Modern political life is fraught with difficult choices: cosmopolitanism or statism? Liberalism or socialism? Where do these debates stand and can political theorists help us choose? In this episode of the Governance Podcast, Carmen Pavel (King’s College London) sits down with Lea Ypi (LSE) for a conversation about the fundamental role of politics and radical democracy in current affairs.
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Lea Ypi is Professor in Political Theory in the Government Department, London School of Economics, and Adjunct Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. Before joining the LSE, she was a Post-doctoral Prize Research Fellow at Nuffield College (Oxford) and a researcher at the European University Institute where she obtained her PhD.
She has degrees in Philosophy and Literature from the University of Rome, La Sapienza, and has held visiting and research positions at Sciences Po, the University of Frankfurt, the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, the Australian National University and the Italian Institute for Historical Studies.
0:49: Global issues have become more salient in both public political discourse but also in political theory. You’ve made an important contribution with your book, Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency (OUP 2011). I’d like to start by asking you some questions about your argument. I’m interested particularly in your contribution to a conversation that sees the role of the state as being outdated by current political problems and the evolution of political interactions at the international level. There’s one strong argument in the global justice literature that argues that states are obsolete forms of political association, and they’re inadequate at solving the problems of global injustice we’re confronted with. You argue against this position and defend statist cosmopolitanism.
6:27: How does your position in practice differ from a cosmopolitan position? Ultimately, you say the goal is to realize these global egalitarian principles.
7:26: Would you say that being a statist cosmopolitan makes a difference in terms of the time it might take to realise cosmopolitan justice? Or would you rather say that without states we couldn’t even get to the point where we realise cosmopolitan justice?
9:22: And I think this kind of argument reflects your particular view of the right way of doing political theory…. So how is your account of statist cosmopolitanism related to your view about the role of political theory?
14:00: It seems that you have a view of the political theorist as an agent with a distinctive contribution to political evaluation, political criticism and political debate where on the one hand the political theorist can provide some general principles or end points for reform but at the same time engage with the question of, how do we get from where we are to the principles we want to realise? … In your book with Jonathan White called The Meaning of Partisanship (OUP 2016), you discuss the foundational role parties play and ought to continue to play in modern democratic life. Can you tell us why you think parties are so irreplaceable?
20:39: Do you think there are costs associated with organising our political life around parties?
23:39: I think you take this point about public engagement as a political theorist very seriously as well. In your more recent work you’ve become more interested in reaching a wider audience as a political theorist and so you write in the popular press about contemporary issues in the UK and Europe. And I’m really interested in what your experience with that has been like. What are you learning as a political theorist?
25:57: One of the themes of your public engagement is the need to develop an alternative to liberalism. Can you tell us where contemporary liberalism fits in your view?
32:45: I think it’s very important to develop alternative visions of political society, both to test whether and why we value the kind of society we do, but also understand whether there are things wrong with it and change it. And so this kind of project I think is very valuable. It’s clear that there are problems within liberal society today that perhaps illustrate the tensions you talk about. And I think many self-professed liberals would say that these problems exist. What their reaction to these problems would be is not to say liberalism should die but to see those tensions as perhaps inherent in liberalism and try to work them out also within liberalism. It’s a much more gradualist approach to political reform. It sounds from the way you talk about recuperating this criticism of commercial society that you want to reject this gradualism… why move all the way to socialism as opposed to moving within the confines of existing political institutions?
37:37: Let’s pursue this question of the socialist alternative further. What would you say would characterise, not just at the level of principles, but in terms of actual institutions, what would be different in this alternative political world?
41:02: Socialism comes with a very distinctive vision, not just an end point in principles but also institutions and how they would be differently organised than current ones.
42:34: It sounds to me like you’re not persuaded by some socialist scepticism—and I mean scepticism in the following way –Jerry Cohen for example, who sees socialism as the right moral ideal, the best justified vision of political society… but he’s worried that we lack the institutional technology to realise that vision. Someone like Jerry Cohen became disenchanted particularly after the fall of communism that we might just lack the institutions to channel these radical forms of representation.
Carmen Pavel: Welcome back to The Governance Podcast for the Center for the Study of Governance and Society at King’s College London. My name is Carmen Pavel and I’m a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Economy here at King’s. And today I’m very pleased to talk to Lea Ypi, Professor of Political Theory in the Government Department London School of Economics and Adjunct Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.
Professor Ypi has published widely on partisanship and the role of parties, Kant’s political philosophy, the wrong of colonialism, immigration and territorial rights to name a few. Thank you for being here.
