Fiat and Radical Politics

Becca Traber

January 17, 2018

One striking trend in debate over the last few years is the pairing of an advocacy of radical, “kritikal” politics with a post-fiat policy option. In a “previous era,” the kritik was more uniformly opposed to policy making. Now, however, not only is it common to fiat when you are advocating radical or activist politics, it is also common to castigate debaters who are not. There are a lot of arguments about how any approach to radical politics that does not fiat a state action fails to prepare us for the real world of activism and is, essentially, intellectual time-wasting and self-involvement.

This trend in debate has ignored, however, what I see as the most pertinent question. Namely, what sort of skills are actually conducive to radical political action? We might think that we need to engage in the state as activists, but what does state engagement as activists look like? There has been a systematic failure of imagination in terms of thinking through what politics looks like when it is done by marginalized people and in favor of radical causes. My argument is that the idea of fiat is uniquely bad training for activist, leftist, or radical politics. Fiat fundamentally distorts radical advocacies.

This article does not argue that we should care about how debate trains us for activism--I take as given that we should be concerned with the sort of education that we are getting and we should tailor our education toward developing students capable of engaging in radical politics. By radical politics, I mean politics that aims to intervene on the status quo predominately by asking for a substantial shift in favor of marginalized positions, people, or perspectives. This is obviously not a formal definition and is not intended to be. I’m aiming to talk about a group of political perspectives with a family resemblance that characterizes them oppositionally to mainstream party politics. This includes both “pragmatic” leftist framing as well as what is known as “high theory” kritiks. The definition of fiat that I’m relying on that it is the act of imagination that allows us to avoid the contradiction between solvency and inherency, typically through the assumption of the passage of a state-based policy option without consideration of the political likelihood of that passage

Fiat is structured such that the negative debater is unable to question the likelihood of something happening as long as the aff debater defends the normal means of that thing happening. This is a way of thinking that only makes sense if the only thing we are able to fiat is state legislative action. For all other forms of political action, there is no real way to separate normal means, passage of the “policy,” and effects of the “policy.” The ideal of state politics is such that we imagine congress passes a bill and does so in a way that the content of the bill is separable from the wheeling and dealing that allowed for it to be created. This is problematic as an assumption on its face— implementation through the rest of the government is undeniably affected by the way the bill was argued and, indeed, the judicial branch often considers congressional intent when evaluating a bill. Additionally, bills passed through congress typically are too vague to actually implement on their own and need a significant amount of bureaucratic interpretation and adjustment through the executive branch in order to be implemented.

But all that aside, there is at least a sensical way of separating the literal bill from the vote that got it passed. If you are not advocating for the state, the separation between a policy and the means by which it is passed necessitated by fiat is impossible. What policy was passed by the feminist movement? The movement was the advocacy and the actions taken by the feminist movement was the advocacy. The “solvency” of collective action cannot be separated from the things that are done in the collective action. This is true for all non-state actors who don’t have a formal parliamentary procedure. A community creating institutions for itself typically doesn’t have strict bylaws which outline what normal means for change would be. This puts the kritikal debater in an impossible dilemma when they are asked to fiat or implement some sort of policy. People who run these types of implementation arguments should stop pretending that the kritik they are arguing against would be possible at all, in any meaningful way, if it were to fiat. There is no fair version of the kritik that is at all meaningfully similar to the kritik and there is no topical version of critical affs. The way we construct implementation and fiat in debate can only be thought as a state action.

Insisting on fiat in all cases functionally means that we cannot run arguments about politics outside the state without radically distorting the nature of that politics. Many debaters assume that the only “practical” or “pragmatic” politics occur through the state. However, this is not the case. Things like the feminist movements intervention on norms of sexual harassment are examples of politics outside the state. Collapsing the recent backlash to sexual harrasment precipitated by Harvey Weinstein and others to possible state action ignores that the state could not possibly intervene in an adequate way to change those norms. The norms about sexual behavior in the workplace must change, but they can only reasonably change through politics engaged outside the state. Thinking of it in terms of state politics conceals the necessity of non-state politics.  This is uniquely bad because the reality of the situation is that the percentage of debaters who will have a chance to be internal to the state is minuscule, but all debaters could plausibly engage in non-state movement politics. All the evidence that people read in favor of fiat and state-based implementation makes education claims that assume the necessary training one needs to engage in politics involves thinking about the state, but fiat is not the tool to do that. Fiat doesn’t ask us to think about how to engage in politics as citizens who live under a state, it asks us to pretend that we are the state. In a real way, it is also inadequate as a way of roleplaying a policy-maker, because the reality of politics as a legislature is significantly more complicated than being able to wave a magic wand and implement whatever policy is wanted. Fiat is a construction where we don’t even roleplaying as a human, much less as plausibly political actors.

