Home > Dictionary, Politics (general) > Peter Beinart wants to reclaim “reform”

Peter Beinart wants to reclaim “reform”

May 23rd, 2006

In this TNR piece (not sure if subscription required), Peter Beinart laments the Republican (mis)appropriation of the word “reform”, saying

“Reform,” in today’s Washington, has come to mean “change I like.” Which is to say, it means almost nothing at all.

However, he doesn’t really make it clear what alternative definition he proposes, and concedes, later on “today’s conservatives are reformers of the most fundamental kind”.

In fact, the whole set of ideas surrounding the terms “reform” and “progressive” are bound up with historicist assumptions that can no longer be sustained, namely that history is moving in a particular (liberal/social democratic/socialist) direction, and that any deviation from this path is bound to be short-lived and self-defeating. Reform is change that is consistent with this direction. But once you have, as Beinart notes, a decade or more of “reforms” that consist mainly of the repeal of earlier reforms, none of these assumptions works.

I’ve tried all sorts of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform�, before concluding that the best thing is just to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions� and make it clear that there is no necessary implication of approval or disapproval, or of consistency with any particular political direction.

A more fundamental question raised by this semantic dispute is whether the assumption of being on the side of history, implicit in the use terms like “progressive”, is (or was) a help or a hindrance to the Left. This was debated at length in Marxist circles, not surprisingly, since Marxist theory seemed to provide a guarantee of inevitable success, while revolutionary political practice required sacrifices that could only be justified by the belief that the choice to make them was critically important to the future. I’ll leave it to commenters more expert than me to say how this turned out.

The issues weren’t nearly as sharp for liberals and social democrats, but in retrospect it seems clear that an assumption of inevitable success contributed to laziness and arrogance in all sorts of respects, from the casual dismissal of opponents (like the Goldwater Republicans) who turned out to be far more powerful than seemed possible at the time, to the extreme union militancy of the late 1960s and 1970s, which prepared the ground for massive defeats when the economic tide turned.

From Fukuyama onwards, historical inevitability has been the terrain of the political right. It’s new and exciting for them, but the hubris it has generated is already producing the inevitable blowback, most obviously in relation to Iraq but also in widespread global resistance to neoliberalism.

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  1. May 23rd, 2006 at 17:28 | #1

    I’ve tried all sorts of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform�, before concluding that the best thing is just to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions� and make it clear that there is no necessary implication of approval or disapproval, or of consistency with any particular political direction.

    I agree with Pr Q summary of the ideological problem relating to ownership of the word “reform”.

    I have tried to promote the use of the complementary terms “constructivism-conservatism” to indicate the (exlusive and exhaustive) “change-no change” classification. But this has not exactly caught on like wild fire.

    I have also tried a triparite classification to indicate the symmetrical valency of historical change:

    - reactionary: change towards a historical ideal, eg Khomeni
    - reformatory: change based on contemporal reality eg Churchill/Roosevelt/Curtin
    - revolutionary: change towards a futuristic ideal eg Lenin, Mao

    Reformatory policies have to be grounded in present traditions. Obviously, as a conservative social democrat, I am sympathetic towards this notion.

  2. May 23rd, 2006 at 19:53 | #2

    I think the word reform used to be used to indicate a huge change in a situation which was generally recognised to be desperately wrong. Everyone has to know the thing is bust already. As in “reforming the Rotton Boroughs”.

    Now that I have a bit of editorial power over a publication, I delight in each and every use of the scare quotes. As in suggested “reforms” of the ABC. I think the press made a terrible mistake in accepting the word without it in the first place.

    Although, scare quotes is not quite the term. We are simply putting it in quotation marks, because the term is used as the proponents description, but is not in general currency.

  3. May 23rd, 2006 at 20:20 | #3

    If you want a term to describe change to institutions or policy, without implying whether it is progressive or reactionary, then ‘re-form’ is your word. No messy quotations, no messy presumptions and no naughty hubris.

  4. Derick Cullen
    May 23rd, 2006 at 20:44 | #4

    For some time now there has been an in-joke in my technically oriented workplace against exogenous managerialism: we make “forward progress” against PIs.

