Ideals as Forces of Historical Particularity

In a recent long drawn out argument with Milan over tensions concerning the oversight of institutions which can not be subject to normal democratic control, i.e. central banks, I had some thoughts concerning not so much what a Government is or could be – but rather concerning the implications of the kinds of answers we give to these questions on how we think about our current situation and how we might change it. To put it simply, I tend to think of Democracy as an ideal which we are not living up to, and that the political duty put on us by our right to live in a rational state puts on us a duty both to make our state rational and to (but not in this order) find out what it would mean to make a state rational. This to me is obvious – what is not obvious is how to go about doing it.

But what I realized in the discussion was that I was making a problematic assumption by separating the ideal (the “rational state”) from the means by which we achieve it. It is good, I think, to hold open how one might make a state rational, and also to hold open what a rational state would be. However, what I was ignoring was how the category “rational state”, even emptied of most of its content, remains a non-neutral ideal towards which we project, and which determines our struggle in various ways.

To explain what I mean, I will employ the example of a statue that stands here in Montreal on the road leading up to McGill. The statue is a luminous yellow of a gathering of people. The ones in front are looking forward, calm, confident. Some silly, some caniving. As you walk backwards along the statue, the people in the crowd are less and less focussed on the focal point out in front, and more on each other, on fighting, on cheating. At the back there are people starving, laying on the ground.

What they are staring at is ideals, values, utopia maybe. The ones in front see, but it is ambiguous to what extent the ideal is drawing them forward. At first, it looks quite clearly that it gathers them, but then you notice some of the faces in the front row are anything but genuine. And besides that, the ones in front shield those behind from the ideal – hence the fighting, caniving, etc.. And at the back, there are the starving, laying on the ground.

The statue is perhaps a bit didactic, and certainly not an “argument” – but it does make me question the “ideal – real” idealist pull, “progress”, the “It will be ok so long as we strive for good values”. Because, striving for values leaves people out. Instantiation is always partial.

In “No Country for Old Men”, Anton Chigurh says to Carson Wells character, when he is sitting with him in his hotel room with a gun trained on him: “If the rule you follow led you to this, what use was the rule?”

The point being – values should be evaluated based on their effects, not their pretensions.

Of course, I already accounted for this by leaving means open, it is our duty to figure out which means will get to the ideals. But – it is rationally required to go farther – to determine “empirically”, or at least by experience, which ideals actually bring us places we want to go. So, even the projected ideal “rational state” must be re-evaluated in the light of what means it inspires us to create, and what the real effects of those means actually is.

Anyway, the point is to not take the ideal as a neutral “utopia, would be nice”, but (at least for the ones in play) as productive agents which make and motivate our world and experience. It is easy for us to see the politically problematic nature of ideals in history, i.e. “Wilderness”, “Civilization”, “Noble Savage” – but it is not similarly easy to see the contingency of the ideals we strive for. We assume they are right, and that the difficulties lie in the way we try to bring these ideals into reality. But the ideals are themselves what bring the world into reality – not the world they purport to beckon, but the one they actually bring.

10 thoughts on “Ideals as Forces of Historical Particularity

  1. Two very indirect replies:

    It has been suggested that central bank regulation of currency and interest rates are unnecessary and that the free-market could regulate more evenly, efficiently and democratically. Whether this is true, and/or desirable, and whether we might be losing other desirable features (such as a powerful counter cyclic force) are open questions.

    Your model is flawed. I don’t think ideas are point singularities.

  2. An interesting perspective Tris. Your comment “Instantiation is always partial” in particular. There is so much apathy with government, and the “buy in” rate is so low. It’s time to re-evaluate our democracy. Perhaps changing to a proportional representation system would help.

    The sculture is La Foule Illuminee (The Illuminated Crowd), by Raymond Mason.

  3. “Perhaps changing to a proportional representation system would help.”

    I think proportional representation is, from our perspective, the only change for the return of democracy in Canada. However, there are problems with it as well – look at Germany and their “grand coalition” of the major left and right parties, which produce anti-septic governance which satisfies no one. It would certainly keep out the worst, i.e. Harper, but it’s hard to see that it would allow for the rise of the best either.

    I think the real solution is to eliminate money from politics. In other words, make self-financing a campaign totally illegal. No TV advertising, the same budget for postering available to anyone wishing to run for office, and Public Debates open to all.

