As Max Weber noted nearly a century ago, and as others have noted in various ways and various contexts, there is an inexorable logic to certain developmental paths that is not always in best service to our humanity, or to our ultimate goals. Weber called it the “rationalization” of society, an “iron cage” from which we can’t escape. We see it in evidence today in such things as economic globalization, over-reliance on fossil fuels (with all of the associated environmental and international consequences), and weakening of American communities in favor of both geographic mobility in service to careers and school choice in service to (or so the theory goes) increasing market forces disciplining public education. We also see it in politics, in the strategies used to win elections and campaigns, and the short-sighted, ritualistic attitudes fueling them.
I wrote about this once in reference to my own campaign in an overwhelmingly Republican district, in which I sought to maximize the value of my campaign win-or-lose rather than follow strategic prescriptions oblivious to any goal other than electoral victory, almost to the point of considering adherence to that goal a moral imperative even if more good can be done by looking beyond it (see Anatomy of a Candidacy: An Illustration of the Distinction Between Substantive and Functional Rationality). As the title of that essay illustrates, the salient distinction is between functional and substantive rationality, the former being the drive to make the processes by which goals are pursued ever more efficient and effective (which is what drives the inexorable “rationalization” of society discussed above), the latter being the relatively disregarded need to consider whether the goal being pursued is always and under all circumstances the most reasonable of all goals. Substantive rationality, to put it another way, refers to focusing more on what we are trying to accomplish than on how we are trying to accomplish it, and ensuring that we are not just constantly refining our techniques, but also constantly refining the goals that those techniques are mobilized in service to.
Politics is as caught up as any sphere of life in the goal-displacement of almost exclusive focus on improving the techniques by which the goal of winning elections and campaigns is pursued, and almost complete disregard for subjecting those intermediate goals to constant scrutiny in light of our long-term goals of putting this state, country, and world on an ever-accelerating path of ever-increasing reason and justice. True “progressives” need not only pursue progress on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, always assuming that their own current understandings are perfectly accurate and incontrovertible, but also need to constantly reassess those current understandings, and seek to implement and advocate for improving the procedures by which we think and act in order to best serve our ultimate goal of improving the quality of life on Earth.
There is a related economic concept of “path dependence,” which is the tendency to stick with sub-optimal current ways of doing things due to the start-up costs of changing paradigms. A classic example is the “QWERTY” keyboard, which was designed to avoid the jamming of keys on the original mechanical typewriters. It is no other way the most effecient arrangement of keys on a keyboard. Yet the costs involved in everyone relearning how to type (or “keyboard,” as it is now called), along with other incidental costs of changing the keyboard arrangement, seem to outstrip any consideration of making a shift. We see this phenomenon throughout the social institutional landscape, in which existing social institutional procedures and structures have an inertia which outstrips their utility, all things considered. Path dependence has a psychological as well as economic dimension to it, with new ideas facing the habits of thought and belief into which potential adherents have invested themselves.
One of the necessary remedies to this imbalance is to constantly keep that ultimate goal in mind, and to not lose it to the short-term goals of winning elections and campaigns. That does not mean that the short-term goals are irrelevent, and the strategies in service to them can simply be disregarded. But it does mean that we keep in mind at all times that those strategies must always be mobilized only in service to our ultimate goal of improving the quality of life on Earth, and never allowed to blindly displace it.
This involves a bit of a cost-benefit analysis (always asking “does this strategy cost us more in terms of the ultimate goal than it benefits us in pursuit of it?”), and a recognition that the means have many incidental systemic consequences that may not adversely affect the intermediate goal of winning an election or campaign, but can adversely affect our social institutional landscape in ways which at times outweigh the marginal value of improved chances of winning that particular election or campaign. The cumulative effects of these incidental consequences of functionally rationally but substantively underscrutinized procedures and techniques are highly significant, and is one of the fundamental drags on robust long-term political progress.
I recently encountered an example of this on a left-leaning Facebook page, in which one participant posted a video of which she was very proud, that her organization had made, whose purpose was to stoke up popular rage against corporate power and influence. I found the video appalling, because it reinforced our irrationality rather than our rationality, reduced the issue to a two-dimensional caricature of the real issue, and was as likely to motivate a clammor for bad policies as for good ones (which is the cost of not only appealing to emotions in service to some rational end, which is generally necessary, but rather appealing to emotions in service to an emotionally defined end, which is frequently counterproductive).
This is what I call “the angry left,” a movement which superficially seeks progressive goals, but does so via methods which reproduce rather than moderate or transcend the underlying structural problems which favor irrationality over rationality in political decision-making, and which reinforces rather than counterbalances our tendencies toward mutual hostility rather than mutual cooperation. If the ultimate goal is best served by trying to increase the degree to which reason and universal goodwill guide us and inform our policies, then processes driven by irrationality and belligerence are unlikely to serve that ultimate goal very well in the long-run.
Ironically, “raging against the machine” in many ways reduces us to mere cogs within it. We have to aspire beyond the machine, to actualize and realize our humanity, to celebrate and believe in our potential to transcend our current state of being, as individuals and as a society. It is not that we can snap our fingers and create some lofty ideal, but rather that we are capable of doing better than we are doing, and we have to strive to do better than we are doing to realize that capacity.
This is not a call for political pacifism or non-confrontationalism. I confronted the woman who posted and extolled that video, just as I confront those on the right who argue belligerent and irrational ideological positions. But it is a call for keeping the ultimate ends in mind, and never forgetting that the means by which we pursue intermediate goals in service to those ultimate ends affect how well we actually move in their direction above and beyond their effects on our ability to achieve those intermediate goals.
The remedy to this perennial error of remaining locked inside the logic of political ritual and theater is to increase our attention to substantive rationality, even while maintaining our commitment to functional rationality in service to it. We do not want to let the latter displace the former, but cannot ignore the latter while pursuing the former.
This means moving toward grander visions, and more comprehensive strategies in service to them. Focusing exclusively on winning this election of this campaign locks us into the logic of short-term functional rationality and prevents us from being guided by long-term substantively wise goals. We need to be visionaries, and to promote visionaries, and to cultivate visionaries, rather than be political hacks, promote political hacks, and cultivate political hacks. We need to believe that we’re capable of doing substantially better than we are doing now, as a people, as humanity, and then figure out how to pursue the long-term goals which serve that far-sighted vision.
I am increasingly frustrated, because it is not that this is too complicated, or too difficult to do, but simply that we are too unaccustomed to consider the need for doing so. We have reduced politics and political activism to a set of technically refined rituals in service to short-term goals in struggles over immediate outcomes, and have almost completely lost sight of how our real political struggles cannot be measured in election cycles, nor are limited to what we commonly think of as the political sphere. Everything we do is political; every effort we make, individually and in various degrees of organizational collectivity, is political, and has political ramifications, because it all affects our social institutional landscape and coalesces into our ongoing evolution as a people.
We need to constantly remember that political efforts are not something separate from the entirety of our social institutional landscape, but rather something seeking to articulate with that entirety (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions) and the entirety of our processes of social change (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change) in the most effective ways possible. This requires a part of our movement, a portion of our efforts, to be removed from our sophisticated, highlyt rationalized political rituals, to step back and remain critical of them, to attend to the larger picture and the longer term, and to discipline those technically sophisticated processes in service to our ultimate goals rather than forever co-opted by our immediate goals.
There is a way of doing this, if enough of us are willing enough to invest enough of our time, effort, and passion into it. There is a way of increasing the salience of reason and universal goodwill in our political efforts, to make them more attractive forces, to inspire people to move in their direction, not by ignoring the realities of our cognitive processes, but rather by addressing them in service to our ultimate goal of creating an ever kinder, gentler, more reasonable world. (See A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, and How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, as well as the rest of the essays in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, for an overview of my proposed methodology for pursuing this long-term vision).
Please join me in this effort. Help me to engage in the processes that serve our humanity, not just by fighting against our inhumanity on its terms and in its arena, but by trying constantly to refine the arena itself, improve our political substructure and popular processes, and make that social institutional framework one which is ever more defined by our humanity and our commitment to reason and universal goodwill.