Lea Ypi: Thank you for hosting me.
Carmen Pavel: Global issues have become much more salient in both public political discourse, but also to political theorists over the last couple of decades and you’ve made an important contribution with your book “Global Justice and Avant Garde Political Agency”. So I’d like to start by asking you some questions about the argument in that book and in particular, I’m interested in your contribution to a conversation that sees the role of the state as being sort of outdated perhaps by current political problems and also the evolution of political interactions at the international level.
So there’s one strong argument in the global injustice literature that argues that states are obsolete forms of political association, and they’re really inadequate for the task of solving the problems of global injustice we are confronted with. But you argue against this position and you defend instead around status cosmopolitanism. Could you explain what status cosmopolitanism is?
Lea Ypi: Status cosmopolitanism is a position that begins with this debate that you just mentioned between cosmopolitan’s on the one hand and state is on the other. And the debate is really about the normative standing of the state and the scope of egalitarian obligations, obligations of global justice.
So for status, the idea is that the states take normative priority, they have ethical standing and they define the kinds of obligations that we have and also how we should rank these obligations, the ideas that we have obligations to everyone – to citizens of the world at large, to fellow citizens, to family members – and the idea is of the states defines a kind of political association where because of the normative and judicial and political relations that we have with fellow citizens, obligations of justice take priority and so that the primary addresses of our obligations are our fellow citizens.
The status position is that states have independent normative standing and that egalitarian justice the scope of egalitarian justice is defined by state-based political relations.
And cosmopolitans on the other hand say that states are arbitrary, that our very belonging to particular political communities is an arbitrary fact. We don’t choose to be born in wealthy or poor states and yet these belong and defines who we are and what opportunities we have in life. And since the very existence of state is morally arbitrary, stats shouldn’t define and shape the contents of our obligations of Justice.
So the book tries to make a contribution to this debate between cosmopolitans on the one hand and egalitarians and status on the other by talking about the difference between principles on the one hand and agency on the other. So the starting point is the principles are about what we do and what we have reason to do, and agency is about how we do what we do.
And I say that if we care about principles and we think about principles from a global Perspective, then it really does seem arbitrary to narrow down the obligations that we have in relationship to our forms of political association, since these forms of political association are contingencies. The world is globalized, interdependent, and so there are many ways in which we network with other people who are not necessarily fellow citizens. There are many ways in which we share problems with people with whom we don’t necessarily share boundaries.
So if we think about it from the point of view of principles, then we should be cosmopolitan egalitarians. And yet, it seems that from a political relationship, states do take priority because it’s through states that our political membership is defined and our political membership channels and tracks how we make a difference in politics, how we can be politically active. Because States exercise coercion, because sovereignty is defined by the state, because the forms of political education are mediated and substantiated by states judicial relations, it seems agency is channeled in an important way by the state.
And status cosmopolitanism is a way of basically being a cosmopolitan about principles and a statist about agency. So the idea is that if you are a statist cosmopolitan , then you will want to see global egalitarianism flourish,but the way you will try to realise global egalitarianism is by taking advantage of these associative political relations that we have with fellow citizens and turn this moral obligations of global justice into Political obligations.
Carmen Pavel: So this would be political obligations at the state level?
Lea Ypi: They begin at the state level, but the idea is to transcend the narrow boundaries of the state and to shape and create forms of political relations that go beyond the state. And so create the necessary institutions or the necessary reforms at the global level that are required to realize this global egalitarianism.
Carmen Pavel: Okay, excellent. Thanks. And how does an in practice your position would differ from a cosmopolitan position, because ultimately you say the goal is to realize this global elicitation princiles.So what would be say, in practical terms, the difference between your view and the view of a cosmopolitan?
Lea Ypi: Well, I guess the Cosmopolitan would say that the state is also arbitrary from a political perspective. In a way they would say that since in light of transformations and globalization, transnational institutions begin to be important or more local forms of political relations are also important, there is no need to prioritize the state as a political site of our activity.
And my view says that because of the way in which our political relations are structured by the state and because of the kinds of coercions and the kinds of juridical relations that mediate our relationship with other fellow citizens, the state is really a primary site of political activity. So any intervention that is required to transcend the state needs to go through the state as well.
Carmen Pavel: So would you say that being a statist cosmopolitan makes a difference in terms of say the time it would take to release cosmopolitan justice? Or you rather say without states we couldn’t even get to the point where you realize cosmopolitan Justice .
