Posted by: captainfalcon | January 23, 2011

Skepticism about mid-level theoretical political commitments

Here are two reasons not to have “mid-level” theoretical political commitments (that is: commitments about what set of institutions is most desirable, not about what political goals it is desirable to promote).

First, agents are incapable of effectuating systemic political change. Pre-existing structural facts fix both the range and demography of ideological competition (they determine, in other words, how many think what, and how many are motivated to do what about it). This means agents are rarely in a position to have an impact on which ideology wins out at any given time, and whether they are in such a position depends on uncontrollable structure. Moreover, in those circumstances where agents are in a position to have an impact on which ideology wins, they cannot know it. This is because the social facts that fix both the range of viable ideology and whether some political strategy will accomplish a reconfiguration of institutions are generally sui generis (the social configuration is always unique). Thus, they can only be known narratively – through historical storytelling – and so can never be known completely, and certainly not to the level of specificity needed to predict whether a particular political strategy will be successful at a particular moment in time.

These facts imply that we have no control over politics. They also imply that we have no reason to hope (albeit impotently) for one set of institutions over another. The fact that we cannot know how populations will react to a given institutional change – because the structural facts known only through narrative fix that, as well – means that we are incapable of successfully imagining the institutional setup that will actually best promote our political goals. (This is so even if our political goals are themselves institutional – e.g. democracy – because it is unpredictable whether a given democracy will sustain itself or not.)

Three points about this argument. One: it is not just an alternative route to a conservative resistance to all but incremental change. Maybe it doesn’t entail the irrationality of hoping that current institutions be preserved (although that’s only the case if we have reason to think the social status quo will remain), but it does entail the pointlessness of the conservative attitude, because it means we are politically powerless.

Two: an advantage of this type of political skepticism is that, unlike (equally well justified, in my view) skepticism about our capacity to apprehend the criteria for evaluating political systems, it doesn’t even arguably entail a self-defeating global skepticism.

Three: because it only presupposes various sociological necessities, it is agnostic about whether individuals are autonomous.



  1. If I follow this, you’ve got two points here (correct me if I’m wrong).

    First, noticeable institutional changes are driven by societal conditions rather than individual actions. Second, the major long-term impacts of a given institutional change are effectively unknowable in advance.

    The first point I would agree holds if there is a broad distribution of power in the society. A major institutional change will succeed if there is sufficient power backing it; if power is widely distributed then a major institutional change requires achieving buy-in from a large portion of society, which except in certain (in advance unknowable) situations means a proper alignment of social factors.

    However, that ignores some edge cases where one individual can in fact gather enough support on his own. Perhaps it’s a very small group in question, where one or two individuals simply have the physical might to impose their vision. Alternatively, it could be that one person has gathered sufficient prestige and loyalty that he is backed by a decisive element regardless of what he actually is proposing. Julius Caesar was backed by his army not because the army thought that they should replace the republic with empire (and had Caesar died, his army would then have found someone else to become emperor), but because his army was loyal enough to follow his lead when Caesar decided to grab for the throne. Caesar could, in fact, have reliably judged before-hand whether his army was that loyal, and he also presumably could have judged whether his army had sufficient strength to seize Rome. It is a mistake to chalk that particular change down to institutional shifts, because had Caesar been oppositely inclined it’s quite possible he could have averted the transition to empire at least for the duration of his life if not permanently.

    Regarding the second point, I agree that the long-term impacts (looking decades or centuries down the line) are extremely hard to predict – generally effectively unknowable. However, there are certain reasonable short-term predictions you can in fact make. To make an obvious example, if your goal is promotion of democracy then you can reasonably predict that most of the time if you land an overwhelming military force in a country and insist on their being a democracy, they will be a democracy at least as long as you maintain overwhelming military force there. If you survey a country and find that corruption is the biggest cause of social unrest, then if you (somehow) can manage a peaceful institutional shift that decreases opportunities for corruption you can reasonably predict before-hand that such a shift will, at least temporarily, decrease social unrest.

  2. While a sizable degree of determinism is unavoidable with institutional change (as comparativists often argue, most notably Sam Huntington and Barrington Moore), I think your two interconnected assertions take this train of thought too far. Perhaps I am being too literal here, but the first assertion, about individual actors being unable to effectively shape systemic political change is flat wrong. To give a more contemporary example than MM, Charles de Gaulle had very wide latitude to form the Fifth Republic to his liking (and that does not even come close to what the shapers of the First Republic or other similar “revolutionaries” have had). Now perhaps you can chicken-and-egg things and argue that social and geopolitical conditions where what thrust France into the crisis and de Gaulle into the driver’s seat in the first place (which is what I think you were getting at with “This means agents are rarely in a position to have an impact on which ideology wins out at any given time, and whether they are in such a position depends on uncontrollable structure.”) I do not have a great rebuttal to this line of thought, other than to note that there has to be someone(s) in the position to influence things when the time comes and that they do have the agency to reshape institutions to a certain degree (and, contrary to your assertion, seem to be quite cognizant of their capacity, if not their limits).

    Further, though again much of this knowledge is contigent, it is also not correct to assert that we have no way of knowing which set of institutions will succeed in a particular context. While each situation is, as you say, sui generis to a certain extent, we have had enough cases to extrapolate certain trends and theories about which situations are most conducive to which institutions. For example, it is generally established that successful democratic rule requires a minimal GDP per capita, a sizable, educated middle class, and a modicum of political literacy, with India being the main outlier.

    This is not to say I don’t agree with your argument, at least in broad strokes. There is a reason Kyrgyzstan has seen two major revolutions in the past five years, as successive “democratic” governments have fallen into favoritism and clan-patronage as a substitute for democratic legitimacy, or why Lebanon, Iraq, and Belgium are competing to see who can be the last to form a stable governing coalition. Each state’s sociopolitical landscape (not to mention its actual landscape, but that’s an argument for another blog post) heavily curtail possible outcomes. I just wanted to give some necessary pushback against the extremity to which you took that logic. I will say, though, if you are interested in investigating these type of questions further, I would highly recommend checking out some of the classics of comparative politics, which churn through this issue repeatedly.
    Relatedly, I think point 1 is incorrect about the validity of the “conservative attitude.” Even assuming the inability of individual actors to shape outcomes consciously (which is highly doubtful), I think the essence of the conservative attitude stems from the realization that political institutions and norms, while stubbornly resistant to change or reform, but are still susceptible to deterioration, with nothing capable of filling the void to take their place. I think of the Maoist reforms (an admittedly extreme example, though illustrative in its immoderation), where Chinese society did not rebuild in the form that Mao had hoped, but was not so resilient that it did not crumble in the process. In my mind, at least, a conservative attitude shares your skepticism about individual agency in remodelling institutions but not your optimism about their fundamental endurance.

  3. […] keeping with our discussion on the efficacy of having mid-level theoretical political commitments, Daniel Larison and James […]

  4. […] Seidman’s proposal would, at least, be ineffective.  It is also infeasible, as Seidman’s op-ed ironically proves.  In arguing for the reasonableness of constitutional quietism, Seidman draws heavily on the constitutional disobedience of the founders, thereby underscoring that the Constitution is so vital a source of political legitimacy that even those seeking to depart from it must appeal to it in so doing!  It is a dramatic demonstration of our powerlessness in the face of ideology. […]

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