Policy making as cooptation?

When Gramsci counselled “optimism of the will”, it was to suggest that there is political value in sustaining our faith in people’s capacities to resist power and transform their world even when such sentiments fly in the face of how we see people relating to authority in our particular historical conjuncture. He did not mean to advocate what we should perhaps term “wilful optimism”, an idealist faith in the selfrepresentations of authority or a blithe disregard for the obstacles in the way of our political strategies. Indeed, Gramsci was acutely aware that the failure to question the ideological appearances of hegemonic power could only have dire political consequences. The distinction between optimism of the will and wilful optimism permits us some conceptual grip on the role that progressive intellectuals have played since the onset of the financial crisis and in particular since the American presidential election of 2008. The following is an excerpt from a critique of the ‘wilfull optimism’ of Paul Krugman, which appeared in Ephemera.

The source of the quote above and the excerpt below provide food for thought for advocates of change.:

* The ups and downs of a liberal consciousness, or, why Paul Krugman should learn to tarry with the negative Martijn Konings. Ephemera 9, 2010


“A major factor luring progressive intellectuals into the game of making policy proposals is the tyranny of “what is your alternative?” – that is, the notion that public intellectuals only behave responsibly if they do not only offer criticism but also put forward alternative policy proposals. However, in situations where we find ourselves at many removes from the levers of public authority, to prescribe policy alternatives is bound to be either presumptuous and pointless (because the political actors that we would like to carry our programs are nowhere to be found) or conservative in its political implications (because after many radical calls in the desert we learn to ratchet our ambitions down to a level where they can easily be taken up by existing agencies). Once we buy into the game of making policy proposals we can only sound ridiculous and irrelevant or end up participating in the legitimation of prevailing relations of power. We may be able to find a trade-off between these two extremes, but we will have structurally hobbled our capacity for the production of critical knowledge.

The temptation of the policy debate – i.e. the reluctance to recognize “what is your alternative?” as a rhetorical question – is perhaps yet another instance of the Left’s idealism, motivated as it is by a fear of the political cynicism that might ensue once we start questioning people’s professed interests. But this is based on a dramatic misunderstanding of the psychological and cultural mechanisms that produce political cynicism and apathy. The latter arise not from a willingness to question the official attributes of power but precisely from the tendency to validate hegemonic discourses even at times when their disconnect from the world is particularly visible; not from the awareness of oppression but from progressive leaders’ insistence that we sit still and hold on tight while hegemonic power works its way towards a new benevolence.

Throughout the crisis, public intervention has been so flagrantly slanted in favour of the very actors and practices that had dominated the neoliberal era that progressive commentators’ willingness to read into this an actual departure from the power structures of the neoliberal era is often nothing short of belief-begging. At a time when massive public assistance for the world’s wealthiest people is legitimated through appeals to the common good, we should not be too quick to celebrate the return of Keynesianism or too eager to participate in the construction of a new consensus regarding the potential virtues of government. While it is crucial that we develop political responses based on a clear perspective on the meaning of the crisis, we should not be too eager to seize on every dim prospect for progressive change promised by states and elites presiding over a capitalist system in disarray.

All too often, progressive commentators and intellectuals allow their political commitments to be shaped by wilful optimism, by appraisals of power that take their cues from its rationalizations and self-representations. And all too often this has played an important role in temping progressive political projects into assuming responsibility for the restoration of capitalist order, thereby undermining their transformative capacities in the process. For the time being, the most productive role that progressive intellectuals can play is to “tarry with the negative” (to use Zizek’s (1993) appropriation of Hegel’s famous phrase) i.e. to trace and publicize the inconsistencies between prevailing practices of power and their idealized representation in the official institutions, narratives and symbols of our polity.”

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