On Pluralism and the Alternative Vote
March 15, 2011
I’m currently reading The Sublime Object of Ideology by left-wing darling Zizek. I’m not particularly impressed thus far – it appears to be largely the sort of intellectual dandyism beloved by the continentals; relatively simplistic concepts with minor variations hidden behind a veneer of excessive nomenclature. However, he has reminded me of an interesting philosophical trend which has bearing upon the current debate.
Let’s look at the phrase ‘ontological priority’. This is a fancy way of saying that something has to be the case for something else to be the case. Zizek uses it with reference to Marxists who think we need to overthrow the current economic order in order to sort out all of society’s ills. This ontological prioricity is also applied by other non-economic fundamentalists; people who believe that sorting out our ecological impacts will solve everything else, people who believe that sorting out the imbalance in male/female power will solve everything else, and of course people who believe that the imposition of Sharia will solve everything else.
It’s not really clear that anyone really holds such a simplistic viewpoint (although it is clear that some people genuinely believe that eco-damage is a consequence of capitalism and would never happen in a socialist utopia), but it is clear that people have a tendency to cluster around totemic explanations of the world, the answers to which will improve all aspects of society. You have the people who believe that society should aim towards incoherent concepts like ‘fairness’ or ‘progressivism’, those who believe society should aim towards some kind of classical liberalism, and those who apparently believe that if only we could improve everyone’s ‘capabilities’ society would advance.
My own totem, of course, is that society would be improved across the board if everyone focused more on cultivating their judgement, but it’s important to recognise that there are plenty of totems about. Most people have some kind of ontological priority – however weak – that informs their political judgements. Ask yourself how you would modify our contemporary society in order to begin to elucidate yours.
‘Moving society forward’ is something that is done by society; by the aggregate of all our judgements, not by the imposition of one priority or another. In order to give enough space to competing explanations of the world, we need a pluralistic system of dividing power. In this sense, the opposition of many of the Labour old guard to electoral reform is telling: they are reluctant to give this space to alternate understandings of ontological priority, as their priority is, well, their priority. However – and this is where the debate comes in – anti-essentialists would argue that there is no such thing as an ontological priority with respect to society, and all views must have the opportunity to be represented with society’s power structures.
AV, inasmuch as it provides smaller parties with a better understanding of their support, is a move towards this. It will necessarily be opposed by individuals with an investment in a particular explanation of society’s ills, which may explain why it’s being opposed by many libertarians. My advice to them would be to ditch their ontological priorities and come and join us in the glorious liberal opinion-melange.