Magical thinking vs slow boring

In his classic 1918 lecture, Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber described politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards”. He was counselling students of Munich University on how to achieve change, speaking in the aftermath of the First World War, and with the rise of reactionary and venal politics across Europe and the United States.

Faced with such perilous times, he continued:

“Certainly, all historical experience confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a person must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else we will not be able to attain even that which is possible today.”

I sometimes recall these words when feeling hopeless about the ability of our political systems to avert and reverse the various ecological catastrophes that we are driving ourselves through, not least of which is climate change.

Because it is always tempting in the face of continually crumbling hopes to reach for magical thinking. To reach for solutions that somehow short-circuit the shortcomings of our political system. That could cut through, subvert, upend all limitations which depress action and depress our spirits.

Wouldn’t we all love a hero to save the day? Not a Weberian hero, bringing passion and perspective to that slow boring of the hard board, because it is hard to imagine how that process might avert a crisis. No, we want a Marvel hero able to assemble a team of Extinction Avengers who topple the Government and rewire our economy in a matter of years through bravura action.

Sometimes, as with Beyond Politics, this magical thinking materialises in a purely egotistical form – spectacle as a way to salve the would-be-hero’s conscience and boost their ego. The likes of Roger Hallam deserve no attention whatsoever.

More often it comes in a more considered form, as with this recent article by Rupert Read launching a network of direct action within the Green Party. I have a lot of sympathy with his support for direct action. I’ve been handcuffed to enough ESSO pumps and the like to recognise its value. But his article substitutes perspective with magical thinking.

First, Rupert writes off the entire international climate negotiation process by predicting that “the Glasgow climate COP… is going to fail. This means if it delivers an agreement, that agreement will be inadequate and will contain lots of dire stuff.”

I agree that it won’t “solve” the problem. But nobody ever expects a single COP to leapfrog to the ideal final position. To expect this would be magical thinking.

Rio begat Kyoto begat Paris which, we hope, will beget Glasgow, and in between conferences in Bonn and Copenhagen and Doha and more besides. The slow boring of hard boards is a perfect description of this process of lurching and leaping towards international agreements. Each agreement is inadequate, but a little or a lot less inadequate than the last and therefore worthwhile.

The announcements we have heard this year from governments around the world; the dramatic falls in the costs of renewable energy technologies, largely driven by government action arising from this process; these shouldn’t be written off as failures.

The process is unlikely to ever be adequate, or sufficient. We are headed into a new era of climate instability unlike anything in human history.

But boy is the process necessary.

Climate change isn’t a binary – solved or buggered. There is a huge difference between a future with no action and a future with a good amount of inadequate action.

Second, Rupert sets up something of a straw man by suggesting the Green Party’s aim must be to win a General Election and form a Green government in 2024.

I don’t know anyone active in the party who thinks that is the political strategy, and anyone who imagines that is the only worthwhile aim of electoral politics. This would be magical thinking.

In setting this up he thereby sweeps under the rug all other accounts of why electoral politics might still be one of many avenues that the Green movement should still pursue (at the same time as apparently endorsing its pursuit).

Given that the party won’t achieve power and be able to usher in a radical new political programme, he therefore suggests a different magical route to bring about the same end: admitting defeat and mobilising from the streets in a surge of direct action and transformative adaptation.

This strategy would “break through into people’s consciousnesses” (how? do we imagine the media would take it seriously and give it a huge amount of airtime? would people even understand it given how little the public understand the climate emergency? is there any appetite for it among voters who, in the climate citizens assemblies, have baulked at modest policies like slightly reducing traffic levels?)

It would “utterly transform politics” (would any other parties take the blindest bit of notice? would it lead to a wave of Green electoral wins? or to the creation of centres of political power and action outside of government? if so, how?)

Direct action that is “intelligent, targeted and makes sense to local people can be massively popular” (what evidence does he have for this? a clear majority of the public opposed Extinction Rebellion’s actions last October; all of Sheffield Green Party’s direct action around trees has boosted their vote but their progress is still a slow march, they haven’t swept to power.)

It will be “game-changing”. But it is modelled on the lines of Extinction Rebellion, which has struggled to build an organisation and a political strategy that builds on its brilliant use of spectacle from its launch through to the spring 2019 shutdowns in London and other cities. Yes, XR, and more so the student strikes, did temporarily catapult climate change to the top of the political agenda. That was an incredible achievement. But they have hardly changed the game to the extent that Rupert would like.

