Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The motivating questions of politics

Writing my post on trust, power and status, it occurred to me that much of politics can be understood by attending to the underlying motivating question of particular political outlooks.

For example, the motivating question of libertarianism is: how can personal liberty be protected and expanded? This leads naturally to a concern with government action since the resources, coercive power and reach of government make it the most obvious actual or potential enemy to personal liberty.

(I do not straightforwardly identify as a libertarian because I do not agree with either the trumping primacy of that question or characterising government primarily as a threat to personal liberty. The latter due to the paradox of politics: the state is needed to protect us from human predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of all human predators, a paradox that can never be solved, but only managed.)

The motivating question of progressivism is: how can I be virtuous? This concern with intent easily slides into status-seeking: into conspicuous compassion, ostentatious virtue and other forms of moral vanity. After all, if people seeking to be virtuous congregate together and develop agreed notions of what it is to be virtuous, then “thinking like us” becomes an easy path to “being virtuous”. You are straight into beliefs as status markers.

Much of the “quality” media is all about being virtuous as a common motivator for journalists and their audience and—not a small point for media organizations—gives them something to sell: opinions as markers of virtue. Public broadcasting, The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald are all in this market. Academe is rife with it.

The motivating question of radicals such as Orwell and his modern biographer and admirer Christopher Hitchens is: how can tyranny be best exposed and opposed? (Hitchens’s notorious atheism connects directly to this, since he clearly regards religion as a great engine of oppression and tyranny: and there is certainly much to be said for such a perspective.)

It is no accident that Hitchens has developed the same deeply problematic relationship with modern progressivism as Orwell did with the progressivism of his time. For “being virtuous” progressivism easily develops into a tendency to excuse “good intention” tyranny—whether Stalin then or figures such as Castro now. But if one opposes tyranny per se, regardless of its alleged intentions, then such excuse-making for tyranny is odious. Indeed, something to oppose and become a trenchant critic of (as Orwell did and Hitchens has).

It is also why one sees folk on the right claiming that, if Orwell had lived, he would have left the Left. If one sees the main apologists (or even advocates) of tyranny as being on the Left, it makes perfect sense to presume Orwell-the-enemy-of-tyranny would have left the Left, particularly given he was such a trenchant critic of the progressivist Left. For myself, I am much more dubious (despite the example of Hitchens and others), since Orwell’s socialism seems to me very deep-rooted in his world-view and his personal history of anti-fascism would have undermined any such identification of the Left with tyranny, and hence any such shift in personal politics. (Hitchens has the experience of living through the collapse of command economics and of members of the Left making excuses for fascism, and fascism equivalents, which changes the dynamics somewhat.)

The motivating question of folk such as Beveridge, Fred Halliday, Norman Geras and similar folk is: how can the situation of the marginalised be improved? This turns out to often be a very similar motivating question as how can tyranny be best exposed and opposed?, since, like the tyranny question, it is focused on consequences and the marginalised are typically the first victims of tyranny.

Thus we get the Euston Declaration Left: it is a coalition of those whose central concern is with consequences (particularly the consequences of tyranny), rather than with being seen to be virtuous, and so is very much opposed to the politics of intent.

How can the situation of the marginalised be improved? has often been the original motivating question of economists—a pattern of personal history that Ronald Coase is a notable, but hardly unusual example. Economics is, after all, a fairly natural discipline if one is interested in improving people’s material conditions. With folk such as Coase, their analysis of how social mechanisms work lead them into a different directions than those who explicitly, or implicitly, accept Marxian-grounded notions of social dynamics. For a question about ends is also a matter of means. Different views of human nature and social dynamics will provide very different answers to the same over-arching question.

The typical conservative question is: how can the achievements embodied in existing society best be preserved? With more optimistic conservatives adding or even extended?, though such optimism is not a natural part of conservative sentiment.

Which is a major reason I do not identify as a conservative. Such extension strikes me as eminently possible: indeed, something the long-run history of Western civilisation encourages optimism about, provided one is genuinely building on its achievements, not undermining them. Hence conservatives in retrospect seem continually to have been on the “wrong side” of political debates.

