Continuing the institution-design thread on the blog, which I expect to be the dominant focus here for years to come…

I’m currently working through [Using the phrase “working through” is a trick I’ve picked up to make it sound like I’m doing something fancier than “reading”] Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, since the project I’m pursuing here seems to broadly fit within or alongside Wright’s. Wright characterises his work as an example of ‘emancipatory social science’, which he says in turn comprises three main tasks:

elaborating a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; enivisioning viable alternatives; and understanding the obstacles, possibilities and dilemmas of transformation.

Moreover, although here Wright categorises ‘diagnosis and critique’ as one task, this can of course be broken down into very different component parts:

To describe a social arrangement as generating ‘harms’ is to infuse analysis with a moral judgement. Behind every emancipatory theory, therefore, there is an implicit theory of justice, some conception of what conditions would have to be met before the institutions of a society could be deemed just.

In this post I just want to focus (pretty superficially) on the relationship between this kind of political ideal – whether understood as a theory of justice or some other kind of normative framework – and an institutional proposal.

We evaluate institutions in terms of whether they realise our political ideals, so debates about which institutions we should adopt always play out in at least two registers: debates about what ideals they should try to realise, and debates about how they can best realise those ideals. These two debates intertwine. It is possible to bring together a coalition of very different political ideals under a shared institutional goal, and vice versa. It is also possible for our institutional goals to modify our political ideals.

As any very long-term readers of this blog, if such there be, may remember, I spent considerable time some years ago on the work of the analytic philosopher Robert Brandom, and in particular on Brandom’s normative pragmatics. I don’t want to revisit that fairly involved terrain here, but I want to highlight that the relationship between norms and practice is very relevant, at a metatheoretical level, to the normative study of institutions. Institutions are, after all, enacted by practices, and if we understand (as I think we should) norms as also products of practice (albeit in a complicated and non-reductive way), then we see that our norms are not just benchmarks against which institutions can be evaluated, but are also themselves, in part, products of our institutions. The institutional world we make shapes our values, and those values in turn react back on our institutions, and permit us to evaluate – and critique – them. For example: one of the ways in which capitalism is (potentially) self-undermining, for Marx, is not just that it creates the objective conditions for its abolition (for example, in creating productive forces that can be redirected to other ends), or even that it creates the subjective conditions for its abolition (in the sense of creating a ‘collective subject’ of a class-conscious proletariat) but just as importantly that it creates the subjective conditions for its abolition in another sense: the institutions of capitalism generate a range of historically novel normative ideals that provide resources for the emancipatory critique and rejection of capitalist institutions.

So the relationship between institutions and norms is complicated. It is a mistake, in an ‘abstract’ sense, to think that we begin with historically-abstracted norms and then move to devise institutions that can realise the ideals of those norms: our norms are a product of practice too, and may shift as our practices shift. Nevertheless, we do evaluate institutions against our norms, and in a less abstracted or philosophical sense it doesn’t matter much where those norms come from. After all, they are our norms – in our ethical and political debates we accept or reject them because of reasons, not simply causes.

So, to repeat, debates over institution design play out in two registers: debates over what ideals we should attempt to realise, and debates over what institutions we should adopt to attempt to realise those ideals. These debates are intertwined at an abstract metatheoretical level – but they are also intertwined at more ‘applied’ levels. One easy mistake to make, in ‘theoretical’ institution-design, is to think that one can begin with a set of foundational normative principles, and from these principles ‘derive’ the institutions that best realise them. This direction of political-theoretical reasoning is certainly one of the discursive and political resources at our disposal – but we need to be cautious. In practice our norms are complicated and conflictual, filled with competing preferences and values which need to be wrestled with to attempt to balance partially incompatible goods and goals. This kind of work cannot be carried out at the level of pure abstraction – it needs to be thought through in relation to concrete problems. Thinking about actual institutions is therefore important not only when we attempt to realise our political ideals, but also in order to understand what those ideals even are. Different people who share ‘the same’ values may find themselves with very different practical intuitions when confronting real-world political problems – and these practical problems therefore function to illuminate differences of values that might have been invisible, or at least difficult to discern, until they were tested.

One of the conclusions we could draw from this line of thought is the position discussed in my last blog post: the idea that politics can only really be carried out ‘in practice’, and that trying to theorise institutions (or anything else) in too much abstraction or too much in advance is hubristic. But, as I said in that post, I think we should reject this idea. The inseparability of theoretical ideals and practical problems should not lead us to reject the former – still less to reject theoretical attempts to provide resources for practical problem-solving. Nevertheless, it is useful to be aware of the ways in which these areas of theory, politics and experience intersect.

In short, in thinking about institutions, we should pursue both tasks: clarifying our political values, and clarifying our sense of what institutions can best realise those values. Moreover, for the reasons I have discussed in this post, it makes sense to ‘tack back and forth’ between these projects. To bastardise Kant, institutions without ideals are empty; ideals without institutions are blind. We will carry out both of these projects better, I think, if we keep them in close contact.