Disenchanting Political Philosophy

A key issue in current political philosophy is that between ideal vs non-ideal theory. But I would suggest a more productive contrast is between enchanted vs disenchanted theory.

Ideal theory concerns the justification of a political state under idealized conditions. The most famous recent version is Rawls. His question was, “What makes a society just?” His answer was that a society is just if it meets certain conditions – which we can reflect on without thinking about our actual political conditions. Rawls isn’t concerned – at least in his philosophical work – with how to bring about such a just society. His concern is: what would it be for a society to be just, irrespective of whether we can get there or not? Of course, you can take the ideal theory and try to bring it to bear to particular actual problems. But the starting point is with the ideal theory.

Non-ideal theory eschews the notion of an ideal starting point, and begins instead with current, actual unjust conditions, and is interested in changing those. It can involve a great deal of intellectual, theoretical work to understand the nature and causes of the existing, unjust conditions. But it’s starting point isn’t the skeptical question such as “Can a society be just?” or a metaphysical question such as “What is a just society?”, but rather the practical question, “How can our society become more just?” In this sense non-ideal theory is seen to be intrinsically political – as in, it aims not only at understanding, but even more primarily at changing our society. The most famous version of this was Marx. But other versions can be found in feminism (say, recently, Kate Manne) or critical race theory (say, Charles Mills), or recent work on fascism (say, Jason Stanley), and so on.

For the non-ideal theorist, ideal theory seems like pie-in-the-sky abstractionism, which, by ignoring the actual lived conditions of injustice, end up reenforcing those injustices. For the ideal theorist, non-ideal theory reduces all questions about the nature of justice to questions of political activism – as if only questions raised in the midst of activism can be appropriately good. Here is a crude analogy, but perhaps not far off: ideal theorists are like metaphysicians, while non-ideal theorists are like logical positivists claiming that metaphysics is the bain of actual, rigorous scientific knowledge.

Much as the contrast between ideal and non-ideal theorists can seem exhaustive, there is an important assumption that often the two sides have in common. They share what I will call an enchanted conception of political solidarity.

I am using “enchanted” here to echo Weber’s sense in which the pre-modern world was seen to be enchanted – that is, with the world itself filled with meaning and purpose. In the enchanted world we didn’t have to create meaning in life, or morality – those truths were assumed to be as much a part of the world as the sun and the moon and the stars, out in the world which we simply experienced and could take for granted. On the Webberian story, modernity broke this spell, leaving us with a world in which at most we have to create our meaning and root morality in ourselves. We can do it in a rationalist, Kantian way, or maybe an existentialist way, or a communitarian way, etc. Or if we can’t do it, we are stuck facing the void, staring into the abyss of nihilism.

By an “enchanted conception of political solidarity”, I mean the idea that we are simply given – or can take for granted – political solidarity. That it is obvious who the “we” are in “we the people”.

Many people have an enchanted conception of their nuclear family. They know exactly who their parents and sibling are, and who aren’t. Many people, however, don’t have such a conception. If they are adopted or have absent parents, etc., it might not be entirely obvious or clear even to themselves what “my family” picks out. For a person with an enchanted conception of nuclear family, “my family” resonates with a clear sense of who is in and who is out – and so makes questions of “Is my family good or bad, or modern or traditional, etc?” seem kind of clear, even if hard to answer. But for a person with a disenchanted conception of nuclear family, “my family” doesn’t automatically seem clear at all – and so even before addressing the question, “Is my family good or bad, modern or traditional?”, they are left wondering “who am I talking about in the first place? Who are the people I have this relation with, and how can I experience that more?”

In ideal political theory, when one asks, “What makes a society just?”, it is assumed that we already know who is a part of that society. Usually it is the trivial answer, “the members of the society”. It’s as if societies are natural kinds, with clearly defined boundaries of who is in and who is out, and with a sense for each other as “members of the same society”. The question the ideal theorist is interested in then is, “How should those people relate to each other such that their society is just?” In ideal theory “those people” is not defined any more than that. It is just an abstract sense of the people as members of the society.

It’s a genuine question – raised by the non-ideal theorist- whether much sense can be given to a question when it is pitched at the searing abstraction of “a society” or “the people of that society”. Does such abstraction give us insight into contested notions of justice and inequality, or does it abstract so far away that it seems to talk about difficult topics without any of the pain? For the ideal theorist the abstraction is an insight. For the non-ideal theorist, it is a dodge.

