The Lost Art of the Ideal and the Cycle of Futility
In modern discourse, we focus on the politics of the possible, with a sense of futility about real, positive change. It's time to say what we really want, by embracing the politics of the ideal.
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths. This article is free, though I’ll also have some recommended books, films, podcasts, and articles for paying subscribers at the end of this edition. If you’d like to support my work, please consider upgrading to paid.
The Delusion of Powerlessness
When was the last time you pondered what utopia would look like to you?
I don’t mean that in some vague sense. I mean truly imagined it—conjuring up a mental image of what kind of society you would create, SimCity style, if only you could reshape modern life to your whims. What would perfection look like?
Now, consider this: when’s the last time you switched on the TV or the radio and heard someone in power discussing, in broad value-based terms, the question: “What would an ideal society be like?”
That question is the question for humanity. We almost never discuss it. Why not?
Recently, I gave a talk about my research on power to a group of highly influential, highly powerful people. It was awkward. I was telling people who were in charge that our systems of power are broken—because our systems put the wrong people in charge.
I was talking about them.
The audience was surprisingly receptive. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. Rich people think other rich people are selfish and greedy—not like themselves!—just as powerful people think other powerful people are to blame for society’s ills.
But when I rattled off a series of my ideas for reforms that would make systems of power function better, the nods and smiles turned to stony-faced skepticism. “But is that realistic?” they asked, one after the other. “Will anyone actually do that?”
I hear these refrains constantly. I get it. We all feel powerless. Trying to sway a politician who’s caught in the vortex of hyper-polarization and afflicted by the curse of knowingness in a broken political system seems like a Quixotic waste of time. But this was a group of people who make the decisions, or who influence those who make the decisions, about how to run society. These people play SimCity for real. And still it came: “But is that realistic?”
This is the self-fulfilling delusion of powerlessness.
How can anything be realistic if even the rich and powerful see themselves as passive observers to forging a better society? And how can we build a better society over the long run if the only options we ever consider are those that are already considered realistic right now?
Congealed Choices, Constrained Ideas
As the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto writes, “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures.” Brainstorming makes us human, as our imaginations appear to be unlike those of other creatures. We can imagine worlds that do not yet exist, which allows us to ponder better futures that we could build.
Paradoxically, as more people have grown disillusioned with modern society—its dysfunction, its toxic politics, its injustices—we are discussing fewer and fewer ideas on how to transform our world. The ideas we do discuss have congealed. Our imaginations have been stuffed back inside the box, because we only debate the “politics of the possible” among a constrained set of stale possibilities.
To build a better society, we need two kinds of parallel thinking:
What kind of society do we want?
Given the constraints we face, how can we move society toward that ideal?
To put it differently, you need both the politics of the ideal and the politics of the possible. The former allows you to decide on your destination. The latter is like Google Maps, offering the path of least resistance to get there. But in modern life, we’ve grown so jaded, so cynical about what can be achieved, that we’ve effectively eliminated serious discussions around the politics of the ideal.
There’s a wonderful scene in The Office, in which Dwight Schrute, trapped on the unfulfilling hamster wheel of working at Dunder Mifflin, escapes into “Second Life,” a virtual reality game. (Dwight objects: “Second Life is not a game. It is a multi-user virtual environment”). It’s a world of unbridled possibility, but Dwight’s alter-ego is exactly the same. In another scene, Dwight tells Jim about his wildest dreams, and it turns out that, within that fantasy, Dwight still has to check with the manager to make decisions.
“But I haven’t told you my salary yet,” Dwight says with glee.
“Eighty thousand dollars a year.”
We laugh because he’s so blinkered, so tethered to his small ambitions that he cannot even fathom a radically better life, even in his wildest moments of escapism. But in modern society, are we so unlike Dwight Schrute and his milquetoast fantasies?
Why we need pie-in-the-sky thinking
This problem has long nagged at me. We’re living through a moment of democratic reversal, an authoritarian resurgence, in which longstanding democracies—including the United States—are in serious need of dramatic reforms. I speak about these issues on television and I write about them in the press. I try my best to offer solutions. But I never get asked “what would be the ideal set of reforms?” Every question is framed within the politics of the possible, never the politics of the ideal.
In fact, when I’ve pitched op-eds about the ideal, the response is the same: “But is that realistic? We don’t need pie-in-the-sky fantasies.”
The problem, though, is that if you never discuss the pie-in-the-sky ideas, you’re just following Google Maps without thinking about where you want to go. Turn left, turn right, never look at the bigger picture. We drive forward, but always toward a flawed destination that nobody really wants.
Acclamation and the Tyranny of Closed Questions
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a German political philosopher and jurist named Carl Schmitt articulated a new method of political decision-making. Rather than wasting time with all that pesky deliberation and discussion, Schmitt wanted decision by “acclamation.”
As the sociologist William Davies explains in the London Review of Books, Schmitt’s argument was that discussion should be closed, not open, in which citizens are consulted, but only as to whether they want “yea” or “nay.” This politician or that one? Debt ceiling default or compromise? The public, Schmitt wrote, can “express their consent or disapproval simply by calling out.” But the framing is never neutral. The choices on offer are only a narrow selection of all possible futures.
It’s a vision of politics that matches much of the ethos of social media, in which we like something, or we don’t, we share a tweet, or we dunk on it. Even when we talk about politics with friends or family, most people discuss how awful the politicians are, or critique a specific political choice.
We’ve become a thumbs up or thumbs down society.
This up or down society is prone to being hijacked by nefarious forces. As Neil Vallelly writes: “This situation is exploited by populist politicians, especially of the conservative variety, who can mobilize an electorate by presenting them with simple and extreme binary choices that mirror their online behaviours.”