Lea Ypi: I don’t think it’s really about time. In my time it’s more about democracy and about the kinds of politics that we can have the state’s enable. So we see now with a number of political debates in this country and over Brexit, that the Democratic interactions between citizens seem to be really important and in fact are often invoked sometimes in a way that criticizes them by saying look, transnational institutions are now much more important and so therefore these are obsolete types of political relations, but then on the other hand for people who say that for example, voting or participating at the political level, at the national political level, are still the only ways in which we can have political accountability and involvement at the larger level of citizens.
And so it’s a democrat argument, the one that says that we need to prioritise states because it is still the case that’s democracy, because of elections, because of the way in which politics is organized, is filtered by the state mediated relations.
And so if we want to have a kind of argument for cosmopolitanism that isn’t just elitist, we need this argument that says we ought to transform political institutions at the transnational level, and then the question who is going to be responsible for these transformations and the answer is typically policymakers, academics, intellectuals, in my case the idea is to give space to these forms of political relations with are democratically mediated at the national level and that are typically considered to bottom up rather than top down.
Carmen Pavel: I think this kind of argument reflects your particular view of the right way of doing political theory perhaps, not the only way but maybe one important way of doing. So what would you say that your account, how is your account of statist cosmopolitanism related to your view about the role of the political theorist perhaps?
Lea Ypi: So the intent is to think about the political theorist as a political agent. And as you say, it’s not in this case while with the cosmopolitans versus statist, I would say that my argument trumps normatively, gives benefits of neither of these views, I would say this with the other argument about activist political theory, this really is one mode of engagement with political theory. So I’m not trying to say that this mode of engagement supplants the other or replaces other perfectly valid ways of thinking about the role of theorists. So there is a role for the theorist of the ivory tower as it were and in my account, I’m interested in exploring the relationship between the political theorist as a theorist and the political theorist as a citizen, as someone who is engaged in democratic politics as an activist.
And activist political theory is an attempt to think about political theory that is embedded in particular contests of justice and that engages with power relations, with the kinds of inequalities, with structural injustices, in which the theorist find themselves embedded because of their simply belonging in particular context, and of their taking a stance with regard to these conflicts and to the kind of crisis that the experience and using theory to try and shed light on the best way to articulate these conflicts.
And in the book, I tried to explain this in different stages by talking about the relationship between political activist, political theorist and social movements more broadly. So on the one hand, activist political theorists are parts of general social movements, they are part of emancipatory movements in society, but on the other hand they play a specific role within those movements, which is to try and on the one hand diagnose and articulate by using academic knowledge, intellectual knowledge, intellectual exchange, the kinds of conflicts in society that trigger the demands of particular social movements and to try and account for these conflicts that we experience at the right level, at the right justificatory level but also the right level of agency.
And so to take just the global justice example, in the book I use the debate around your global justice is one way of explaining how an activist political theory ought to engage with in this debate between the relationship and the role of the states on the one hand and the demands of egalitarian justice on the other.
So the way which I articulate the relationship is by talking about these different stages in which we see the role of activist political theorists and there at first a kind of diagnostic stage in which a theorist tries to explain where do particular conflicts come from and how can we account for them at the appropriate fundamental level. There is what I call a heirustic stage and an innovative stage in which the theorist tries to both find out what is wrong with particular conflicts, but also to come up with solutions that are normatively adequate and that respond and take into account these various conflicts.
And then there is a third stage in which the theorist also tries to anticipate what kind of problems this new view might lead into the future, what kind of Institutions would be required, what kind of conflicts will these institutions experience, how will they create new subjects and so on and so forth, and this is really where we perhaps then get to the limits of political theory because there is only so much we can anticipate.
So that the main role is that of basically articulating and clarifying struggles in society and using their role and their knowledge to try and contribute to shedding light on these struggles and then to also adjudicate between the different kinds of social actors and agents in society that are involved in these struggles, in the hope of distinguishing perhaps between progressive and regressive social movements and in the hope of saying, well there are clearly conflicts in society, there are clearly different kinds of political movements that respond to these conflicts, but if we think about these conflicts from a principled perspective how would we adjudicate with the different kinds of political movements that respond to these conflicts and how would we adjudicate also with regard to how adequate their responses to these conflicts are.
Carmen Pavel: So it seems you have a view of political theorists as an agent with a distinctive contribution to political evaluation, political criticism, of political and political debate, where on the one hand the political theorists can provide some sort of general principles or endpoint for reform. But at the same time engage with the question with, as you say in your book, how do we get from where we are to the principles we want to realise, the ideal of justice we want to realise and I think that;s a very helpful overview of what political theory does best.
