On Being Radical for Non-Ideal Reasons

by Miriam Ronzoni on February 9, 2018

Thank you to Ingrid for introducing me, and to all current members of the Crooked Timber for welcoming me on board. I am a long term fan of the Crooked Timber (since my days as a graduate student, in fact!) and therefore really excited to be joining the team.

I would like to kick off by elaborating on some thoughts that I have only briefly mentioned in a recent piece. The basic idea, in a nutshell, is the following: could it be that we sometimes have reason to be more radical under non-ideal circumstances than under ideal ones?

The reason why this might seem initially puzzling – it definitely is to me – lies in the fact that, by definition, non-ideal theory falls short of ideal theory in important ways. Sure, the suggestion is often made that our obligations of justice under non-ideal circumstances might become more demanding – simply because we might be required to compensate for the non-compliance of other duty bearers (although some people want to resist that thought ). This, however, is a point about the demandingness of our duties, not about how radically our aims should diverge from the status quo. When it comes to what we should be aiming at, rather than how much effort we should put into it, non-ideal theory is usually depicted at giving us targets that are closer to home. We should be more modest, we should not demand too much. We cannot have a truly egalitarian society, but we can maybe try and aim for a more humane one than the one we currently have. We cannot have gender equality, but we can maybe narrow the gap. We cannot put an end to capitalism, but maybe we can tame it just a little bit. The most obvious way in which this approach plays out is in the chase of the political centre by the mainstream left, which has been making social-democratic agendas ever more lukewarm over the last three decades.

However, the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory does not always have to work that way. True, our non-ideal targets fall short of our ideal ones by definition. But falling short does not have to mean being more conservative.  When we cannot achieve what our ideal theory prescribes, the crucial question to ask is what our priorities should be. Which bits of the ideal picture can we still hope to achieve? What do we have to sacrifice for that? And is that a morally acceptable sacrifice to make? Now, there is no inescapable logic according to which the answers to these questions must lead us to accept more features of the status quo than our ideal theory would require. Sometimes, exactly the opposite might be the case. Suppose that, upon reflection, we come to identify bit X of the ideal picture as our main priority when it is impossible to realize the whole picture; that this requires us to sacrifice bit Y (which is partly already realized under the status quo); that the sacrifice is worth making in overall moral terms; and that getting rid of Y (to the extent that it already obtains in the status quo) leads to a fundamental restructuring of of our existing political and socio-economic order. Endorsing these assumptions lead us to aim for an end-goal which is further away from the status quo than our ideal picture.

Let me make this abstract discussion clearer with an example. Let us suppose that you consider the correct ideal theory to be of the broadly speaking Rawlsian, social-democratic, liberal egalitarian variety. Suppose that you endorse it because you think that it constitutes the best balance of different things which you deeply value. You think, for instance, that we should try as much as possible to live in a society where everybody has the same opportunities to live a flourishing life and where we all treat one another as equals; but you also think that personal freedom is important, and that honouring the latter will necessarily hinder the former somewhat. For instance, you believe that free choices will necessarily lead people to reach different, sometimes unequal positions; and in particular, you think that personal freedom requires having some sort of market society, which is incompatible with perfect equality. Thus, you conclude that justice is honoured when we reach the ideal balance among these different values; and that, say, a strongly embedded form of capitalism – a social-democracy – is the best way to realize such an ideal.

Now, those who disagree with such a picture usually make one of the two following moves: they either claim, à la G.A. Cohen, that we can have full equality without sacrificing freedom or other values at all (and that, therefore, the alleged “balanced” is not ideal at all); or they suggest that the balance is actually too demanding: we have to be a bit more modest about how much capitalism can realistically be embedded (call this the “New Labour Move”).  Much has been written about the Cohenite challenge (and I have done so myself in the past), so I am going to leave it aside here. But think about the New Labour Move for a moment: why does it have to be the only reasonable non-ideal option in town?

Suppose – purely hypothetically, of course – that the problem with the social-democratic ideal is that it is simply unstable. That perfect balance between equality and freedom can maybe (maybe) be achieved under very exceptional historical and socio-economic circumstances –  for instance, as Piketty argues, when a lot of capital has simply been destroyed by two world wars, and the bargaining power between capital and labour is therefore unusually and uniquely balanced. Over time, however, market forces start resisting attempts to be tamed and embedded, and they are destined to prevail in doing so. In the long run, capitalism manages to escape public and democratic control. And suppose – again, purely hypothetically – that the consequences are very dire indeed: increasing inequality and relative poverty; hollowing out of democratic processes; never-ending austerity; rising populism and mutual distrust; you name it. If this is the case, why is it so obvious that what you should do is accept the inevitable revolt of market forces, and settle for a few humane constraints around the edges? The other option is to be even more confrontational towards market forces – more anti-capitalist – than your ideal picture would require. This might very well entail giving up quite a lot of good things – there is a reason why you wanted to preserve many aspects of market society under ideal theory after all. The result would therefore indeed fall short of the ideal picture; but by moving further away from the status quo than prescribed under ideal theory, rather than by accommodating the status quo as much as possible. You may, in other words, think that peacefully taming capitalism is out of reach, but that accepting untamed capitalism is too high a price to pay. You may therefore come to endorse fairly significant political ruptures; a fairly disruptive and confrontational progressive politics; and, crucially, more distinctively anti-capitalist substantive stances than your ideal picture demands. In so doing, you would become a radical for non-ideal reasons.

Now, I am not suggesting that this is necessarily the correct way to go. I have not even tried to argue that it is; and even if it was, I have said nothing about the limits of this way of reasoning (how much anti-capitalism is too much?). I have simply used an example which, I think, may resonate with some readers, in order to suggest that embracing our non-ideal predicament need not entail being complacent towards the status quo all the time.

 

{ 46 comments }

1

Chris Armstrong 02.09.18 at 1:53 pm

This sounds right to me, Miriam. Nice post. I have a somewhat unrelated thought which points in a similar direction. Egalitarians often have reason to say: well, practice X would be permissible in a properly egalitarian society, but in our society, which is highly unequal, we ought to be against it in a more or less blanket sense. X could be all kinds of things which ‘consenting’ adults might want to do with each other – maybe selling organs, for instance. In those kinds of cases, we take a more radical (restrictive) position for the status quo than we would in our ideal theory.

