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Getting Fuzzy: what’s political theory for?

Get Fuzzy is a US syndicated cartoon strip written by Darby Conley. It features Bucky Katt, wise and feline but very nasty, Satchel Pooch, a loyal and rather dumb dog, and their long-suffering owner Rob Wilco, who does what he can to tame Bucky Katt’s excesses.  

In this cartoon, Rob recommends Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to Bucky as a way of coming to a reasoned reconciliation of his differences with Satchel.  Bucky knows just how to use Kant’s weighty reasoning to settle an argument.

There’s a view that political theorists are folks who sit around imagining better worlds full of better people and assuring us just how good life would be if only we could get there (which, of course, we can’t). Bright, possibly, but hopelessly unworldly. This is just wrong. Kant himself wrote a celebrated essay on that time-worn saying of the patronizing parent: “That may be true in theory, but is of no practical use”. And the theorist who gave a name to what many take to be the land of starry-eyed imaginings, Thomas More, packed his Utopia with a series of telling indictments of the social order of his time: of the expulsion of the poor from their land, of a society which created criminals only then to hang them. In fact, many of the very greatest of all political theorists – from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine and Aquinas down to Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Rousseau – were the keenest-eyed observers of the social and political ills of their time. Hegel – about as abstract and tricky a theorist as one could wish for – was one of the very first to see just what was distinctive about living in modern times and to recognize that the emergence of disorderly inner cities created the threat of wider social disruption.

Of course, these theorists did not always get everything right. Some would say that Marx was a brilliant critic of capitalism – even the capitalism of our own times – but a poor progenitor of socialism. But certainly the very best of these theorists have stood the test of time much better than the conventional wisdom of the ages in which they lived and wrote – and which often dismissed them as cranks and misfits.

And this is one of the enduring functions of political theory: to challenge the conventional wisdom of its own times. I have spent the last six years tracing the history of justifications of private property in the West from Pythagoras to the present. It would be disappointing to be able only to draw one conclusion from this survey but, if pressed to do so, I would say that no-one in this long history would really be signed up to the account of private property that seems to be the commonplace of our times. The nearest we get are those smart conservatives – like Edmund Burke or David Hume – who argued that it was best not to reason about property at all – but just to take it as it is.

When we look at the crucial problems of our own time – sovereign debt, banking crises, environmental degradation, stark global inequalities of wealth and opportunity – there is a temptation to see these in terms of a lack of suitable regulation or political will. I think this is to scratch at the surface. The structure of our present property order is unsustainable and it is indefensible. We (almost certainly) need a property order – anarchists would disagree, Marx didn’t – but it certainly does not have to be this one. We may not be able to change it – but if we don’t we will surely fail to meet any of the great challenges of our nearly-new century.

Chris Pierson

Published inPolitical theory


  1. Richard Wing Richard Wing

    It’s all well and good telling us that Hobbes and Kant got a lot right. But if political theory is to be of any use we need to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff a bit sooner. Aren’t political theorists are a bit like economists or monkeys typing Shakespeare?

  2. Chris Pierson Chris Pierson

    I have never seen an economist typing Shakespeare – but they might do a bit less damage that way.

  3. Dave Dave

    I did the ‘Property and its Critics’ module last year and it was really fascinating stuff, made all the more so by my inability to work out exactly how I think property ‘should’ work. That’s obviously the hard part.

    So maybe there is some truth to the ‘monkeys writing Shakespeare’ remark, except in a different way – namely that the utility of political theorists’ work is not that they have a comprehensive (or even a draft) solution to the failings of society, but in the hope that ‘somebody’ will. Certainly I feel a more capable and open-minded citizen as a result of modules like ‘Property’. Getting lost in theory is obviously not a great idea – something which I think can happen in IR – but otherwise I found it incredibly relevant and worthwhile.

  4. Chris Pierson Chris Pierson

    It’s really nice when someone not only enjoys something that you teach but finds that it has a value that lasts. And Dave makes a great point when he says that part of what makes something – in this case property – so interesting is that you don’t know the answer. Indeed, faced with property – or life – who wouldn’t be a bit puzzled? I have read and thought about property a lot over the past five years. I relish hearing the voices of other people – smart, thoughtful people – who lived in very different times and places struggling with the sorts of questions we still have to confront. Of course, in politics we always have to act NOW, even if the acting is doing nothing. But it’s also important to take our time, to think hard, to be puzzled. After all, it is the most deeply political act to say that the emperor has no clothes!

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