To avoid the dodge, the non-ideal theorist claims to “keep it real”. No fluffy notions of a faceless we and complacent assumptions of a shared solidarity, as if men and women, whites and blacks, homosexuals and heterosexuals, etc. can take for granted a common bond. “No!”, the non-ideal theorist says. “There is no such common bond yet! For the institutions of the past failed to treat the people fairly. What we need to do is to rectify the injustices of the past before we can even raise questions of our shared society as such. Otherwise talk of “our” is just another way of reenforcing the power imbalances of the past.”

Thus the non-ideal theorist is critical of the ideal theorist’s enchanted sense of political solidarity. But the non-ideal theorist falls into his own form of enchantment when he tries to describe the lived political reality. For feminists, “women” becomes the enchanted term of political solidarity; as if just in virtue of identifying patriarchy, an invisible bond of solidarity had enveloped all women. Similarly, for marxists, “the workers” becomes the enchanted term of political solidarity. And so on.

The trouble here is obvious. If “the people” as used as an ideal theorist is too abstract and removed from lived reality, so too are words like “women”, “the workers”, “the immigrants”, “the African-Americans”, “the colonized”, etc.

We might ordinarily say something like “The British were cruel to their colonized subjects”. But that doesn’t mean that there is any obvious group such as “the colonized”. In fact, “the colonized” only makes sense in relation to, not a specific group such as “the British”, but in relation to “the colonizers” – where that includes the British, the French, the Portugese, etc. Now we are off on the path of abstraction. And it is a tricky, complex issue what kind of abstractions or general claims we can make about what “the colonizers” did or how “the colonized” suffered.

This is one reason why so much of non-ideal theory, though it aims to be resolutely grounded, is still so theoretical. Though it presents itself as engaged and concrete in contrast to the abstractions and vagueries of ideal theory, non-ideal theory ends up being something far less than promised . It is just slightly less abstract theory. But now with the added confusion that terms like “women”, “minorities”, “the oppressed”, etc. are treated as concrete terms. Which they are if they are contrasted to the works of Rawls, Kant or Hobbes. But by any normal understanding, these are not at all concrete terms, let alone terms which denote recognizable or established political solidarities.

In the face of the question, “Why don’t all women recognize their shared political solidarity?”, or the similar question for the disabled or the global south or the colonized, etc., the non-ideal theorist has to fall back onto a just so story, which is extremely abstract: that it is part of the work of the patriarchy, or the structures of the able bodied, or the colonizers, etc. to render the obvious solidarity unobvious. A metaphysical abstraction created an enchanted sense of solidarity, but then a political story gets told for why the solidarity isn’t more vividly felt. And the more the political story gets told (about patriarchy, colonizers, etc.), the more the sense of solidarity gets propped up.

I am not denying the reality that historically women were treated unjustly, or that the colonized were brutalized, and so on. But I think it is an open question whether accepting those realities and trying to change it requires the further, enchanted idea that there are obvious and special bonds of political solidarity among “the victims”.

Here some might fall back to ideal theory. For in rejecting the metaphysical abstractions of ideal theory, non-ideal theory seems to end up with a balkanized sense of political solidarity. “We the people” is diluted into “we the women”, “we the men”, “we the blacks” and “we the whites” and so on. Non-ideal theory was supposed to get us to be more concrete so as to focus more on the work of creating a just society. But instead of concreteness, we have gotten only a different kind of abstraction – which helps in some ways, but which fails to inspire an overall sense of “we the people”. At this point the ideal theorist steps back in, saying that the Rawlsian abstractions weren’t a dodge, but reflect our true, shared political solidarity.

We can avoid this see-saw between ideal and and non-ideal theory by giving up on their common assumption of the enchanted conception of political solidarity. Contra ideal theory, the best starting point for political philosophy is not the atemporal question, “What makes a society just?”, but rather the first-person plural perspective question, “How can we make our society more just?” But contra non-ideal theory, this first person, engaged, practical question is best addressed not just by asking how to rectify the injustices of particular groups, but by asking what holds us together at all. The more we face up to the fact that we live in a disenchanted political reality, the better we can work to change things.

16 thoughts on “Disenchanting Political Philosophy”

  1. A related point is that societies are constantly undergoing change, so the “natural kinds” (solidarity groups) will keep shifting as well — what does class politics mean when you have PhDs working in a minimum-wage setting (adjuncts – i.e., blue-collar-like white-collar work), what does gender politics mean in the context of gay and trans identities et al, what does anti-colonial politics mean when India or Brazil are enforcing uniformity within their borders, etc..

    What makes practical politics hard is that even when a society reaches some kind of consensus equilibrium, the ground can shift under it (interesting related article in a political context: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/04/why-americans-dont-vote-their-class-bernie-sanders-marxist-electoral-theory.html).