2

John Crowley 02.09.18 at 1:59 pm

Very perspicuous. Another thing you would have to calculate is the probability of success (or the opposite) of a move toward disruptive and confrontational politics, as opposed to the possibilities for success of the “balance” way. Once a ferocious enough capitalism gets under way, neither response seems adequte. Do you know this little parable of Ambrose Bierce’s?

A Bear, a Fox, and an Opossum were attacked by an inundation.
“Death loves a coward,” said the Bear, and went forward to fight the flood.
“What a fool!” said the Fox. “I knowa trick worth two of that.” And he slipped
into a hollow stump.
“There are malevolent forces,” saidthe Opossum, “which the wise will neither
confront nor avoid. The thing is to know the nature of your antagonist.”
So saying the Opossum lay down and pretended to be dead.

3

Niroscience 02.09.18 at 2:08 pm

This requires New Labour option to be an inferior outcome from the strong Rawlsian ideal outcome, not one that is better in itself.

But even taking that constant, it becomes an issue of probabilities. If the probability that the New Labour option occurs and sustains itself is significantly higher than the Strong Rawlisan outcome, the higher probability of a worse outcome can still be a better payoff than the lower probability of a high outcome.

The ‘price’ of reaching one ideal society or another definitely factors into the probability and payoff but doesn’t seem to be the whole set of constraints

4

Chris Bertram 02.09.18 at 2:22 pm

Interesting. (And welcome Miriam!). Your post reminded me a bit of the argument the “market socialist” Oskar Lange makes against gradualism in On the Economic Theory of Socialism, namely that a socialist government cannot proceed by small reforms but must break the power of capital in one leap, even if afterwards they might want to row backwards a bit. I think Bob Goodin even cites it somewhere in those Essay on Public Policy (or whatever the title is).

5

Miriam Ronzoni 02.09.18 at 2:23 pm

Dear John and Niroscience: yes, chances of success are of course a relevant consideration, and one of the reasons why I wasn’t *vindicating* the radical route as such – simply claiming that there’s nothing obvious about the idea that being non-ideal means being “modest”, whatever that means.

6

Murali 02.09.18 at 2:56 pm

Hi Miriam

Could something like loss aversion account for the preference for the option that deviates less from status quo?

The thought here is that we are already in a capitalist society and already enjoy the benefits of (even if to an unequal degree) capitalism. We are prone (rightly or wrongly) to prefer foregoing gains, perhaps even greater gains, in one dimension (e.g. more democratic equality) in order to not have to lose out on the benefits of capitalism. I will grant the assumption that we have more than ideal level of capitalism (I naturally disagree because I’m a libertarian, but let’s leave that issue aside). Presumably we’ve captured all the gains from having an ideal level of capitalism. And any gains from the excess capitalism are going to be small enough that the losses to democratic equality that result are objectionable. (If it were not, social democrats would not be willing to move towards the ideal and away from the status quo). Even if there would be enormous gains to democratic equality from having less than an ideal level of capitalism that social democrats would be happy with if they were in such a state, because they have the benefits from capitalism on hand, they are going to be less willing to give up these substantive benefits for the as of yet unrealised gains from having more democratic equality. It may not be rational, but it is very human. Given that non-ideal theory builds human frailties into the calculation of which is second best, then the more moderate position faces an advantage.

7

Yan 02.09.18 at 3:13 pm

Great post. Ronzoni is such a refreshing addition to the CT group.

I wonder is something similar could apply to the right: are these also conditions in which some would have an incentive to become right-wing radicals for non-ideal reasons?

8

Yan 02.09.18 at 3:18 pm

On a related note, I haven’t read the literature on ideal vs non-ideal political theory, but I wonder: do those writing about this take it as relatively non-controversial that non-ideal theory be associated with modest or moderate politics?

I ask because although I sympathize with the spirit of the critique of ideal theory, I worry that the inner logic of non-ideal theory isn’t as moderate as it seems. That is, I worry it may be no accident that the original non-ideal political theory is Thrasymachus’s power politics.

This seems like a logical problem: a theory either describes or prescribes. The minute it prescribes, it becomes ideal. (Not unlike the problem of legal postivism, perhaps.)

9

Z 02.09.18 at 3:30 pm

Another great first post by the new generation of CT posters!

Non-ideal theory is usually depicted at giving us targets that are closer to home. […] However, the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory does not always have to work that way.

I have been thinking about the same topic a lot myself recently, as something like it is clearly playing out in the current political scene in the Western world (and consequently within each citizens in these polities, including myself). Looking at it from a sociological and game-theoretic perspective, I think the choice between the strategies non-ideal/ more moderate vs. non-ideal/more radical depends on whether the socio-political context interprets militancy in favor of a certain political positions as advocating for this position becoming politically relatively more important (in which case people will appear more radical than they actually are) or as advocating for this position becoming hegemonic (in which case they will appear more moderate than they actually are), and that in turn will depends heavily on the structure of the political field.

To be concrete, suppose – purely hypothetically, of course – that a narrow social group of highly educated and very economically dynamic people have captured an ever increasing share of the economic, political and media world to the point that they have become nigh hegemonic in the last decade, and suppose that this social group and the political forces that represent them and advance their interests face challenges from at least two very different directions (purely hypothetically, of course, let us say one wants decreasing inequalities; the other wants to redirect inequalities so that they benefit those with the correct ethnicity, culture, nationality, gender…). Then, probably, people from any of these three groups will tend to advocate for more radical propositions than they actually subscribe to: the two challenging forces because they are trying to carve themselves a space in the political field, the dominant one because the dual challenge narrows its social basis and thus narrows its concern. Conversely, if the political field is structured along a left/right axis, then agents will advocate for more moderate positions than they subscribe to, because the crucial determinant for political victory will be the 10% of the electorate who finds itself at the contact point between the two main forces.

