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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Untenured Ethicist
Untenured Ethicist
1 year ago

This is malarkey. Forrester misreads Rawls’s theory as a little-c conservative defense of late 1960s welfare state capitalism, rather than as the radical demand for change that it was and is.

At the time A Theory of Justice was published, the United States might have approximately satisfied Rawls’s first principle. (Buckley v. Valeo, which undermined the fair value of the political liberties, was decided five years later.) The U.S. has never come close to satisfying Rawls’s second principle. Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity demands national funding of primary and secondary schools, rather than local funding that makes schools unequal. It also requires deep changes to the way universities are funded and the way they admit students. Fair equality of opportunity has radical implications for other areas of policy, e.g. health care and public health. We haven’t even gotten to the difference principle.

The form of liberalism that has failed is Milton Friedman’s. Rawlsian liberalism has not failed. In the United States, it has never been tried. It would be absurd to blame Rawls or Rawlsians for their failure to win elections. In a political environment profoundly shaped by racism and by the influence of the unjustly rich (especially since Buckley), the moral soundness of a political theory is largely irrelevant to its political success.

If we would like to try Rawlsian liberalism in the United States, there are two approximately Rawlsian candidates on the ballot in the 2020 Democratic primary.Report

Aaron Lercher
Aaron Lercher
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
1 year ago

I think that an easy way of arguing for a more radical Rawls is via property rights. Rawls does not really discuss property rights. But a Rawlsian account of property rights would have to be that property rights are very much conventional and subject to redistribution.

Rawls’s omission of any detailed discussion of property rights can perhaps be attributed to his focus on refuting utilitarianism in “Theory,” and then his later focus on pluralism.

William Edmunson’s “Reticent Socialist” book is another route to a more radical Rawls, in line with a concept of socialism as a cooperative division of labor. Edmunson’s argument is based on the superiority of socialism with respect to the kind of stability Rawls argued for. Report

Josh Turkewitz
Josh Turkewitz
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
1 year ago

It does seem like people are all too willing to conflate liberalism as a political philosophy and (neo)liberalism as an economic philosophy.Report

Docfe
Docfe
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
1 year ago

Could not agree more. Apparently since 1980 conservative and neoconservative ideology HASN’T been predominant?????Report

Political Philosopher
Political Philosopher
1 year ago

Three points:

(1) The happiest and most stable societies on the face of the earth are (far and away) ones that most closely approximate Rawls’ principles of justice: http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/FREEDOM.HAPPINESS.JPG

(2) Rawlsian theorists working in nonideal theory have developed tools for addressing the kinds of issues (historical injustice, etc.) mentioned here within a liberal framework.

(3) I think it is an exaggeration that liberalism simpliciter is failing. Rather, I think it is more accurate to say that a particular technocratic type of liberalism is failing. And I think it is right to chalk that up in part to political philosophy’s (and Rawlsianism’s) historically-excessive focus on ideal theory. But these errors are errors within liberal theory, ones that liberal political philosophers are now working hard to correct.Report

Another Untenured Ethicist
Another Untenured Ethicist
Reply to  Political Philosopher
1 year ago

With respect to 1: with respect to happiness, is that something Rawls could actually say in defense of himself? Genuine question. I suspect it would be awkward for him to do so, given his vehement anti-Welfarism, but I am also not a Rawls scholar, and am more familiar with TJ than anything else.

With respect to 3: I do think it’s unclear how to appropriately judge what is or isn’t failing here, especially given that (as Untenured Ethicist writes above) it is not clear whether Rawlsianism has ever really been tried. However, I do think that the present moment reflects very badly on one of Rawls’ big argumentative claims in TJ, namely, that there is an already-widely-shared idea of free and equal citizenship that it is clear enough to contain his own theory of Justice within it. Rawls beats up his consequentialist foes by claiming a justificatory asymmetry between the right and the good, where it is the latter, and not the former, which is subject to irresolvable disagreements due to the burdens of judgment. That struck me as a very ambitious claim when I first read it in grad school. After all, at the time I was sitting in a seminar full of relative specialists who nonetheless could not agree among themselves what, precisely, Rawls was saying about the right let alone whether it was correct or what followed from it–discerning the right, no less than the good, seemed pretty subject to intractable reasonable disagreements. And similarly, it does seem reasonable to me to argue that the present state of political discourse is one which makes the falsity of any deep consensus on the right more obvious than ever.