    1. Absolutely. Facing up to this kind of flux is what it is to have a disenchanted perspective. This is perhaps especially true for us given the rapid, vast changes “we” as a society are going through. Ideal theory strikes me as being stuck in the 1700s in Europe, and non-ideal theory seems stuck in the post WWII era, esp of the 1960s. The enchanted perspective assumes that there is a stable “we” which remains unmoved, even as the world keeps moving and changing. As if to see the world through the prism of “the workers” or “the colonized”, or “the whites” or “the Hindus”, etc. will help us see the deeper motivations and gears underneath the surface transformations. But the surface transformations might just be so swift that far from capturing real underlying mechanisms, these attempts at enchanted identities becomes like wish fulfillment of how we want things to work so that we can feel in control.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re misreading Marxism, at least 20th century Marxism.

    The central question of the great 20th century Marxists, Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and others, is precisely why there is no class consciousness or solidarity (to use your term) among the working class. There is nothing enchanted about the analysis of the lack of working class consciousness you find in Gramsci or Adorno or Marcuse. You may agree or disagree with them, but it’s far from enchanted.


    1. Agree the Frankfurt school and so on wanted to explain why there wasn’t solidarity among the working class. But they were still enchanted in my sense since they thought that “the workers” could pick out shared political identity. They were trying to explain why the workers didn’t have this solidarity which they can and ought to have. So they had to give explanations in terms of mass entertainment and so on for why that was.

      What I am calling “disenchanted” theory denies that a term like “the workers” picks out a class which could have political solidarity among all its members. To put the point in a Wittgensteinian way, if “the workers” is a family resemblance term such that there is no essence that all workers have in common – and so on political situation which they all share but rather share a family resemblance of situations – then it’s not obvious that there is some mega political change that will benefit all of them the same way qua workers.

      This is not to deny that Horkheimer and Adorno and Marcuse, et al had a great insights. But it is to say that perhaps those insights about the analysis of modern capitalist structures perhaps can be removed from the workers vs owners framework. Insofar as they thought these two aspects of their theory went essentially together, they might have been wrong.

      This raises the question: if “workers”, “women”, “immigrants” etc can’t do the work of creating political solidarity, what can? What I am calling disenchantment theory begins with this question. It starts with the question of what political change towards greater justice can mean when it’s unclear what the members of the society have in common and what is holding them together.


      1. Obviously, any Marxist would say that what all workers have in common is that they sell their labor power and are exploited.

        Now it is obvious that although all workers do have something in common, there may be many factors which some workers have and which other don’t and that those factors divide them and keep them from uniting. Other factors might include religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.

        Marxists believe that the factor of selling one’s labor power and being exploited is “objectively” the most important, but we can observe that for some workers their ethnicity or their religion is more important to them.

        I myself think that nothing is objectively important and that if someone decides that their ethnicity is more important than their selling their labor power, that’s their option. However, since how much money you have is a very important factor in the quality of your life in all known societies, it would be wise for people to think twice before deciding that their ethnicity is more important than their social class (in Marxist terms).


        1. You say a couple of times right at the beginning that it is “obvious” that all workers have something in common: that they sell their labor power and are exploited. But is the way a factory worker is exploited the same as the way a school teacher is exploited, and the way a programmer at Google is exploited, and the way an adjunt professor is exploited? We can of course keep this going. Is the way a white factory worker is exploited in Alabama the same as the way a black factory worker is exploited? Or the way that an adjunt professor at Harvard is exploited the same as the way an adjunt professor at a community college is exploited? What is doing the work here is the assumption that there is a shared way of being exploited that workers have in common, in virtue of being workers in a capitalist society. I don’t see that. This seems to me to result from focusing on some paradigm cases, and then extrapolating from that to how “all workers” are exploited in a similar way.

          In the late 1800s and perhaps even until the mid 20th century, maybe there was a robust sense of what “the workers” had in common and the way they were exploited. A clearer divide between the haves and the have nots; I doubt it, but when there was segregation or children working 12 hours, and colonialist labor, etc, it’s pretty clear what stands out. But I have a hard time now understanding in what sense all workers are exploited in a common way, as if that is something clear, let alone obvious.

          But this is not unique to Marxism. You mention at the end that people might instead focus on other factors such as religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. The same problem arises for all of those too. If I want to vote as a Christian instead of as a worker, I am saying that Christian solidarity is more important than worker solidarity. But actually there is no such thing as Christian solidarity – there are just far too many types of Christians. Same with gender. If someone says I am going to vote as a man or a woman, what does that mean? Gender is not the kind of thing that can hold the weight of political solidarity, since inevitably there will be people who oppose my candidate who nonetheless have my gender.