And you’ve applied this as a continuous theme I think throughout your work and more recently this has, the sort of insightful way of engaging you apply this to the role of parties and activism and engagement through parties. So in your book with Jonathan White called “The Meaning of Partisanship”, you discuss the foundational role parties play and ought to continue to play in modern democratic life. Can you tell us why you think parties serve this very important and perhaps defining and irreplaceable role in political life?
Lea Ypi: Yes, so the book starts with by taking stock off the debates around political parties and by acknowledging also that for a very long time political theory hasn’t been interested in political parties, parties have been very much the domain of political scientists who were asking questions around how do we measure party participation, when are parties corrupt, different types of party leaders and so on, but perhaps weren’t asking the normative questions that political theorists like to ask around the issue of what is a party for and what do we need parties? Why do we organize our political life around parties?
Now that we do organize our political life around parties is obvious. If we try and think about how we have governments and how we’re on elections that on the basis of which we choose governments and then how from these governments emerge the kind of laws in public policies that we are all subjected to.
So if we think about the mechanism of representation in the liberal democracies in which we live, parties seem to be unique agents because they are on the one hand grounded in civil society and in societal interactions between citizens. And yet, they are unlike purely voluntary organizations or movements based organization, they are also connected to law making in a very particular way.
So parties are like unions and like interest groups and social movements, rooted in the kind of democratic activity of citizens, but in a unique way differently from these other movements also connected to government and to the making of laws and public policy that we are all subjected to.
So if we ask the kind of democratic question of how do we justify the exercise of political power and it seems that we justify the exercise of political power if we have a say in the laws by which we are ruled. Then in liberal representative democracies, these laws are made through our participation and choice of political parties.
So the interest in the book in the kind of party form and party representation really has to do with this issue of justification of the coercive use of power. It seems that we need a reason for being subjected to power and that reason in the democratic tradition is given by suggesting that if we can have a say in the laws that we subject ourselves to, then these laws are considered to be justified and thinking that in liberal represented democracies the way in which we have a say is through our collective agency in political parties.
So the interest in parties is as agents that seem to respond to the demand for democratic justification in an adequate way and in a unique way, in a way that is connected both to these voluntary spontaneous forms of political organization at the societal level and also in the coercive aspect of making laws and enacting laws.
And in the book, we then explore different aspects of this relationship, we explore the meaning of partisanship as we call it, by thinking not just about the political party as an institution that makes an enacts law, but in trying to think about the richer understanding of what a party is when it’s connected to the democratic activity of citizens, when the connection with this apparatus of political democratic justification takes place again at the membership level and not just of the level in which laws are made.
And so by thinking about the forms of authorization, by thinking about the kinds of obligations of members and partisans have to each other and to society at large, by thinking about the transformation and the evolution of parties in time, by thinking about question so how do parties change, when they change what kind of demands are placed on them, what kind of obligations they have to their partisans to make an argument for how change ought to take place, by thinking about relations around compromise, how do parties make compromises when their principles are at stake, when it seems that these principles are at fundamental contrast with each other because they reflect different worldviews and different visions of how society ought be organized, and also by thinking about the question of revolutionary partisanship, the relationship between the party and the state, so when the party’s foundation for a particular kind of state, especially a state perhaps emerges out of unjust circumstances or in revolutionary circumstances of transition, and then finally by thinking about transnational partisanships, which connects the themes of my first book with the themes of my second book, by thinking about using the party mechanism and the partisanship mechanism as a way of realising the demands of transnational cosmopolitan justice and not just the forms that are limited to the forms of civic participation that we know in the state.
Carmen Pavel: Sounds like a really rich account of the role of parties in our public political life and tlso the ways in which the channel information and the way they structure political debates for voters and then kind of narrow down the set of questions from what is a dizzying array of policy options that it’s sort of hard for every single voter to think about independently and get enough sort of information about. So there’s value there. But do you think then there are costs associated with organizing our political life around parties?
Lea Ypi: Yes, I do think there are costs and there are trade-offs required and one of the first cost is perhaps the sacrifice of individual sovereignty. When one is a party member, when one acts in the political sphere in association with others, then one has to make compromises and to kind of be willing to ask oneself about whether one is really convinced of the views that one initially held prior to joining these forms of political organization.
