Bad pragmatism in political decisionmaking

(9:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

This diary was prompted by the debate that circulated here around Senator Obama’s vote on telecomm immunity in the FISA bill, especially in Keith Olbermann’s diary of 6/26, and thereafter.  Olbermann’s rationalization was that Obama’s vote was a pragmatic move to attain power for the greater good.  The debate about Obama’s vote culminated in a defense of “purity trolls” (as such) in a diary listed here: “I’m calling out purity trolls by name,” incl. the Founding Fathers.  Since this “pragmatic” justification is endemic in politics today, I think it behooves us to examine it, and to specify and explain a “bad pragmatism” that comes of the uncritical acceptance of social “reality”.  I will also specify an antidote to “bad pragmatism,” in the concept of utopian dreaming.

(crossposted from Big Orange)

First: This Isn’t a Referendum On Obama’s Vote

We’re going deeper than that here.

But, just for Olbermann’s fan base, let’s go over the rationalization for the vote given in his diary:

But anybody who got as hot about this as I did would prefer to see a President Obama prosecuting the telecoms criminally, instead of seeing a Senator Obama engender more “soft on terror” crap by casting a token vote in favor of civil litigation that isn’t going to pass since so many other Democrats caved anyway.

Now, there are a number of propositions embedded in this argument.  The two big ones:

1) “President Obama” would actually prosecute the telecoms criminally

2) more “soft on terror” crap would be bad for Obama’s campaign

If both of these propositions hold up, Olbermann’s argument stands.  If they don’t, then the Democrats in Congress are guilty of bad pragmatism.  And we, moreover, would be guilty of bad pragmatism if we failed to criticize them for their it.  

Now, of course, there’s the question of whether the Democrats (and also, specifically, Obama) have failed to defend the Constitution when it counted — but that’s not really a pragmatic criticism.  What counts for pragmatists are results — and the best possible results for Democratic Party pragmatists are (ostensibly) results which have Democrats in power.  Obama hopes to win an election — let’s hope his votes and his campaigns “make it so.”  That is what this blog is about: electing democrats, no?  Congressional voting is about politics, and politics is about gaining power.  Or so the reasoning goes.  This can be a sort of Machiavellian pragmatism; do what it takes, sacrifice whatever principles are necessary, all in order to attain power.

(In fact, we might argue that many of our problems with pragmatism stem from simple readings of Machiavelli’s Prince.  From the Wikipedia entry on Machiavelli:

The primary contribution of The Prince to the history of political thought is its fundamental break between realism and idealism. “The end justifies the means,” though never directly stated in the book, is often quoted as indicative of the pragmatism that can be said to undergird Machiavelli’s philosophy.[citation needed] The Prince should be read strictly as a guidebook on getting to and preserving power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, the ideal society is not the aim. In fact, Machiavelli emphasizes the need for the exercise of brute power where necessary and rewards, patron-clientelism etc. to preserve the status quo.

But there are criticisms of this Machiavellian thinking, based not merely on ideals but primarily on pragmatic, practical grounds which consider the realities of politics, and which reveal the possibility of “bad pragmatism” in the quest for power.  They are:

1)  Machiavellian thinking dismisses the defects of the system within which one is attaining “power”.  Becoming the Head Rat in a rat’s nest still means it’s a rat’s nest, and that one will still be nothing more than a Head Rat.  Obama may become President, but President of what?  An out-of-control US government?  Will Obama have to become part of Washington’s megalomania in order to have any “control” over it?  Time will tell.  Sometimes the competition itself forces the results of a competition for power.  Not only may “power” ultimately be an illusion for those who attain it, then, it may be just lead to a bad deal, in which the price of attaining “power” is spending all of one’s time fending off competitors.  Clinton complained about this when he was in the White House.

2)  Machiavellian thinking takes a narrow view of actual social possibilities.  I think that this criticism bears out if we examine its application to the problems which will be presented by abrupt climate change.  

Arguably, some sort of broad social transformation will be necessary for our world society to cope with abrupt climate change.  We may need a lot of innovative technologies to deal with abrupt climate change — but none of these technologies represents anything close to a quick fix, and so society will itself have to change.  After all of our thinking about alternative energy sources, post-petroleum vehicles, and so on, ecological survival for global society will require a transformation from the “consumer society” to the “conserver society.”  This may not appear entirely possible from an immediate perspective (for instance: can everyone in Los Angeles ride bicycles to work starting tomorrow?) but can appear as the gradual development of a potential for change in such a direction.

