Why pragmatic politics is wrong

Disclosure: I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn as my first preference in the Labour leadership election, lest I be accused of being a Corbynista from the get go.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is, we’re told, going to be a disaster for Labour. The party will fall apart. He is unappealing to swing voters and focus groups. He will not win the general election in 2020. 

This narrative is underpinned by the philosophy that the Labour party achieves more in power that out of it; therefore, the aim of the party should be achieving power. To achieve that power, if the electorate cannot be convinced to move leftward, then the party must move rightward. If certain principles have to be compromised or jettisoned, so be it, because it is more important to be in power than retain principles. That is the nature of pragmatic politics.

It sounds such a simple idea. Do X, and Y will follow. And it ties in with the status quo of managerialism in political thought. Governments, economies, whole systems, are treated as black boxes; just questions of inputs and outputs. Those participating in these systems are rational actors, motivated by incentives, whose behaviour can be predicted. Without pesky principles getting in the way, politics becomes a discussion of outcomes — which ones to achieve and the best way to achieve them.

Unfortunately for Labour’s believers in pragmatic politics, they are completely and utterly wrong.

There are no black boxes. Politics and economics are not simple systems where known inputs lead to predictable outcomes. They are complex, subject to major disruptions from minor inputs, and unpredictable. Most of the major era-shaping events of this century so far — the September 11th attacks, the Great Financial Crisis, the Arab Spring — were, at the time they happened, spontaneous and unpredictable. They’re Black Swan events, if you know your popular science books.

(Although this hasn’t prevented lots of self-proclaimed clever people saying they were predictable, in hindsight. Ignore them.)

There’s no better example of this than the rise of Corbyn himself. During the general election, he was such a peripheral figure he was mentioned just once in media coverage of Labour’s campaign. When he entered the leadership race, the very same people telling us he will be a disaster, were telling us he hadn’t a hope in hell of winning it.

And for all the talk of £3 entryism, that the Labour party had been infiltrated by outsiders, it’s worth noting that Corbyn still won 49.6% of the first round among party supporters, and 51.5% among party and union affiliates combined. He would have won easily without the new joiners — Labour members were already unhappy.

If you’re that bad at reading the mood of your own party members, the people you are closest to, then how bad must you be at predicting how an entire country or economy or global system will behave?

We need to cure ourselves of the delusion of pragmatic politics, and of all the philosophical baggage that comes with it. Perfect knowledge is not attainable. Black boxes are a poor theoretical model for political systems. People are not rational actors and aggregate behaviours are not predictable. Doing X will not automatically lead to Y, even if doing X led to Y in the past.

What does that alternative look like? An inbuilt assumption that systems are unpredictable, building things that are more accommodating of risk and unknowns, have more humility when you make your own assertions and be open to the possibility you may be disastrously wrong. That’s a start, at least.

Note that these are all things that are relevant to you regardless of where your political principles lie. As for those principles? Think of them of as the chart to navigate unpredictability by; to give you the grounding to deal with unpredictability as it hits you in the face.

(But don’t let those principles blind you to hard truths, else they become dogma, and dogma is useless)

In short, ignore the pundits’ predictions. Pundits are useless at predicting things, because everybody is useless at predicting things. Many (but not all) things coming up between now and 2020 will be unpredictable, and you owe it yourself to ignore those who are so certain about everything, and to be less stridently certain with your own predictions.