The case against optimism: A Harvard Law Prof critiques How Change Happens

Last week I had the ‘on the psychotherapist’s couch’ experience of having the assumptions behind How Change Happens put under the

But what about optimism of the intellect?
But what about optimism of the intellect?

microscope by two very big brains – Harvard’s David Kennedy and LSE’s Stephen Humphreys. This was part of a joint LSE/ODI seminar on ‘new experimentalism’ (which seems to be the legal studies equivalent of Adaptive Management).  I thought their critiques were brilliant (and lyrical – do lawyers write better?) – here are some excerpts.

First David, who is a prof at Harvard Law School on the weakness and oversights of optimism:

“Duncan’s chapters are quite astonishing really.   He distils a lifetime of advocacy and impassioned work into page after page of hopeful advice for the young activist.  Whatever the case for pessimism, as a professional style, optimism has a lot of appeal.  It is worth trying to understand how this “bright side” vision is sustained.  How does Duncan hold firmly to his sunny disposition across chapters which might well have brushed up against this or that difficulty, qualification, bad experience – dark side?

In at least two ways that are characteristic of many seeking to do good in the world.

First, by a sense of evolution and progress, which leaves our optimist comfortably modest.   The pragmatic experimentalist advocate accepts that you do what you can — and what you can do is often a lot – but the big things await the motions of history.

Luckily, in the long run, history is on our side.   Why should we be so confident things will work out?  Duncan offers a kind of social evolutionism, midwifed by the steadying hand of “legitimacy.”   Bad things just can’t go on forever, people won’t stand for it.

In this vision, the center generally will hold – but don’t worry, it bends slowly toward justice.  In our own small ways we can all help it along.   And should things fail to hold, that’s ok too.  Historical ruptures create opportunities to move things forward.

In what I read, Duncan doesn’t offer instruction on how to create a rupture – or how to avoid one.   They seem to just happen — perhaps triggered by a legitimacy crisis.   But while pursuing one’s routine work, one should be ready.

There is some truth here, of course.   Governments can be so obtuse to outcomes that people revolt.  Bungling Katrina, bungling Iraq, bungling the economy – in my country these did diminish the government’s authority and ultimately facilitated it’s replacement, given, of course, a whole set of surrounding institutions and historical habits which may not be available, or not work in just this way in other times and places.

I just don’t share the optimism.  Most bad things are amazingly durable.  Take racial inequality in the US – we might as well admit it is constitutional to offload X percent of the population indefinitely, so long as you do it in the right way.   “Doing it right” changes, but the inequality does not.   Or the predominance of private capital over public power — from Medici to Citibank.    Or of property over labor, and so on.

It seems probable that “development” will often demand a rupture which the existing settlement not only prevents but itself delegitimates.


No and No, so what's left?
Truth to Power or Dark Arts: No and No, so what’s left?

A second background idea which seems to keep the optimism going is a relentless focus on the good guys, as if people involved in rulership normally rather than very exceptionally are people of good heart, people who want to solve problems, who are trying to do things like “develop” the society.

And that the state normally evolves to be a public interest aggregator and policy maker rather than a “swamp” of lobbying and influence peddling, garnished with promises of undertaking something called “public service.”   Or that the state is different from the private sector in this.  Ah….if only…..

Duncan seems to exclude two kinds of projects. On the one hand, standing fully outside, speaking truth to power – he finds that arrogant, ineffective, insufficiently attuned to possibilities within the terrain of the existing order. On the other hand, violence, coercion and the dark arts.

Both exclusions are puzzling.   Take coercive violence.  Governance – that for which one advocates – is a coercive enterprise.  There will be losers.   This isn’t just something other people do.

And even war – the largest “new experimentalism” has seen warfare for regime change in the name of human rights.   By far the most expensive and culturally visible new governance endeavor.  And an astonishing failure.

Or take COIN — the McMaster idea for defeating an insurgency is remarkably parallel – longer term local listening, flexibility, initiative, the officer as innovator, don’t rely on technology, it’s a human and cultural situation, etc.

When we push coercion out one side and “speaking truth to power” out the other, we’re left with a rather impoverished menu of governance tools.

It would be better, I think, to say that humanitariansm has two voices, two postures, irreconcilably in struggle with one another: outsider truth and insider collaboration.    And each has a vice for which the other is a remedy — idolatry and complicity.   But balance is not a solution — this is an enduring human tragedy, a conundrum, not a technical challenge for savvy management.

