“Our actual political institutions or experience should not contaminate the moral or philosophical purity of our political theories.”
~ Matt Sleat
Today, we are graced with a guest post from Matt Sleat who edited Politics Recovered: Realist Thought in Theory and Practice. The book shows how political theory can provide meaningful and compelling answers to the fundamental questions of political life. The work brings together prominent scholars to develop the idea of what it might mean to theorize politics “realistically.” By exploring the nature, distinctiveness, and prospects of realist thought, it shows how political theory can provide meaningful and compelling answers to the fundamental questions of political life.
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What role should actual politics play in our theorising of it? Two highly prevalent approaches in contemporary political theory suggest that the answer should be none at all. The first—ideal theory—suggests that it is the business of the theorist to provide answers to abstract questions such as ‘What is justice?’ or ‘What is freedom?’ through the power of reason alone. Pure philosophical reflection has all the tools we need to answer those questions. The second—political moralism—assumes that the task of the political theorist is to develop moral ideals (of justice, freedom, equality, etc.) which are then delivered to real political actors to enact in practice. The substantive questions of politics are answered by morality—hence why political moralism is often described as making morality ‘prior’ to politics.
On either account of how we ought to think about politics, the reality of politics might be relevant when it comes to the stage of implementing ideals, in particular in determining what may be feasible, but they are not relevant when it comes to the development of the ideals themselves. Politics is but the mechanism via which we attempt to realise these ideals in the real world. Our actual political institutions or experience should not contaminate the moral or philosophical purity of our political theories. It turns out that one can theorise politics without any need to think about real politics.
“Political theory has simply left too much of real politics out of its remit.”
But in recent years some political theorists have come to be dissatisfied with this approach. Loosely united under the banner of ‘realism,’ they have held that contemporary political theory is insufficiently political in a variety of ways. One is by being unnecessarily limited in its focus, tending to center its attention on a handful of concepts and issues such as justice, freedom, and equality while marginalising other squarely political matters such as leadership, compromise, stability, transparency, security, and the role of the emotions. Political theory has simply left too much of real politics out of its remit. The related, but stronger, claim is that political theory has directed too much of its attention to the wrong issues. Whereas John Rawls famously asserted that justice is the ‘first virtue’ of political societies, realism insists that political theory needs to turn its attention back to of the sine quibus non of politics—order, stability, security, and the conditions of co-operation. Others have suspected that the very endeavour of attempting to theorise politics independently of any considerations of how politics actually is is fundamentally misguided. This is either because there are standards of evaluation and assessment, maybe even values and concepts, that are internal to the practice of politics itself, or because the realities of politics ought to impinge upon the theorisation of our political concepts and ideals.
Contra moralism or ideal theory, therefore, realists think that real politics should feature more significantly in our theories of it. They want to put politics back to the center of political theory. But what does that really mean? How would realistic political theories differ? And what can they say about the real world of politics, its actual issues and problems, that it claims to remain closer to? Politics Recovered brings together leading scholars from across the world to shed some light on these questions. Several of the chapters continue and deepen our understanding of what it means for a theory to be realistic and its implications for how we understand issues such as the relationship between politics and morality. Others look at hitherto unexplored connections between this realism and how it has developed in related areas—most notably democratic theory, feminism, and international relations. Further chapters seek to show how adopting a realist approach provides us with new perspectives on real political issues such as poverty, corruption, the value of democracy, and secrecy.
Taken together, this collection gives a good sense of the intellectual excitement surrounding the recent ‘realist turn’, and hopefully a compelling account of why we should want to continue to do realistic political theory in the future.