Against pragmatism

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Against pragmatism


Like many modern politicians, David Cameron presents himself as a pragmatist. What does that really mean? (photo: University Hospitals Birmingham)

Politicians, commentators, academics—everyone loves the word “pragmatic.” Tony Blair told us on his election in 1997 that what counts is not “outdated ideology” but “what works.” David Cameron famously wrote that he doesn’t “believe in ‘isms’” because “words like communism, socialism, capitalism and republicanism all conjure up one image in [his] mind: extremism.” Earlier this year, Nick Clegg eagerly urged a group of business leaders that the Liberal Democrats would be “sensible and centrist; pragmatic—not dogmatic—at all times.” Over in the US, one of the Democrats’ most effective strategies in the November election was to portray the Republicans as out of touch, crippled by their anti-pragmatic moralism.

Modern politicians—taking their cues from advertising and business—tend to use words which come attached with an aura of positive buzz, often without having a grip on what they actually mean. “Pragmatism” is a classic example. In this case, however, the harm done goes beyond the annoyance caused to pedants and opponents of “political mumbo-jumbo.” Rather, it allows politicians to subtly stifle dissent, and causes us to neglect the most fundamental questions about what our society ought to look like.

Talk of “pragmatism,” especially in Britain, is a part of a narrative that proclaims that we have reached an era of post-ideological politics. But the term is extremely slippery, and the first problem with this cult of pragmatism is that no one seems willing to pin down exactly what they mean by “pragmatic.”

One possibility is that political pragmatism means finding the most effective means to achieving one’s goals. This reading, however, makes the virtue of pragmatism too trivial. In this sense of “pragmatic,” there is no necessary opposition between being pragmatic and being ideological. Even people driven by ideology can be concerned about actually realising their ideological values, rather than merely shouting about them.

Another possible interpretation: “pragmatism” means sacrificing moral aspirations for something else. But what exactly is the something else? It can’t be one’s own personal political gain—when Clegg and Cameron claim to be pragmatists, they don’t intend to convey that they will do anything to save their own skin (even if that may be true).

Perhaps the best interpretation is that pragmatists put concern for ordinary people’s well-being and an efficient socioeconomic system (“what works”) ahead of highfaluting moral ideals. Yet this remains highly problematic. The notion of “what works” is amorphous and vague. One can only assess whether something is working against some kind of a standard for what a well-functioning society looks like; for what it is that you want to work and how. As an economist might put the point, you have to have a utility function to maximise; you can’t just maximise.

Is a society “working” if GDP rises steadily but citizens are drastically unequal? What about if people of different races and religions have different access to opportunities and goods? These questions are ineliminably moral, and must be answered in detail before we can have a useable notion of “what works.” The attempt to find some value-neutral standpoint from which to assess what works—the aspiration for an escape from ideology altogether—is an impossible one. Deciding how to weigh up different social benefits and harms is hard; it goes to the core of what we want our society to be like. But these questions are just made harder by reducing a vast swathe of distinct and often competing considerations to a single, sweeping judgment of “what works.”

The error here is not just a philosophical one. When politicians talk about what works, they make tacit assumptions about various moral questions concerning the proper aims of public policy. But by presenting themselves as “non-ideological pragmatists,” they get away with leaving these assumptions unarticulated and undefended. And so we get a particular value-laden agenda—often, though not always, that of the ruling class—smuggled in, under the banner of anodyne pronouncements about the need to sometimes make compromises or to be sensitive to empirical evidence.

At its worst, this can amount to making a set of value-assumptions seem like incontestable and ineradicable features of the world; to what the sociologist Max Weber called the “routinisation” of value. Those who oppose a particular agenda are characterised as “living in the past’ or as failing to recognise the facts of the modern world. Likewise, talk of “possibility” is frequently used to delimit the range of political options, without it being made clear in what sense and why a particular course of action is supposedly “impossible.”

The master of this rhetoric was Tony Blair. Politics, for Blair, was—in the chilling phrase that he used in speaking about cooperation between European countries—“not about left or right, but the future and the past, and even strength or weakness.” And here he is in 2005, discussing his reasons for favouring a criminal justice system that allows the police to circumvent due process:

“We are trying to fight 21st century crime—anti-social-behaviour, drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime—with 19th century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens. The whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don’t misunderstand me. That must be the duty of any criminal justice system. But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety.”