          Here is what I think is happening. People are moved in political action by whatever is important to them – this much is obvious. But people also want to be moved with others – in colloboration, as part of a group, as part of a giant uprising. “Others like me” is too generic. So often people just latch on to available abstract categories which give them a buzz of solidarity – as workers, or as women, or as white Christians, or as brown immigrants, or whatever. What this leads to is not effective political action, but just a booming, cacaphony of cross cutting claims of solidarity. This leads mainly to fights about who is being really true to a given identity, as in who is fighting for feminism and who is betraying that fight even though they are women, or who is fighting for workers’ rights and who is selling out, etc. This is not a discourse that lends itself to higher ideals of coming together irrespective of our identities. It is to get embroiled in unresolvable arguments about identities – and confusing that with helpful political discourse.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, I’d say that most people who work are exploited. I’m sure that you can find examples of employees who earn so much that it would be ridiculous to call them “exploited”, but while they may not be the 1% that Occupy Wall St. talked about, they’re probably 4 or 5%. Even at the most hip Silicon Valley firm most of the people employed are washing the dishes, cleaning the floors, taking out the garbage, fixing the computer hardware, repairing the air conditioning, etc. And If those jobs are outsourced, that’s just another way of exploiting the workers involved. And when we turn to the hippest of all Silicon Valley companies, Amazon, the conditions at their warehouses are almost like something out of Dickens.

            Politics is about working with others, forming coalitions, forming pressure groups, etc., and those groups revolve around common interests. So I don’t see anything wrong about workers getting together with other workers or blacks getting together with other blacks to support candidates or to pressure people in congress.
            Now if that identity ends up ruling your whole life, your life will be impoverished to be sure, but politics isn’t everything and if you let it become everything for you, that’s unwise.


            1. “Yes, I’d say that most people who work are exploited. I’m sure that you can find examples of employees who earn so much that it would be ridiculous to call them “exploited”, but while they may not be the 1% that Occupy Wall St. talked about, they’re probably 4 or 5%.”

              I can see that most people who work are exploited. But are they exploited in the same way, such that a common solution is possible? I think the notion of “exploitation” is being stretched too thin. If the jobs are outsourced, that is exploiting – and if the jobs are kept here, that is exploiting. Presumably I am being exploited in my job (an administrative job in an accounting firm), as is the janitor who cleans my cubicle, as are most of the accountants, since none of them are in the 4% or 5%, as is the cop who gave me a speeding ticket, and the person who serves me coffee at starbucks, and my local politicians, and so on and on.

              Again, I am not denying, say, that outsourcing jobs is wrong; the owner’s profits shouldn’t be the bottom line. But I am questioning whether the marxist language – when it is spread so thin – can help us address the various problems. I would say there are hundreds of different kinds of problems re labor, and acting like there is one big problem of Labor is not productive. Analogy: there are hundreds of different ways in which people hurt each other emotionally. Not sure it helps to boil it down to, “most people get hurt”, so we need to address “hurting”.

              When so many different problems are boiled into one word, that leads to us falling prey to leaders who sell us on the fantasy of “the” solution that they will give us, usually in the form of themselves being the solution.


              1. I agree that simplistic solutions will go us nowhere or take us to places that are as bad or worse than where we are now. Remember that this discussion started because I objected to your referring to Marxism as an “enchanted” conception and that’s really all I want to get across. Yes, there is a simplistic form of Marxism as well as a out-dated form and yet there are philosophers working in the Marxist tradition today such as Brian Leiter and Nancy Fraser whose approach is neither simplistic nor out-of-date and I don’t think that a more sophisticated and up-to-date form of Marxism should be ruled out when we examine the problems of today. No, Marxism does not explain everything as some Marxists believe, but it explains enough that it shouldn’t be ruled out.


              2. I am not talking about simplistic vs non-simplistic solutions. I think you are misunderstanding what I mean by “enchanted”. My sense of enchanted doesn’t mean “pie in the sky” or simplistic or idealistic, etc. What I am suggesting is a more structural problem: that talk of “labor” as such seems to me as confusing as talking about “women” or “the oppressed” or “white men”. In particular, because I think these concepts don’t pick out any one thing, they cannot underpin political solidarity. It’s like saying “I am in solidarity with all people who play games”. There is no common thing to all games.

                Also, I am not ruling out Marxism. I am saying the insights of Marxism should be separated from the rhethoric of “labor” vs “owners”, etc. Analogy: I think feminism has lots of insights, both theoretical and practical. But I think those insights can be seperated from talk of patriarchy, which suggests that there is some hidden or explicit super structure, some one thing or one mindset or one group that is the problem. Another example: There is a lot of insight in post-colonial studies. But there is a looseness in talk of “the colonized” or “the oppressed”, etc which actually gets in the way of greater appreciation of the insights.