One has to ask questions around is the independence of thought and action a sacrifice when one is a partisan, because often if there is a kind of discipline of association and their associated obligations that come with a cost, and this is no different really from how we think at least at the kind of philosophical level, of how we think the relationship between a family member and an individual, prior to being a family member.
So just like a family or just like other forms of organization that we know, if one thinks of the value of partisan dissociative form, then it’s clear that the association comes with certain demands on the individual and that I think it would be an illusion to think that there is no trade-off involved whatsoever because there is always a trade off when one is a member of an association, whether it;’s a family, where it’s a state whether it’s a political party, then there’s a trade-off.
The question is and the way in which the book responds to this challenge is by saying that yes, we need to acknowledge that there are trade-offs but these trade-offs become particularly costly and particularly demanding when parties are the only associations that we relate to.
So if we think of parties again as one kind of association amongst many that plays a particular function in political life, that plays the desirable role of channeling political commitment in a particular way, that also has some benefits in terms of, as you mentioned earlier, epistemic empowerment or motivational empowerment – I may know things better when I challenge my Views with my fellow partisans or I may be more motivated to act when there is a sort of common source of strength and solidarity – then perhaps the costs are worth bearing provided that they’re not only costs, provided they come with some benefits on the one hand and provided when they become really demanding on the part of associations, that they are part of a kind of associative life, when there are multiple forms of association, multiple forms of loyalty, that hopefully temper each other and that help taking away the extremes of all of these particular associative forms.
Carmen Pavel: And these associative forms are, in the end the richness of the associated form is what enables like of healthy democratic engagement with politics, I think is the ultimate point that you wanted to make in the book. And I think you take this point about public engagement as a political theorist very seriously as well. And in your more recent work you’ve become more interested in the role of reaching a wider audience as a political theorist. And so you write in popular press about contemporary issues in the UK and Europe. And I’m really interested to hear what your experience doing that is like. Are you, what are you learning as a political theorist?
Lea Ypi: In addition to keeping things simple and to making an effort at communicating certain ideas which have animated political theory, but that perhaps are used in a particular language and said sometimes make political theorists in a way lazy because we understand each other and we have particular terminology. I started by talking about the debate between cosmopolitans and statists and the dangers of global egalitarianism. But of course in the popular press or among the more popular audience these would be difficult terms that would be difficult to understand and so I think about what is the equivalent way of referring to these terms, what is something that those who are not experts or who have not studied political theory or who are not inside these debates, would still be able to understand that gives us some common ground and I think that is doing the greatest challenge for me to try and think what do I know as a political theorist and how do I relate to politics as it happens around me and what is the common ground that I have between my fellow citizens or fellow interlocutors who don’t necessarily share the same background at the technical level, but who share the concerns and who also perhaps share the intuitions and so the challenge is to bridge between the different ways of thinking about politics that makes the exchange productive.
Carmen Pavel: So it is very much the challenge of finding the common language that I think is sort of obvious in the way you describe it. But it looks like you’re doing that successfully and one of the themes of your public engagement is the need, if I understand it correctly, to maybe develop an alternative to liberalism. Can you tell us where does contemporary liberalism fail in your view and what is the alternative that you’re advocating?
Yea Lpi: So this is again one of these questions of where when one answers the question one has to think well how do I answer this question, do I answer it as a political theorist or do I answer it as a citizen or as someone who engages with liberalism at the level that is not necessarily the level in which the political theorist engages with it.
So if one thinks about liberalism from a political perspective, from a theoretical perspective, one would think about is as a kind of ideal view, as an ideal view of institutions as something that may be only imperfectly realized in the kinds of institutions that we know. And of course there are different kinds of liberalism, there is political liberalism, economic liberalism, there is social liberalism and it’s difficult to mount a critique of liberalism that brings all of these things together without necessarily getting into contradictions because there are parts of liberalism that criticise other parts of liberalism.
So the challenge in discussing these questions at the popular level is to think, which of these presuppositions are largely shared, which of these do I find when I read the news or when you read the media or when I engage with the topics of common concern, and what is the understanding of liberalism that is mostly referred to when people say that there is clearly a crisis of liberalism.
So when we read the popular press or you read the Financial Times or the Economist, one finds that outlets that would have been support or would be supporters of liberalism clearly see that there is an issue with the way in which political liberalism is perhaps aligned with economic liberalism.
As I see it and where I take it that is sort of more at a normative or theoretical, philosophical level, is to try and think about whether liberalism survive this tension between political liberalism on the one hand, which seems to require the state in order to regulate itself and to regulate markets and the economic life that liberals are also committed to, and economic liberalism on the other hand which seems to always push back against the state.