Now, all of our candidates, and many of theirs, have some proposal to deal with abrupt climate change.  But most of these proposals fall short of what will be necessary to avoid catastrophe, because they do not incorporate a sufficiently broad model of social change to deal with the problem effectively.  Thus the politicians are forced into “bad pragmatism” — recommend something ineffective against abrupt climate change, or recommend denial.  Those who are in office at the time will take the hit for the eventual bad results.

3)  Machiavellian thinking runs the risk of misunderstanding ordinary people.  These are the folk the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.”  According to organizational theory, one of the primary flaws of hierarchical organization is that those at the top do not know what is going on with those at the bottom.  This is typically why Congressmembers lose elections — they are too busy paying attention to what goes on in Washington DC (and to how to gain power therein) that they do not know what their constituency wants.  To a certain extent, misunderstanding of the base can be overcome by studying demographics; ultimately a solution involves doing the hard work of organizing the general public to make political demands.

4) Machiavellian thinking does not attempt to grasp political economy.  All societies are ultimately based upon concepts of political economy.  Historical feudal societies, for instance, were based upon a political economy of lords/ nobility, peasants/serfs, and a warrior class of knights.  Modern capitalist societies are based upon capital, lodged in an investor class, and labor, sold for an hourly wage by a working class.  Political economy, then, specifies the political and economic roles of social “players.”  Simply put, political economy constitutes the social “bricks and mortar” by which civilizations are built.

One reason the Democratic Party has lost a good deal of political traction in the current era of politics (i.e. post-Reaganism), is because of the persistent misunderstanding of many of its members as regards the political economy of neoliberalism, and specifically of the system of dollar hegemony described so neatly by Michael Hudson.  In the 1990s, for instance, the Democratic Party declared itself the party of “fiscal prudence,” claiming that the national debt was just too high to incur deficit spending.  On the other hand, during that era the Republican Party gained plenty of political traction around the notion of being “strong on defense,” and used this traction to expand the national debt (via dollar hegemony) for the sake of buying weaponry.  Now, conceivably, a political campaign could have been mounted by populist forces to demand “our share” of the benefits of dollar hegemony.  Why, after all, should the benefits of dollar hegemony go almost entirely to military corporations and their employees?  Why not use them to improve America’s universities, or its agriculture?  Political opportunities were lost, then, out of the “bad pragmatism” that imagined “fiscal prudence” to be the best way to manage the state.

5)  Seizing political power right away is not always the best way to attain lasting power.  When the state is in trouble, sometimes it’s just best to be out of political office, challenging its power from the outside, and organizing the public to demand social change, the better to attain power as the head of a popular movement with broad endorsement.  Excessive pandering after political power, on the other hand, can be a losing proposition when the state is merely the proxy for a higher, non-state power which will fail in its task and be removed from power at some later date.  In Latin America during the 1990s, for instance, numerous governments were obliged by the IMF/ World Bank to enact neoliberal “structural adjustment” programs, which were ultimately disastrous for the countries in which they were imposed.  The national leaders who imposed these programs were eventually thrown out of office by angry publics.


So, yeah, there is such a thing as “bad pragmatism.”  Look at the Democratic Party’s record of winning elections since the beginnings of Reaganism.  Since 1980, arguably, the politicians have for the most part (and with a few exceptions, e.g. Dennis Kucinich) followed the “most expedient,” the most pragmatic, path to power.  What stands out?  Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, the Contract With America, the DLC.  As a result, America has been mismanaged by the numbers.  As you well know, the main reason the Democratic Party is in power in Congress today is that the Republican Party fumbled away the election of ’06.

Second: What is Bad Pragmatism?

Let’s start with a simpler question: what’s pragmatism?

Pragmatism, as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests, is:

a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.

So, ultimately, pragmatism is a philosophy which emphasizes practical consequences.  Ideas are practical if they “work.”  

But this begs a few critical questions:  What counts as “working”?  And for whom?  And when and how do we measure the success of ideas?  There are plenty of ways of critiquing ideas as “working,” or not.  Bad pragmatism has muddled the answers to the questions I asked — typically, bad pragmatism just takes for granted existing routines, hoping to achieve power by following them in a better way.  (Thus, for instance, the 2004 campaign of John Kerry, who promised to be a better President than Bush while leaving many of the precepts of governance of the Bush administration unquestioned.)

A book I recently read, Andrew Hartman’s Education and the Cold War, discusses the history of progressive education leading up to the 1950s, when (Hartman argues) progressive education was largely attacked as a form of “Communism.”  The lessons to be learned from this history are about pragmatism, and they are as applicable today as they were to the Fifties.  

Now, Hartman, a partisan of the American Left, was in favor of progressive education, as well as of its main principled proponent then, the philosopher John Dewey.  Dewey, “arguably the most famous American philosopher in US history” (Hartman 12), was also the most famous exponent of the pragmatist school of philosophy.

As Dewey counted himself a pragmatist, “an idea or ideal was senseless beyond the realm of the practical or verifiable.”  Dewey, however, laid out a philosophy of education that centered upon the benefits of education to children, and not merely the adaptation of children to social circumstances:

In short, Dewey was antipathetic to education as conformity.  For Dewey, the relationship between individual agency and the surrounding environment was one of mutual adjustment, not a matter of one-sided accommodation of the individual to a static environment.  “The environment must be plastic to the ends of the agent,” argued Dewey, because the “transformation of existing circumstances is moral duty rather than mere reproduction of them.” (Democracy and Education, 52, qtd. in Hartman, 15).

This distinction is also important to our understanding of bad pragmatism.  Too early we give up on the idea of transforming society, because we are too busy seeking success according to its existing parameters.

At any rate, at the end of World War II, recounts Hartman, an educational movement called the “Life Adjustment Movement” was created, incorporating an emphasis upon psychology and a conformist ethos that replaced the socialist tendencies of educational philosophy that had been current in the 1930s.  Of this period in educational history Hartman writes:

Educational “adjustment” cohered with what has been termed the “therapeutic ethos,” a psychological framework that pervaded social reform efforts during the postwar years.  Whereas the pedagogues who wrote for the Social Frontier conceptualized education alongside radical political economic theory, their postwar counterparts focused their analyses on a superficial variant of therapeutic psychoanalysis.  In short, Dewey’s dictum was reversed: rather than adjusting society to the child, in the hopes of creating a socialist society, the child was to be mentally adjusted to the decidedly un-socialist society already in existence (55)

As with Hartman’s history of the Fifties, then, so also with our political Pilgrim’s Progress of the present day.  Our notions of “pragmatism,” of “what works,” may be infected by adaptationism, the implicit belief that success is to be measured by the ability of individuals/ communities/ groups/ etc. to adapt (or to gain power) within the existing world society.  We need to do better — we can’t be caught indefinitely supporting politicians who vote to mess with the Constitution just because they’ve adapted to life in Washington DC.

Final: The Antidote to Bad Pragmatism

In many of the examples of bad pragmatism I’ve cited above, one element is missing.  I won’t call it “principles”: indeed, there is no way I will accuse Barack Obama of lacking “principles,” nor will I argue here that the insistence upon “principles” is the key to avoiding bad pragmatism.  The pragmatist criticism of principles still stands: principles are no good if they won’t get you good results.

The United States government proclaimed itself the protector of “liberty” and “equality” long before it actually abolished slavery.  It took a social movement, a war, and some Constitutional amendments to abolish slavery.  So it’s not just “principles” which lead the way to a better world; there has to be a process, both a social process of making it happen, and a mental process of imagining it as it could exist in a different way.

The social processes are doubtless ones that many of my readers here have already engaged.  The mental process needs a name, and here I will give it the one the educator Paulo Freire popularized: utopian dreaming.  

One very progressive critique of Deweyan pragmatism, as specified by Hartman in his book on educational philosophy in the Fifties, was offered by the progressive educator Theodore Brameld (1904-1987).  Brameld suggested that, though he liked Dewey because Dewey liked democracy, “method alone was insufficient in the reconstruction of society.” (145)  Brameld, then, believed in inserting “an ‘audacious and cosmic vision’ of social reconstruction” into his philosophy of education.  (145)  Brameld suggested that education, more or less, could create a society which would be able to bring about world peace, and he set about creating a curriculum and a school that would show how this task could be achieved.

