Citizen Action Monitor

Wishful thinking can lead political activists into the quicksand of false beliefs

No 567 Posted by fw September 13, 2012

Any political analysis that is at all reformist in its views is likely to include an element of wishful thinking. And wishful thinking can lead political activists into the quicksand of false beliefs.

That in a nutshell is a central theme of Chapter 6 in the book Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, Continuum Books, 2006.

Here, extracted from the beginning of Chapter 6 — Wishful Thinking and Epistemological Confusion — is, I think, the essence of the case in support of their thesis in the authors’ own words. The subheading, hyperlinks and text highlighting are mine.

(*Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses mainly the following questions: What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? To what extent is it possible for a given subject or entity to be known? Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to connected notions such as truth, belief, and justification).

Wishful Thinking and Epistemological Confusion

Two stories indicative of wishful thinking

In the July 1986 edition of the now defunct Marxism Today, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques argued that a new kind of politics was sweeping the UK [People Aid: A new politics sweeps the land]. It was, they claimed, rooted in the various charity events which had taken place over the previous twelve months: Band Aid, Live Aid and Sport Aid. This new kind of politics, we were told, offered an alternative vision of society, organized around a dynamic of ‘caring’, and it represented a severe blow to the ideology of selfishness which underpinned Thatcherism. Hall and Jacques’ optimism was short-lived, however; by December 1986, they were arguing that even those people opposed to Thatcherism were not ‘for’ anything else in particular, and that there was no end in sight to the ‘nightmare’ of Conservative government. [No light at the End of the Tunnel].

Fast forward some seventeen years, and it is possible to find Madeleine Bunting arguing in the Guardian that the demonstration against the Iraq War which occurred in London on 15 February 2003 represented a defining moment in contemporary political culture. After such a day, she informed us, it was so much harder to speak of the selfish individualism of consumer society. And about the consequences of a war in Iraq, she opined:

“What happens once the orphans, the widowed and the killed appear on our screens? The stubbornness will become anger. We said No, Not in our Names and we meant it. Blair will never be forgiven. A tragic end to a good prime minister.” [We are the people, Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, February 17, 2003]

Reformist beliefs lauded as turning points may turn out to be fleeting

The point about these two stories is that they are indicative of a wishful thinking which all too easily infects political analysis. It might have appeared to Hall and Jacques in the summer of 1986 that the hegemony of Thatcherism had been broken, but a year later the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher were re-elected to government with a majority of 102. And to some of the people marching through London early in 2003, it might have seemed that they were part of a new kind of political mobilization, but six months later similar events attracted only a tiny fraction of the number who attended the February [Iraq War] demonstration.

Lesson: Be wary of wishful thinking based on dubious notions of human rationality infecting reformist’s analysis

Wishful thinking of course is not a monopoly of the Left. Libertarians [those who advocate maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state] rely on some highly dubious notions of human rationality, of universal access to complete and disinterested information, of the market’s ability to solve all problems, and the like. Conservatives irritated by some of the products of modernity like to counter progressive accounts of history with a version in which the present is a dreadful falling-off from the Golden Age when people knew their places and everything was bliss.

Political thinking by its very nature is likely to include wishful thinking

In short, any kind of political theorizing is by its very nature likely to include an element of wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is in a sense fundamental to political thinking, is woven into the very heart of it. At least, into any political theorizing and tendency that is at all reformist in its views, as opposed to simply more of the same [theorizing] please. Political thought in other words generally includes a prescriptive element as well as a descriptive. It is about ought as well as is – that is part of what Left and Right mean: we should do this, or alternatively that.

According to Hannah Arendt, the ability to bring about political change necessarily involves the ability to lie

Reformist political thinking is about change, and human efforts to make change. In order to conceive of, argue for, and make political change one has to think about it: one has to imagine that things could be otherwise. One has to entertain counterfactuals, look at alternatives, ponder thought experiments. In a sense one has to tell lies.

Hannah Arendt pointed this out in an essay on the Pentagon Papers in 1971, in which she noted that truthfulness has never been a political virtue, and that it is surprising how little attention philosophers and political theorists have paid to the significance of this fact for our capacity to second-guess what happens to be the case.

