Let’s imagine I told you that I had two friends, both very interested in political philosophy, but in different ways. One of them saw political philosophy as a mattaer of scrutinising and carefully analysing political reality so as to better understand it, while the other saw it as a creative matter of, largely, turning away from actually existing politics and constructing ideals and principles against which to measure reality.
Now, which of these two would you expect to be more politically radical, and which more politically conservative? At first sight, I might well have said that the latter would be the radical, what with their crazy new schemes and so forth, while the former, focused on how things actually are, would be more conservative. And sometimes that’s true.
But in my experience, by and large, things seem to be the other way around. Best symbolised by Rawls(ianism), when I see modern (mainly Anglophone) philosophers talking about utopias and ideal states, they often look rather boring, idealised versions of social democracy. And even when they advance radical positions, there’s little sense of what sort of radical action they think needs to be taken. At least on my limited experience.
Conversely, most radical politics often seems to come from (very often not Anglophone) critical analysis of the functioning of the real system, from the Frankfurt School to the Post-Structuralists. Simone de Beauvoir’s “the Second Sex”, for example, is not the construction of an ideal, a model for an sexually equal society – it’s simply a description of how reality does and has involved systematic sexual oppression.
This is an interesting fact, is it not? It might be taken to suggest that ‘setting aside’ certain issues is never an adequate way to deal with them, because unless they are rigourously examined, they will influence you in whatever else you do. So a politics which ‘turns aside’ from the reality of political issues, disputes, debates, etc., and doesn’t scrutinise them, is more likely to replicate ‘common-sense’ when it tries to be creative in theory. Or it might suggest something else, who knows?
Perhaps the best example of this is “philosophical anarchism”. I borrowed a book recently from a local library called “for and against the state”, anticipating some interesting or challenging arguments. Instead, what I found was a book basically full of people who disagree with anarchism, in that they all seem to accept the necessity and usefulness of states, of whom about half are calling themselves “philosophical anarchists” and arguing with the other half over whether they have a moral obligation to obey particular unjust or pointless laws.
Perhaps the worst bit was ‘anarchism and scepticism’, which argued for an analogy between, um, anarchism (a refusal to accept arguments for state legitimacy) and scepticism (a refusal to accept arguments for human knowledge). And that really summed it up for me – what sort of sterile debate must have been going on for such an analogy to seem reasonable? Where ‘anarchism’ can appear as a wholly negative philosophical dead-end without a positive vision, and where a violent and oppressive institution, as well as being accepted as common sense, continues to seem like common sense even after debate with ‘anarchists’.
Scepticism amounts to rejecting the whole of our epistemic lives: if anarchism was analogous, it would mean rejecting all of our social lives. And if people are thinking and feeling that social life has to involve the state, then anarchism has not got off the ground.
It pisses me off, because we really do not need another annoying stereotype hanging onto the word. We’ve already got
People for whom ‘anarchism’ amounts to mindless fighting with the police,
People for whom ‘anarchism’ amounts to mindless pacifism,
People for whom ‘anarchism’ amounts to listening to hardcore music and doing drugs,
People for whom ‘anarchism’ amounts to the most radical form of free-market ideology,
And now also people for whom ‘anarchism’ amounts to, well, nothing much.
(NB: no offence is meant to those whose well-thought-out revolutionary anarchism happens to incidentally include markets, drugs, fighting or hardcore music)