chapter  7
Political realism (2013)
Pages 7

I start with a distinction between two sorts of political realism. There is the realism of political agents, whether officials, or participants in movements, or ordinary citizens, and there is the realism of observers of political life, whether theorists or not. I think that the distinction is needed because though the realism of agents resembles the realism of observers, observers putatively possess a dimension of fundamental importance that agents typically lack: a realization that irrationality underlies and sustains the realism of agents. I hold that the essential work of observers is to be realistic in their under-

standing and expectations of the motives of political agents who usually believe that they are the true realists. That is, an observer should work with the realistic assumption, which perhaps can sometimes be rebutted, that political agents, all of whom are putative realists, are therefore not morally motivated. The nature of realistic motives and purposes has to be spelled out, but not too simplistically. I don’t mean that the realistic observer will assume that political agents are invariably immoral, but rather that morality is given at best a minor role in agents’ calculations almost all the time, so that other purposes than justice may flourish. We need another distinction: this time, between the personal motives of an

agent – the desire for power, position, privileges, and reputation – and the as it were impersonal motives that are supposed to inhere in the role that the agent holds at any given time. My interest here is in role-motives, but obviously the observer’s political realism in the broadest sense will have to attend to both personal and role motives and the various ways in which they become entwined, even though they are conceptually separate. Much of the time, the harder task of the observer’s realism is to disclose not the personal motives of agents, which are usually clear enough, despite the effort to keep them secret, but their role motives, which can be quite hard to infer because many roles carry with them numerous opportunities to wield discretionary power. The observer’s concern with motivation is primary. Why do political agents

typically act not for the sake of morality and not only because of mere and directly personal ambition? That is the question. As a would-be political realist, I grant that the motivation of political actors is not adequately characterized as exclusive devotion to their self-interest as individual persons. It is worth

emphasizing that whatever the inflated dignity involved in regarding politics as a calling or vocation, the fact is that there is some part of the commitments of political actors that is not egotistical, even though almost no part of their motivation is moral. The realism of the agent is not primarily cynicism, either, except where there is extreme and definitive corruption; nor should the realism of the observer be too cynical. What then is the basic commitment of political actors? It is to realism, but this commitment is a commitment, no matter how compromised it may be by egotism. As a commitment, a political agent’s realism is not instinctive or reflexive or psychologically irresistible; it is a commitment, not personal ambition that makes political realism an interesting subject. The agent’s definitive commitment to political realism, however, is usually tacit and doesn’t seem to need to be made explicit, as if it went without saying, or was self-evident, or as if the agent were helpless to resist it. Perhaps what makes the commitment feel self-evident is that much of early experience in anyone’s life, including naturally the observer’s, is a kind of preparation for realism. What this means for the observer lamentably is that there is little in anyone’s experience that is a preparation for the critique of political realism. The observer must engage in resistance to himself or herself to do the required work. Realism invisibly permeates the minds of collaborative political practitioners and many citizens; it seems natural, whereas critique of it appears unnatural. And an agent’s commitment to political realism is a burden or at least a responsibility. A certain leap, whether deceived or clear-eyed, into a ruthless and often immoral or amoral world of political action, is required to undertake it. Despite the primacy of the question of motivation for the observer, he or

she must also be concerned with the tendencies and possible patterns of political results, because though particular motives impel actions and policies, there are always unpredictable and surprising developments that cannot be traced back causally to the original motives and purposes, despite the agent’s responsibility for unleashing these developments. In political life, consequences tend to dwarf intentions, no matter how realistic the intentions are. The realism of political actors is often initially naïve, which becomes apparent when realists are stupidly surprised by events that could have been foreseen, at least sketchily, or, just as bad or worse, when they are stupidly surprised that there are great developments that no one could have foreseen. Realists don’t often enough expect the expectable or the unexpected. Realism is often deficient by its own measure. Yet a realistic observer will notice how regularly moral principles and