The other reasons for not so identifying are the ones Hayek identified in his “Why I Am Not A Conservative” essay. Without a sense of direction for policy beyond preservation, one is reduced to merely attempting to slow down the direction others seek to push society. More broadly, there are criteria by which social institutions can be judged beyond whether they have existed for x period of time. Criteria that give directions for public policy to head in.

Liberals tend to combine the protection and extension of liberty question with another. So prudential liberals such as Edmund Burke or George Reid combine the liberty question with the conservative question. Radical liberals such as John Stuart Mill combine the liberty question with the anti-tyranny question. Social liberals such as Keynes or Alfred Deakin combine the liberty question with the help-the-marginalised question.

The personal over the political
Moderates or centrists can be seen as people who do not have a particular over-arching question. Or, perhaps, have a meta-question: which of the motivating questions is currently more urgent? The relative urgency of the various questions will have a big impact on which of the offered answers seems the most persuasive.

Why might they have such a meta-question? Because their motivation is non-political, in the sense of politics is a means for something more important to them. Questions such as the extend liberty, oppose tyranny, help the marginalised, preserve achievement questions (which is hardly an exhaustive list) are concerned with the global direction of society. They are motivating concerns that people with strongly ideological approaches to politics have.

But most people are not strongly ideological, even though they may identify themselves as supporting particular broad policy positions. They are more focused on personal questions such as: how can I protect my family? what will make my family prosper? what will make me and mine safer? what will make me and mine richer? Politics thus is a means serving these, to them, more basic, ends.

Such an instrumental notion of politics can be very much motivating people within the political arena. Plenty of people in politics have been, and are, primarily motivated by questions such as how can I gain, maintain, extend my power? how can I get richer? Whether power-seeking is a means or an end in itself (and, even if it is a means, to what actual ends?) are very live questions about any politically active person.

Which is why I find analyses of popular approaches to politics and public opinion that stress the notion of people using as cues and as markers so plausible. That just seems to be what people would, and do, do, given the difficulty in judging actual motivations and assessing how politicians and political groupings would affect one’s concerns. It also makes expressive politics make sense: signaling one’s concerns is a rational form of behaviour.

The political as personal
Including, of course, signaling virtue. What is striking about the “how can I be virtuous?” question is that it is a personal goal able to be not merely shared, but jointly achieved, while manifesting in overt political concerns. It makes it a hybrid: something that looks ideological but is best understood in terms of common personal (indeed psychological) dynamics. One should not expect too much intellectual or ideological consistency but, rather, something more like the dynamics of fashion: indeed, a series of moral fashions. (With particular concern at being “clearly” more virtuous than most folk: especially within your own society, where status games really count.)

Which provide a set of targets with avenues of approach for more ideological folk to aim at. Comrade of Lenin and victim of Stalin (a common double), Willi Munzenberg perfected precisely that strategy and its associated techniques. Osama bin Laden has tried his hand at it while Tariq Ramadan is quite adept at it.

I have long been dubious about the “self-loathing” characterisation of progressivist views: it seems to be much more clearly motivated by a sense of moral and cognitive status driven by a (shared) concern to identify as being virtuous. And it is, after all, terribly virtuous to be concerned with the sins of one’s own society. Which provides a big button for those in conflict with said societies to aim at, and they have. That their practices and intentions may be much worse becomes beside the point for the motivating dynamic, however relevant it might be for more serious moral judgment. But that is the difference between hijacking the language of morality and being morally serious:
... here is my central thesis. If there is no truth, there is no injustice. Stated less simplistically, if truth is wholly relativized or internalized to particular discourses or language games or social practices, there is no injustice. The victims and protesters of any putative injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, that of telling what really happened. They can only tell their story, which is something else. Morally and politically, therefore, anything goes.
As long as folk get to feel virtuous (and, of course, really clever and perceptive).