One popular option to deal with the above dilemma is to import radical politics into the state and imagine policies that would result from particular radical political ideologies. This is what happens when someone advocates, for instance, that the USFG gives back the land to indigenous people as a fiated affirmative plan. There is a range of ways this is executed. On one end of this spectrum, you have policies which are barely different from what is advocated by mainstream politicians. On the other extreme, you have policies which are explicitly intended to serve as the downfall of the USFG in their passage or intend to provoke uprisings from parts of the population.

The reality is that while radical and leftist politics occasional results in policy action, conceiving of it in terms of policy action distorts the nature of that politics. If one were to set about with the goal of combating anti-blackness, as history has demonstrated, the first step cannot be to try to be a policy maker. A politician with a radical advocacy cannot get elected until that advocacy has enough support that people will vote for her. For instance, a politician who ran on dismantling the United States or erasing all distinctions between animals and people to solve anthro would not have a constituency without a substantial social movement to develop that constituency. This problem is inherent to any advocacy which significantly challenges status quo ideals. Things in the status quo are in the status quo because a lot of people and powerful people agree with them. Before that can change more than incrementally, a lot of people have to change their mind. If you were to seriously consider how to implement a strategy of radical politics, it would make no sense to have the first step be electoral. None of the major social movements were driven by policy action— policies are driven by social movements. Fiating radical politics hides the radical politics entirely.

Focusing on policy actions, in this context, actively distorts how we should consider radical politics. Even if it were the case that we would eventually need policy actions to finally solve issues of marginalization, that does not mean that we should start off with a question of fiat. Fiat erases the work necessary to allow for policy changes. It does not help us think about the movements we will have to create and the ways we will have to persuade. This means that claims about the necessity of state action are besides the point-- state action is only caused by a lot of non-state action that we have to think about first and that fiat erases. The conceptual work that debaters often want to exclude by insisting of fiating policy is exactly the type of thing that radical politics does. Radical politics needs to persuade and imagine new possibilities, first and foremost.

Fiating away the process of change by which radical politics would be implemented makes irrational critical parts of radical politics in the real world. A good example is the alternate social institutions implemented by Black nationalist organizations like the Black Panther Party. If we don’t have to consider the process of change, the benefit of having alternate institutions becomes significantly less. The types of benefit are different, as well. In a world of fiat, the only benefit of creating an institution outside of the state would be incidental to the immediate effects of the institution. Why develop free breakfast outside the school system when we could just fiat free breakfast inside of it? The fact that it would not be possible in the immediate future to implement the breakfast in the school system or the state and people need breakfast (or other help) right now should be relevant to the consideration of what political strategy to use. Fiat is a crutch that prevents us from seeing ways we can intervene in our communities to create good things, right now, without relying on the vast institution of the state.

Fiat trains debaters to think like legislators, not like organizers, but the only way to have substantial change from the status quo is to organize. The available set of options in legislative space can change, but it can only change from the outside. Using fiat erases this and is fundamentally incompatible with what it would take to organize. There is an inherent conservatism in the insistence on fiat, in that fiat is only comprehensible with extremely incrementalist politics. The type of policies that are able to be enacted by people already in positions of power are always going to be close to the policies that are already in place. Not debating about the means through which policies get enacted means that we can never explore changes that involve changing the means of policy enactment.The reality is, however, that there are occasionally radical changes in public life. These changes are never in a meaningful way first caused by the passage of the policy and always rely on a process of social change that came before. Fiat assumes we already know the realm of the possible and erases any potential of thinking about changing it.

This means that arguments focusing on the fact that the state can be useful in radical politics misunderstand the issue. Even if the state is a useful part of political change at some point in the process, it certainly isn’t the initial step. And even if we need to think about politics while acknowledging that the state is a real force (ie “use the state as a heuristic”), we must do so by imagining what our movements look like in the world as it is. That is, we should not ignore that the state exists, but it’s existence doesn’t mean that we should fiat a policy action in the state as a way of implementing a radical policy solution. It would be enough to take seriously the state as an obstacle for non-state politics, while still advocating for non-state politics. And, moreover, the idea of using the state as a tool for change ignores the reality of what social change takes. This means fiating with radical politics is not only misleading, it actively teaches wrong things about what radical politics looks like. The type of education it provides is counterproductive if we actually want our debates to help further a political project.

