quote Hitler: “Western democracy is the forerunner of Marxism, which would be entirely unthinkable without it.” Similarly, Rosenberg: “Democratic and Marxian movements take their stand on the happiness of the Individual.” And Gottfried Feder’s semi-official commentary to the Party Programme curtly speaks of “Capitalism and its Marxian and bourgeois satellites”–a syncopated form of speech which hides under its apparent paradox a tactically well-considered amalgamation of Individualism and Socialism. This unanimity is impressive. For a generation or two, Socialism has been assailed by its critics as the enemy of the idea of human personality.

Although sensitive minds like Oscar Wilde discovered the fallacy, it remained a favourite charge with the writers of the day; that Bolshevism is the end of personality is almost a standing phrase in middle-class literature. Fascism disclaims all solidarity with this facile school of criticism. It is too deadly serious in its will to destroy Socialism to afford to use as its weapons charges so misdirected as to be ineffectual. It has fixed upon a true one. Socialism is the heir to Individualism. It is the economic system under which the substance of Individualism can alone be preserved in the modern world. Hence the efforts to produce a systematic body of knowledge that could provide a background to a distinctively Fascist, i.e. radically anti-individualist, philosophy. It is under this heading that most of the work of psychologists like Prinzhorn, ethnologists like Baümler, Blüher, and Wirth, philosophers of history like Spengler, are relevant to our problem. It would be safe to say that the invisible border-line dividing Fascism from all other shades and variants of reactionary anti-Socialism, consists precisely in this irreducible and extreme opposition to Individualism. No spiritual ancestry of this idea, however august, is safe from the ruthless onslaught of the Fascist, and invariably he will found his attack on the charge that Individualism is responsible for Bolshevism. The new State-supported religious movements in Germany, whether based on racial or tribal or only national and super-patriotic tenets, turn against Individualism even when they do not profess to have discovered a complete dispensation from ethics. Thus, Friedrich Gogarten Politische Ethik, the non-nationalist trend of which was very far from foreshadowing the subsequent rôle of its writer in the German Christian Movement, was aimed at redefining social ethics in a pointedly anti-individualistic sense. No wonder that even the Catholic Church, which of all Christian persuasions is known to be least inclined to overstress the individualist elements in its teachings, complains of the unchristian leanings in Fascism predominantly on the grounds of the lack of appreciation in Fascism for the human individual as such.

The German Faith Movement, lastly, is free from all the embarrassing ambiguities inherent in the German Christian position. It is German, not Christian. It prides itself on its choice between these self-styled alternatives. It can thus proceed to proclaim the fundamental inequality of human beings in the name of religion. Thus the ultimate aim is reached. For obviously the democratic implications of Individualism spring from the affirmation of the equality of individuals as individuals.

This excerpt is from Karl Polanyi’s fascinating essay “The Essence of Fascism” written during the 1930s. Are others here familiar with it? Corey?

The entire essay is available here: http://www.voiceoftheturtle.org/library/essence_of_fascism.php

5

m 03.18.13 at 7:59 am

OP: “Since most of these arguments are bad, we should rip back the paper to see the sorry mix of confused values conservatives are concealing back there. We should argue about ‘viability’, as Wright says. And yet: since conservatives can always generate new, bad arguments of this sort, the fight on this front is eternal. I don’t see that Wright-style meditations on ‘real utopias’ are likely to do much more than set off another chorus of ‘unintended consequences’ wailing.”

I think this misses out on one important use of research on viability. The main use of such research results is not to intellectually convince conservatives directly. The main use is to aid the creation and improvement of smaller scale practical experiments – this is the interstitial insight. When conservatives have actual lived experiences of such experiences it is more likely that some of them will find their hierarchical sentiments melting down. That change is driven more by real experiences and emotions more than theoretical reflection.

6

Phil 03.18.13 at 7:59 am

Only conservatives can go to Utopia. And they like it so well they never leave.

I argued a while ago that one of the key political dividing lines is between left-Hegelian and right-Hegelian – between “the world needs to be changed, changed utterly” and “looking good so far, keep up the good work everybody”. Not enough left-Hegelians on the Left, was my underlying sense – at least, not enough for me to talk to. (I started down this road after an intangibly unsatisfactory conversation with a US movement leftist – as radical as you like, but weirdly contented, at least from my bilious English perspective.)

Anyway, what this post suggests is something more complex – that “left-Hegelian” (or “utopian”) isn’t necessarily something you are (even as a political being) so much as something you do, a register you can play in; and that the Right, whose core policy commitments are as rH as you could want (this is their world, they have already won) are nevertheless much better at playing in it than the Left.

The bastards.