So the reason I think about the importance of thinking beyond liberalism is perhaps in terms of this contradiction between as I say the state on the one hand and the market on the other. And the tension that is often referred to in analyzing in contemporary politics as this inability of states to contain markets, but also the inability perhaps of states to give expression to the kind of democratic life that would have been important to place limits on markets.
So what we see when we think about, for example, the way in which the popular press often refers to populism as one push back against liberalism, the argument there is that there is a kind of push back against liberal elites who are held responsible for the transformations of the last 30-40 years, and where the idea that there’s been a kind of crisis of political institutions in terms of their responsiveness to the economic drives that they had themselves put in motion. So the crisis of social democracy, what is often referred to in the press again also as the failures of strong unions and strong popular movements to counter the rise of market forces and the transnationalization of these market forces, are all occasions to think about liberalism in this more general way and to think about the way in which states and state-based institutions are or are not able to counter these developments of neoliberal market forces.
For me it’s very difficult because talking about liberalism from a political theoretical perspective has many different connotations and some of these are critical themselves to talk about. Political liberalism is not the same as talking about neoliberalism, or talking about social liberalism is not the same as talking about political liberalism, but what’s also interesting to me is to kind of recuperate, going back to the history of political thought, a kind of tradition of criticism to liberalism that seems to have already been in place at the moment of emergence of what we now call commercial society.
So I’m interested in recuperating these enlightenment criticisms and critiques of liberalism when liberalism was in the making. So there was an idea, for example, that liberalism is grounded in a particular moral psychology, which is a kind of selfish moral psychology that doesn’t make space for communal solidarity, or further critiques of the way in which for example the liberal state tries to contain the contradictions of commercial society and so going back to the fault of Kant and Fische and Hegel thinking about the tensions of the commercial state and then all the way then to Marx who I think synthesizes this enlightenment traditional criticism of liberalism and comes up with the kind of alternative which is again rooted in a republican socialist tradition.
And the effort for me has been to try and think about what are the resources that the history of political thought gives us in terms of criticism of liberalism and in terms of conceiving of a society beyond liberalism, perhaps a socialist society, and how can we think about that vision and that ideal in light of the contemporary challenges and in light of the political problem that we face, whether it’s environmental disasters or whether it’s migration crisis and the kind of incapacity of liberal states and liberal institutions to respond to these challenges.
So I see my philosophical work on radical global egalitarianism as aligned with this recent attempt to rethink socialism, because I think at the heart of socialism is precisely a global egalitarian drive, socialism is a theory that is for the world at ;arge, is not confined to one particular state in fact tries to think beyond the state, tries to think about international solidarity, and is an attempt to defend this idea of social equality that is grounded on a particular account of moral relations between human beings.
So I see the one as a kind of more philosophically technical way of understanding of the other, which is the other being socialism, where socialism has his tradition standing from the critique of liberalism and is rooted in the enlightenment accounts of liberalism.
Carmen Pavel: I think it’s really important to develop alternative visions of political society both to test whether and why we value the kind of society we do, but also understand whether there are things wrong with it and change it. So this kind of project I think is very valuable.
It’s clear that there are some problems within liberal societies today that perhaps illustrate the sort of tensions that you talk about and I think many self professed liberals would agree that these problems exist. What their reaction would be though to these problems would not be just say liberalism should die, is just to see those tensions and perhaps in here and then liberalism, but try to work them out also within liberalism, to try to find a better balance, so it’s a much more gradualist, I guess, approach to political reform. But it sounds like in the way you talk about recuperating this criticism of commercial society that you want to reject this gradualism, that you want to provide a more radically different political option than the one we have now. So why move all the way to socialism as opposed to be working within the confines of existing political institutions?
Lea Ypi: For me, I’m not necessarily dogmatically opposed to this radically reconstructed liberlaims, the question for me is how much are you going to give up in the process of revisiting liberalism in the course of adapting it to these new demands and adapting it to face its own self criticism. So the question for me is there is a point in which the liberal analysis of political institution, say liberal representative democracy, political liberalism as it were, is joined with the economic liberalism, so this analysis of markets and focus on opportunity as filtered through market interactions, with an analysis of society and that for all these things to come together and work, the critical liberals would have to give up a number of core assumptions which I think after at some point down the line they will discover that they have given up so much with what they have is actually not really recognizable as liberalism, and at that point I say why don’t you call it socialism? In this process of tracing one’s steps back and finding out what are the philosophical and moral premises that survive this criticism, the kind of the more positive criticism, the empirical criticism of political liberalism combined with economic liberalism combined with social liberalism, and the way in which they give us the kinds of institutions that we live by, it seems to me that in the process of kind of retrieving critically one’s steps and trying to find out, to find elements in liberalism that would rescue the theory, it seems to me that one loses a lot of the core assumptions that with one would associate with liberalism. And so for me then it becomes just a question of kind of moral clarity and political clarity to say, well this seems to be what socialists have always said.
