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.