7

AF 03.18.13 at 9:32 am

I take Chesterton’s point to be that we should keep in mind our ideals and shouldn’t limit ourselves to what is achievable. But why shouldn’t we limit ourselves to what is viable?

8

Rich Puchalsky 03.18.13 at 12:53 pm

You might try this:

“I.2.1 Why discuss what an anarchist society would be like at all?

Partly, in order to indicate why people should become anarchists. Most people do not like making jumps in the dark, so an indication of what anarchists think a desirable society could look like may help those people who are attracted to anarchism, inspiring them to become committed to its practical realisation. Partly, it’s a case of learning from past mistakes. There have been numerous anarchistic social experiments on varying scales, and its useful to understand what happened, what worked and what did not. In that way, hopefully, we will not make the same mistakes twice.

However, the most important reason for discussing what an anarchist society would look like is to ensure that the creation of such a society is the action of as many people as possible. “

I think that last bit tends to get left out when people have the “why should we discuss utopia” conversation.

9

William Timberman 03.18.13 at 1:20 pm

On Polanyi’s observations about fascism: what looks like a plethora of choices in discussions like this so often boils down in reality to only two: 1) we can get everyone moving in the right (our) direction if we beat hell out of them first and limit their choices after we’ve finished beating them, or 2) over time, we can persuade enough people to do the right (our) thing, even though at times external circumstances and their gut responses to them may cause them to ignore us. On the whole, I prefer 2) to 1), but I’m not so sure that my preferences matter very much.

10

bianca steele 03.18.13 at 2:16 pm

The F Movement, lastly, is free from all the embarrassing ambiguities inherent in the C position.

This is an extremely useful pattern.

11

Luis 03.18.13 at 2:34 pm

For those too exhausted by the Holbonian epic to read my comment, m’s comment covers basically the same ground in 1/10th the words. ;)

12

Scott P. 03.18.13 at 3:21 pm

One answer would be that you can always restrict your view to the individual rather than the universal. What I want is what will be of immediate benefit to me, now, rather than what an ideal world would look like. It might be very difficult to say, for example, whether Utopia would or would not have money. But it is very easy to say that I would be better off with more money tomorrow.

13

Scott P. 03.18.13 at 3:21 pm

Apparently blockquote doesn’t work. My response in #12 is to this quote:

“Liberals truly are too shy, where utopia is concerned. They are concerned that they will be painted as unrealistic dreamers. But the truth is: they should cultivate a rhetoric of ‘ideal theory’ to strip the paint off anyone who tries it. ‘Are you actually opposed to people having ideals? Do you yourself not know what you want? If so, how do you decide between the things you can get? What sort of a crazy person are you?’”

14

reason 03.18.13 at 3:51 pm

Somewhat orthogonal here – but I’m not sure whether John Holbo is holding up equal opportunity as being necessarily a good thing or not. I would argue strongly that it not only is not sufficient, it is also not a particularly desireable target.

http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2006/10/against_equalit.html

15

reason 03.18.13 at 3:52 pm

16

reason 03.18.13 at 4:03 pm

To join with AF @7

Let’s not just think about what is politically viable either – shouldn’t we also be thinking about what is ecologically viable? It seems to me there are large co-ordination problems when systems rely on individual automony. Sometimes individual incentives correspond to common interest, sometimes they don’t. Any abstract method of thinking of things tends to ignore that particulars matter (as we have seen with the extreme Libertarian discomfort with global warming).

17

soru 03.18.13 at 4:40 pm

Seems to me you start off with a strong 3-part model (desirability, viability, acheivability), then you abandon it about half way through the essay. I mean, when Obama staffers are told to do blue sky thinking without constraints, that means more ‘ignore whether or not we can get 51% of votes this coming Tuesday’, than ‘ignore whether or not there is some degree of inherent philosophical contradiction between equality of opportunity and equality of status’.

Also, I think the point about conservatives is that Burkean arguments, like nuclear weapons, are sufficently effective that they don’t actually need to be deployed.

18

AF 03.18.13 at 4:54 pm

Just to clarify, my comment (#7) wasn’t intended to question the purpose of utopianism, or to call for focusing on what is “politically viable,” or to disagree with the Chesterton quote. My point was to accept what Holbo said via Chesterton about “achievability” but question whether this applies to “viability” as well. I was relying on Wright’s distinction between the “achievable” (ie politically realistic in the foreseeable future) and the “viable” (by which I took to mean possible in light of earthly and human limitations (which are obviously contested questions), even if not politically achievable in the foreseeable future).