                1. You criticize the loose use of “colonized” or “oppressed”, but your use of “enchanted” is a bit loose too.


  3. s. wallerstein – Re my “loose” use of “enchanted”, perhaps you can say how the way I define enchanted in the post is loose. I think that would be worthwhile, and I welcome it.

    To be clear, following Wittgenstein, Cavell, etc. I think “conceptually confused” to not be a personal attack or putting down anyone’s intelligence, let along their moral being. It’s like when I said in a previous post that I think the way many theists and atheists relate to the question “Does God exist?” is confused. I am not putting down people. Just as disagreeing with a person doesn’t mean putting them down, neither does debating the conceptual clarity of their assertions.

    Perhaps one thing happening in our exchange is in the past you have shown sympathetic to, say, Sanders and AOC. My post wasn’t about them per se, but certainly what I am saying here I think applies to them. At any rate, it captures some of my objections to how they pitch the issues. Of course I would have voted for Sanders, but still I think I find the stance of solidarity with the working people confused – or to be less judgmental, confusing. Maybe I am missing something, and am happy to be corrected. Perhaps you can do that without taking a tone of simply correcting me (“you are misreading marxism”), or saying what is obvious, etc.

    So re Sanders, this is where I think some confusion is happening. If he said, “I think helping people who make less than X dollars is the most important issue”, I understand that. That might even be the most important to me politically. But I feel like something more is being asked of me. And that is: that I have to align with the disenfranchised against the super rich; that helping the poor, fixing healthcare, making college free, dealing with global warming, etc. all boil down to “siding with the people”. For me this is a major turn off. Not only with Sanders but most politicians. I find it annoying when people – left, right and center – talk about what “Americans really want”, or what “the people” are hungry for, etc.

    Maybe you are ok with this and see it as inevitable feature of political contestation. And maybe it can’t be changed. But I have some hope that it can change. That if we talk differently – more precisely, but also thereby more compassionately – then that might be more productive down the line.


    1. Yes, I like Sanders and AOC. However, neither of them is a philosopher or a great thinker or even a Marxist as far as I know.

      Politicians are salesmen or saleswomen. I don’t expect conceptual clarity from them. Maybe it would be better if they were more precise in their use of terms, but they aren’t and they never have been. If you doubt that, read any of Plato’s dialogues, the Gorgias, the Republic, etc., about the use of political rhetoric 2400 years ago.

      In fact, it is quite possible that I find more conceptual clarity in someone basically conservative such as Dan K than I do in AOC or Sanders. Still, conceptual clarity isn’t everything and I’ll vote for AOC, not for Roger Scruton.

      Or to go back to Wittgenstein (whom I’ve read a little), philosophy is one kind of language game and politics is another.


      1. That’s an interesting distinction, about finding conservatives more conceptually clear but you would vote for Sanders or AOC. For my taste, that rips apart conceptual clarity too far from political action (or action in general). I think Dan K or Scruton are conceptually clearer about some things than left thinkers like Foucault or Judith Butler, but I find the former also generally conceptual not as clear about many issues dear to the left (esp re issues of race, gender, etc.).

        A fair point also about distinguishing politicians and philosophers, and in my post I was talking about the latter. So what I said about Sanders and AOC, I feel similarly about Marx and Marcuse. I am not an an expert on these thinkers. But not sure I need to be an expert to suggest that ” the workers of the world, unite” had a certain resonance in 1850, a different resonance in 1968, and something quite different now, and perhaps more watered down now as the type of “workers” has become much more diverse.

        Re philosophy and politics being different language games, sure in one sense. But science and politics are also different language games, but that doesn’t mean that truth isn’t important to politics. Similarly, the conceptual clarity of philosophy should (I think) seep into politics.


        1. Sorry, maybe I was too cryptic. I don’t find conservatives more conceptually clear than leftists. I find a conservative philosopher like Dan K. to be more conceptually clear than a leftist politician like Sanders, simply because I don’t find any politicians, on the left or on the right, to be conceptually clear.

          I’ve never read Judith Butler, but a feminist and marxist philosopher like Nancy Fraser is as conceptually clear as any philosopher I know. As for Foucault, he’s not so much a philosopher as a historian of mindsets. However, he did have an interesting discussion with Chomsky about ethics and power, which is of philosophical interest to me at least. If you’ve never read that discussion, it’s available online as is the video of it in Youtube.


          1. Got it. I see what you mean.

            I have seen the dialogue between Chomsky and Foucault on YouTube. It’s very interesting.


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