Using Contemporary Politics and History to Judge Contemporary Political Philosophy

To what extent can the dominant political philosophy developed over the past half-century fruitfully address the political problems we face today?

That is the central question raised by Katrina Forrester, assistant professor of government and social studies at Harvard University, in a recent essay at Boston Review adapted from her book, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy.

The significance of this question for assessing ideas in political philosophy is not one that all political philosophers would agree on, as is indicated by the past 20 years of active discussion on the question of how idealized or realistic political philosophy should be (i.e., “ideal”  vs. “non-ideal” theory). But it is no doubt an interesting question.

There is a second interesting question, related to he first, that comes up in her essay as well: to what extent was the fact that there was a dominant political philosophy over the past fifty years bad for political philosophy?

The following excerpts provide a sketch of Forrester’s skeptical answer to the first question:

Since the upheavals of the financial crisis of 2008 and the political turbulence of 2016, it has become clear to many that liberalism is, in some sense, failing. The turmoil has given pause to economists, some of whom responded by renewing their study of inequality, and to political scientists, who have since turned to problems of democracy, authoritarianism, and populism in droves. But Anglo-American liberal political philosophers have had less to say than they might have.

The silence is due in part to the nature of political philosophy today—the questions it considers worth asking and those it sidelines. Since Plato, philosophers have always asked about the nature of justice. But for the last five decades, political philosophy in the English-speaking world has been preoccupied with a particular answer to that question developed by the American philosopher John Rawls.

Rawls’s work in the mid-twentieth century ushered in a paradigm shift in political philosophy. In his wake, philosophers began exploring what justice and equality meant in the context of modern capitalist welfare states, using those concepts to describe, in impressive and painstaking detail, the ideal structure of a just society—one that turned out to closely resemble a version of postwar social democracy. Working within this framework, they have since elaborated a body of abstract moral principles that provide the philosophical backbone of modern liberalism…

But if modern political philosophy is bound up with modern liberalism, and liberalism is failing, it may well be time to ask whether these apparently timeless ideas outlived their usefulness. Rawls’s ideas were developed during a very distinctive period of U.S. history, and his theory bears an intimate connection to postwar liberal democracy. Is liberal political philosophy complicit in its failures? Is political philosophy, like liberalism itself, in crisis, and in need of reinvention?…

[M]any aspects of the Rawlsian vision suggest it cannot rise to the challenge. Some of our most pressing concerns lie in its blind spots. In the years since the rise of liberal egalitarianism, the state has expanded, but it has also been privatized. The nature of capitalism and of work has transformed and will continue to do so, likely in dramatic and unexpected ways. The constituency of the least well off has been reconstructed, and both its composition and its place as an agent of change rather than a recipient of goods need to be again interrogated. Politics is changing, as authoritarians, radical movements, and new oligarchs battle in a novel international landscape shaped by unaccountable financial institutions, new media platforms, new technologies, and climate change.

Liberal egalitarians have some of the tools to deal with these changes, but our questions also require new frameworks that depart from one invented in a period of ideological battles quite unlike today.

And these excerpts suggest her answer to the second:

The political theory born from Rawls’s interpretation of postwar liberalism was flexible: it started as a minimalist liberalism, but it could be stretched into a justification for liberal socialism. Yet it had a distinctive character, which had consequences for the future shape of political philosophy. It focused on juridical and legislative institutions but assigned a smaller role and less value to other social, political, and international institutions. It was based on a deliberative vision of politics that saw democracy as modeled on discussion. Its distributive framework squeezed out other ways of thinking about the dynamics and organization of economic, social, and political life.

These aspects of Rawls’s vision constrained the kinds of politics it could incorporate or make sense of. As his theory was widely taken up, ideas incompatible with these parameters were set aside or dropped out of mainstream philosophical discourse altogether. Liberal philosophers dispensed with older arguments and concerns—about the nature of the state, political control, collective action, corporate personality, and appeals to history. Their conceptual choices often had political implications, regardless of the political motivations of the theorists themselves, who sometimes became trapped in conceptual structures of their own collective making. As subsequent generations built on the arguments of their forebears, a philosophical paradigm took on a political shape that none of its discrete theorists might have intended. It had its own logic and its own politics, which helped determine what ethical and political problems would count as sufficiently puzzling to warrant philosophical concern.

For example, liberal egalitarians tended to insist that what mattered were institutional solutions to current inequalities; past injustices weren’t relevant, and arguments that relied on historical claims were rejected. That meant that demands for reparations for slavery and other historical injustices made by Black Power and anti-colonial campaigns in the late 1960s and 1970s were rejected too. It also meant that political philosophers in the Rawlsian strain often read later objections to the universalist presumptions of American liberalism as identitarian challenges to equality, rather than as critiques informed by the history of imperialism and decolonization.

As the concerns of philosophers were consolidated, facility with Rawlsianism became the price of admission into the elite institutions of political philosophy. Many on the margins saw that it was only by adopting the form of liberal egalitarianism or its mainstream alternatives that other ideas—Marxian, feminist, critical race, anticolonial, or otherwise—could be considered. Just as often, rival political visions or arguments were not rejected outright, but accommodated within the liberal egalitarian paradigm—often in a way that diffused their force. When marginalized ideas were taken up by liberal philosophers, they were frequently distorted to cohere with the larger paradigm… The very capaciousness of liberal philosophy squeezed out possibilities for radical critique.

You can read the whole essay here.

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