It seems to me that all ideal theory assumes viability in some sense; otherwise we could simply envision immortality, infinite natural resources, wings, etc. I took Wright’s objective to be injecting more rigor and specificity into this aspect of the utopian project. That strikes me as a pretty well-founded.

19

Rich Puchalsky 03.18.13 at 4:58 pm

“It seems to me that all ideal theory assumes viability in some sense; otherwise we could simply envision immortality, infinite natural resources, wings, etc. “

Traditional philosophical usage refers to “ponies” in this case.

(Oh, all right, I’m joking. The tradition started with Belle Waring, but is no less traditional now for all that.)

20

Harold 03.18.13 at 5:15 pm

Millions to His bidding fly
They also serve who only stand and wait

21

Patrick 03.18.13 at 6:10 pm

Compass + Altimeter, metaphorical problem solved. Some of the issues you’re describing are the problems of stochastic hill climbing.

22

Mao Cheng Ji 03.18.13 at 7:14 pm

Zizek gets it right. Viability and acheivability, are unpredictable. Desirability is subjective: one man’s utopia… Yes, romantic. An adventure, poetry, passion, not science.

23

Harold 03.18.13 at 7:49 pm

“Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.” -Shelley

24

Jason 03.18.13 at 8:00 pm

John, I was thinking of your work with Cosma Shalizi when you discussed the metaphors — where they break down or succeed.

As a meta-metaphor these metaphors represent ways to optimize a function in math. The compass metaphor shows you may need to go backwards to go forward, much like you need to ease out of local minimum to find a global one.

The maze metaphor is a case for heuristic algorithms … they cannot be proven to always work but seem to tend to lead to the right place.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristic_algorithm

We don’t really know what kind of optimization we are doing, so any particular algorithm will probably have flaws.

25

Stephen 03.18.13 at 8:18 pm

Who is trying to get where, from here?

Good questions. I think it might help if we were clearer about where we are trying to get to. Given that here is non-utopian, are we trying to achieve :-
1) Utopia throughout the world.
2) Utopia in the USA (very occasionally need to point out this =/= (1))
3) Utopia in specific non-USA regions.

Trajectories to achieve these are rather obviously different. In particular, reaching (1) may involve steps that are incompatible with (2), and indeed with foreseeable preferences of majority of USAns.

(3) very possibly likewise.

Also: problem I cannot see how to resolve easily. Consensus on CT seems to be, non-utopian nature of current situation involves excessive distribution of wealth/power to those who do not deserve them. (Probably, consensus in all times, places of those without w/p.) Problem: those who can prevent wealth going to unworthy must themselves have enormous power, of which they are worthy because … ?

26

LFC 03.18.13 at 10:03 pm

Read most of Holbo’s post, not every word. The Zingales detour is quite annoying, for reasons I don’t have time to elaborate. So I’ll limit myself to pointing out what I think must be a typo:

Now a lot of things you could do for justice are dismissed [by Zingales], not even considered, because they are not maximally market inefficient.

Should read: “maximally market efficient.”

Also, I think Stephen’s point @25 about the post’s excessively U.S.-centric focus is well taken.

27

reason 03.19.13 at 7:54 am

Steven
“involves excessive distribution of wealth/power to those who do not deserve them”

No I don’t think you understand. Nobody should have such concentrated wealth/power. Deserving has nothing to do with it.

28

reason 03.19.13 at 10:13 am

LFC
I don’t think Holbo’s post is US centric at all. But Steven still has a point about how thinking about Utopianism might be influenced by the shape of institutions in the world as they currently exist.

29

Luis 03.19.13 at 3:31 pm

Holbo:

I am somewhat skeptical about the reality of the ‘undifferentiated middle’ who are neither conservative nor liberal but merely know that Russian communism was a disaster.

On what basis? Surely you’ve read the research on what most people know about politics, which is to say not much. It is dominated by emotive issues and framing. No amount of raw philosophizing will change that. You need, as it were, boots on the ground.

“I don’t think any fair reading of Wright has him saying that you should not talk about your goals.”

I’m sure Wright would say that, of course, one must have ideals and goals, but he really does slip on this point, per the quote. “If you worry about desirability and ignore viability or achievability, then you are just a plain utopian.” I say that’s plain wrong.

I think you’re badly misreading the quote. He’s not saying it is wrong to worry about desirability, he’s saying it is wrong to only worry about desirability, to the exclusion of viability and achievability. The whole point of his project, after all, is to achieve something desirable, and to do it by … doing lots of little things that are also desirable! What he’s saying is that worrying about desirability without also worrying about viability is “true” utopianism – that if you can’t plan and explain an achievable, viable Mondragon on the way to a world where all employment is worker-centric, or if you can’t plan and explain an achievable, viable Wikipedia on the way to a world where all knowledge is shared, then you’ve lost the game.

