Reform Politics v. Care Politics
I ran across these words in Christopher Lasch’s book The New Radicalism in America, in discussing Randolph Bourne: “If politics is defined as the impulse to reform society, as the tendency to elevate ideas into programs, then it is clear that the political impulse was by no means dead.” [p. 90]
For some inexplicable reason the words “reform society” hit me and I began to wonder, despite the fact that these words and this view of politics is very common, whether this is the only or the best description of politics. What would happen if politics were to be defined as “building communities” rather than “reforming society?” Which is or should be the essence of politics and what’s implied by these different conceptions of politics?
To “re-form” a society implies that its existing form is wanting, even that it needs to be “un-formed” first, and then reconstructed using “materials” not inherently present. For example, in “re-forming” a society, the emphasis is on “elevat[ing] ideas into programs;” that is, programs not natural or pre-existing, bureaucratic programs, programs administered by the government. On the other hand, communities require care or nurturing, which is a very different thing than creating and administering programs. You could say, for example, that Socrates was caring for, nurturing Athens and Athenians and was not interested in creating programs. Programs are, by and large, an alternative to caring or nurturing.
For example, public schools are in the business of “re-forming” youth and are not, officially, caring or nurturing youth. The youth need to be “re-formed” because in their natural state they are unfit for, do not fit into society. So, as is often said, education is “socialization.” “Re-forming” society or youth implies that naturally, in their original condition, both societies and human beings are deficient in the sense of lacking things they cannot supply. And so caring and nurturing are of only marginal importance when it comes to “reforming” society. “Socialization” replaces caring and nurturing as the key to re-forming societies.
On the other hand, communities are defined by caring and nurturing. Caring and nurturing are what make a community a community. Without caring and nurturing, there cannot be community. To say that politics should be about creating and maintaining communities is to say that the most important political tasks are caring and nurturing, which also implies that humans, in their original condition, have the potential to care and nurture other human beings. It may even be said, if you look at their behavior, that humans want to care and nurture others and are fulfilled when they do so. This is what Aristotle meant when he wrote that humans are “political animals,” they want to live in communities.
So, reform politics and caring politics are very different phenomena, and they lead in very different directions. As noted above, it may be said that Socrates engaged in politics because he cared for Athens and Athenians, as illustrated in Plato’s dialogues and quite clearly in the Crito, where Socrates, using bad arguments, reconciles his friend Crito to his, Socrates’, impending death because Socrates knows that both Crito and Athens will be better off if Crito is reconciled in this way. Despite being treated unjustly by Athens and some Athenians, Socrates treats both Athens and Crito justly while demonstrating his caring for and nurturing of both Athens and Crito. So, if Socrates was a revolutionary, as he was, then he was a caring and nurturing one and this impacted decisively on his behavior.
It seems to me that reform politics ends up, willy nilly, being or becoming militant. Re-forming society requires defeating the opponents of reform; that is, these dissidents are seen as unfit for the re-formed society. These dissidents become “enemies of the state” and should be dealt with accordingly, which of course would not involve caring or nurturing them. Re-formed societies must have “executive powers,” that is, the power to execute their programs and their enemies. Re-formed societies are militant through and through.
It might also be the case that re-formed societies embrace, sooner or later, a transformational politics. That is, in their efforts to create re-formed societies, the reformers discover the need to embrace totalitarianism or the “extension of the political into the most intimate areas of existence.” [Lasch, p. 90] “….[I]f by politics one refers to the traditional business of government and statecraft, taxes, tariffs, and treaties,” then politics in the reformed society is “almost immaterial.”  Issues such as childhood, education, language, and sex are politicized and, before long, “culture wars” replace the more traditional political battles over taxes, tariffs, and treaties. In the US, what is rarely commented on is the fact that both sides in these culture wars are seeking to transform or “re-form” American society. Both sides are, willy nilly, totalitarian and for that to succeed they need “transformational leaders,” leaders with “visions.” So, the success of reformed politics turns on the existence of visionaries who possess a “will to power.” And needless to say, such visionaries are uninterested in, even opposed to caring and nurturing. It is relatively easy to see that much could go wrong.