  1. When I was part of the Israeli peace movement I was troubled by the feeling that I'm actually involved in religious rituals of personal purification rather than in a movement that was trying to accomplish anything.

    I was also troubled by how many in the movement were more interested in separating and purifying themselves from Israeli society rather than being part of it, warts and all, and thus influencing it.

    This attitude resulted in making that movement completely futile both for the Israelis or the Palestinians, but that attitude wasn't conscious, I think.

  2. In the narrative of socialism the businessman is the villain and the union-leader, the elected public servant, the civil servant and the activist are the heroes. In the narrative of extreme capitalism, the reverse is true.

    It seems to me (as a non-expert) that all of them sometimes play the roles of heroes or villains, but that they are all necessary for society to function. The question is how to balance the different considerations.

    Take unions. In a way they serve a very capitalist purpose -- improving the ability of the employee to bargain with the employer based on the very system of capitalism.

    The activist can also be seen to be working in the same system of the free market of ideas.

    The role of government seems more complex but still essential in capitalist society to balance the problems of capitalism.

  3. Micha, thanks very much for the personal observations.
    but that attitude wasn't conscious, I think
    Oh, I am sure it is not. Which is why they resent so bitterly any analysis in such terms.

    And yes, the automatic heroes-and-villains approach to social analysis is not sensible (said the former local union workplace delegate).

  4. Lorenzo

    Once upon a time I was a marxist. But unlike many of my fellow travellers, it had nothing to do with presumptions of my virtue. In fact, a big influence in my move from leftist politics was the realization that most leftists are only instrumental leftists to the extent it allows them to flaunt their [presumed] moral superiority. Ultimately, their moral vanity made me violently react against them.

    Even their self-identification as "progressives" smacks of this vanity. "Progress" sounds like an advance, something better. "We are progressively fixing our new houses rising damp problem to make it habitable.

    My embrace of marxism was empirical. I thought marxist crisis theory was profound, and that a society caught in a boom-bust cycle was doomed. I also thought we could do away with poverty only by doing away with private property. My motivation for wanting poverty relieved was I was raised poor, and it personally pained me to think of all the shitiness my friends, community, and family had/did endure.

    I would encounter "privileged" kids who would say "even if we distributed all the world's wealth equally, by tomorrow we'd back to the same situation." I didn't jump on my high horse and scream "how dare you." I thought about it, and said "but what is private property and trading it were banned?"

    Nowadays that "progressives" and "leftists" have dumped material and class issues for race and gender, I have contempt for any person who describes themselves as a progressive.

    I don't give a shit about "patriarchy" or the White Australia policy.

  5. Lorenzo

    I differ a little from your definition of 'conservatism.' If forced to, I nowadays identify as a 'liberal conservative.'

    The 'conservative' part is merely a rebuttal presumption against drastic change. I am definitely prepared to support drastic change, but the onus of proof lies with the radical to convince me.

    Where our difference lies is not wanting the features of the past, but a deep phobia against disastrous social unrest. Thus my conservatism is purely a product of being an Australian. I know just how lucky we are to be so cohesive with such rock solid institutions, which have overwhelming public support. If I lived in some other polity (perhaps even the US), I would not be a conservative.

    Where the 'liberal ' part comes in - and it is secondary - is once I am content that the big picture is sound, THEN my liberal advocacy can kick in safe from ruining the social harmony and strength of our institutions.

    Thus, in 2010 I am a radical liberal, and feel we can be far more liberal and change-oriented than we currently are, including test-running new bombs at the first setting of the next parliament! :)

  6. Peter: believing Marxism is true is a very good reason to believe it. I think it fairly clearly is not true, but I understand the motivation from a sense that we ought to, and it was possible to do, much better. But, of course, the experiment has been run, again and again, and we know command economics is a human disaster.

    On defining conservatism, social cohesion strikes me as an achievement. I agree that a sense that it is easy to do worse, that the achievements of the past are fragile, is part of conservatism. Being against change per se strikes me as silly unless one is worried it will make things worse.