10

M Caswell 02.09.18 at 3:56 pm

‘Ought’ implies ‘can,’ I tend to think.

11

Sashas 02.09.18 at 3:56 pm

@Miriam Ronzoni
Would you consider affirmative action to be an example of a (relatively) radical goal produced due to non-ideal theory? I realize that you are mostly talking about capitalism, but it seemed like a perfect match.

Yan @8
I am not sure how you justify “The minute [a theory] prescribes, it becomes ideal.” I would be interested to see how you define ideal in this context; I am used to a definition of ideal that depends on what assumptions about people’s reactions to presciption you are willing to make. That is, do you analyze your theory in a setting where everyone follows its prescriptions, or not? I also want to raise a note of concern about your suggestion that we ought to “worry” non-ideal theory isn’t moderate. Why would this be a problem?

12

Shimon Edelman 02.09.18 at 3:59 pm

Finally, a starting point (and an alluring and intriguing one, at that) for developing an explanation for my gradually strengthening conviction that it would be worth giving up my 401(k) just to see the System smashed.

13

Anarcissie 02.09.18 at 4:10 pm

Yan 02.09.18 at 3:18 pm @ 8:
‘This seems like a logical problem: a theory either describes or prescribes. The minute it prescribes, it becomes ideal. (Not unlike the problem of legal postivism, perhaps.)’

Certainly this is what one now observes between opposed factions in the Democratic Party, where deviance from the very non-ideal ideal of one faction is characterized as sabotage and treason by the opposed faction (in the disreputable, marginal literature I read, anyway).

14

Z 02.09.18 at 4:17 pm

Yan I wonder is something similar could apply to the right: are these also conditions in which some would have an incentive to become right-wing radicals for non-ideal reasons?

It seems to me the logic of the OP applies equally well. Empirically, isn’t it clear that this has happened and is happening right now in many places?

15

Brian Carey 02.09.18 at 4:22 pm

Thanks for this, Miriam, it was a really interesting read. Here are two more reasons why it might be a mistake to think of non-ideal theory as necessarily modest:

(1) We can sometimes have reasons to aim at something we believe to be unachievable, because doing so is the best way of achieving as much as we can, or producing desirable side-effects. So, a non-ideal theory may recommend that we aim for the ideal (or even something beyond the ideal) simply because attempting to do so will yield the best possible results.

(2) One of the things that makes some contexts non-ideal is the fact that we lack reliable knowledge about what options are available to us, or how feasible our options are, for example. Sometimes, when we don’t know what we ought to do, the best thing may be to try to aim for an ideal (or even something beyond the ideal) and see how far we can get. So, non-ideal theory might recommend this approach in certain contexts where epistemic constraints make it difficult to know what is the best that we can do.

16

Raven Onthill 02.09.18 at 5:29 pm

In engineering of physical systems, this is plainly true; you accept a less-than-optimal solution in terms of resources for a safe, reliable system. Perhaps this is also true in public policy?

17

J-D 02.09.18 at 9:04 pm

‘Why do you call him “Wells”?’ asked Robert, as the boy ran off.

‘It’s after the great reformer—surely you’ve heard of HIM? He lived in the dark ages, and he saw that what you ought to do is to find out what you want and then try to get it. Up to then people had always tried to tinker up what they’d got. We’ve got a great many of the things he thought of. Then “Wells” means springs of clear water. It’s a nice name, don’t you think?’

(E Nesbit, The Story Of The Amulet, Chapter 12, ‘The Sorry-Present And The Expelled Little Boy’)

That sacrificiality was what Takver had spoken of recognizing in herself when she was pregnant, and she had spoken with a degree of horror, of self-disgust, because she too was an Odonian, and the separation of means and ends was, to her too, false. For her as for him, there was no end. There was process: process was all. You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere. All responsibilities, all commitments thus understood took on substance and duration.

(Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed, Chapter 10)

The basic idea, in a nutshell, is the following: could it be that we sometimes have reason to be more radical under non-ideal circumstances than under ideal ones?

When you put it in those words, the answer obviously has to be ‘Yes, and not only sometimes but always’; because under ideal circumstances, by definition, people have got what they want, and therefore have no reason to be radical at all. If people haven’t got what they want, that means the circumstances are not ideal.

In the future of the expelled little boy, as Nesbit imagines it, the circumstances are ideal and people have got what they want (thanks to following the methodology of the great reformer) and so have no reason to be radical. In the future of Anarres, as Le Guin imagines it, circumstances will never be ideal and so there will always be people with reasons to be radical.

But can circumstances ever be ideal?

18

Ben Lehman 02.10.18 at 12:12 am

For more on this line of logic, we could ask the mensheviks.

“Don’t ally with anyone whose stated goal, when they seize power, is murdering or imprisoning you” seems to me to be a pretty good maxim.

19

Miriam Ronzoni 02.10.18 at 11:43 am

Thanks everybody! Cannot possibly react to all posts, but here are a few thoughts about the points made by Chris, Sashas, and Brian:

1. I think the selling organs example is a bit different because the idea that we should be paternalistic in that case is “more in line” with the background assumpotions of the status quo. So I’d say not allowing it is more restrictive, but not more radical. Makes sense?

2. Affirmative action is closer but I’d say it’s a radical means, rather than a radical end goal. A radical end goal would be aiming at mandatory equal division of childcare between men and women because our actual ideal (say, genuinely free choice without gendered pressure) is constantly hijacked by patriarchical norms and we think that mandatory equality is better than the status quo, even if it requires to give up on quite a lot (e.g. freedom of choice).

3. Brian I get your points, but I’d say yours are points about aiming for the ideal *in spite* of non-ideal conditions, whereas mine is a point about aiming for something more radical than the ideal *because* of non-ideal conditions. Makes sense?

20

Yan 02.10.18 at 9:26 pm

Sashas@11

I had a somewhat different meaning of ideal theory in mind. I was thinking of methodological priority. Ideal theory begins by conceptualizing justice, then turns to the question of how to make reality conform to the idea.

