In Favor of Fatalism

You know, fatalism gets kind of a bum rap. As if a crushing sense of the deep futility of life is the worst thing that could happen in the world.

Yesterday, my colleague Peter Levine rightly expressed concern at the fatalism inspired by Paul Krugman, Cass Sunstein, and others when it comes to transforming our civil society. In a letter to the New York Review of Books, Levine joined Harry Boyte and Albert Dzur in writing:

Sunstein, like Habermas and many others, sees major institutions as largely fixed and unchangeable, not subject to democratizing change. This assumption generates fatalism, which has shrunk our imaginations about decision-making, politics, and democracy itself.

While I’d be inclined to agree that we shouldn’t consider institutions as fixed and unchangeable, I’m not convinced that an unmovable task should signal the end of the work. As I’ve written before, even if the cause is hopeless, sometimes it is still worth fighting for.

But perhaps more importantly, believing in the people’s ability to generate change doesn’t dissolve the possibility of fatalism.

Imagining institutions as malleable and subject to the will of the people, for example, doesn’t imply that change will always be good.

For his part, James C. Scott argues that “so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry.”

Scott warned of an authoritarian state that is “willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.”

But this warning could be easily extended to the general will of the people. Perhaps the technocratic approach of a few experts imposing their vision is a project doomed to fail – but that doesn’t mean that the will of the people is destined to succeed.

For after all, what is the “will of the people”?

As Walter Lippmann has noted, there is no such thing. There is merely the illusion of society as a body, with a mind, a soul and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related.”

And surely, people can be wrong.

Even if we were to overcome the challenges of factions, overcome the disparate opinions and experiences that shape us, even if we united diverse peoples in collaboration and dialogue, worked collectively to solve our problems – even then we would be prone to imperfection.

This, then, is the real fatalistic danger – What if people can change institutions, but the institutions they build will always be fundamentally flawed?

It’s like when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” seemed like a good idea. At the time it seemed progressive, welcoming even. It was a positive change, yet still deeply flawed.

But again, this fatalism doesn’t have to lead to paralysis.

In many ways, the intrinsically imperfect institution is the backbone of Roberto Unger’s thesis. Far from running short on ideas for change, Unger takes ideas to extremes.

He has no patience for what he calls “reformist tinkering,” preferring instead radical change, “smashing contexts.”

In Unger’s view it is exactly that reformist tinkering which leads to fatalism. “Only proposals that are hardly worth fighting for – reformist tinkering – seem practicable,” he writes.

Unmoved by these modest, mediocre plans, people feel resigned to accept the status quo, rather than thinking more radically about what might change.

But Unger confronts this fatalism in a surprising way: seemingly accepting the inevitability of failed human ventures, Unger recommends creating a whole branch of the government tasked with reforming and radicalizing any institution which has become too static.

He envisions a world where institutions are constantly being torn down and rebuilt to repair the mistakes of the past and meet the needs of the day.

What could go wrong? You can almost hear Scott say in response.

In defending his originalist view of the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argues that interpreting the Constitution based off today’s morals “only works if you assume societies only get better. That they never rot.”

Justice Scalia may not be my model of justice, but he does have a point.

It would be almost foolish to assume we’ll never be imperfect. Unger goes too far.

But where does that leave us? In a world of broken institutions where change is a herculean task and where that change may not be the ideal solution we might hope for, it’s easy to how fatalism might be inspired.

But I still find myself thinking – fatalism isn’t so bad.

Regardless of the changes, regardless of the outcomes, as individual citizens we’re still left with three fundamental choices: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

Why choose to exercise voice?

Because really…what the hell else is there?

Perhaps it’s better that we go into it knowing that change is hard; accepting that human capacity to create perfect systems is limited.

We must constantly challenge ourselves and our works. Are we pushing for change hard enough? Are we expecting too much of our solutions?

After all It’s not a static world we’re fighting for, but one we can continually co-create together.


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