values are invoked by political agents to explain what they are doing or have done, and why. But I think that a realistic observer will always be suspicious of the moral protestations of political agents, when they claim to be giving an account of their policies. These days, freedom, justice, human rights, and human dignity are routinely invoked to explain and justify public policies or actions. Public moral rhetoric is therefore one of the great obstacles put in the way of anyone’s realistic understanding of political realism. The much larger

point – my basic point – is that the realistic observer should try to see that if the moral rhetoric is often unreal, the political realism of actors is nevertheless not altogether real – that it is recurrently and actually unrealistic because it is irrational. The rationality of the realistic observer is at the service of the critique of the inveterate irrationality of political actors. Whatever their political rhetoric, these actors think that their role motives and purposes, and the strategies and tactics they employ, all grow out of hardheaded realism untainted by irrationality. They don’t want to be taken in by their own moral rhetoric. However, no matter how immoral their official actions may be, their immorality, their ruthlessness and lack of scruples, does not guarantee their rationality; it does not guarantee their realism. They are taken in by their unexamined commitment. The general idea is that the vocational aim of the observer is to try hard not to

be deceived. By common consent, the three great theoretical realistic observers are Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. My belief, however, is that only Hobbes sees through the apparent realism to the fundamental irrationality of political actors and their immersion in unreality. The other two love the game so much they are uncritical of its very existence; they are too worldly to have Socratic moments. But once the game is accepted as a fact not to be questioned, the aim is to appreciate and impart skill in it, despite great obstacles to understanding it. There is no doubt that Thucydides and Machiavelli appreciate and impart skill; but so does Hobbes. They are all instructors in realism. They all acknowledge that the overall opacity of political motives and, too often, the opacity of the ensuing action, are so great that being deceived is very easy. But only Hobbes has philosophical distance from what he is observing; he is not lost in the game and so he dares to question ambition for greatness, whether individual or collective. The mainstream media play an indispensable role in spreading opacity among citizens. I propose that too much sympathy with political agents predisposes one to be

deceived. Political realism, hardly value-free, shows what seems to me to be too much sympathy with the agents and not very much with those who suffer the consequences of what agents do. A corollary is that it is a bad sign for a potential observer to seek out the chance to have political experience. Having had experience as an official or adviser or publicist is injurious, if not fatal, to the will not to be deceived about political life, and not to deceive others, by what one says and writes. If one reflects on one’s experience in everyday life, institutional life, and organizational life, and as a sports’ fan, one has all the experience needed to engage in political inquiry with the intention of not being deceived. In any case, the hope is that observers would define their realism as the will not to be taken in by the realism of political actors, and not to lose sight of the inveterate irrationality of political agency. There are two main reasons for cultivating the will not to be deceived. The

first shouldn’t have to be said; but let’s say it: truth is good for its own sake and a passion for it helps to define the good or ideal observer. The second reason is that speaking and writing what appears to be true about a given situation, or

at least what tries to show, when necessary, what is not true in the utterances of political agents and their circles about that situation, helps to contribute to the work of critique. In turn, critique has two functions: to locate the irrationality in the realism of political agents, and to demonstrate, where that is possible, the often grotesquely immoral consequences of political action undertaken supposedly out of realistic motives and purposes, but often deriving from irrationality. Yes, the realism of the observer is driven in part by moral commitments. Truth exists for its own sake but also in many cases to serve a moral purpose. The hope is that these moral commitments do not distort perception of the truth, but rather discipline and enliven it. The observer, however, must not be deluded into thinking that his or her work will make any difference and must also be reconciled to that outcome. To contribute a bit to truth and also to base critique on the will to truth must suffice and be seen as in need of no pragmatic justification. The will to truth has its own cruelty, which pales, however, in comparison to the physically and psychologically cruel effects of much politics. In The Causes of World War Three (1958), C. Wright Mills coined the phrase