As Davies points out, this dynamic even extends to cultural production, where viewers watch singing competitions and vote “yea” or “nay.” But this “tyranny of binary choice” infantilizes us, as Davies elaborates:
A one-year-old child has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head. No descriptions, criticisms or observations are necessary, just pure decision. This was precisely what Schmitt found purifying in the idea of the plebiscite, that it cut out all the slog of talking. But a polity that privileges decision first and understanding second will have some terrible mess to sort out along the way.
(Incidentally, Schmitt understood that closed options also could be used effectively for political control, creating friends and enemies of a political regime, and he was an influential thinker in the rise of the Nazi Party. Schmitt was later called “The Crown Jurist of the Third Reich”).
We need to ask more open questions: what do we want?
Yet, when you turn on an American cable news channel, no matter the time of day or what’s going on, you’re likely to see people who are mostly discussing either how abhorrent the other side is, or what should be done within the narrow range of the politics of the possible. “These are the two options the Democrats face; which should they choose?” is endlessly debated. It’s never “What do we want society to be like?”
Part of this dynamic can be explained by our short attention spans. When I’m on cable TV, I’m aware that if I speak for more than 45 seconds in response to an answer, I’m likely to get interrupted, or viewed by other guests as hogging time. But what a bizarre state of affairs. We face earth-shattering problems. Are we going to solve them with 45 second thoughts? It’s fine for the politics of the possible, but disastrous for the politics of the ideal.
Would it be so bad if, instead of 100% of the discourse being focused on the politics of the possible, it was 90%? Would it be so bad to have at least a few mainstream news discussion shows devoted to talking about big ideas and long-term ideals?
This problem feels particularly acute around artificial intelligence. It’s coming, we’re told, and it might kill us all. But is it going to make us happier? Is it going to make our lives better? What should be the goals of artificial intelligence?
I’m not a luddite—artificial intelligence and machine learning technology has the power to transform many industries for the better, from revolutions in health care imaging to eliminating some of the pointless tasks that humans shouldn’t be forced to devote their waking lives to accomplishing.
But we should be discussing why we want AI, and what we want it to achieve for us. Instead, we’re portrayed as passive observers: ready or not, here it comes. That’s how we approached social media and it didn’t work out very well.
For those of us who live in democracies, this is an utterly bizarre state of affairs. We’re supposed to build a society that we choose, not just accept that which arrives out of the ether, as though we’re powerless witnesses to the history we’re supposed to write ourselves.
The Cycle of Futility
Because we face constrained choices, we enter what I call the cycle of futility.
You can’t build coalitions around ideas if nobody has ever heard of them. If you just focus on the politics of the possible, you end up with a defeatist electorate, unable to imagine the possibility of bold action, forever cynical. People begin to believe that real change is impossible. That creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We become Dwight Schrute.
As a result, people with good—but maybe unusual—ideas don’t bother speaking out. They know that if they did, the retort would be the same “But is that realistic?” This way of thinking then infects everyone’s mindset, including those who actually wield power. “We don’t have the votes, so why even bother talking about something we can’t deliver?” They confine their imaginations too, shackled to what they think they can achieve in the short-term.
As a result, bold visions go unspoken, even by people who are supposed to offer them to us. The media, day and night, breathlessly focuses on the contours of what’s achievable within the narrow band of options being discussed, so viewers never consider broader alternatives.
The cycle repeats.
But the cycle of futility doesn’t just mean that we fail to solve problems. It also entrenches division and provokes apathetic disillusionment. Republicans and Democrats, Tory and Labour voters have two very different ideas of the best routes to follow on Google Maps. And, some of the time, they actually want radically different destinations, which is where the debate should be. But too often, there is common ground that goes unspoken.
Most people, everywhere, want to live in a community where they feel safe. Most people, everywhere, want not just economic opportunity, but work with a sense of dignity and purpose. Most people, everywhere, want to live in a world that’s fair, in which rich people pay their share and in which being a decent, productive member of society is a surefire pathway to a nice home and a stable life.
When we talk about the politics of the ideal, our shared ground becomes obvious. When we talk about the politics of the possible, we end up bickering over the directions, even when we agree on the destination. But allowing ourselves to see which destinations we agree on and which we don’t is clarifying. We can then debate the real value differences, rather than being mired in a series of pointless spats.
But too often, the pointless spats consume us, siphoning our boundless imaginations into the most idiotic little boxes.
By contrast, when we realize that we actually agree on the destination, that recognition allows us to get there faster once we know where we should be headed. In that way, sometimes the politics of the ideal actually makes the politics of the possible easier.
The Power of the Ideal in an Open-Ended World
Carl Schmitt understood the power of binary choices, using acclamation to transform society into “friends and enemies.”
Don’t be like Carl Schmitt—and don’t accept the Schmitticization of society, in which we become “yea” or “nay” creatures who dwell endlessly on the politics of the possible.
Instead, my modest suggestion, which I aim to follow in this newsletter, is this: try to start more political discussions by answering open-ended questions and providing your ideal answers. Let the political wheeler-dealers worry about getting the votes.
Conversations about ideals are not only more productive, they’re also more interesting. We do disagree about some important, deep seated things—our values are not uniform. But the sooner that we understand how our utopias differ from one another, the closer we can get to building something more like one here on Earth.
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths. My work is completely independent and reader-supported, with no corporate money, so if you found this interesting and worthy of your support, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription (it’s about the price of a nice coffee once per month). Below, I’ve also included a list of recommendations of what to listen to, read, or watch—which is only available to paid subscribers.
What to feed your brain this week
Every so often, I share TV shows, movies, podcasts, books, and articles that I’ve enjoyed. I hope that you will find some enjoyment in some of them, too.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Garden of Forking Paths to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.