Why can’t a theory be normative without becoming ideal? In non-ideal theory, I must work from reality to idea, rather than the reverse. I might point to past political state A and assert that it’s better than past political state B–we ought to return to or preserve it.

But either this is just an appeal to desire–I prefer A to B–and not normative. Or it’s surreptitious appeal to some preexisting moral norm (one ought to protect rights, one ought to maximize happiness, etc.) which is either lacking normative justification or has some other ideal justification, that is, its theoretical defense is independent of the real states of affairs I’m comparing. I let the Kantian or the utilitarian do ideal theory, then I borrow their norms when explaining why one real state of affairs is obligatory over another.

How then do we add justification with surreptitiously sneaking in ideal theory? The only way to do it non-ideally is to use a real rather than ideal criterion. I must make some real state of affairs the criterion of goodness of all other real states. But that’s arbitrary (unless I have some other criterion distinct from the compared real states of affairs, as ideal theory tries to do–an independent “good” according to which compared states are “better” or “worse”).

So, why worry that non-ideal theory isn’t moderate? Not because it’s radical, but specifically because its logic, consistently applied (without surreptitiously smuggling in ideal theories), seems to lead to either cultural relativism or power politics.

Cultural relativism, because if the normative criterion for measuring differing political states of affairs is arbitrary, it can only be internally agreed on by a group, making it invulnerable to external critique.

Power politics because, in practice, cultural relativism can’t be preserved by true consensus, but only by the consensus of a group with power to impose its arbitrarily preferred normative criteria on society. And, of course, because such societies can only resolve normative disputes with one another by force.

For the record, although this is a radical implication, I’d insist this isn’t truly “radical politics,” because it’s not politics at all. Non-ideal normative political theory is, I worry, ultimately just the rejection of normativity, the rejection of politics, and the rejection of theory.

21

Yan 02.10.18 at 9:47 pm

Anarcissie @13

” in the Democratic Party, where deviance from the very non-ideal ideal of one faction is characterized as sabotage and treason by the opposed faction (in the disreputable, marginal literature I read, anyway).”

I hadn’t thought of it this way, but, yes, that does seem to be a dangerous side effect: it’s a way of thinking that can make any political vision that hasn’t already been realized to a substantial degree count automatically as utopian, so any political project that aims substantially beyond present reality counts as “unicorns and rainbows.” I call this “pathological realism.”

The irony is that it’s taken so far in Democratic politics that the left is charged with utopianism for demanding political policies that are thoroughly non-ideal, have successfully been effected–such as universal healthcare. The concept of the “real” in politics becomes so narrow that its absolutely particular and so both unrepeatable and impossible. Sure, universal healthcare exists in every other civilized nation and has for a long time–but it hasn’t existed here yet; therefore, it cannot!

Z@15 “Empirically, isn’t it clear that this has happened and is happening right now in many places?”

That’s my suspicion, but I wasn’t entirely sure that the two are symmetrical. The left tends to desire political change but it’s too risk adverse to act for it. But the right tends to be fundamentally suspicious of political change, as if any change must be for the worse. So a situation where the status quo seems as risky as a pipe dream might motivate the moderate left toward radicalism in ways it wouldn’t motivate the moderate right.

22

J-D 02.11.18 at 2:13 am

Here is a statement, by one embracer of radicalism both in word and in deed, of the view that a conception of an ideal is unnecessary to radicalism and perhaps even inimical to it:

… If we think of the struggle as a climb up a mountain, then we must visualize a mountain with no top. We see a top, but when we finally reach it, the overcast rises and we find ourselves merely on a bluff. … And so it goes on, interminably.

Unlike the chore of the mythic Sisyphus, this challenge … is pushing the boulder up an endless mountain, but … we are always going further upward. …

At times we do fall back and become discouraged, but it is not that we are making no progress. Simply, this is the very nature of life — that it is a climb — and that the resolution of each issue in turn creates other issues, born of plights which are unimaginable today. The pursuit of happiness is never-ending; happiness lies in the pursuit.

… History is a relay of revolutions; the torch of idealism is carried by the revolutionary group until this group becomes an establishment, and then quietly the torch is put down to wait until a new revolutionary group picks it up for the next leg of the run. …

(Saul Alinsky, Rules For Radicals, ‘The Purpose’)

23

steven t johnson 02.11.18 at 2:31 pm

” You may, in other words, think that peacefully taming capitalism is out of reach, but that accepting untamed capitalism is too high a price to pay. You may therefore come to endorse fairly significant political ruptures; a fairly disruptive and confrontational progressive politics; and, crucially, more distinctively anti-capitalist substantive stances than your ideal picture demands. In so doing, you would become a radical for non-ideal reasons.”

To rephrase, the only way forward to the ideal is by overthrowing the non-ideal status quo, by revolution. The current non-ideal system is not just a preserver but an agent of reaction, which defies the ideal of peaceful reform at the behest of the majority. Therefore, because of the non-ideal reality, one must defy instead the ancien regime. Yet, revolution is intrinsically a violation of the ideal!

“Now, I am not suggesting that this is necessarily the correct way to go. I have not even tried to argue that it is; and even if it was, I have said nothing about the limits of this way of reasoning (how much anti-capitalism is too much?). I have simply used an example which, I think, may resonate with some readers, in order to suggest that embracing our non-ideal predicament need not entail being complacent towards the status quo all the time.”

To rephrase, revolution may not be necessary. I haven’t argued for revolutionary action, and I haven’t considered whether winning is prerequisite. But I do want to suggest that we who want a more ideal world may not need to irrevocably commit before the event to compromise, to forego winning lest the cost be too high.

Historically, the only thing worse than revolution is not having a revolution. Apparently this is hard to accept. Remember how China Mieville managed to vapor about the tragedy of the Bolshevik Revolution while not even noticing the true tragedy was the defeat of the German Revolution. The rejection of revolution may be perhaps the touchstone distinguishing the Left and the Right.

The OP is essentially trying to hint there may be a halfway house, where reformers can accept that the non-ideal state of affairs may mean even reforms may require the unsavory business of fighting, in some sense, rather than compromising. This does not seem to be born out by history. Further, the violation of the ideal inherent in struggle does in principle require the repudiation of revolutionary means of struggle.