Then again, as before I am not a Rawls specialist, and so I have no idea how important these argumentative moves were in his later work, or in the work of political liberals who followed him (e.g. the extent to which “public reason” liberals are committed to similar implausible claims to the effect that the content of public reason is exempt from the burdens of judgment or intractable reasonable disagreements).Report

Political Philosopher
Political Philosopher
Reply to  Another Untenured Ethicist
1 year ago

With respect to (1): see all of Part Three of TOJ, where Rawls gives a theory of the *goodness* of justice in terms of rationality, happiness, and stability. In brief, he suggests we are happy when we can pursue our ends effectively; that a well-ordered society puts us in a position to do just that (viz. equitable distribution of primary goods); and that a well-ordered society will be stable for roughly these reasons (because people in a well-ordered society are in a position to pursue their ends effectively).

With respect to (3): sure, Rawlsianism has not been tried simpliciter. But it has been more closely approximated in some places rather than others. And where it has been more closely approximated, we see roughly what Rawls argues in Part Three of TOJ: comparative happiness and stability.Report

Tristan J. Rogers
Reply to  Political Philosopher
1 year ago

Part Three of TOJ is also the only part of Rawls’s view that he rejects in Political Liberalism for reasons having to do with the fact of reasonable pluralism and its consequences for stability. Later Rawls realized that a consensus on a set of principles of justice was probably also implausible given the fact of reasonable pluralism, leading him to settle for “a family of liberal views”.

It seems to me Rawls’s concerns about pluralism go to the heart of liberalism’s current predicament, where citizens are not just divided on questions of the good and justice, but fundamentally on different ways of viewing the social world. While it may have been plausible for Rawls to seek consensus on “a family of liberal views,” in the 80s and 90s, given the political status quo of the time, can anybody honestly believe that now? Excessive focus on distributive justice issues overlooks this deeper issue about stability and disagreement, which just further underscore the issues Forrester raises. Report

Dennis Whitcomb
1 year ago

I agree with Untenured Ethicist: Rawls’ theory, at least in Theory of Justice, is radically progressive in a way this article doesn’t appreciate. Among other things, fair equality of opportunity would require gigantic changes to the structure of American society – which, by the way, Rawls thought was “riddled with grave injustices”. When I have discussed Rawls with political theorists (not political philosophers), they have frequently similarly failed to appreciate these points. Rawls gets made into the bad guy in ways he doesn’t deserve. (Which of course isn’t to say that TOJ is free of problems.) Report

Aaron Lercher
Aaron Lercher
1 year ago

Espindola and Vaca in, “The Problem of Historical Rectification for Rawlsian Theory,” (2014) find that failures of rectification are consistent with Rawlsian theory, but Rawls’s theory can be built on to include a principle of rectificatory justice.
DOI 10.1007/s11158-014-9244-zReport

ajkreider
ajkreider
1 year ago

For discussion of the current and historical challenges facing liberalism (and its defense), I can’t recommend highly enough Schliesser’s blog, Digressions & Impressions.Report

Louis
1 year ago

I think A Theory of Justice was not intended to be, and should not be read primarily as, a defense or justification of then-existing mid-20th century welfare states and liberal democracies (whether say in W. Europe or the less generous welfare state in the U.S.). As Untenured Ethicist remarks, the U.S. when TJ was published (1971), did not satisfy Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity (or the difference principle).

On the other hand, Rawls was developing his ideas from the ’50s through the late ’60s in a context where he could, at least arguably, assume that some existing polities were moving, albeit slowly and haltingly and imperfectly, in the general direction of coming closer to satisfying the requirements of a ‘well-ordered society’. And this context probably influenced, if not his theory as a whole, then at least the choice of targets in TJ: i.e., he spends a lot of time criticizing utilitarianism but much less time criticizing market fundamentalism (“neoliberalism”) because it hadn’t yet emerged in the way that it did from c.1980 on.

So even when it comes to ideal theory, the historical/political context does matter, and to that extent it’s not nuts to suggest, as Forrester seems to be doing, that a different political context may require a somewhat different kind of theorizing. But that may involve keeping certain aspects of Rawls and combining them with other approaches or with what Forrester in this excerpt from her book calls “older arguments and concerns.” Of course without having read Forrester’s book I can’t judge how successfully she makes this case, and I think it’s probably unfair to judge the book on the basis of this excerpt in Boston Review. Report

Rawlsian
Rawlsian
1 year ago

Fields of inquiry will be governed by paradigms, which shape the questions posed, the methodologies for evaluating answers, etc. Why shouldn’t Rawlsian liberalism have played this role in academic philosophy in the 1970s-1980s? Forrester discusses at least two reasons:

“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.”

