Wednesday 2 January 2013

Pragmatism is not all it’s cracked up to be

One thing that unites our political leaders is a belief in pragmatism. It conveys a positive buzz, which is why politicians like to associate with the concept. But as Alex Worsnip explains on Prospect magazine’s blog, “it allows politicians to subtly stifle dissent, and causes us to neglect the most fundamental questions about what our society ought to look like”:
Tony Blair told us on his election in 1997 that what counts is not “outdated ideology” but “what works.” David Cameron famously wrote that he doesn’t “believe in ‘isms’” because “words like communism, socialism, capitalism and republicanism all conjure up one image in [his] mind: extremism.” Earlier this year, Nick Clegg eagerly urged a group of business leaders that the Liberal Democrats would be “sensible and centrist; pragmatic – not dogmatic – at all times.”
These claims to some sort of down-to-earth, no-nonsense practicality do not stand up to close scrutiny:
Talk of “pragmatism,” especially in Britain, is a part of a narrative that proclaims that we have reached an era of post-ideological politics. But the term is extremely slippery, and the first problem with this cult of pragmatism is that no one seems willing to pin down exactly what they mean by “pragmatic.”
Worsnip considers various possible meanings and concludes that what politicians mean by ‘pragmatic’ is a Baldwinesque “what matters is what works”. But this remains highly problematic:
The notion of “what works” is amorphous and vague. One can only assess whether something is working against some kind of a standard for what a well-functioning society looks like; for what it is that you want to work and how. As an economist might put the point, you have to have a utility function to maximise; you can’t just maximise.
Is a society “working” if GDP rises steadily but citizens are drastically unequal? What about if people of different races and religions have different access to opportunities and goods? These questions are ineliminably moral, and must be answered in detail before we can have a useable notion of “what works.” The attempt to find some value-neutral standpoint from which to assess what works – the aspiration for an escape from ideology altogether – is an impossible one. Deciding how to weigh up different social benefits and harms is hard; it goes to the core of what we want our society to be like. But these questions are just made harder by reducing a vast swathe of distinct and often competing considerations to a single, sweeping judgement of “what works.”
The error here is not just a philosophical one. When politicians talk about what works, they make tacit assumptions about various moral questions concerning the proper aims of public policy. But by presenting themselves as “non-ideological pragmatists,” they get away with leaving these assumptions unarticulated and undefended. And so we get a particular value-laden agenda – often, though not always, that of the ruling class – smuggled in, under the banner of anodyne pronouncements about the need to sometimes make compromises or to be sensitive to empirical evidence.
At its worst, this can amount to making a set of value-assumptions seem like incontestable and ineradicable features of the world; to what the sociologist Max Weber called the “routinisation” of value. Those who oppose a particular agenda are characterised as “living in the past’ or as failing to recognise the facts of the modern world. Likewise, talk of “possibility” is frequently used to delimit the range of political options, without it being made clear in what sense and why a particular course of action is supposedly “impossible.”
Worsnip points out that the claim to be non-ideological is often deployed in the service of an ideological agenda, which can be conservative or radical. Politicians who make this claim are trying to convince us that there is no space from which to oppose them:
Cameron, Osborne, and to some extent Clegg have elided questions about the burdens of austerity measures, and how they have been distributed across different social classes, by implicitly characterising their opponents as head-in-the-sand, “unrealistic” idealists failing to acknowledge that something needed to be done about the deficit. Yet that is simply not the question in play when intelligent critics wonder if the burden of austerity measures could not have fallen more squarely on the rich. Clegg [in a speech last October] again provides a striking example, proclaiming – as if it were some sort of heroically straight-talking admission of what no one else will say – that “bluntly, with the economy still fragile, this is not the time for dogma.” In this way, the vague language of “pragmatism” attempts to justify the status quo without providing any kind of substantive argument.
Whereas the old “ideologues” were at least honest about their agenda, the new “pragmatists” do not even tell us what theirs is. The language of pragmatism is thus a far cry from “straight-talking”; rather, it is a way of depriving citizens of the language in which to voice dissent.
So politicians need a coherent vision and clear values – and an honest agenda – before they can talk meaningfully about acting pragmatically. Pragmatism cannot exist outside that context, unless it is a dishonest attempt to disguise one’s agenda or obstruct opponents.

Before Nick Clegg became an MP, he was a member of the Liberal Democrats’ working group that in 2002 produced the party’s vision and values document Freedom, Liberty and Fairness. He would do well to revisit Alan Beith’s foreword to that document:
The Parliamentary Question in February 2002 which left Tony Blair uncharacteristically lost for words was not about adverse health statistics, ministerial failures or foreign policy: it was a modest request from his own side that he should give the House of Commons a brief characterisation of the political philosophy and beliefs which underpin his policies. His inability to do so, and his hasty retreat into health service investment figures, spoke volumes. If you want to know whether to vote for a political party – even more if you want to join one – it is more important to know something about its underlying beliefs than to know about its policies for this year or next. The policies will almost certainly change, and if there is no underlying framework of belief or philosophy, the direction in which they may change is unpredictable. That has been many Labour voters’ unhappy experience of New Labour in government.
If Nick Clegg succeeds in making a similarly vacuous ‘pragmatism’ the core of the Liberal Democrat offer, our voters can expect a similarly unhappy experience.

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