The Alinsky quote says that the evil of revolution is that is creates a new establishment, though it reconciles itself by implying a magical belief in necessary progress. The quote from The Dispossessed highlights the way in which denying the ends justify the means, because they are not really different things, actually implies that non-ideal means are criminal, thus the alleged “ends” are unacceptable, except of course when the individual anarchist in their moral superiority unilaterally decides otherwise.

24

Moz of Yarramulla 02.11.18 at 11:15 pm

steven t johnson@23: To rephrase, the only way forward to the ideal is by overthrowing the non-ideal status quo, by revolution.

That wasn’t my reading at all. A brutally simple example would be “I think killing animals is wrong. Rather than send money to the (R)SPCA I shall become vegan”. You’re seeing a situation that is irredeemably non-ideal, but rather than go along with the modern purchase of absolution by giving money to a political group the person chooses the radical step of actually reducing the killing of animals themselves. There’s no revolution (with either choice) but veganism is definitely a radical choice.

25

Moz of Yarramulla 02.11.18 at 11:32 pm

I’m a big fan of pushing revolutionary ideas, and I think it makes sense even from an incrementalist perspective – by shifting the Overton Window the radicals help the liberals get their ideas accepted. Sometimes the radicals win and change is rapid – like Reagan destroying the “national debt is bad” myth, for example, leaving it purely as a weapon to use against Democratic governments.

Raven@16: In engineering of physical systems, this is plainly true; you accept a less-than-optimal solution in terms of resources for a safe, reliable system.

Maybe for some engineers, but quite a lot of modern engineering has taken up “move fast and break things”, using buzzwords and computers to build things that can’t be produced incrementally. This is most obvious with stuff like bridges that are both obvious public works and look weird. Sometimes they turn out not to work after all… like the London swaying footbridge. Or Elon Musk’s fireworks displays.

In software-heavy fields this has become the norm, at one end of the spectrum you have mathematical proofs of correctness and at the other you have autonomous cars. The traditional approach is to build up incrementally, testing and understanding as you go. But that’s very slow in internet time. The radical option is to build something you hope might work and test it … “see what happens”, as the popular saying goes. In capitalist terms it’s a venture capital approach, in biology it’s stimulated evolution.

That there have been some really big successes from the radial approach, and some really big failures from the traditional approach (the list of Mars mission failures is long). When the moonshots fail we go “shrug, sometimes you lose” but when the cautious approach fails people tend to point and laugh. It’s worth noting that both approaches can kill large numbers of people, and we accept that too (but then, autonomous cars will probably kill fewer people per passenger-metre than primate operated ones, even with the “suck it and see” approach that we’re using).

26

steven t johnson 02.11.18 at 11:49 pm

Moz of Yarramilla@24 on veganism “rather than go along with the modern purchase of absolution by giving money to a political group the person chooses the radical step of actually reducing the killing of animals themselves…”

The example you give is not a radical step. One person eating no meat must be negligible (save from the standpoint of the purity of the vegan soul.) And the strategy here is moral suasion which is not radical at all, no matter how extreme, because it is a strategy that does not work. That’s why it’s so popular, I think.

But of course you may be correct, and I’ve badly misread. But I can’t see how any other reading doesn’t reduce the OP to either trivial irrelevancies like your example, or meaningless verbiage.

27

NickS 02.12.18 at 12:20 am

Very interesting post, thank you.

As I’ve been mulling it over, I feel like the important follow-up question is whether we can figure out any guidelines for determining whether a reason for being more radical is valid.

I’m just concerned that it could easily be used as cover for rationalizing a position which might not be fully grounded (rationalizations of the “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” variety). I feel like there’s an analogy to be me made to the distinction that is often made between means and ends (and the very often tricky questions about how much one’s methods and goals need to be congruent). If one is taking a position that, “in an ideal world the best solution would be [X], but in the existing world, the solution which will result in the greatest improvement relative to the status quo is [Y]” my intuitive response is that if the difference between [X] and [Y] is large one should demand a strong argument before accepting the truth of that statement.

Which brings my to my initial question, how does one evaluate the strength of the argument?

28

Orange Watch 02.12.18 at 12:31 am

Moz@25:

To go deeper into analogies to engineering: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hill_climbing#Local_maxima

Incrementalism can lead you into traps where the only way to improve according to a given standard (let alone other standards) might be to cause a given standard to deteriorate. It obviously only becomes more dramatic if you’ve enshrined progress as a core ideal in and of itself, so regression from a non-ideal but stable status quo will be inherently a betrayal of deeply-held principles.

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LFC 02.12.18 at 2:48 am

One issue with this post (perhaps already pointed out; I haven’t read the thread that carefully) is that the phrases “fairly significant political ruptures” and “a fairly disruptive and confrontational progressive politics” are not elaborated on, as the last paragraph indirectly acknowledges. So, for ex., one is left to guess about exactly which kinds of tactics and methods are “fairly disruptive and confrontational” and which tactics go beyond that.

Some reference to historical experience might be called for as well, beyond a passing reference to Piketty’s “very exceptional” post-WW2 circumstances. If, in a world lacking effective transborder capital controls, capital can flee an ‘advanced’ country when an anti-capitalist govt takes office and tries to implement its program (e.g., Mitterand 1981), what’s the solution to that? Is there one that has a chance of being realized? (Simultaneous socialist revolutions in all the leading countries of the global political economy might be a ‘solution’, but it doesn’t exactly seem probable or on the agenda, and it’s not clear by any means that the benefits would outweigh the costs.)

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Matt 02.12.18 at 3:54 am

A very interesting post on a difficult topic. I want to suggest what seems to me to be a possible real example, mostly to see if I am understanding correctly.