In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed, and things as they were before are changed. Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves from where we physically are located and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth – the ability to lie – and the capacity to change facts – the ability to act – are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source imagination. [Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers, by Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1972].

The ability to think the thing which is not, is the crack by which wishful thinking gets in

Looked at from this angle, this ability to think the thing which is not, is an essential human ability; without it nothing could ever improve except by accident. It is a good thing. But it is also the crack by which wishful thinking gets in. We want things to be better – so we may start to delude ourselves that it won’t be too terribly difficult to make them better.

The key to making things better—especially for the left —  is to presume the infinite plasticity of human nature

One key way to doing this is by insisting on the infinite plasticity of human nature. Any change in social arrangements is at least possible because there is nothing built into our natures that would rule that ‘anything’ out. It may be that left-wing thought is more dependent on this view than right-wing thought.

Conservatives (though not libertarians and anarchists, which can be either Right or Left) tend to emphasize human limits and limitations… Progressives tend to emphasize Romantic notions of human perfectibility and glorious potential.

Progressive thinking rests on the mistaken view that human beings are blank slates, thus allowing the possibility of human perfectibility

Progressive thinking of this kind is founded on the Lockean view that human beings are blank slates; that whatever one finds in their minds has come in from the outside. The importance of this doctrine is that it allows the possibility of the perfectibility of humankind. If people behave badly – if they harm each other in various ways, for example, it is because of distorted social relations; or a breakdown in the normative system of society. It is not because they are dispositionally inclined towards aggression or selfishness. It is possible, therefore, to look forward to the day when human beings will live in harmony with each other; if you get society right, then you will get people right.

Not so fast — The blank slate premise conflicts with a trove of empirical evidence

However, the trouble with this view is that it runs contrary to a wealth of evidence which suggests that Homo sapiens is far from being a blank state. [See, for example, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (202) by Steven Pinker. Pinker argues that human behavior is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological  adaptations]. And, of course, one result of holding to a view which flies in the face of evidence is that you very quickly get into difficulties if you try to build a political theory on top of it.

Where Karl Marx got it wrong

This is perhaps best illustrated by the case of Marxism. It is debatable whether Karl Marx was committed to a genuinely blank-slate view of human nature. However, he was certainly in the spirit of this view with his argument that the ills of society, and indeed of humankind, are ultimately a function of the way in which production was organized; that is, that they are societal – or material – in origin.

Marx’s utopian theory was based on a highly implausible claim, a true example of wishful thinking

Two key concepts drive this argument: class conflict and alienation. It was Marx’s claim that all hitherto existing societies have been based on a fundamental conflict between those who own and control the means of production and those who don’t. In capitalism, this means a conflict between two great antagonistic classes, the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (who own only their labour power). In this scheme, the proletariat are the bearers of the emancipatory potential of humankind. As a collectivity, a class-for-itself, they hold the ability to abolish all class distinctions, instituting a new form of society based on collective ownership; in doing so they will end the alienation of people from the products of their labour, from the labour process itself and from their species-being.

At base, Marxism is just another utopian theory, albeit dressed up in some fancy philosophical clothes. Communism is posited as the end state of history. It is a form of social existence devoid of systematic conflict and antagonism. People in communist society – rational, self-aware and other-regarding – will no longer be estranged from each other or themselves.

The major problem with this vision of a future without conflict is that it is predicated on the highly implausible claim that one can eradicate strife from human social relations simply by altering the material condition in which people live. In other words, it is a true example of wishful thinking. [It flies in the face of abundant empirical evidence which suggests that violence and aggression are an inevitable part of the human condition].


[As an aside, the passage below is where the “epistemic confusion” of the authors’ title creeps in. I introduce it only in passing. For the purposes of this post, it can safely be ignored].

It is one thing to say that people should not be oppressed and exploited; it is quite another to claim that the ‘ways of knowing’ [the epistemology] of the oppressed and the exploited are privileged in some systematic way. Not least, the oppressed and the exploited are not a solid undifferentiated mass, nor are they a unified univocal group every member of which has identical interests with every other. [It is not uncommon for the oppressed and exploited to be victimized by others within their own ranks]. (Page 130)

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