I assume the author means that the demands for reparations were rejected by Rawlsian liberals. But is this right? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Rawlsians didn’t reject arguments for reparations. Rather, they mostly ignored the question.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/black-reparations/

Moreover, it’s unclear what Rawls’ theory implies regarding reparations. The only two articles I’ve found that directly address the question claim that Rawls’ theory actually supports the case for reparations:

https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1082&context=mjrl
https://philpapers.org/rec/WALRSA-8

“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.”

Again, this is just how social inquiry functions: it’s organized around a paradigm. Do these examples suggest that liberal egalitarianism was the wrong paradigm? Not to me. Consider Marxism. If there were Marxists who “adopted the form” of liberal egalitarianism they were presumably the “analytical Marxists” G. A. Cohen, Jon Elster, and Jon Roemer. (If they didn’t adopt this form, then I think Forrester’s claim about Marxists doing so is false.) In my judgment, the clarity and rigor of these thinkers make them far preferable to any of their non-analytical Marxist contemporaries, such as Frederic Jameson. I think similar cases can be made in regards to the other areas mentioned: I’ll take Tommy Shelby over Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Susan Moller Okin over Judith Butler any day. And I prefer Susan Moller Okin to Judith Butler. I don’t mean to say that my preferences here should be uncontroversial and shouldn’t, in the relevant context, be argued for. My point is only that it’s not a bad thing, in and of itself, for liberal egalitarianism to affect what gets discussed. That’s only a bad thing if it does a bad job encouraging discussion of good ideas or discouraging discussion of bad ideas. It seems to me Forrester hasn’t tried to make the case that liberal egalitarianism did this.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Rawlsian
1 year ago

I don’t think it’s obvious that fields of inquiry are “governed by paradigms”. But even if they are, surely it’s the case that they can be governed by them too much. And that sees to be part of what Forrester is saying — e.g. “price of admission”, and all that. Additionally, I don’t see why Forrester or anyone else would need to show that Marxism, feminism, or more right-wing views for that matter are “good ideas” in order to establish that they should not have to assimilate to liberal egalitarianism or else face exclusion. That they might, for all we know, contain a grain of truth or even insight should be enough. Heck, even if they are certainly intellectually worthless, I think we should take care not to marginalize them so that the discipline does not become clubby, such that it acts as a magnet for clubbily-inclined people.Report

Rawlsian
Rawlsian
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
1 year ago

“Surely it’s the case that [fields of inquiry] can be governed by them too much. And that sees to be part of what Forrester is saying — e.g. “price of admission”, and all that.”

That a paradigm imposes a “price of admission” doesn’t mean it’s governing too much. For that to be the case, it’s price would have to be too high. That’s kind of my point. Forrester points out that there was a price but not that it was too high in the sense of being deleterious to inquiry. My examples are supposed to illustrate this. We can see in the examples that there was a price but the claim that it was too high needs to be argued for.

‘Additionally, I don’t see why Forrester or anyone else would need to show that Marxism, feminism, or more right-wing views for that matter are “good ideas” in order to establish that they should not have to assimilate to liberal egalitarianism or else face exclusion.’

I wonder if we’re talking past each other as I have in mind implicit institutional rules whereas your argument here seems to me to get the most traction when considering the actions or attitudes of individual researchers.

It seems to me that there are benefits to having a to-some-degree dominant paradigm (or having a leading research program or…). There are benefits to researchers sharing concerns and assumptions and addressing common questions–to implicitly accepting certain rules of the game. And there are also, of course, costs–some ideas get excluded.

I would think there’s a sweet spot where the discipline is governed by rules just enough but not too much.

So I don’t think it’s obvious that there should be no expectation that the views at a given point in time assimilate to the dominant paradigm or disciplinary rules or else face exclusion. This isn’t necessarily because the views are bad and deserve to be excluded. It’s the price of an overall beneficial rule.

When it comes to individual researchers’ attitudes towards ideas outside the dominant set of rules, I think open-mindedness is a virtue that it’s very hard to take to excess. So yes, Marxists et. al shouldn’t have to assimilate in order to have me give them a fair hearing. (Or at least, if Marxism hadn’t already failed as a research program this would be the case.) Report

Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Rawlsian
1 year ago

I don’t want to get hung up on the connotations of “price of admission”. I think we’re in agreement that inquiry may be over-governed. As to whether Forrester establishes this in the case of late-20th Century political philosophy — I haven’t read her book, but yeah, I’m inclined to think she’s basically right. I think we can prescind from the merits of Marxism, feminism, et al. QUITE considerably, while still safely saying that it’s not optimal when these views can’t be so much as *considered* on their own terms at the cadre of elite departments in this area.

I suspect our disagreement may be rooted in the extent to which, in political philosophy, “there are benefits to researchers sharing concerns and assumptions and addressing common questions–to implicitly accepting certain rules of the game”, and the extent to which we need a dominant paradigm to achieve these benefits. My picture of ideal inquiry in normative theory is, I guess you could say, more anti-social, and I don’t see how there’s any upside, really, to having a hegemon rather than a bunch of “intellectual city-states”, if you will — at least not if the hegemon’s power is owed to anything other than the force of the better argument. Forrester believes that there are indeed other forces at play here, and again, I think she’s right.Report

Matt
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
1 year ago

I think we can prescind from the merits of Marxism, feminism, et al. QUITE considerably, while still safely saying that it’s not optimal when these views can’t be so much as *considered* on their own terms at the cadre of elite departments in this area.

The idea that Maxism, feminism, etc. couldn’t be “so much as considered on their own terms” in elite departments during this period seems to be pretty clearly false. I mean, G.A. Cohen was at University College London and then held a chair at Oxford. Allan Wood and Richard Miller were at Cornell. Allen Buchanan was at Arizona and other top places. Andrew Levin was at Wisconsin, Robert Paul Wolff and Columbia and then U Mass. Raymond Geuss was at Princeton, Columbia, and Cambridge. Nancy Frasier was at Northwestern, Claudia Card at Wisconsin. Etc. All of these people published books with top presses and articles in top journals. It seems to me that “radical” views were given a pretty fair hearing, and if they didn’t get more up-take, perhaps that was on the merits. But in any case, it’s just false that they were excluded or prevented from being considered – either then or now. Report

Louis
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

Part of the issue or problem here may turn on what Forrester means when she says that other views often had to “adopt the form” of liberal egalitarianism to get a hearing. She could mean they had to adopt a more “analytical” idiom than they otherwise might have, or that they had to address certain questions, or perhaps (?) could mean something else.

But as someone who has admittedly followed political philosophy only casually and as an outsider to the field, it seems to me that Rawls did set the agenda, or part of it anyway, for a lot of people including those who disagreed with him. G.A. Cohen didn’t agree with Rawls but he certainly engaged a lot with him (and with Nozick too, but my impression is that he engaged more with Rawls). Would Cohen’s work have gotten as much attention if he hadn’t engaged with Rawls at all? I tend to doubt it, even though Cohen’s first book on Marx’s theory of history did get quite a lot of attention at least in some quarters. This is not to say radical ideas were “excluded,” but it does suggest that at least some radicals had to show they could go head-to-head with Rawls in order to get a wide hearing. I’m not sure whether that was a bad thing, but I do suspect it was the case. Another separate question has to do with somewhat different disciplinary tendencies in political philosophy versus normative political theory (as a subfield of political science). Forrester mentions this in the book’s epilogue (accessed via Amazon’s ‘look inside’) and maybe elsewhere in the book too. Report

Matt
Reply to  Louis
1 year ago

I don’t completely disagree, but think this does understate the impact that Cohen’s book on Marx had, and over-states the “need” to engage with Rawls. (Cohen’s first book doesn’t talk about Rawls at all, and he only really engages with him fairly late in his career. Cohen spent much more time on Nozick, because he thought Nozick’s ideas were a more direct challenge to his own views.) Philosophy and Public Affairs (often wrongly parodied as the “journal of Rawls studies”) published enough papers on Marx in the late 70s and early 80s that they re-printed a good number of them as a book. Rawls is hardly mentioned in those papers. (Oddly, the only one that mentions Rawls more than once or twice is Jeffrie Murphy’s paper on Marx and retributive justice. That’s odd, because Rawls didn’t have much to say about retributive justice.) So, I’m pretty happy to stick with my claim that that the idea that “radical” voices were excluded is false, and to think that it’s at least as plausible, if not more so, that these views were given a hearing and rejected (for good or ill) on the merits.