Consider the limits put on free speech in post WWII (west) Germany, making holocaust denial (and some other “political” speech of the sort that is seen as “core” political speech in the US) illegal. As I understand it, Habermas and some other supporters of this legislation argued that it was necessary (at the time) so as to make a future _more liberal_ society possible. So, it was necessary to put in place special non-liberal restrictions on speech so as to make liberal democracy possible. But, this wasn’t seen (at least by Habermas, again, insofar as I understand him) as the ultimately right position, or as generally right, but as right for the particular especially non-ideal circumstances of post-war Germany, if it was to have any hope of becoming a liberal democratic society. Would this work as an example? (My understanding of the example is heavily influenced by Jan-Werner Muller’s very good book, _Constitutional Patriotism_, for what that’s worth.)

People interested in the topic might also be interested in William Edmundson’s new book, _John Rawls: Reticent Socialist_, perhaps especially the last chapter, “Non-Ideal Theory: The Transition to Socialism”. I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet (I’ve only skimmed the last bits) but it sounds very much like Edmundson is trying to work out these questions in relation to his understanding of Rawls (as a defender of socialism in a fairly strong sense), arguing that Rawls would have, and Rawlsians should, accept “transition” principles that would be “stronger” in some sense than what would be acceptable in just, well-ordered society.

I’ll admit to being a bit scared of such things myself, though, because it seems to me that many people are too quick to accept the righteousness of their cause, and so their own actions, and to not question themselves enough. We have as much evidence as we could want of this going wrong very easily, and of course introspection is of almost zero worth in deciding whether one has gone wrong in this way. This seems to me to call for significant caution when invoking “radical” measures.

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UserGoogol 02.12.18 at 7:20 am

steven t johnson: I feel like there’s two different definitions of radicalism which people conflate because they often overlap. One sense is about support for extreme change, but there’s also the other sense of change which confronts root assumptions of society. Which as it happens, the etymology of the word, which is why the word “radical” also refers to square roots and radishes and such. Language evolves so that doesn’t mean that sense is more correct, but the latter is a useful distinction to have, because we already have lots of words for extremism in general. Individual veganism is a radical choice in the sense that eating animal-based products is pretty deeply entrenched in Western culture, but it’s also a pretty modest incremental action in the grand scheme of things.

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TM 02.12.18 at 9:29 am

Can this idea (theory? heuristic?) be empirically tested, perhaps against world historical events? Can the concepts (cf. 29) be sharpened enough to derive guidance for real world action?

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TM 02.12.18 at 9:37 am

I also thought along the lines of J-D 17: “under ideal circumstances, by definition, people have got what they want, and therefore have no reason to be radical at all” . But then I’m not familiar with “non-ideal theory” (only with Ideal theory, and only in Mathematics). Surely we must be missing something?

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J-D 02.12.18 at 9:50 am

steven t johnson

The Alinsky quote says that the evil of revolution is that is creates a new establishment …

No, it doesn’t. Alinsky does suggest that each revolution creates a new establishment, but he doesn’t suggest that revolutions are evil for that reason; he doesn’t suggest that revolutions are evil at all.

The quote from The Dispossessed highlights the way in which denying the ends justify the means, because they are not really different things, actually implies that non-ideal means are criminal …

No, it doesn’t; there is no suggestion that something non-ideal is criminal; indeed, there is no suggestion in that quote that anything is criminal.

Le Guin’s characters take the view that the journey has no intended endpoint; Alinsky takes the view that the metaphorical mountain has no top. In both cases the argument is against setting up an ideal state as a goal, because there can be no ideal state. I agree; and if you think differently, I gather no idea from your comment of what you suppose the ideal state is or why you think it’s right to aim at it.

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Brian Carey 02.12.18 at 11:42 am

Miriam – Yes, that makes sense. I just wanted to emphasise the more general point that it’s a mistake to think of non-ideal theory as necessarily modest. The idea that it might sometimes be even more radical than ideal theory (because of, rather than in spite of non-ideal circumstances) is certainly intriguing.

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Rob 02.12.18 at 1:49 pm

This makes a good deal of sense. If you think of ideal theory as the theory of full compliance, then thinking of non-ideal theory as more radical makes a lot of sense. Noncompliance requires radical solutions. This is one of the lessons of the extensive literature on self-defence, which is basically all about how more radical means become permissible when certain basic norms aren’t complied with. I think there are two important questions though.

First, what do we mean by distance here? One prominent and I think deeply misconceived way of thinking about distance is as some kind of numerical measurement, where we check what portion of some ideal has been achieved and then assign that a value as the appropriate fraction of the whole, perhaps choosing between options on the basis of expected value. This is roughly what I think Gilabert and Lawford-Smith and Hamlin and Stemplowska propose, and Wiens shows makes no sense – although even his work requires that ideals are in some sense teleological rather than regulative. But then how do we conceive of distance?

Second, just what kind of radicalism are we talking about here? One problem with the Gilabert and Lawford-Smith and Hamlin and Stemplowska position is that it seems fine with small-scale violations of basic norms to achieve incremental improvements in the justice (or whatever) of a given society. If some political murders would cripple an party opposing justice, given the way the expected many diffuse benefits would aggregate, the murders seem permissible if not required. The examples you give suggest you don’t mean that kind of radicalism – it’s a radicalism of (temporary) aims – but those aims themselves may raise questions about the violation of basic norms. Let’s say some labour conscription was required if we were going to aim at eliminating capitalism. To what extent is that a *troubling* violation of freedom of association and contract?

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TM 02.12.18 at 1:55 pm

“I feel like there’s two different definitions of radicalism which people conflate because they often overlap. One sense is about support for extreme change, but there’s also the other sense of change which confronts root assumptions of society.”

„Zu sagen was ist, bleibt die revolutionärste Tat.“ Rosa Luxemburg paraphrasing Ferdinand Lassalle

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Tom 02.12.18 at 1:59 pm

Great post and welcome, Miriam. Just some thoughts, sticking to your example: “the problem with the social-democratic ideal is that it is simply unstable”.

OK, so we should be more radical, aiming for something to the left of social-democracy, let’s call it socialism. There are two cases here:

a) if, by our radical opposition, we get to socialism, that is a stable outcome and, if possible, we should be happy to stay there forever after, even if it is not our ideal society.

b) by pushing for something more radical, we push back the capitalistic forces but we do not get all the way to socialism, we just get somewhere closer to social-democracy, though maybe not perfectly there.

