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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The Guest

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.

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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 I’m interested particularly in your contribution to a conversation that sees the role of the state as being outdated by current political problems and the evolution of political interactions at the international level.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.