I’m willing to be persuaded if Rupert has answers to all of these questions. But I doubt he does. In place of Weber’s “passion and perspective” all I see in Rupert’s article is a leap of faith, grounded in desperation that there isn’t a magic solution to the problems we face. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Rupert has been one of the few voices encouraging us to all face reality, to tell the truth. I just don’t see his latest political strategy as telling the truth – it is telling ourselves a comforting lie.

I have long felt that the only honest approach is to stop looking for magical solutions. As I wrote in August 2018,

“We first need to move beyond a fantastical politics of radical change, towards a realistic politics of resilience. For those of us who have reached this point to be imaginative about what we can do to make the future world better than it might be, even if we don’t think we can stop it getting worse than it is today.”

Rupert is facing up to the need for a politics of resilience, but with a fantastical politics of radical change to do so. He substitutes magical thinking on mitigation with magical thinking on adaptation.

In that post I laid out some different strategies we can pursue, while accepting that we will “underreach” on our goals. Under one heading – to build large-scale resilience – I mentioned work with Greens on the London Assembly economy committee looking at climate change. That included persuading the Bank of England to take climate change more seriously. The action we’ve seen from the Bank, and the present and previous Governor, in the intervening years gives me hope that this strategy can have an impact.

I think there is also a lot of scope for Green direct action to bring about disruptive change and to build resilience. Thank you, Rupert, for your part in trying to draw this out in the Green Party, after all your work in Extinction Rebellion.

But if we’re to be honest about the ecological emergency, can we also be honest about the limits of politics? We could do worse than heed Weber’s counsel:

“Only they have been called to politics who are sure that they shall not crumble when the world appears too stupid or too base for what they want to offer. Only they who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the true calling for politics.”


  1. Fundamentally I agree with all of the above. The only thing I might add is a few sources of error it would help us to be aware of.

    I wonder if some of this is a Marketing VS engineering problem?

    I’ve noticed: systematic errors of old people e.g. ‘We tried that before and it didn’t work.’ But failing to recognise that circumstances have now materially change and its now worth another go IMO. [This frequently boils my piss when i’m the guy suggesting the change]

    Systematic errors of the young e.g. being to ignorant to know what has already be tried but hasn’t worked. Believing there is this fabulous new gadget that will work, and its actually total crap.

    Errors pseudo-archaic solutions( the engineers dilemma) vs pseudo-novel(Marketing LIES!!!!!)

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people look at ebikes and see the bike of their child hood. e.g. they see something that is actually very modern, a vehicle powered by laptop batteries and mistakenly categorise it as the bike they had as a teenager that their parent would not pay to have serviced.

    Almost like, they think the bike industry is still in the 1970s.

    I had someone my mums age ask me the other day if I was peddling hard on my ebike to keep my modern hub dynamo bright. (!?)

    I’ve also use modern wood glues to make a light plywood recumbent bike. Again. Unless you are in the glue research world probably you’ve not kept up with the advances in this area of technology glues are vey good now and set fast 5-20 mins.

    And then I think there are pseudo-novel things, which is where people believe something transformative is round the corn but in fact it is total BS. The best example of this for me is Driverless Vehicles that were all the rage a few years ago but now have been quietly dropped along with Hypreloop.

    To quote Peter Thiel we can think about the future on 2 axis. optimistic vs pessimistic and determined vs non deterministic. I agree with Thiel that in the 1950 we basically though the future was determined and optimistic. We then went into a phase were we thought it was optimistic but unknown cos tech, and I’d now say we are starting to think it is unknown and pessimistic. I hope we don’t start to view it as determined & pessimistic. And I think we need to get back to a future that feels optimistic and determined. For me that will require getting our head out of the clouds and rejoicing at finding potatos on the ground. e.g. a move away from hight tech and towards the low tech, reliable and dirt cheep. e.g. mosquito nets not computure control laze mosquito zappers. Basically: what Tom said.

    17th December 2020
  2. Mike Shone said:

    Excellent Tom. A good deal of my political life has been consumed calling out Magical Thinking eg the Progressive Alliance wishful thinking or the oddity of much of Marxism which convincingly explains the near overwhelming power of capitalism and then its adherents proceeding confidently to exclaim that it can be overthrown.

    Good to see that in no way have you retired from truly serious politics and using one of Weber’s such useful insights

    18th December 2020

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