In b) radical measures are adopted instrumentally and the goal is, as it were, to make the unstable social-democratic equilibrium more stable. I think many here on CT may differ on their end-goal but believe that the left should be more confrontational and ask for more, so that it can bargain more strongly to defend, say, the welfare state.

If the proposal is some version of a), then we should ask ourselves if socialism (or whatever end-goal we want to the left of social-democracy) is indeed stable. I think asking this question will also help us understand why at some point there was a neoliberal turn: surely the right propaganda mattered* but maybe there was some problem with the original system too and as we define our future (ideal or not) goals, we should be mindful of mistakes from the past.

*As a side, ironically, here in the US the tea party got a lot of inspiration from the leftist radical, Alinsky and legend has it that Grover Norquist keeps a statue of Lenin in his house.

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steven t johnson 02.12.18 at 2:58 pm

J-D@34 insists on reading Alinsky as selectively as he read my comment. “… History is a relay of revolutions; the torch of idealism is carried by the revolutionary group until this group becomes an establishment, and then quietly the torch is put down to wait until a new revolutionary group picks it up for the next leg of the run. …” A relay race has a goal. As I noted, Alinsky reconciles the evil of revolutions that set up new establishments with a radical commitment by a mystic vision of the world as a vale of struggle, where each revolution is a further step toward the equally mystic goal. Quasi-Calvinist or neo-Stoic? Take your pick. Alinsky is satisfied with a perpetually receding goal, never to be attained. So what? That’s like being satisfied with not seeing God in this life either.

Rather than relay races with runners dutifully slogging on toward an unspecified goal, I think revolution is better compared to the hands and passengers of a ship desperately mutinying against a crazed captain running them all onto the reef. Ideal state? It’s about surviving.

“That sacrificiality was what Takver had spoken of recognizing in herself when she was pregnant, and she had spoken with a degree of horror, of self-disgust, because she too was an Odonian, and the separation of means and ends was, to her too, false.” Takver is overwhelmed with self-disgust because she was fool enough to deprive herself in pursuit of a goal, ignoring that there are no separate ends and means, that her privation is the end, and a bad one. If it is bad to willingly sacrifice things for yourself in foolish pursuit of nonsense like goals, then it is even more evil to force sacrifice on others by such obstreperous misbehavior as revolution.

That’s not what the characters think, nor, I suspect, is it entirely what LeGuin thought, though you can never be sure about anarchists or pacifists or pacifist anarchists. When push comes to shove, they are fundamentally reactionary. Unless, like Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, they sensibly ignore all the nonsense they spouted before. The thing is, that LeGuin was an artist, and wrote truthfully enough that the characters reveal themselves. Here, Takver exposes herself. Nothing requires that the artist understands everything about what they show, if that is even possible.

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Z 02.12.18 at 3:20 pm

Matt @30 I’ll admit to being a bit scared of such things myself, though, because it seems to me that many people are too quick to accept the righteousness of their cause, and so their own actions, and to not question themselves enough

I tried to allude to that in my comment 9. If advocacy for X means “I want X to be dominant”, then one should look at radical X with suspicion, exactly for the reasons you give. If, however, advocacy for X means “I want X to be relatively more represented”, then there is no reason to be particularly scared of radical X, and many reasons to be wary of “moderate” X, for the reasons outlined in the OP. How do we know which interpretation is correct? My hunch is that it depends crucially on the relative structure of the political field so a general answer might be hard to give.

Particular case do not look so hard to me, though. When Sanders (or Corbyn, or Mélenchon) supporters say they like socialism, does that (predominantly) mean they want socialism and nothing else, or does that mean they want more socialism than currently exists? The linked article of Miriam Ronzoni discusses the case of Thomas Piketty, which is a perfect one; he’s a very moderate guy who nevertheless can conduct an analysis to its logical conclusions and who consequently has been espousing more and more radical positions year after year (not because he has become more radical, or at least I don’t think so, but because the French political landscape changed).

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J-D 02.12.18 at 8:31 pm

steven t johnson
The words I bolded in the passage I quoted from The Dispossessed were: ‘You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere.’ In my earlier comment I wrote: ‘I gather no idea from your comment of what you suppose the ideal state is or why you think it’s right to aim at it’. That was true then, and it’s still true now.

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steven t johnson 02.13.18 at 4:09 am

J-D@41 thinks “You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere” is a meaningful criticism of wrong-headed extremists, moral cretins, vicious fools, Communists, etc. The idea that revolutionaries who have their heads stuffed full of mad plans and utopian visions and philosophasters’ fancies was the same BS Edmund Burke peddled. Centuries of popularity haven’t made it one bit truer. But it gets unwiser with every decade.

Bolding or not, the quote seems irrelevant to anything but character exposition, for the simple reason that “you” (which in context means “we”) are not choosing any direction at all, nor are we choosing to stop. They are choosing the direction. It’s doubtful they have any ideas of actually stopping, but always seeking more of the same (except that really is a mad plan and a utopian vision.) After we win, we may choose our direction(s.) I have no idea why we would expect it to stop.

The ideal state is a concern of the OP, and questions about it should be addressed to Miriam Ronzoni. My reading of the OP is that the implicit ideal state is non-revolutionary to the point of social pacifism…but flirting with the idea that while maybe actually winning the class war might be more horrible than anything else, a little bloodshed along the way might still promote reform.

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J-D 02.13.18 at 8:31 am

‘It is inconceivable! It is absurd! … Because … our revolution was the last one. No other revolutions may occur. …’

‘My dear, you are a mathematician … Well, then, name the last number. … The last one, the highest, the largest.’
‘But … that’s absurd! Since the number of numbers is infinite, how can there be a last one?’
‘And why then do you think there is a last revolution … The “last one” is a child’s story. Children are afraid of the infinite …’

{Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, ‘Record Thirty’)

Which is the more radical vision, the vision of an ultimate revolution that produces the ideal outcome, or the vision of revolutions without end?

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Miriam Ronzoni 02.13.18 at 12:47 pm

Hi again, and again cannot answer all questions – and so may of them are both very interesting and very hard.