    It is obvous that the consensus in the workplace is that progress is roughly something like the historical inevitablity of a better set of circumstances.

    I was ruminating on this sort of thing last night with a fellow tjilpi baby boomer. We agreed we represented “forward progress” for the aspirations of our parents’ era.

    We were both the first in our families to graduate from university, beacuse of/despite our working class heritage.

    We concluded that historical inevitability was wired in, what with his son the lawyer and mine the engineer.

    Reactionary reform to reverse the historical inveitability of the rise of the aspirationals in favour of the born to rule clique which so annoyed our parents will fail, so it seemed to us 3 parts of the way through the chardonnay.

  5. Jill Rush
    May 23rd, 2006 at 21:34 | #5

    The use of the word reform has the connotation of change for the better and the dictionary supports this view “to improve by changing”. Thus if a change is introduced which is not an improvement but a retrograde step then it should be labelled as a retrograde change rather than a reform. It is Orwellian language control which allows acceptance of oxymorons.

    I would support taxation reform which produced a fairer system so am ripe for a politician to sell me that idea. Most people would also be in this class. That is the power of language.

    The only way that it can be countered is to relabel the reform into the correct terminology eg structural change of the ABC rather than reform. Regressive taxation policy gives a clearer idea of what is happening than to label it a reform.

  6. James Farrell
    May 24th, 2006 at 01:08 | #6

    I can’t see ‘reformatory policies’ catching on as a term either, Jack. All it evokes for me is policies regarding juvenile correction centres.

  7. May 24th, 2006 at 01:16 | #7

    James Farrell Says: May 24th, 2006 at 1:08 am

    I can’t see ‘reformatory policies’ catching on as a term either, Jack. All it evokes for me is policies regarding juvenile correction centres.

    Oh well. Back to the alliterative drawing board…

  8. May 24th, 2006 at 01:32 | #8

    In fact, the whole set of ideas surrounding the terms “reform� and “progressive� are bound up with historicist assumptions that can no longer be sustained, namely that history is moving in a particular (liberal/social democratic/socialist) direction, and that any deviation from this path is bound to be short-lived and self-defeating.

    Another problem with the “progressive” connotation of reform is that the antonym is “regressive”. But this just gets conflated with the correlated debate about the equity of income distribution. Also, in biology, “progressive” is associated with the notion of complicated differentiation. Whilst “regressive” means simplified integration.

    Still, the refutation of Marxian or Toynbeean historicism does not imply that there is no such thing as a useful direction of change in History. The Arrow of Time in physical history implies regressive disorder in material affairs ie entropy according to 2nd law of TD. So what we might call the Arrow of Good in social history seems to point towards some sort of progressive order in moral affairs.

    Its as if Maxwell’s Demon gets wiser as he gets older.

    But the Arrow of Good is a contingent, rather than necessary, aspect of history as a whole. So there is no excuse for complacency.

  9. Vance Maverick
    May 24th, 2006 at 07:08 | #9

    Jill, you’re also caught up in the presumption that the direction of improvement is forward in time. For instance, you contrast “retrograde” with “improvement”. I’m sympathetic to this, and I certainly fall into the same verbal habit. But the whole point of this discussion is to question the link!

    Would you admit that it’s possible, sometimes, to change things for the worse? If so, then undoing such a change would be both retrograde and an improvement.

  10. James Farrell
    May 24th, 2006 at 07:24 | #10

    “…caught up in the presumption that the direction of improvement is forward in time…. But the whole point of this discussion is to question the link!”

    Yes. I protested furiously when John first proposed this approach to the terminology. But I’m convinced now. The hubris argument, which I think is new, sweetens the bitter pill.

  11. Dogz
    May 24th, 2006 at 11:59 | #11


    The Arrow of Time in physical history implies regressive disorder in material affairs ie entropy according to 2nd law of TD. So what we might call the Arrow of Good in social history seems to point towards some sort of progressive order in moral affairs.

    Its as if Maxwell’s Demon gets wiser as he gets older.

    Actually, the Arrow of Good depends upon the Arrow of Time in a pretty fundamental fashion. The 2nd Law states that entropy always increases in a closed system. The Earth is not such a system: it takes in low-entropy UV radiation and pumps out high-entropy IR radiation – storing the (negative) entropy difference in the order we see all around us.

    To the extent that “Good” social structures are a lower entropy state than “Bad” social structures, it is precisely the Earth’s entropy imbalance that is providing the raw materials for the Arrow of Good.

    Of course, in entropy terms, dictatorships are probably as ordered as democracies, so this analysis only takes one so far…

  12. May 24th, 2006 at 22:12 | #12

    Reform is an OK word. It’s been debased (in its post enlightenment or should that be post Reformation sense) by propaganda. But it degrades back to its original meaning – to ‘re-form’. So ‘reform’ is, as JQ says “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions”.

    That’s not a bitter pill. It’s fine. Jettison the hubris. If pride cometh before the fall, then the fall brings an end to the hubris – which is for the better. There’s a Jewish saying (I think – well a Jew told it to me) that people shouldn’t worry if God is on their side; they should be wondering if they’re on God’s side. So lets drop the propaganda and, with John adopt a non-hubristic use of the word ‘reform’.

  13. May 24th, 2006 at 23:28 | #13

    So its reform time for the word “reform”.

  14. Jill Rush
    May 24th, 2006 at 23:47 | #14

    Vance,
    To reform carries the idea of improvement and is forward looking – I question the Orwellian use of language but an improvement of a bad decision would have to be a reform. It is when the original bad decision is labelled a reform that I would question its usage as a misrepresentation (at best).

    What is required is the taking back of descriptive language so that words such as reform don’t gain an evil reputation because of their association by those who use the word with an intent to deceive.

    It is about relabelling as we speak and write and not accepting the language used to oppress.

    Thus we can discuss “clean and green” nuclear energy as Mr Howard suggests or examine the dangers posed for an eternity by radioactivity. It is really about defining the ideas used to think about an issue.

    We need to reform the use of the language to be able to think clearly on issues and this requires the ability to use the language effectively.

  15. Katz
    May 25th, 2006 at 08:24 | #15

    But only failed ambitions can be called hubris.

    In the West progressive thought is presently dominant. In the domestic sphere there are no big battles left for progressives to win.

    Perforce, therefore, in the West “Progressives” have become “conservatives” since the achievement of much of the progressive agenda. There is now no significant debate over our culture as being secular, democratic with some sort of balance between private property and social assets. There is some debate over the nature of this balance, but this is a marginal debate.

    The very fact there is so much consensus in Western societies increases rather than decreases the heat of rhetoric. Spin and symbol replace broad-ranging ideological difference as “Outs” try to plump themselves more solidly in the Centre to displace the “Ins”.

    In the West a Rightist counterculture finally disappeared with the demise of Franco. Spain is now indistinguishable from the rest of the West.

    Marxism-Leninism has collapsed as a the basis for a counterculture voluntary chosen by free people.

    Elsewhere, Islamism has enjoyed a vogue prolonged by Bush’s hamfisted attempts to combat it. The intelligent application of the “soft power” of the West ought to, in time, undo Bush’s misdeeds in the misapplication of “hard power”.

    Does this portend Fukuyama’s “end of history”?

    I think not. Humans are fast approaching the limits of critical natural resources. The progressive agenda is built upon the Lockean assumption of a limitless frontier between the world of man and the natural world. Progressivism is a materialist view of human society that assumes ever-increasing abundance. This is a false assumption.

    What happens when Lockean expectations collide with Hobbesian reality? Necessarily, this collision will be mediated through social and political institutions.

    Let’s not forget that the idea of “Progress” is only three centuries old. Humans got on a long time without it. I think it can be argued that forgetting about Progress may be less traumatic than learning it. (Every modern revolution, purge and genocide has been fuelled by the lust for progress). Nevertheless, when physical limits are reached expectations are quick to adjust.

    When improvements in material life, as measured by the consumption of resources, declines for large parts of the population, the issue will be the management of the expectations of the individuals and groups whose consumption is to be reduced.

    It is perhaps worth noting that far more potent in deciding the outcome of this collision between human expectation and physical limits than the Arrow of Time or the Lancet (of whatever) of Good is the Fog of Forgetfulness.

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