“crackpot realism.” One of the phenomena he had in mind was the calm and supposedly rational way proponents of nuclear warfare tallied the casualties and other losses and found them acceptable, for one reason or another, or for no reason. Political realism is often, and not only in regard to the use of nuclear weapons, crackpot realism. Most “defense intellectuals” are prone to crackpot realism. What is sobering is the combination in the same political agents of, on the one hand, great tactical and strategic sophistication and practical shrewdness leavened by ruthlessness and lack of scruples, and on the other hand, unexamined motives (drives, passions, and aims), superstition, and mystique – irrationality, in short. Skillful agents possess a refined instrumental reason and are possessed by elemental idiocy. They do not examine the nature of their roles. Of course, not all political realism is crackpot realism, but enough of it is to warrant constant attention. One of Max Weber’s great lessons is that modern economic rationality, to an

important extent, grew out of irrationality, out of irrational religious beliefs about the afterlife, beliefs that engendered scarcely appeasable anxiety, which can be mitigated only by tireless work in this life. I extend Weber’s insight to political realism and the tactical or technical rationality that may accompany it. Although Weber did not make this connection – he was too chauvinist – political realism partakes of irrationality, but not always about the afterlife. I don’t have in mind false or unwarranted beliefs about reality or some substantive secular ideology when I refer to irrationality. What I point to is something prior, the motive that underlies the other motives behind the activity of all political actors, irrespective of beliefs and ideologies. What I say is, of course, not the disclosure of a buried secret, but rather the statement of a historical generalization. The foundational motive of political agency is to preserve and, if possible, to strengthen the state constantly, at just about any cost to other purposes that agents have and to other interests of the population. The core realism of political agents is to preserve, by all necessary action, the

systemic preconditions of their action. The sort of political realism I point to could also be called political formalism. If we take officials of a nation-state as our leading case, this is the standard

core of their realism: what matters to them most importantly is that the structural (not moral, of course) integrity of the government be protected against assault by forces at home or abroad; that the territory of the country over which the state presides be protected against invasion, secession, and annexation by other countries; and that the economic resources needed to sustain the society are protected and also augmented when possible. The upshot is that in a country, the energies and talents of the people and their very lives are regarded as the precondition of the state, rather than the state being seen as the instrument of the people’s pursuits. Political action often consists in securing the means that permit the actors to be able to use more effectively the whole society as a means to preserve the state. This double refinement, this inversion or perversion, whereby ends and means switch places, is why the occurrence of war is taken for granted by all realist actors, and thanks to the hold of patriotism, by the people. The people of just about every society want to belong to a politically organized society that is armed and sovereign and that counts for something vis-à-vis other countries. The realistic inversion is in itself deeply irrational, and all forms of government are soaked in it. This formalism is often unnoticed by people, including political actors. It should be noticed with shock. Formalism together with the absence of shocked attention to it is the heart of political realism. But there is a deeper kind of irrationality, still. It is bad enough that in the

standard realism the putative means, the state, becomes the end, and that the putative end, the people, become the means, but the worse perversion is Carl Schmitt’s – I take him only as a recent and representative figure – where the state is to be preserved for the sake of the abstract agon, the combat among politically organized units, where the permanent existence of the system of enemies and friends (more likely, satellites) is conceptualized as the highest condition of political life. The highest human condition is political grandiosity, especially in the form of imperialism. Is this not the unexamined commitment of two of the three greatest theoretical realists, Thucydides and Machiavelli? Thucydides endorsed Pericles’ imperialism, and drew the line only at Alcibiades. The third, Hobbes, at least has moments when he stands back to look at grandiose foreign policy and condemns it, even though, of course, he endorses whatever preserves and strengthens the state, as other realists do, but not for their reasons, but for the sake of peace and the safety of citizens’ lives. The grandiose agonistic tendency, the chauvinism or male hysteria, also lurks behind Weber’s “Politics as a vocation” (1946). This is the second kind of formalism and is the deeper irrationality. The reductio ad absurdum is reached in the use, the threatened use, and the deterrent use of nuclear weapons and other abhorrent weapons, and the theories of realism used to justify this most extreme criminality in the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond, by such people as Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger.