The problem with “the art of the possible”

February 10, 2010

Barack Obama's supporters are being lectured for expecting too much and not understanding that compromises have to be made, explains Mike Marqusee.

WHENEVER A commentator declares that "politics is the art of the possible," I'm on my guard. What I'm being told, I suspect, is to accept apparent present conditions as immutable facts of life, and to trim my goals accordingly. I'm being told to let injustices stand.

Like all banalities, the familiar dictum contains an obvious truth. To be politically effective, you have to be able to distinguish between your desires and realities on the ground, between aspirations and resources.

But like most banalities, it begs more questions than it answers. How is "the possible" defined? Where are its limits drawn? Who draws them? Theoretically, the possible is an elastic and speculative category. But the dictum draws no distinctions between the immediately unlikely and the ultimately impossible, takes no notice of the infinite and shifting gradations between them, and of the impact of human agency in shifting an outcome from one category to another.

What's usually meant when politics is pronounced the art of the possible is that politics is a calculation of the probable, an exercise in the pragmatic, the expedient or the opportune.

President Obama speaking in the East Room of the White House

The adage implies forcefully that minimal improvements or lesser evils are the only realistic aim--and any demand for more is self-indulgence. It's an injunction not only to compromise, but to get your compromise in first. To placate hostile forces in advance, as Obama tried to do with health care reform.

Obama's election was in itself a vivid display of the eruption of the supposedly impossible into the realm of the ordinary. The slogan "Yes we can" evoked a defiance of assumed limitations. Now Obama's supporters are being lectured for expecting too much from the president, for not understanding that "politics is the art of the possible." Here, as in so many instances, the "possible" is a code word for what vested interests will permit.

When Francis Bacon was told that his plan for "The Advancement of Learning" could never be realized, he answered:

Touching impossibility, I take it those things are to be held possible which may be done by some person, though not by every one; and which may be done by many, though not by any one; and which may be done in succession of ages, though not within the hourglass of one man's life; and which may be done by public designation, though not by private endeavor.

William Blake regarded Bacon as the epitome of rationalist arrogance. But even more than Bacon, he protested against the shriveled, static nature of the "possible" of his day. "Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known," he wrote in 1788, "is not the same that it shall be when we know more."


WHEN PEOPLE speak of politics as the art of the possible, they imply a world of unexamined assumptions about the limits of the possible--a world that embodies only the limits of their own experience or imagination. In its unreflective way, the dictum treats the superficial conditions of the moment as unchangeable realities. In effect, it serves as a denial of possibility, a closing of the aperture into the future.

It also urges us not to feel the urgency of injustice. The dictum is cold comfort to the oppressed, the victims of poverty, discrimination and violence, who are asked to continue suffering while distant arbiters decide what is or is not "possible" in their case. It sacrifices the poor, the hungry, the desperate on the altar of a self-serving pragmatism.

Impatience, in fact, is a necessary political virtue. Without it, even the most gradual change is inconceivable. And a politician who is not impatient with injustice, with needless death and destruction, is worse than useless.

Those who dispute the dictum are accused of utopianism, which is condemned as an intellectual and emotional error--not just a mistake, but a danger. Of course utopias are no substitute for the practice of politics, and can serve as an evasion of present responsibilities. But a practical politics stripped of serious ideas about what would constitute a just human society is a greater and more common menace.

Utopias can be powerful motivators, and thus a real influence on human destinies. For evidence, one only has to look at the Indian independence movement or the African American civil rights movement, at Gandhi and King, who defied assumed limitations to build great mass movements. By word and deed, they alerted people to the greater range of possibilities that lay within their grasp

Utopias provide a perspective from which the assumed limitations of the present can be examined, from which familiar social arrangements can be revealed as unjust, irrational or unnecessary. They are a means of expanding the borders of the possible.

You can't chart the surface of the earth or compute distances without a point of elevation--a mountaintop, a star or a satellite. You can't chart the possible in society without an angle of vision, a mental mountaintop that permits the widest sweep. The pundits championing the art of the possible are the flat-earthers of today, afraid to venture too far from shore lest they fall off the edge.

It's striking how often pundits of "the possible" rest their case on all kinds of gross improbabilities.

In insisting that there was no alternative to neoliberal economics, many assumed, in defiance of obvious objections, that speculation had no limits, that wealth-making could be severed from productive activity, that private interests would magically coagulate into public benefit, that industrial growth could be limitless on a planet with finite resources. Here, the art of the possible has been revealed as a dismal pseudo-science, its certainties built on foundations of sand.

It is very much the vice of the center-left. The right is bolder, more confident, more reckless and strongly driven by their own utopian visions (which would be dystopias for the rest of us). In contrast, liberals advise each other to trim their ambitions, to sacrifice their goals in order to remain politically viable.

In the wake of 9/11, liberals in the U.S. largely signed up to the Afghanistan invasion--because to fail to do so would place them outside an apparently immutable pro-war consensus. Those who kept their nerve and set about building an antiwar movement proved the more farsighted.

Of course, if your politics is about personal aggrandizement, then it will be "the art of the possible" in the narrowest sense. But for those who seek in politics a means of changing society for the better, it must be the art of redefining the possible. The art-science-craft of coaxing from the present, with its complex mix of possibilities and limitations, a just and sustainable human future.

First published in the Hindu.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives