Of policy wonks, Utopians and realists

15th December 2023

By: Saliem Fakir


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Policy wonks like me are in the business of persuasion and perhaps a little grandstanding. The picture of the world we want has to be a different one from the status quo. Utopians can display dogmatic fervour, a tinge of delusional thinking or be seen as a compass to guide us out of the current morass governed and held by realism.

Realism entails throwing an idea out in the world, testing its receptivity and revisiting it once again, given the conditions of the world. Language has been a key instrument for myth-making and the catalyst for the organisation of society behind totemic ideals. The desire of Utopia is to give purpose and meaning to what could be a soulless and empty life.

The now forgotten autodidactic, Lewis Mumford, wrote a seminal book on Utopia.He divides Utopians into two types: naïve escapists who live on their own island and pay no attention to others (including the reality that their own ideas will clash with opponents who have Utopian ideas of their own) and Utopian reconstructionists, who see conjuring up Utopia as a form of thought experiment – they will hold an ideal as far as it can be stretched and grind its evolution against the real world.

Policy wonks are varied, with some having more power and influence than others.

Occasionally, scepticism creeps in on a craft in which one can fashion many self- justifications for its continued existence. Sometimes you wonder whether you are solving the problem or part of the problem. Increasingly, more so in the past two decades or so, I have veered from absolutist Utopian thinking – of the reconstructionist type even – to being a hardened and cantankerous realist. The impatience for realism exceeds the patience for naïve Utopia.

The art of persuasion, as the economist Robert J Shiller once wrote, is in the way we tell stories, and stories can bend the arc of evidence and truth. Evidence can be rallied behind prior conclusions. ‘Reality’ can be a product of the mind, and that itself becomes one’s own reality. Realism requires the discipline of self- awareness and escaping the tentacles of confirmation bias. Policy wonks do have an impact on real things and real people. You just have to study the impact of a coterie of think-tanks that produced the ‘evidence’ that Brexit would be good for Britain. They peddled ‘evidence’ for influence. Given the right ears and the right voices in power, they were able to weaponise the ’evidence’ by stirring the pot of populism and producing polarisation. In the process, truth, wisdom and good judgment were lost, affecting the fate and lives of many.

Populist politicians such as Julius Malema and Donald Trump can throw the world into disarray. They are at their best when the world is no longer a certain place and is deeply fractured. They are good at placing the excess of triumphalism as the engine of unrealistic Utopia and, unfortunately, many get caught up in its wave.

I am confronted with this situation: what to make of climate activists who chain themselves to the gates of the Minister of Coal or clandestinely invade a leading bank to show them up – that is, where the Moneybag people prefer profits above people and the planet. I vacillate between lauding their ‘brave’ actions and thinking: But what is in it for them as persons? Are they delusional in thinking that they can change the world with their small army holding placards and engaging in skirmishes?

In this era of Tik-Tok, ‘Me-ism’ on X (formerly Twitter) and the new society of autistic attention seeking, one wonders about who is behind the mask of virtue and all the virtue signalling. But, really, who am I to judge them?

After their day of climate activism, do they go back home to their SMEG microwaves and fridges? After bussing in activists from the townships, they send them back to their grinding poverty while they themselves return to their SMEG machines.

The late Christopher Hitchens, when writing about Mother Theresa and her authenticity – in his own blasphemous way – wondered if Mother Theresa was really a saint and why she was so profligate in her publicity seeking and took money from unscrupulous characters. Hitchens scathingly wrote that, as a lesson to us all, “saints, it seems, are immune to audit”.

My cynicism has been piqued and guided by two things: first, if you have no skin in the game, then it’s all talk (that’s the main challenge policy wonks and policy consultants face) and, second, I read about the remarkable self-negating activism that framed the philosophy of Simone Weil, who was steeped in stoicism and existential spiritualism. Weil did not believe truth can be found in the abstract – to know justice is to know what it means to suffer. Real suffering was truth. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to talk about Utopia but a very different trial on your capacities when trying to do it in real life.

Weil raised the bar on self-sacrifice and the discovery of truth. For her, you had to be in the factory, at the battlefront, a teacher or a martyr to suffering. In Weil, we find the face of authenticity – even at its extremes – as she did beyond the public glare. Hers was learning of suffering by being in it rather than living outside, free from it.

I am railing against Wittgenstein’s admonition to himself and me: “On what I cannot speak about I am obliged to keep silent.” Some silences cannot remain forever locked up. I have spoken.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor



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