One thing someone could think is that we need to imagine fiating a policy option as a first step in a political project, because we need to imagine what the goal of the political project should look like. Fiat, as a form of ideal theory, helps us determine the possibilities of political action. However, this as a framing necessarily means that we would be determining the political goals of radical politics without considering the process through which those goals are created over the course of the development of a movement.  That is, the discussion of the effects of a policy as the first step in thinking about politics abstracts away from the reality of differential epistemic access to the world. When a debater offers her policy action, she is not doing so in conversation with all the relevant communities that could be affected by that policy. She is not participating in a conversation--she is stopping the conversation and asserting that a policy “would be best” in the abstract. Different perspectives can give guidance on how we ought to understand what a desirable policy action would be. What this means is that the purpose of radical political action should always develop in a fluid way, through the actual practice of political change and from within the movement itself. We don’t need to decide at the beginning what we ought to do in an absolute sense and the attempt to do so forecloses conversation. Objectives in social movements are determined in a more fluid way than a formal policy white paper. We determine our objectives in the process of conversation.

This means the model of fiating the final goal of radical politics not only distorts the nature of social movements and collective action, it assumes a certainty about the objective of politics in a way that prevents the possibility of minoritarian critique.  The process of developing a politics changes the objectives of political movements and to ignore this process forecloses the real radical possibility of diverse collective action. The insistence on fiat in round functions to erase minority perspectives empirically. If the AC has a radical policy option, they will often use policy making good arguments to take out various critiques that try to point out how the AC is missing the perspectives of minority voices. The focus on policy making is used as a weapon to preclude discussion. This not only is a moral harm in itself, it means that we will be engaging in bad politics. A policy making first framework excludes epistemic contributions from people outside the mainstream, meaning that we will inevitably miss harms to marginalized populations at the core of our advocacies. The erasure of critique from the outside means we cannot trust that the plan will do what it claims to do without horrible externalities.

Further, advocacies and alternatives which are centered around processes and conceptual frameworks are significantly more similar to the nature of goal-setting in the real world.  Take the example of the anarchist-influenced Food Not Bombs. You may think that this would be a case where it would be easy to graft fiat onto a social movement because they are so strongly associated with a specific action—namely, feeding the homeless. However, in fact, this seemingly straightforward political goal had a variety of complicated trade offs and considerations. Should they prioritize food or the anarchist literature that they tended to pass out with the food? What neighborhoods should they serve with their food? How should they interact with the police and with disruptive people who interrupted their food service? Should they apply for permits for serving food? Should they associate with religious organizations doing similar work? How should white organizers respond to critiques from black participants and black organizers? How should they manage a class disconnect between the people serving food and the people eating it? In debate, we would be significantly more attracted to a fiated specific “policy” of “serving food to the homeless,” abstracting away from all these issues as normal means. People work to be non-committal about the issues above for strategic reasons and they are able to do so because of fiat. But in many ways, characterizing the political project of Food Not Bombs in concrete terms is less accurate than characterizing it in conceptual terms. The “fiated policy” over-simplifies the reality, which is that they are an organization framed around a conceptual commitment to direct action and serving people outside of the state. Having a commitment to concepts rather than specific policy options is in a real sense more pragmatic than specific policy actions that are able to be fiated because the concepts allow you to resolve disputes over objectives that inevitably rise in the process of executing a specific action. For instance, if the foundational principle of Food Not Bombs is about spreading consciousness of anarchist principles and the possibilities of outside the state, they shouldn’t refrain from having political material if that was a condition of getting a permit from the state. The strategic incentives of fiat push debaters away from the crucial questions of specific decisions that activists make, into vague and idealized conjecture about how the world works.

This is to say, if we are legitimately thinking about what sort of thing a person engaging in movement based radical or leftist politics needs to know, the answer will never first be the actually implementable goal that has the possibility of “solvency.” It is not useful for an anarchist to think of the precise mechanism by which she intends to dismantle the state. It is also not useful to think about intermediate steps as concrete policy actions. Specific things that radical political groups do are better thought of as instantiations of conceptual commitments. This means that people who insist kritiks fiat for educational reasons have it exactly backwards. The things we learn when we fiat are useless in comparison to the discussion of what conceptual commitments we ought to have, even in terms of the most hard-nosed evaluation of political effects. It also means that to say it is unfair because you can’t link certain types of arguments just demonstrates a failure of creativity and a conservative insistence on all types of politics adhering to a narrow window of political tactics.

Conclusion & Next Steps

Even though I (obviously) don’t think fiat is the right way to think about kritiks and kritikal affirmatives, I am sympathetic with one aspect of the insistence that those debaters fiat. Specifically, fiated policies are the way that we conceptualize the process of political change. Debaters who ask for fiat imagine that the world changes through a policy going through the federal legislature. Kritiks, in many ways, cannot think the world changes in that way. But the question remains, in what way does the kritik think the world can change? Many debaters are bad at answering this question in a plausible way in that they cannot explain the praxis of their concepts. However, asking a debater to fiat just then assumes that the mechanism for political change embedded in fiat (legislation) is the only plausible one. Instead of insisting that kritiks fiat or implement a state action, we should think about how kritikal debaters can express the theory of praxis that is entailed by their concepts. Later articles will explore this in more depth.