This, then, is the stuff of “utopian dreaming” is made.  Utopian dreaming need not produce utopian blueprints — but our utopian dreams do need to specify a world that is substantively better than it is today (no global warming, for instance, or affordable health care for all, or a Constitution that the politicians don’t mess with) and they need to specify paths, verifiable ones, by which we might get from here to there.  We need a national conversation about “utopian dreaming” — it would clarify where we’ve been, where we are, and (especially) where we’re going.

Bad pragmatists, particularly, can’t do “utopian dreaming.”  When Congress implicitly approves the government’s spying upon ordinary citizens, we ought to be asking them: what were you thinking?  What kind of world do you want to bring into being, with those votes?  Did you imagine that if the government spies upon you and me that a better world would come about as a result of their efforts?  How so?  Any expert on intelligence gathering can tell you that the sort of blanket data-gathering that would result from such spy programs would be ineffective against “terrorists.”  So we need a justification of spy programs as “utopian dreaming.”  Congress WILL be embarrassed.

The point is to have an overarching vision of society as it could exist differently, and to subject that vision to critiques of both Right and Left, from all angles in fact, so as to see that one’s overarching vision met the standards of the pragmatists among us.  Our politicians who run for office should be able to perform “utopian dreaming” as well — we will get nowhere in our electoral endeavors if we keep electing mere “pragmatists” who can attain the offices of power held by the current crowd without doing far better than they are doing today.


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  1. and for utopian dreaming.

    • Robyn on July 2, 2008 at 3:45 am

    …always comes at the expense of us lesser mortals.

    • Robyn on July 2, 2008 at 3:45 am

    …always comes at the expense of us lesser mortals.

  2. I find that I agree that power comes out of the end of a gun barrel.

    “Congress” (in quotations to signify contempt) is not at all interested in making a better world. You say “Congress WILL be embarrassed”. No they won’t. They’re petty crooks. Knuckle draggers.

    Once upon a time there was an enlightenment when people like Jefferson, Paine and Franklin could help create a country based on idealistic principles. Oh yeah, they had George Washington and a lot of guns to back them up.

    As I watch Obama retreat from using his intelligence it occurs to me that the only way to get to utopian dreaming is if we throw all the bums out and start again. But I also believe there is a little Mugabe inside 98% of the Congress.

  3. and very well written essay cassiodorus. You speak for many unheard voices.

    I fail to see anything utopian in upholding respect for the constitution. Shouldn’t that be the norm?

    • RUKind on July 2, 2008 at 10:57 am

    I really hate to Yell Louder! but this one takes the cake. Letting the telecoms get off scot-free is such a fundamental violation of privacy rights that it shouldn’t be allowed to happen on this planet. This is like Yahoo giving up the Chinese protester. We are all being given up all day every day by the telecoms.

    Every single byte in the IP packets that will take this thought from my mind to yours is being intercepted by the NSA. If Dick Cheney were to suddenly take an interest in me or you he would be able to find out almost everything about us in a minute.

    He would know what car we drive, where we work, what we read, what we tell each other in these posts, who our children and spouses and relatives are, what we eat, where we eat, how we dress. How much we make and where we spend it and how often. Everything we do. That’s what this is about.

    This is beyond fundamental. The computational power is there right now to intercept every single communication on the planet and zero in on the interlocutors. That’s why bin Laden gave his  satellite phone to his underling and went the other way. He’s off the grid now.

    If you want to live on the grid in relative privacy then the telecoms need to be severely punished for giving up all of our interpersonal communications and transactions. Our lives are open books. They can do to us whatever they want on a retail level. They’re moving way beyond the wholesale level. They have 40% of the country right now and the rest of us hanging by our fingernails and most don’t even know it.

    My discipline is computer science. We are all totally fucked if the telecoms get off with this crime. We are all totally fucked if Cheney and Bush get away with this. Iraq is just a side show compared to FISA. Iraq and Iran and oil will come and go. Other energy sources will be found. We will find ways to adapt to the climate changes.

    You can grab your ankles and smile. Hope they don’t notice you between the birthing and the grave. Be a docile cog in their machine and spend your nights watching reality TV shows.

    Vaya con Dios. I’ll be off-planet in the next decade or so. I really hate leaving a mess like this, tho.


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