Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Burning down McDonalds – the Dangers of Ideological, and Pragmatic, Political Reasoning

There still is a breathtaking presence of police in the streets of Paris. Yesterday, 30 heavy buses full of baguette-eating (literally) cops were making their way, police bumper only few inches away from the next police bumper, towards Bastille. A few hours later, people were regailing each other with stories of carnage wreacked there by anti-Sarkozy protesters. But when I got to Bastille, everything was quiet. Apart, that is, from a bombed out McDonalds. Hmm.

Why? After all, these are supposed to be protests against Sarkozy, and somehow it's not easy picturing him ordering Chicken McNuggets with much culinary anticipation...

The protesters, I suppose, associate Sarkozy with neo-liberal policies, neo-liberal policies with the US, and America's influence on the world, including France, with McDonalds. Or something like this. But if what's at issue is the economic world order, wouldn't banks – of which there are many around the Bastille – make the more natural target?

Each of the steps linking Sarkozy to McDonalds are, needless to say, quite tenuous. Presumably, those who threw the Molotov-cocktail at McDonalds weren't particularly conscious of their own reasoning, either. Once something is associated with evil in a particular way, the reasons for this association are only rarely questioned, particularly when you're about to dispose of an explosive in a street battle...

All the more troubling that the kind of ressentiment which leads the far-left to a blind hatred of McDonalds is characteristic of much ideological thought. Ideological thought often is more focused on an enemy than on a substantive goal – not to mention the absence of any serious reflection about how to achieve the goal in question. It attaches great symbolic value to relatively irrelevant issues, with the tacit assumption that a victory in this small vanguard battle would lend huge momentum to the overall cause – hence, perhaps, McDonalds rather than banks as a target. And it has a tendency to see anything, including particularly new information, from the perspective of a grand overall theory – making it so infuriatingly oblivious to thoughtful distinctions and careful reasoning.

The alternative to ideological thought would seem to be pragmatic thought. This certainly has very great attractions. Instead of interpreting any small fact in light of an overall view of the world, pragmatists pride themselves in seeing things for what they are. They then swiftly proceed to think about possible solutions to problems they have identified, focusing their energies on detailed reflection about the means to rectify the concrete situation at hand.

But this mode of thinking has dangers of its own. Because pragmatists look at every situation for what it is, they spend little time asking themselves whether it might have less-than-obvious interconnections with more general problems in the world. Neither are they necessarily critical towards their convictions, as their episodic reasoning about isolated problems can make very great injustices, which are composed of many small ills, look trivial. A similar problem may arise for pragmatic solutions. Even though they often involve more critical thought about the roots of a particular problem as perceived in isolation, pragmatic solutions can be little more than a drop of water on a hot stone if they don't dare to tackle the real, vast, forces at play.

It seems to me that people who hope to think about the world in a critical yet honest and differentiated manner must be both ideological and pragmatic. They must be aware of the strengths of both modes of thought – whilst consistently interrogating themselves whether they are managing to avoid both their dangers. A momentuous task, which perhaps explains, but does not excuse, some of the causes for the McDonalds-wrecking stupidity.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

An excellent comparison of pragmatism and idealism as well as analysis of this new assault on Mcy D's.

If you have a spare moment, clone yourself and send the double here to be my confidante and advisor.

Anonymous said...

do you actually know who did this and whether they are representative of the far left?
There are also anarchists in Paris...

Benoit said...

There are anarchists everywhere.
You can't just say the blowing up of McDonalds stems from a certain political ideology, you make France seem like it's stuck in the 30s. The BBC made that mistake as well, they said the riots after the Sarkozy election were "probably by left wing extremists".
The situation is more similar with the banlieux riots, then that of the CPE demonstrations and the Jose Bove/Mcdonalds incident, which i'll admit did have a certain rose tint to them . This situation is brought about by anger not ideology, feeling not belief. The reason they go for a McDonalds is because 1) its more noticeable then a credit agricole 2) one of sarkozy's nicknames is "sarko l'americain" and that is widely acknoledged3) these people were casseurs, not political activists, as it was conviniently left out that in the same incident car windows were smashed.

Benoit Du Cann said...

to add to it we wouldn't want some kind of Maccarthyist attitute settling in France or the international community as to French communists... any problems or riots blame the "coco" or the left.

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The situation is more similar with the banlieux riots, then that of the CPE demonstrations and the Jose Bove/Mcdonalds incident, which i'll admit did have a certain rose tint to them

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Elliott Broidy said...

There are anarchists everywhere. They want their presence known all over.