And so I have no problem with saying that someone like Miel for example, who is traditionally considered a liberal, shares a number of core assumptions also with socialist authors and indeed with socialist criticisms of liberalism. But it seems to me that when one engages with purifying Miel from all the toubling features off this you say, I don’t know colonialism or particular views around self-determination, and so what one is left with is a socialist account, just that.
And so this is why I don’t know if it’s just terminological or if it’s or there’s more to that, but I think in terms of substance, there is very little to divide my view of this kind of reconstructed socialism from a very, very critical view of liberalism. It may be though that in terms of signaling, and in terms of how well this is also interpreted in the public sphere and by political actors in political society, it seems to me that while for theorists there is a lot to be gained in terms of purifying the view, I think in terms of visibility and in terms of how the view is picked up by citizens and by social movements, it’s much more clear if you say that you are a socialist, then you can say well I’m a critical liberal who has revisited this and revisited this and revisited that and so I think that’s probably what motivates and explains where I’m coming from.
Carmen Pavel: Understood. So let’s pursue this question of the socialist alternative a bit further. So what would you say would characterize, not just at the level of principles, so there’s clearly a strong egalitarian ethos behind socialism, but in terms of actual institutions, what do you think would be different in this alternative political world?
Lea Ypi: I mean, there is obviously a core criticism of liberalism on the side of socialists which is the one that clusters together the criticism of economic liberalism and political liberalism and comes up with an alternative to capitalism. So the starting point is Marx and the Marxist critique of capitalism. And the core, I think the moral core of Marx’s critique of capitalism is the asymmetry in ownership access. So this asymmetry in access to the means of production, so as people who inherit their wealth and therefore also inherits what makes wealth and what creates wealth and creates jobs, and then there are people who are positioned differently and who have very few means of getting to the same position as those who own the means of production, means of exchange and so on.
So a socialist alternative begins with the attempt to rectify this fundamental asymmetry, which is a kind of asymmetry of ownership in terms of restructuring economic and power relations to make it more accessible, to make forms of wealth and ownership more accessible to everyone.
But I think there is also a criticism of political liberalism and political institutions that is perhaps, that has been more neglected in this focus on socialism as an economic alternative to liberalism and which I am very interested in which is recuperating the radical institutional critique of liberalism and the institutional critique of liberal forms of representation. And this would be for example placing into question the division of labor in society between professional politicians on the one hand and ordinary citizens on the other.
It would put into question divided between a technocratic elites and the role that knowledge plays in politics where the idea is that a democratically empowered society is one where political roles are distributed equally, where everyone rotates in office and has a share, has an equal share in the capacity to influence in politics.
So it seems to me that there is a radical democractic tradition that is again a part of the socialist characterization of the critique of political liberalism now that needs to be revived and would be an important part of rethinking socialism in terms of not just an economic alternative to capitalism but in terms of also thinking of to be kinds of institutional innovations.
There are a number of elements in the socialist tradition and theories that go in that direction. There is, for example, a Marxist analysis of the Paris commune and the way in which the Paris commune comes to a new understanding a new definition of political roles where, for example ,politicians are paid very little, they’re paid in ordinary working man’s days labor, in which rotation in office is a fundamental part of political institutions, in which the separation of powers works very differently from how it works in a liberal society.
So I think all of these elements are parts of an attempt to revise a different tradition, a different way of engaging the relationship between economics and politics.
Carmen Pavel: So socialism comes with a very distinctive vision, not just as an endpoint and a set of principles, but also a set of institutions and how they would be differently organized than the current institutions we have.
