We have now seen how realists, especially through their focus on legitimacy, tend to be committed to strongly contextual approaches to political normativity. Contextualism also provides a way into the last and so far least developed focal point of realism, namely, the rejection of ambitious attempts to formulate grand theories from which to derive prescriptions for any possible political scenario and in reference to which we can judge political behaviour, in favour of a normativity that is appropriately sensitive to the speciﬁc conditions under which political decisions are taken and agents act. Enzo Rossi & Matt Sleat "Realism in Normative Political Theory" Philosophy Compass (2014), 694.+
l have noted before (recall here and here) the realist suspicion of theory as a set of systematic relations that can guide policy. By 'realist' I mean the tradition of thought that takes its immediate cue from Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss, but that purports to find its world-historical inspiration in Machiavelli, Thucydides, Hobbes, and Schmitt. If Rawls and/or ideal theory is the only conception of grand theory that's available, and these, in turn, are constructed in terms of a (technocratic) ideal of consensus formation,* one can understand the realist distaste (given their other commitments), especially if such theories are (exclusively) -- to quote another, more recent paper by Rossi -- "inferred from overarching, pre-political values or principles."
Now, one may wonder why this prevents one from embracing grand theories that are inferred from or constructed with attention to political values and principles (if one grants the realist that there is a distinction between ethical and political values). To the best of my knowledge, this is not addressed by contemporary theorists, but one can infer the suspicion of it from the following passage quoted approvingly and commented on by Rossi:
we cannot describe, that is, picture, in the concrete, any state of society of which the world has had no experience. For into the reality of a society, even in its broader details, there enters a large element of contingency, of alogicality, of unreason, with which no general principles will furnish us. (Belfort Bax 1891, Preface)**
radical realism is empirically informed, and so while it can let the political imagination run free of feasibility constraints, it is wary of letting it go down the dark alleys of precise prescriptions that balance an unwieldy amount of variables. The realist can be politically ambitious but must be theoretically modest enough to leave those details to politics: there are aspects of politics not amenable to philosophical domestication.--"Being Realistic and Demanding the Impossible"
We see here that Bax embraces a number of interrelated points: first, the embrace of radical (Knightian) uncertainty in political life; second, the idea that society itself contains internal contradictions, even (third) non-eliminable superstition. Fourth, that because of these facts any coherent and systematic theory of what an as-of-yet-non-existent society should look like, will be, as it were, falsified by the new world.
Rossi's endorsement of Bax infers from Bax's diagnosis that one should reject a baroque theory (with many variables [there are shades of Duhem here]) that purports to offer detailed policy prescriptions either to get from the bad status quo to the desirable end-state or to legislate the character of the end state. From the vantage point of realism, such Baroque theory is comic. Now, from the rejection of "blueprints" (technocratic and utopian), Rossi's recent work does not end up with mere (Schmittian) decisionism, nor with a focus on contextual judgment (which he had seemed to endorse while writing with Sleat); rather Rossi recognizes, that his rejection of grand theory still allows some place for (ahh) small theory (in the sense of 'small is beautiful'). He does so in describing so-called 'prefigurative politics' in sympathetic fashion:
one can create microcosms supported by alternative, not (or less) ideologically flawed legitimation stories, irrespectively of whether similar structures are feasible at the level of the whole society. To be sure, prefiguration is often understood as a way to enact what one hopes or expects to eventually extend society-wide. But it doesn’t need to be understood that way. Small-scale structures may simply be the best we can hope for, and that is all the more reason to pursue them.
I agree with Rossi (who himself aspires to a more Maxist position than I would) that realists should not reject prefigurative politics out of hand. But it is peculiar that Rossi does not stop to pause at the danger that small scale improvements may well entrench larger scale (bad) structures (say, by making these more robust). This is not a mere oversight. From the contemporary realist's perspective, there is no theoretical ground to make the evaluative claim (or prediction) about the effects on the larger structure. That's because he (and contemporary realists more generally [with the notable exception of our colleague, Paul Raekstad]) have rejected grand theory. I want to close today's post by gesturing at what I mean.
As regular readers know, I share much of the grounds that lead the realist to reject of Baroque theory (of both the technocratic and utopian kinds) with its detailed blueprints. But it does not follow that the realist must reject non-Baroque grand theory that sketches a politically desirable end point without offering a detailed recipe. So, for example, at the end of the Prince, Machiavelli proposes a plan for Italian unification:+
Italy, left as without life, waits for him who shall yet heal her wounds and put an end to the ravaging and plundering of Lombardy, to the swindling and taxing of the kingdom and of Tuscany, and cleanse those sores that for long have festered. It is seen how she entreats God to send someone who shall deliver her from these wrongs and barbarous insolencies. It is seen also that she is ready and willing to follow a banner if only someone will raise it.
The unification of Italy is an ideal that means to combine (i) the elimination of really existing injustices ("ravaging and plundering;" "swindling and taxing;" "wrongs and barbarous insolencies") and so be an enteprise that really is "great justice" and (2) a call to a magnanimous soul to engage on a great heroic enterprise worthy of lasting fame. While much of the Prince is full of insight on how to go about such a great enterprise, it does not go into the details how to get from here to there.
There are two features worthy of comment here. First, Machiavelli recognizes that ideals, including highly normative ideals, are politically motivating. Unlike more modern realists, which (to simplify) tend to embrace a kind of political facts vs ethical ideals distinctions, Machiavelli recognizes that values (and ideologies) motivate (great) collective action that, second, may themselves become constitutive of political union. Obviously, Machiavelli's ideal is rooted in already existing (geographic and historical) realities, but these do not predetermine the shape of the ideal. There is a more important point lurking here. Once such an ideal is motivating, then it creates a whole bunch of conceptual-social necessitations that constrain future paths while recognizing that in practice politics will be full of contingency.
Now, Machiavelli's sketch of a grand theory is extremely thin. And I mention it only because Machiavelli is a realist in excellent standing. But a realist grand ideal can be elaborated systematically and immodestly without falling into the trap of an overly detailed, Baroque blueprint. (I have analyzed in my book such a realist, but relatively un-Baroque grand theory by Adam Smith; I have in mind not his argument for the system of natural liberty, but rather his plan to 'complete' the constitution of the United Kingdom in order to ameliorate the wrongs done to the Irish wrongs and to prevent war with the American colonies.) Such a systematic theory, which -- let's stipulate in honor of the realist demand to respect facticity-- should not go against robust findings of social sciences, is required because of its political virtues (recall also this piece on Adam Smith and Jacob Levy):
- A system can allow one to limit the risks of always acting in ad hoc fashion and, thereby, allow one to grasp which compromises are worth accepting and which undermine one's political, strategic, and (yes) moral aims.
- Some kind of system is required to guide (not control) long-term planning and to allow trade-offs to be modeled (say, between short-term gains and long-term goals) and, where possible, foreseen.
- Being guided by a system generates the possibility of consistency (maybe even accountability) over time.