There has been an interesting conversation about pragmatism and “ideology” going on, which began with Glenn Greenwald’s criticism of the way pragmatism and competence are invoked as if they can be defined apart from a particular set of political principles. I should state at the beginning that I think it contributes to a significant misunderstanding if we equate principles with ideology. If ideology is typically a “highly elastic rationale for action,” as Bacevich has defined it, and if it is fundamentally at odds with the complexity and variety of the world, an ideologue does not have a firm set of principles that guide his actions, but instead has a particular goal, whether utopian or not, that justifies taking more or less any action that he believes will bring him closer to reaching it. Insofar as ideology must be not just non-empirical, but anti-empirical, progress towards the goal is for the ideologue simply a matter of time and determination; experience cannot show the ideologue that the goal itself is unobtainable or impossible, or even that failure in pursuit of the goal has occurred. It is in this way that we should understand ideology, rather than broadly including under that label all sets of beliefs.

Of course, using it as Greenwald does, it is correct to say that we define “what works” based on a whole host of assumptions about what ought to be done and the vision that we have for why we are doing whatever it is we are doing. If we think of it this way, it is impossible to describe “what works” without first laying out an argument explaining why we are trying to make the attempt in the first place. Being able to do something effectively may be entirely undesirable if the thing in question is unjust, exploitative or corrupt. Shakedown artists and war criminals may be very pragmatic and effective in doing all of the wrong things. In our political discourse, politicians refer to pragmatism because they take it as a given that the matters of ought and why need no explanation; at best, they will use slogans and buzzwords to address those matters. This is why the bulk of our “debates” is taken up by arguing over narrow differences of means to pursue the same questionable ends, because most politicians have no interest and no incentive to inquire into whether such-and-such a thing ought to be done or question the reason why it is being done.

Think of it another way: a man of political principles is concerned with using both the right means for the right ends and is willing to let experience inform his assumptions, while the ideologue is indifferent to the means used and willfully ignorant of experience that challenges his assumptions. Any opposition between pragmatism and ideology also seems to me to be misleading from the beginning because what passes for “pragmatism” in government represents adherence to a particular reigning ideology. There might conceivably be some genuine empirically-oriented, sane pragmatism that does not fit this definition, but this is not the pragmatism the political class invokes and it is not the one we are discussing. When a given politician announces his interest in “what works,” we might reasonably interpret this as a statement that he does not intend to overturn established consensus and accepts the constraints and assumptions of the reigning ideology, which broadly speaking means state capitalism at home and hegemonism abroad.

Professing pragmatism is to say that you do not intend to attempt significant change in the structures or practices of government. In the context of this so-called pragmatic “center,” what we might call left and right-leaning instincts are usually a matter of emphasis and style. The “center” defines itself as non-ideological, and insists on identifying anything outside of the narrow band of the consensus as ideological, when this is not the case. This is how “centrists” can wink and nod at torture and support illegal surveillance and aggressive warfare while successfully defining opponents of the same as an ideological “fringe,” and it is how violating other states’ sovereignty and trashing constitutional protections are the serious, responsible positions that only “extremists” would question: whichever positions are taken up by “centrists” (i.e., those who enforce the consensus) are automatically defined as the pragmatic, non-ideological, problem-solving positions.