For Blair, what divided people who supported such measures from those who didn’t was not a disagreement of values—about whether the punishment of potentially innocent individuals could be justified by the scale of the threat to the public—but rather the difference between someone living in the present and someone living in the past. His own view is presented as if it were a simple consequence of the fact that we are living in the 21st century. But Blair’s opponents did not support the principle of innocent until proven guilty because they disagreed with Blair about the extent of binge-drinking or drug-dealing; they supported it because they believed in the right not to be punished without receiving a fair hearing.

In this respect, the claim to be non-ideological is often, to paraphrase the critical theorist Slavoj Žižek, itself deployed in service of an ideological agenda. Blair was not a cold, calculating political operator with no ethical qualms or attachments. When he latched on to a moral narrative that he could believe in—as with the Iraq war —he could be gripped by the almost terrifying fervour of a true believer. It’s just that he used language—brilliantly, and dangerously—to try to make people believe that there was no space from which to oppose him.

His legacy lives on. It can be deployed in service of conservatism just as much as in service of radical reform, and this is amplified in times of economic trouble. Cameron, Osborne, and to some extent Clegg have elided questions about the burdens of austerity measures, and how they have been distributed across different social classes, by implicitly characterising their opponents as head-in-the-sand, “unrealistic” idealists failing to acknowledge that something needed to be done about the deficit. Yet that is simply not the question in play when intelligent critics wonder if the burden of austerity measures could not have fallen more squarely on the rich. Clegg, in the same recent speech, again provides a striking example, proclaiming—as if it were some sort of heroically straight-talking admission of what no one else will say—that “bluntly, with the economy still fragile, this is not the time for dogma.” In this way, the vague language of “pragmatism” attempts to justify the status quo without providing any kind of substantive argument.

Whereas the old “ideologues” were at least honest about their agenda, the new “pragmatists” do not even tell us what theirs is. The language of pragmatism is thus a far cry from “straight-talking”; rather, it is a way of depriving citizens of the language in which to voice dissent. If we are all pragmatists now, then we have lost our vision of what we want our political system to be like—of how we want it to “work.”

  1. December 29, 2012


    Indeed it is time that politics was more open about its underpinning principles viz competition, fair play and economic philosophy.

    The old my gang your gang politics of left and right has gone, along with militant unionism and home-grown bosses. Globalism and the welfare state are the new polarities, with QE the elephant in the room. The debt run up by the bankers, which GB agreed for the state to underwrite, in order to save global monetarism, demands we address the lack of transparency in accounting and accountability, and the gap between players and the grafters for whom a living wage is no longer a realistic expectation.

    The current debt economy is still working in its way. Perhaps it just needs to be refloated with new money shared equally across the board, and then let’s see where that takes us next.

    Values and individualism need to be spelled out more honestly by savvy political journalists so that we need not all be sold down the river by the few who understand the rules of the game.

  2. December 30, 2012


    I disagree with your framing the debate of pragmatism in terms of pure ideology. That is less meaningful given the nature of Conservatism in the abstract (preservation of the status quo) and in practice (measured change of the status quo).

    The primary reason that we are not still having the ideological debates of the past is that Communism failed (‘End of history’) and Keynesian demand management only led to rising prices. Blair saw that the electability of the Labour party relied on modernising it (removing clause 4) and moving it to the centre ground. There is no inherent reason why a social democratic party should not claim a tougher approach on crime .
    Likewise Cameron’ s shift to the centre is arguably making the Tories more l I keep the 19th century Liberals.

    It may tempting to blame pragmatism for the obfuscation in modern day politics; the notion of what metric the government should be assessed against are conflicting (GDP vs equality). But I would argue there is a vigorous debate ongoing between Labour and the coalition. Moreover if the complaint is against the very notion of austerity falling on the poor then it should be remembered how we got here in the first place through provision of middle-class benefits etc. Furthermore, while this article criticises the lack of debate regarding the burden of austerity affecting the current generation, I would argue that it is fairer on the next, that will be paying off the £1 trillion in debt that we have run up.

