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WSF PDX-IMCista Part 6: Practice what? False dichotomies in theory and practice

1/26 I offer general considerations regarding the debate between "practice and theory" and conclude by illuminating the role theory can play in practical struggles. My discussion is based upon experiences and discussions at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil today.
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1/26/03
An Intellectual Malaise, debating the role of vision at the WSF
I find it unfortunate that at the World Social Forum, a forum which falsely purports to attempt the development of sustainable alternatives to the status quo, we find ourselves forced into debates about vague categories of theory and practice. Ultimately I think this debate rests on confusion, bad philosophy mouthed through less adequate mimicry of the originals, and a rabid anti-intellectualism as productive and positive as cutting off a limb. The claim has been made on occassion here in Porto Alegre that the left (whatever that means) is no longer entitled to the "construction of a new social and political vision for imposition upon the masses". We see several variations upon this which its proponents flouder between with deep confusion and ambiguity. Let me try to make sense of the mess. Firstly, there is the idea that rthe kind of knowledge and experience attained through active practical engagement with the topic at hand. This statement is so obviously true it is trite and uninteresting to anyone who has spent one second thinking about it. I think we would be hard pressed to find a single rational individual who openly advocates total ignorance of any practical (or for philosopphers, a posteriori) considerations when offering alternatives to the current system. Moreover the supposed dichotomy seems not to apply here. It is not incompatible with having and formulating a vision for the ways things might be better that one appeals to the practical factors, and historical experience of the institutions of change. This brings me to the second sense of the idea. This is the expression of the sentiment that only practicing can generate a viable theory, that is independent of any theory or vision of what might be brought about. Under this theory people are influenced by goals and experiment with what will bring about the realization of their goals. The problem is however that theory is a totally nihilistic program for progress. In a conversation with Michael Albert he used the following analogy. If you wish to want to go on vacation but have no idea of where to go, getting on an airplane is a terrible way to fulfill one's desires. Either you'll end up in the wrong place or where the pilot wants you to go. Another analogy is that of the scientist conducting experiments without any idea of what she is trying to find. It is the comical idea of a person trying to produce results she is unaware of. Thus if we take this idea in the first sense it is not very interesting or controversial, the second borders on the absurd. The third possible interpretation is that having and maintain a distinct intellectual class who impose their ideas upon others more knowledgable of the practices involved is wrong. This is certainly true. Still, it is not clear that this hits the target sought. It simply is not true that discussing and formulating our visions is inherently hierarchical, classist, etc. There are many issues that bear on this problem. Firstly, we find ourselves continually addressed with the lack of alternatives for real social change. People feel disempowered and are thirsty for a model in which real change can be won. Try convincing people to work and sacrifice for vague ideals moving towards a goal that we figure out as we're going. As long as that is the strategy I believe it will be limited to those elites with the resources capable of sustaining themselves. Secondly, there seems nothing wrong at all about having a vision. Let me illuminate my idea of what having a vision entails. I believe there are two components to any theory of how society can be changed for the better, the modal and normative. The modal requirement is to demonstrate that one's theory is possible. That is one must show through both practical and theoretical considerations the attainability and sustainability of their ideals. The normative requirement is to demonstrate that such an ideal is desirable and that we ought to live. Now any way of understanding social relations which is both normative and possible fulfills my criterion of a vision or theory of society. It is clear enough that there is nothing viscious in this process. In fact such a process is necessary. We need direction and a sense of where we are moving from and where to. It is astounishing that I have to say this, but this does not exclude testing, revising, and altering such a vision in accordance with the experience of history and the present. To believe otherwise would be some bizarre fetishism about one's theories that is closer to dogmatism than any real intellectual activity. It is in this way I see theories playing a role in our movements. They give us direction and show us possible steps towards systemic change of corrupt social orders. They do so by being informed and working with experience, but also looking beyond the limited scope of experience that exists within the current system.