30

Luis 03.19.13 at 3:32 pm

Woops, failure in html tagging there – the “I’m sure Wright… plain wrong” paragraph should be in italics, as they are Holbo’s words, not mine.

31

John Holbo 03.19.13 at 4:54 pm

Thanks for good comments. Sorry for being absent. Some pressing school stuff simply had to get done … all day. And then it wasn’t done, so on it went. But now it’s done. But a man must sleep. Speaking of which …

“For those too exhausted by the Holbonian epic … “

Always leave ‘em wanting less! That’s my motto. Slow boring of hard boreds, as Weber said. Or words to that effect.

32

+Roger Burgess 03.19.13 at 5:23 pm

I’m with Luis.

Just the other day I criticized a friend’s argument over ‘utiopianism’, which I should have called something else.

The gist of the criticism was that his utopia was a wondrous place with no ethical path from here to there.

Wright seems to me to be trying to overcome that particular criticism that I made to my friend.

33

engels 03.19.13 at 5:58 pm

For those too exhausted by the Holbonian epic …

I had thought the proper form was ‘Holbovian’. Google offers some support for this view.

Holbovian ‘About 126 results’
Holbonian ‘About 99 results’
Holbonic ‘About 82 results’

34

John Holbo 03.20.13 at 12:26 am

I prefer ‘Holbovian’. Makes my ‘blah-blah-blah’ sound more ‘la-de-dah’. ‘Holbonic’ sounds more industrial strength, which is acceptable. ‘Holbonian’ just sounds gross.

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engels 03.20.13 at 1:16 am

As so often, one sees further standing on the shoulders of Matt Weiner.

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John Holbo 03.20.13 at 2:28 am

OK, let me push back against some of this a bit.

“Just the other day I criticized a friend’s argument over ‘utiopianism’, which I should have called something else.

The gist of the criticism was that his utopia was a wondrous place with no ethical path from here to there.

Wright seems to me to be trying to overcome that particular criticism that I made to my friend.”

This is quite right. But, by the same token, I am trying to push back against your criticism of your friend. It is a common criticism – namely, that there is no point in thinking about unachievable, let alone unviable utopias. My (rather contrarian) point is that: actually, there IS a point to it. When we insist on viability and achievability, we end up subtly watering down our ideals. Trying to work out what you really stand for, ideally, is not the same as being a bad utopian.

Luis says I misunderstand Wright on this point.

“I think you’re badly misreading the quote. He’s not saying it is wrong to worry about desirability, he’s saying it is wrong to only worry about desirability, to the exclusion of viability and achievability. The whole point of his project, after all, is to achieve something desirable, and to do it by … doing lots of little things that are also desirable!”

I don’t think I’m misreading the quote. I’m saying that it’s a mistake to say, as Wright says, that it’s a mistake to worry only about desirability, to the exclusion of viability and achievability. Worrying about viability and achievability is fine. It’s well and good and necessary. But thinking just about desirability is not bad utopianism, as Wright (wrongly) seems to concede it is. It may be, of course. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s clarifying. And I think, furthermore, that it is practical, for the G. K. Chesterton reason. What you really want, but aren’t by any stretch of the imagination going to get, is, in one sense, irrelevant to any negotiation you enter into. But, in another sense, it is relevant. It informs what you ask for, even if it is never what you ask for.

This is not an utterly devastating critique of Wright, to say he underestimates the value of ‘ideal theory’ utopianism that isn’t viable. He’s a sociologist. Of course he’s going to be one of those that doesn’t do that sort of stuff. He’s going to mind his knitting more than that, and that’s fine. But, all the same, it seems to me plausible that the kind of stuff he isn’t doing is, in effect, more ‘realistic utopianism’. That is, reminding people what they really want – but never thought to ask for, because they are too sensible to think they are going to get it – might do more to keep the utopian spark burning than showing people that certain sorts of worker collectives might really work.

I came to this view by being convinced by G.A. Cohen’s critiques of Rawls. I realized that Cohen was right about Rawls’ view being much more concessive, much less ‘ideal’ than Rawls presented it as. Rawls was mixing what you can get with what you want, until the latter seemed like less than it truly should be. I realized that, following Rawls, I had fallen into that way of thinking, and it was a conceptual mistake.

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Luis 03.20.13 at 5:48 am

I will try to reply in more depth at some other point, but for now, I will simply say that I say “Holbonian epic” with the greatest of affection. After all, I’m down here in the comments actually responding :)

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John Holbo 03.20.13 at 7:28 am

I wish you many happy returns of the neologism, Luis. There is no accounting for taste.

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