Murali: yes I think the reasons you mention are a big part of why non-ideal theory is often construed as being modest, not very ambitious, cautious, etc. I am not disputing the idea that these reasons often hold; I am taking issue with the assumption that they must hold all the time.

Matt and Rob: I think, again, that this is closer to Chris’s point at the beginning of the thread, i.e. that you are raising points about means rather than ends. Makes sense?

Tom: yes, of course, the stability of the radical, non-ideal end-state is of course very relevant. And we may very well not have very good data on it – but in some cases the alternative may be so bad that the risk might be worth it.

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J-D 02.13.18 at 11:28 pm

steven t johnson

J-D@41 thinks “You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere” is a meaningful criticism of wrong-headed extremists, moral cretins, vicious fools, Communists, etc.

I agree with the sentiment expressed in the quoted sentence, but the latter part of the sentence is your fabrication. I didn’t write that, or anything like it; you just made it up. Why?

The idea that revolutionaries who have their heads stuffed full of mad plans and utopian visions and philosophasters’ fancies was the same BS Edmund Burke peddled.

I had some difficulty parsing your sentence for its meaning, but I am guessing that the explanation is that the word ‘who’ was included by mistake. If my guess is correct, then my response is that the idea you describe may be Burke’s idea, but it’s not mine (as far as I can tell, it’s also not Alinsky’s, or Le Guin’s, or her characters’–or Zamyatin’s, either, as I’ve now quoted him as well).

Bolding or not, the quote seems irrelevant to anything but character exposition, for the simple reason that “you” (which in context means “we”) are not choosing any direction at all, nor are we choosing to stop. They are choosing the direction. It’s doubtful they have any ideas of actually stopping, but always seeking more of the same (except that really is a mad plan and a utopian vision.) After we win, we may choose our direction(s.) I have no idea why we would expect it to stop.

I don’t follow this exactly, because it’s not clear to me who is ocvered by ‘we’ and who is covered by ‘they’, but I don’t accept the idea that some people make choices and other people don’t; everybody makes choices, although the scope available varies hugely.

The ideal state is a concern of the OP, and questions about it should be addressed to Miriam Ronzoni.

If you don’t have any concept of an ideal state to aim at, then it seems to me that you are agreeing with me, and it’s not clear to me what it is you think we are disagreeing about.

My reading of the OP is that the implicit ideal state is non-revolutionary to the point of social pacifism…but flirting with the idea that while maybe actually winning the class war might be more horrible than anything else, a little bloodshed along the way might still promote reform.

I can’t figure where you’re getting that reading from; it seems distorted to me.

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steven t johnson 02.14.18 at 1:33 pm

[[[J-D@41 thinks “You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere” is a meaningful criticism of wrong-headed extremists, moral cretins, vicious fools, Communists, etc.

I agree with the sentiment expressed in the quoted sentence, but the latter part of the sentence is your fabrication. I didn’t write that, or anything like it; you just made it up. Why?]]]

It was meant as a criticism of someone, both in the novel and by you when you quoted it. I was merely listing the usual targets. I would go by your list but… If you don’t say what you mean, people will still draw their own conclusions. You don’t get insist they are wrong, especially when you don’t even pretend to clarify what you allegedly meant to say.

[[[I had some difficulty parsing your sentence for its meaning, but I am guessing that the explanation is that the word ‘who’ was included by mistake. If my guess is correct, then my response is that the idea you describe may be Burke’s idea, but it’s not mine (as far as I can tell, it’s also not Alinsky’s, or Le Guin’s, or her characters’–or Zamyatin’s, either, as I’ve now quoted him as well).]]]

Yes, “who” was left behind when I deleted “are the bane of humanity.” First, no Burke apologist will concede any more than you did that essentially Burke’s idea. Second, that was not my criticism of Alinsky (much less Zamyatin,) but Le Guin. Third, you misunderstand, every bit as much as Le Guin (and, a fortiori, her charcters,) that if there is only the now, then a social pacifist commitment condemns revolution as a crime. If you protest that is inconsistent with other things Le Guin has said, in her own person and in the very same novel, yes, precisely!

[[[Bolding or not, the quote seems irrelevant to anything but character exposition, for the simple reason that “you” (which in context means “we”) are not choosing any direction at all, nor are we choosing to stop. They are choosing the direction. It’s doubtful they have any ideas of actually stopping, but always seeking more of the same (except that really is a mad plan and a utopian vision.) After we win, we may choose our direction(s.) I have no idea why we would expect it to stop.

I don’t follow this exactly, because it’s not clear to me who is covered by ‘we’ and who is covered by ‘they’, but I don’t accept the idea that some people make choices and other people don’t; everybody makes choices, although the scope available varies hugely.]]]

We are the people who don’t rule, and they are the ones who do. I think your moralizing individualism is the ethic equivalent of Anatole France’s equal laws against sleeping under bridges. I think not seeing the difference between us and them is fundamentally reactionary…and why dodging that question is what makes it so hard to figure out what the OP really means.

[[[If you don’t have any concept of an ideal state to aim at, then it seems to me that you are agreeing with me, and it’s not clear to me what it is you think we are disagreeing about.]]]

You wrote your comment @34 to disagree with me, but you didn’t know what you were disagreeing about? The Alinsky quote was irrelevant because it basically asserted that life was an endless but successful struggle for unspecified ideal states that suddenly turn out to be non-ideal, because. And the Le Guin quote was backward because it implicitly counterposed the now against hopes for the future, forgetting that affirmed the status quo. I understood you disagreed with me when you were wrong-headed enough to quote them in the first place.

[[[My reading of the OP is that the implicit ideal state is non-revolutionary to the point of social pacifism…but flirting with the idea that while maybe actually winning the class war might be more horrible than anything else, a little bloodshed along the way might still promote reform.

I can’t figure where you’re getting that reading from; it seems distorted to me.]]]]

Really? It still seems to me the uncivilized, bottom line, de-nuanced, melodramatic version of the OP, applied to the embarrassing situation of a struggle for power.

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