Lea Ypi: Yeah, I think of socialism as a radical democratic theory and to think radically democratically about institutions is very demanding, because it requires revisiting not just the economic sphere, but also the way in which we shape power relations, the way we think about political positions and the organization of political roles and also institutions like the executive or the judiciary or the Civil Service, the Administration, all of which are democratized and to democratize all those institutions requires first of all equal wealth, because it’s important that asymmetries of welat don’t shape and don’t condition the way in which individuals have a voice in these institutions, but it also requires a different way of thinking what policies ultimately and why we have politics and a different way of thinking about it in terms of politics is not just something that enables individuals to go about their private business and to realize their private interests, but it’s really the sphere in which they come together as members of a political community and so politics is an intrinsic good and democratic politics is what enables people to take full part in this realization of this intrinsic good, as opposed to being an instrumental good that enables people make laws in a particular way or to realize laws.
Carmen Pavel: So it sounds to me like you’re not persuaded by some socialist skepticism and I mean skepticism in the following way, where they see socialism, so I’m thinking of Jerry Cohen for example, who see socialism as the right kind of sort of moral ideal, the best justified vision of political society, the most just, the most moral, in important ways. But is worried that we lack the technology than situation technology, the institutional technology to realize that vision. So someone like Jerry Cohen became disenchanted, particularly after the fall of Communism, that we might just lack the institutions to channel these radical forms of representation or these very different mechanisms of institutional regulation in ways that are not going to end up being sort of kind of counterproductive or oppressive in some ways, but it seems you want to reject that skepticism?
Lea Ypi: Yeah, I mean for me the question is, I mean Jerry Cohen’s effort was an attempt to think about what Marxism had in common with a particular kind of liberalism, let’s say distributive liberalism of liberal egalitarianism, and the effort that shaped the analytical Marxist agenda was to try and find common ground at that level and to say look, Marxist theory of distributive justice is no different from a kind of f liberal egalitarian theory of distribution.
But my concern and I guess where I try and think critically about that tradition is in terms of political institutions. My worries of analytical Marxism was very preoccupied and for plausible reasons to try and find common ground with this kind of tradition of criticism to liberalism and with this tradition of advancing an liberel egalitarian agenda and was very successful in showing that say between the Marxism concern with asymmetry and the access to the means of production and the roles concerned with the difference principle, there was a lot of common ground there was made the conversation productive.
But then seems to me failed to then engage the further question of what are the kinds of political institutions that are compatible with this vision and will take us there, and I think this
was a limitation in Rawls because Rawls also when it came to think about political institutions thought of them very much in the classical liberal tradition, so when we think about political liberalism and the arguments around public reason as so on, then Rawls thought is very much in continuity with the classical liberal political tradition.
And the analytical Marxist never really challenged politically liberal agenda at that level. They were content to say look what Rawls is saying Rawls is saying and what Marx is saying are very similar in many ways and they were content with saying what we have no massive disagreement here with liberal egalitarians.
But I think they could have pursued the debate further and this is perhaps where you know that the end of the Cold War and in the way the analytical Marxist debate became much less relevant in academia, I think they failed to take a further step of saying okay, but what is Marxist theory of politics, what is the socialist theory of the state and how does that compare to the liberal theories of the states and what are the elements of commonality and difference there and what does the Marxist tradition give us that we don’t find in the liberal tradition. and I think what it does give us is this commitment to radical democracy, which puts a lot of pressure on a number of core assumptions of political liberalism and that is worth exploring and developing further.
Carmen Pavel: And this is why you’re saying that this is a different political alternative to the current system, the current political liberal system, that is substantiated to different degrees, in various liberal democracies around the world.
Lea Ypi: It’s also important to say that this is one that is global from the start. So while the political liberal tradition, and the debates around global justice show this, start as debates around political liberalism in the state and then think about what does it takes realizes ideas with a global level, what kind of Institutions do we need, how do we make the state big or how do we create forms of international cooperation with the state, I think what is different about Marxism is the starting point is not a status one. The starting point is one where interactions take place at the global level because there are global markets because there is capital that is globally expanded that comes with certain structural imperatives and that one thinks about politics than in relationship to an interaction that is already global to begin with.
And again, I think there is an important element here that is fundamentally different from how one thinks in the kind of liberal tradition, whether one thinks that states are the primary agent or one thinks that social class is the primary agents of conflict at the global sphere. I think one would end up in a different place when one starts in this other way of thinking about conflict and thinking about the relationship between the economy and politics.
Carmen Pavel: Ok great and it sounds like one of your next book projects could be instead of defending statist cosmopolitanism, defending something like classical cosmopolitan or some other cosmopolitan vision at the global level.
Well This has been extremely enlightening. Thank you so much for sharing your research and your work with us. And to all of our listeners thanks for joining us on this episode of The Governance Podcast with Lea Ypi.
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