If you move outside of philosophy proper, I don’t think the claim is any more plausible – lots of “radical” thinkers held prestigious positions at top departments in political science and law. (In law, “critical legal studies” was a big deal for a while, with lots of people appointed at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Georgetown, etc. The big issue was that most of this work was bad.) They published books with top presses and articles in top journals. The idea that people were “excluded” just doesn’t seem to stand up to any real evaluation to me. Report

Rawlsian
Rawlsian
Reply to  Louis
1 year ago

“I suspect our disagreement may be rooted in the extent to which, in political philosophy, “there are benefits to researchers sharing concerns and assumptions and addressing common questions–to implicitly accepting certain rules of the game”, and the extent to which we need a dominant paradigm to achieve these benefits.”

It sounds like it’s partly that and partly our sense of how much exclusion occurred in the 70s and 80s and whether it was justified. I’m inclined to agree with Matt in regards to various versions of Marxism: it was largely rejected on its merits.

Let’s be concrete. The labor theory of value is absolutely central to Marx’s own thought. Its abandonment marks an important division between different schools of Marxism. The way orthodox Marxists use this theory (for example, to predict that wages will, in the long run, fall to bare subsistence levels) is irrational and is, therefore, a proper ground for excluding large swathes of Marxist thought.

Then there’s Marxism-Leninism, which essentially involves a commitment to central economic planning and to a single-party political system. Good for liberal-egalitarianism for excluding this stuff.

A slightly more controversial (though in my view equally obvious) example is the various theories of “neo-colonialism” (e.g., dependency theory) that were influential in some left-leaning economics departments and, more commonly, in history, English, film, and continental philosophy departments. The central prediction that gave these theories their import was that the advanced capitalist economies’ exploitation of poorer countries, though things like free trade arrangements, would inhibit the latter’s development and/or further impoverish them. The humanities haven’t fully digested this fact yet, but this prediction has been even more disconfirmed than Marx’s prediction about wages in the long-run under capitalism. In fact, international trade has been a major contributor to economic growth and improved living conditions exactly where the dependency theorists et. al thought it would have the opposite effect (India, many African countries, the Asian tigers, Eastern Europe, etc.).

I would suggest that these fundamental and decisive flaws in various schools of Marxism were the reasons they didn’t play much of a role in 70s political philosophy. This is why I deny that examples like that of Marxism show that liberal egalitarianism imposed too high a price of inclusion. The case of Marxism shows, primarily, that the liberal egalitarian paradigm excluded outdated, poorly formulated, and empirically disconfirmed theories. And that’s a good thing! Surely we don’t want to devote resources to academic “city states” that are unwilling to pay this minimal price?Report

Tristan J. Rogers
1 year ago

Forrester writes: “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.”

It’s not just that post-Rawls political philosophers have been preoccupied with a particular answer to Plato’s question about justice. They have been preoccupied with a narrow interpretation of the question itself, namely, “what does justice institutionally require?” But Plato and other ancient philosophers were also interested in justice as a virtue of character, an issue that is conspicuously absent in Rawlsian political philosophy and is very much part of the story of the failure of liberalism that Forrester mentions. Report

Louis
1 year ago

@Rawlsian

Dependency theory (or parts of it at any rate) was empirically *confirmed* by what was happening with international trade in the 1950s and 1960s: i.e., the terms of trade for poor countries were generally declining (that is, prices of their exports were falling relative to prices of their imports from the richer countries). The picture is now somewhat different, but dependency theory got some things right for a while. And dependency theory is not hurt by the fact that the international economy today, while narrowing (some) between-country per capita income/wealth gaps, has increased *within-country* inequalities, and that definitely goes for India and China among other places. Dependency theory was wrong about some things, right about others. (Ditto for Marxism more generally, I think, but no point getting into that here.)Report

Louis
1 year ago

@Rawlsian
One other thing: Marx says (in Capital v.1) that the meaning of “subsistence” changes over time as societal standards change. So while *some* Marxists might have predicted that wages will fall to “bare subsistence levels,” it is misleading, at best, to say that Marx himself predicted that without adding the qualification about the changing meaning of “subsistence.”Report