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The Left, the Right and Political Realism

Realism Vs Idealism Quotes. QuotesGram

Stating that it is difficult nowadays for a state to pursue ambitious redistributive policies through a highly progressive tax system: is it right-wing or simply realistic? Claiming that it will not be possible to fund a universal basic income sufficient to cover the basic needs of all citizens, or to open borders and offer quality social protection to everyone at the same time: are these instances of taking economic constraints seriously or defending the status quo?

Is realism right-wing?

On closer inspection, many political issues that tend to be placed on the left-right spectrum could be interpreted as opposing an idealistic and a realistic perspective. However, these two oppositions are not identical.

The left-right divide, in socio-economic terms at least, can be defined as opposing the advocates of a greater redistribution of wealth to those of a greater market freedom. On either side, there are idealists and realists. Left-wing idealists dream, for example, of a classless society, a socialization of the means of production, or an economy driven by other motives than profit maximization. Right-wing idealists dream of a world without barriers to free trade, without bureaucracy, where interests would replace passions for the benefit of all.

The left-wing realists emphasize the economic, social and political constraints which, in a context of globalized capitalism, make redistributive policies more difficult, like international tax competition, the “structural dependence of states on capital“, the prevalence of anti-egalitarian ideologies. Right-wing realists, on their side, stress the need for state intervention to correct the inevitable market imperfections. (Interestingly, realism brings both positions closer to one another.)

Being realistic is therefore not being right-wing, nor is idealism an exclusive property of the Left. These are two distinct dimensions of political debates.

The relationship to the status quo

What may explain the frequent confusion between these two dimensions (Left/Right; idealism/realism) is the relationship to the status quo. The Left, because of its egalitarian orientation, can only be hostile to a world as unequal as ours. For the Right, the relationship to the status quo is less obvious. Those who benefit from it (the “winners” of capitalism and globalization), or those who are victims of the system justification syndrome are not hostile to it. Rather, they emphasize the massive benefits achieved through capitalist economic development (longer life expectancy, technical progress, quality of life compared to the past), or bet on the prospects for personal enrichment. Others on the Right are more critical of the status quo, but claim that it is a deepening of free trade that will make the world a better place.

This means that the denunciation of the status quo is more frequent and clearer on the Left. And in contrast to the idealistic pursuit of a better world, realism is more easily accused of complacency with the status quo. Invoking reality constraints can indeed be an easy way to protect the existing order without giving the impression that it is considered just. It is therefore a very useful rhetorical strategy for the beneficiaries of existing inequalities to present themselves as realistic.

Realism and bad faith

Thus, there are reasons to be wary when, for example, business owners talk about dissuasive tax rates. While governments must find the optimal tax rate that will increase tax revenues without weakening economic activity, we should not lose sight of the moral responsibility of firms, which is at stake when they decide to delocalize or to optimize their tax base. It is usually not true that they do not have a choice, as one could imagine (even if some will consider it unrealistic) that shareholders accept a decrease in their profits for ethical reasons.

Similarly, realistic arguments expressed in academic debates may sometimes conceal the protection of certain privileges. The abandonment of an ideal of radical equalization of living conditions, for example, for a more realistic goal of guaranteeing decent living conditions for all, may betray a privileged position of the speaker in relation to the median income. Similarly, giving up the ideal of open borders in the name of realism could be associated with a privileged position in the global distribution of opportunities.

The power of ideals

It is because of this possible complicity with the status quo that realism is not a sufficient theoretical posture, from a normative point of view. It is certainly necessary if one wishes to describe and analyze existing social dynamics with the greatest accuracy. And it is also important when seeking to identify adequate public policies that are likely to succeed in the world as it is. However, our ultimate normative aspirations, our longer-term ideals of justice, should not, as a certain realism in political theory advocates, be adapted to what can be achieved here and now. This would mean giving too much credit to the status quo, while human history is in constant evolution.

Preserving high ideals is important for at least two reasons. First, it allows us to take a more critical look at reality. For example, no one knows at this point in history what would be the effects of a radical transformation of our economic systems towards the abolition of wage-earning or private enrichment. We do not know whether a democratic socialism would be viable or even achievable. Nevertheless, continuing to think about such alternatives allows us to better perceive the limits of an economic system in which the richest dominate the poorest and the lucky keep getting richer at the expense of the unlucky.

Second, faith in certain ideals makes their realization more likely. For example, if everyone were to renounce the ideal of a world without borders in the face of rising international xenophobia, there is little doubt that the chances of ever realizing this ideal would be extremely low. In contrast, it is because people believed that equality between men and women was possible and desirable, at a time when it seemed illusory, that considerable (yet largely insufficient) progress has been achieved. The truth is that we do not know what it will be possible for humanity to achieve in the long run. The worst, no doubt, but perhaps also the best. Who would have believed in the abolition of slavery in the 18th century? In the welfare state in the 19th? In the European Union in the early 20th century? As John Rawls aptly said, “the limits of the possible are not given by the actual”.

Preserving pragmatism

That said, there are two pitfalls that normative political theory should avoid on this matter. The first one is complacency with the status quo, as just explained. The second one is to cloak itself behind abstract ideals and to give up the opportunity to inform public debates on policies that can be pursued here and now. (See on this blog the interview with Jonathan Wolff and Nicolás Brando’s recent plea for an “engaged” philosophy.)

Dealing with these more concrete questions of policy puts intellectuals in a difficult position since they are forced to recognize certain constraints, to make compromises with the real world. This is the case, for example, when one takes into account the economic constraints limiting States’ fiscal capacity and makes more modest recommendations, or when one is forced to recognize that a radical opening of borders, with largely xenophobic populations, could be counterproductive. In both cases, we are faced with constraints that can and must be questioned and criticized; constrains that could disappear in a better world, but which a pragmatic, action-oriented reflection is forced to consider.

There is clearly a tension between the radicality of a discourse and its degree of pragmatism. And many intellectuals alleviate this tension by renouncing to pragmatic proposals, which allows them to preserve an image of intellectual purity, without compromise. And since utopias are no longer fashionable, many prefer to limit themselves to the criticism of the existing world. Yet political debates need to be nourished as much by criticism and radical alternatives as by pragmatic proposals. And it is by maintaining the difficult balance between the defense of demanding ideals and their translation into concrete and pragmatic recommendations that political theory is most useful to these debates – or so I argue in a recently published article.

Currently postdoc at KU Leuven, I hold a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Louvain (Belgium). My main research interests are democratic theory, theories of justice, and civic education.


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  1. Hi Pierre-Etienne, I like your post a lot – as usual. More fodder for the case you defend: you write that “it is because people believed that equality between men and women was possible and desirable, at a time when it seemed illusory, that considerable (yet largely insufficient) progress has been achieved.” But it’s not necessary to believe that what’s desirable is (fully) achievable in order for an ideal to have transformative power. Maybe some of those who thought that equality between women and men (say) was desirable believed it was an unfeasible political ideal. Yet, by trying their best to lead their lives according to it, they made it more feasible, against their own views about the feasibility frontier. To make a contribution to a good cause we don’t even need to believe it’s possible to realise our ideals. Sometimes it’s enough if the ideals are not idle.

    • Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

      Thanks, Anca! Yes, I think you’re right. But it’s probably necessary to believe that achieving some progress in the direction of the ideal (and living one’s life according to it is already progress) is feasible. That’s probably all we need.

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