    Of course there are problems with this kind of radical-egalitarian system, but nothing a bit more democracy couldn’t solve. For example, it would be impossible to have a public debate with a huge number of candidates. The solution to this is to simply have a multi-cycle election – where the first round of campaigning (done in a strict egalitarian way) is followed by an election which determines which Candidates should be eligible for an increased budget and apparences in a set of public televised debates. The second vote would be the election (through PR or STV or another non-first past the post system).

    This might allow for properly democratic elections in Canada. It would certainly mean the end of the party-machine system – since there would be no advantage to having the ability to raise huge sums of money.

  4. Proportional representation is appealing, particularly given how it might give the Greens some seats in Parliament. That, in turn, would help convert them into a more serious outfit.

    Reducing the role of money in politics could also be important, though I am not sure how it could most achievably be approached. Perhaps with stronger limits on corporate donations…

  5. Hansen seems visibly upset at the role of money in politics. Really, his criticisms of American democracy don’t seem very different from Chomsky’s.

  6. Peter,

    “It has been suggested that central bank regulation of currency and interest rates are unnecessary and that the free-market could regulate more evenly, efficiently and democratically. Whether this is true, and/or desirable, and whether we might be losing other desirable features (such as a powerful counter cyclic force) are open questions.”

    The idea of a free-market is an idea. It is not an open question that a free market could regulate everything – we know for sure this is wrong, because we know about the radical inefficiencies of free markets (i.e. the free market could never solve traffic problems with a subway).

    The idea of a free market is more like a religious ideal – an idea that people cling to, and explain the failure of on the basis of our imperfect instantiation of it. This is similar to how people describe “communism” – “Oh, the problem with all the communist regimes is they weren’t perfectly communist enough”. Bullshit – the very fact that every communist regime turns out atrociously means that the very idea of communism, as a politically mobilizing force, needs to be questioned. The empirical results give us reason to question the practical significance of communism’s ideational content, and that content’s historical force – which always goes beyond anything we thought we could figure out just by looking at the idea in a vacuum.

    Ideas, like anything else, are far more than the creator thought they were. They go out in the world and do things. And yet an idea can be written down, explained in a book which can be contained in less than a megabyte of data. I could probably fit on my computer every single thing a human has ever written, and have it instantly text searchable, and I could copy the whole thing a thousand times – ideas are digital, ideal, platonic! And yet, their impacts are physical, social, and ideological.

    To get back to the idea of a free market, what remains an open question is the stability of the market itself. But the market itself is not an idea – it’s a real physical/social process. And it’s not independent of ideas – it can’t have any “inner stability” because it is open (as you said) – open to destabilizing forces. The “open question” therefore refers not to the non-singularity of the idea of the free market, but the never-completing-or-coming-to-a-whole of any actual worldly dynamic process.

    To go to Nietzsche, the thought of Will to Power is meant to be the greatest thought – the most universal (although I’m not sure if he would have expressed it that way). But is universal – everything can be accounted in terms of will to power. And, accounting of thing in terms of will to power roughly guarantees that you’ll interpret ideas in roughly the way I have. But we have to turn the idea on it’s head – what is the historical force of the idea of will to power? It is, after all, just another idea.

    The question remains open: is Will to Power the idea which humanity requires in order to come to face the arrival of the essence of technology?

  7. I understand you concern about the illusory nature of the term “free market”, however my semantic proclivities should be sidestepped in favour of the substantive issues.

    Unfortunately, you seem to have missed the mark, because I did not say “that a free market could regulate everything”. There is some debate about whether central banks were necessary. After a long and overly complex examination of the ideal, you have reached a conclusion that I accept, specifically that the market is a set of “real physical/social process”(es). So the question, of the necessity of central banks (as opposed to the questions you restated, but I never asked) is an empirical one. Also, because I have been so poorly understood, I would like to remind you that I did not express a preference.

    “And, accounting of thing in terms of will to power roughly guarantees that you’ll interpret ideas in roughly the way I have.” No, it does not, because I interpret Nietzsche differently than you do. Which is, a simple and yet elegant solution.

  8. The “real” processes, insofar as they are real, are not a value. My consideration of them, however, is always evaluative. So, when I say “the market”, while I may religiously believe that I am talking about a “real” object, with its own internal processes and reality, I do always through ideals or values – perspectives on that thing.

    So while those processes may have real effects on history which are not “particular”, they are not ideals.

  9. If you want to separate the idea from the practical expressions of that idea, fine. It still doesn’t change the fact that whether interest rates can be regulated through a market function of supply and demand is an empirical question.

  10. The effects of all ideas are empirical questions. That’s actually the argument the original post makes:

    “But the ideals are themselves what bring the world into reality – not the world they purport to beckon, but the one they actually bring.”

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