  3. December 31, 2012


    Nineteenth century laws were not made in light of today’s far reaching technologies, and laws have changed at a much slower pace than these technologies, therefore the effects that laws have on public safety made a practical difference between then and now/then. The argument that “pragmatism” is used to as a means of quieting dissent is not a convincing one to my mind, even though it is good to think about what is being proposed and to voice your concern, but not against pragmatism.

    • March 25, 2014

      Zaden Mcaulus

      Yes, pragmatism is for a lot more than to just use against those who dissent. It is the philosophy that attempts to place the diversity of human thought on a single dimension: ‘practicality’. In reality, it is the bandwagon excuse for a lack of novelty; creativity and autonomy are it’s greatest enemies. In schools pragmatism has created an environment that restricts the freedom of thought required to achieve higher abstractions, and instead promotes regurgitation and linear reasoning. Pragmatism is philosophically outdated, as is the mind’s of the many who uphold it. The moments for practicality are broad, but human thinking should not always be guided by it.

  4. January 1, 2013


    careful with some of the words used. words such as ineliminably am not sure exist. Also the word is highfalutin and not high-falluting which does not exist

    • January 6, 2013


      You’d be surprised how many ‘-able’ constructions [e.g., unsettlable, embodiable, ineliminable, etc.] do not, as far as spell-check and standard dictionaries are concerned, “exist.” If such terms have no acknowledged lexical existence, so much the worse for dictionaries. That just means they have some catching-up to do.

      The beauty of language is that new terms get coined all the time, in this case by the logic and necessity of thought itself. Such words ‘exist’ if you know what they mean = signify.

  5. January 21, 2013

    Edward Harkins

    Surely the exemplar in the matter of pragmatism and politics has to be Harold Wilson, UK Prime Minister in the 1960s and 70s? Indeed, a well-regarded biography of him was entitled ‘Pragmatic Premier: An intimate portrait of Harold Wilson’ (by Ernst Kay),

    The witty and teasing title prompted the common response of ‘what did he mean by that’? Harold Wilson had utterly divided audiences. There were those who saw him as a true moderniser of ‘British’ socialism whilst remaining loyal to its precepts. There were some weirdos who inhabited the inept UK security services of that time and who were convinced he was a double agent for the USSR’s KGB!. Conversely, there were others on the Left who heartily loathed him; seeing him as an idealogical-averse, commitment-free manipulator. (He himself described himself at one stage as the spider in the middle of a web, tugging at the strands, controlling it all).

    ‘Pragmatic’ maybe covers it all.

    Some of this about Harold Wilson may sound like a precursor of Tony Blair and the Labour Party – but there is a notable and honourable difference.

    Harold Wilson stood up to intense bullying and threats from USA President Lyndon Johnstone who desperately wanted the UK to committed troops to the USA’s Vietnam fiasco. Despite the UK’s financial penury and desperate need for USA support, Wilson prevailed and kept the UK out of the Vietnam morass.

    In contrast, Tony Blair keenly and precipitately committed to the USA’s Iraq misadventure. The rest is as they say, history. Incidentally, I believe that it remains true that Tony Blair took the UK into more wars than any other Prime Minster … that was not very pragmatic.

  6. January 31, 2014

    Jimmy Combs

    Alex, nice article. I like to think of myself as a pragmatic person. In the United States we have a constitution and laws that allow Pragmatism to not be destructive. Democracy by itself though, I believe to be very Anti-Pragmatic. Post-Aparthied South Africa is to the delight of the media and Western World is now democratic. But both Blacks and Whites are way worse off than they were during the apartheid. The same thing happened to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). These countries are complete disasters today. – Here is the Rhodesian Prime Minister in a video where he claims to be “A pragmatic person” And I’m totally on his side. – Placing SA under sanctions was completely wrong and counter-productive and now democracy in Africa has led to low-functioning, un-productive societies. This same issue is happening in black communities in America today as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Alex Worsnip
Alex Worsnip is a doctoral student and Teaching Fellow in philosophy at Yale University. Follow him on twitter @AWorsnip 

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