And his conclusion?

I guess the way I see it, the world out there is pretty tough.   There are really bad guys – some of them are local, some of them are leaders.  Really smart people are deep into back scratching, rent seeking, etc. — not the kind of thing which would yield to experimental adjustment or agile activism.   We must learn to struggle better, not manage better.

I’d prefer we start with struggle, learn to map the terrain with a cold eye, keep a full range of tools at our disposal from coercion thru complicity and advocacy to outsider denunciation.   And that we learn the dark arts of resistance and rupture as intensely as those of strategic balancing and experimental management.’

Tomorrow, more from David Kennedy, plus Stephen Humphreys, an Associate Prof of International Law at the LSE, on the merits of command and control, and why I’m really just channelling Hayek……

And ‘the bright side’? Sorry, that means obligatory Monty Python video


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6 Responses to “The case against optimism: A Harvard Law Prof critiques How Change Happens”
  1. Paul O'Brien

    Nice. I wonder whether David’s critique is not a million miles from a debate we’ve had over the years: That you and Oxfam don’t profit by talking about different types of power (your Chapter Two is my least favorite). A more brutish and, I would argue, useful understanding of power sees it exclusively as zero sum, and coercive–“power over”. The other types of power you embrace (power “with,” “within” and “to”) may be important human capabilities and key to making change happen, but they are not usefully understood as power. To butcher David’s closing argument, we can only get better as activists and stronger as Oxfam when we get better at struggling against real power, and to do that, we have to call it what it is.

  2. Matt

    David X seems a very smart guy. I relish his insights and advice in this post. It would be great if, in a future post, he could develop these ideas by sharing some more of his own experiences of struggle.

  3. Want to first say how refreshing it is, Duncan, to share your critiques as well as complements to feed our learning and dialogue. We need more of this kind of openness to really adapt and experiment. I am intrigued by these last two posts. Just back from an inspiring “Transitions Lab week” with the Movement Strategy Center. One elder, Norma, talked about where we are at as the Roman Empire just playing itself out. We visioned 100 years into the future and worked back from there. Haven’t been that hopeful in years. Part of the hope was that the frames and disciplines, silos fell away to a discussion about how we already see ways that we like to live, and play and build economy and work together. One participant Tomas said we need one hand to challenge and one hand to build alternatives. I think feminist praxis helps with both by ensuring history, context, gendered power and structural analysis. Also a recognition that “claimed power,” self-organized groups, networks and movements are key, always have been to challenge “power over” but, as important, the social norms that underpin certain types of power, coercive and somewhat hidden, always dynamic. “Power within” helps that bureaucrat support a neat food system in Vermont. Or that young Dalit woman sit on her local Panchayat. The “system (s)” we’ve created are brutish. Divisive and extractive and humiliating but we have all kinds of experiments in governance that are not. Those experiments are innovative (call it social innovation, sure) but they aren’t new. Aren’t they grounded in our innate ability to root, and connect, make meaning, analyze, create individually and collectively? Aren’t these issues largely cultural, as was said, not technical? Don’t we build culture (and social norms, power) with every governance space we create -and challenge?

  4. I have come to disagree with Gramsci on this particular point. If the social world is a complex system it will therefore usually be difficult to predict. Given this, what is the intellectual basis for either general pessimism or general optimism? To me, the implication is that we should just keep going and keep trying. In doing so we should try to make the smartest and best moves we can manage (either by ourselves and in combination with others) and we should also seek to learn all the time and adjust as required. Whilst reality may often surprise in an unwelcome way, it is not intellectually unreasonable to still fancy your chances of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Indeed, sometimes the rabbit jumps out itself.

  5. I agree that Kennedy is smart. Nevertheless, I think that he is engaging with unspoken assumptions made by Duncan. Had Duncan explicitly limited his range of cases and been more explicit about his assumptions in the earlier chapters he would have pre-empted this critique. I also agree with Duncan that David’s experimentalism echoes adaptation. When I read some his work in preparation for sharing a platform with him at UCT’s School of Law discussing property rights and development, I also noticed that his arguments paralleled with the experimentalism/incrementalism first described (in my experience, since Hirschman’s work) in Dani Rodrik’s critique of orthodox views of development about 15 years ago in various essays and in the amazing collection In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth. It seemed odd that there were similar discourses in development economics and law that didn’t apparently acknowledge each other.

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