Knowing the enemy?
In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy
Liberalism! The great empty hole in many radicals’ understanding of the political spectrum. In many respects, we treat it like a fact of life, like the weather, but also as something ephemeral, something that will just go away as soon as the real shit, the facts, the structural realities, assert themselves and force everyone to choose their path — right or left, reaction or revolution, fascist or socialist. I’m often enough guilty of it myself. And so we’re left with radicals handwaving liberalism away as a half-measure; reactionaries basically chalking it up to “cultural Marxism” or something; and, of course, liberals’ own accounting for themselves.
But there’s more to it than that, obviously, and I think it benefits radicals to develop more nuanced (not necessarily positive!) understandings of liberalism and its history. It seems that more critical leftists have been answering the call of late, and one such is Katrina Forrester, who wrote this top-notch history of John Rawls’s epochal A Theory of Justice and its reception since its publication in 1971. It’s just the sort of toothsome intellectual history I love to make a real meal out of — the sort of thing that brings out the gourmand in me.
I read A Theory of Justice long ago and I’ll be damned if I remember much of it beyond the “original position” — that is, in a situation where no one knows what life circumstances they’re going to encounter, people would build a society that prioritized insulation from circumstance — bad luck, mistakes, etc. To this end, everyone should get the same rights, and any inequalities should be arranged to favor the least advantaged. This, I guess, was Rawls’s idea of justice. It’s precisely that sort of unmoored thought experiment that makes me recoil from most analytical philosophy (their attempts at math don’t help), even when I don’t disagree, even when I can grant such experiments help some people. Like chess, algebra and many forms of jazz, it’s a level of abstraction that I have difficulty hanging with and feel antagonistic towards in ways I can’t quite help.
Maybe one of the reasons I like this book so much is that it takes us into the worlds of analytical philosophy in the last half of the twentieth century, but at a level of abstraction — that of critical history — that I understand. This is my happy place. Rawls, Forrester informs us, worked on A Theory of Justice for a solid decade. He was an indefatigable student, engaging with pretty much every form of analytical philosophy and liberal political thought then available, trying things out for the big unifying theory he had in mind, taking bits from here and there — game theorists, utilitarians, moral philosophy, social democracy, antitotalitarianism, etc. Forrester takes us through these worlds and the priorities Rawls inherited from them, and the priorities his readers would soon apply to A Theory of Justice once it came out, lead among them the quandaries of the Vietnam War.1
Among other key bits of context, political philosophy — understood here, I think, as the application of philosophical ideas to political debates (whereas political theory, in this telling, seems to entail either the creation of new constellations of political ideas or the political critique of other ideas like gender, race, etc.) — was more or less dead in the water during the Cold War before Rawls almost single-handedly revived it. There was social science and philosophy, mostly separate, and there were polemics and political movements, but the idea philosophers had something distinct and decisive to say about politics had gone out of fashion, a casualty of the rise of the social sciences (and maybe a little of liberal antitotalitarianism, which often held that politics and abstract ideas shouldn’t mix). Post-Rawls, political philosophy made a big comeback. If I read Forrester right, it was a classic right-person-at-the-right-time scenario. Rawls’s theory — big, ambitious, clearly stated but with enough wiggle room to provide good openings for interlocutors — came at a time when the Cold War consensus across the liberal spectrum, from political parties to academic departments, was looking stale and was under attack from the left and the right. Rawls didn’t single-handedly win the fight for his vision, but he did determine the battlefield: that of political philosophy.
Notionally, right and left both felt the impact from this sally of what we could call the center or liberal left. Both reacted in the field of political philosophy. But they reacted in different ways, and the blows had markedly different impacts on both . . . or maybe just the contexts made the blows feel different . . . The point is, Forrester illustrates that throughout the rest of the twentieth century and beyond, political philosophers of all stripes were doing things Rawls’s way even when they rejected his conclusions and that many other discursive actors — policymakers, politicians, academics in other fields — also got sucked into the political philosophy orbit Rawls made a hot neighborhood.
But different sorts of players could adapt differently. To put it simply, the right, especially rising free-market libertarians like Rawls’s cothinker-turned-nemesis Robert Nozick, could more easily turn Rawls’s premises and operating methods — especially, to be blunt, the kind of bullshit thought games Rawls used — to their ends than could leftists, especially Marxists. Leftists who tried to play the game the Rawlsian way by and large found themselves abandoning traditional areas of strength — like a real political theory, a concept of change and an analysis of power, in their case rooted in the working class — in favor of various zeitgeisty flighty concepts (a focus on methods like direct democracy is one prominent culprit) that haven’t helped much.
That’s the real way in which the retreat to the academy has harmed the left, by the way. Not appreciating the importance of difference, the way anti-woke left critics (invariably academics or other scribblers themselves) will tell you.
In the end, Forrester doesn’t want us to throw Rawls out. I think this is good even if I’m not sure what uses we’re going to put him to. Fortunately, I don’t have to — people better at abstraction can figure it out. Not disregarding him means not making the mistake that a lot of radicals make of disregarding the thought of the opposition, especially opposition that doesn’t mirror our structural thinking (as the far right often does — you can get a lot farther quoting Carl Schmitt in a lot of leftist circles than you can quoting Rawls or any other liberal).
Rawls, as best I can tell, fits my conception of liberalism as existing in the space between revolution and counterrevolution, the basic dynamic of modern history. Liberalism seeks to elide the revolution-counterrevolution dynamic through various techniques and alternative foci for attention and effort, and often has enough power behind it to get people and whole societies going for a while. All that effort does produce insight and techniques worth knowing about — see Foucault’s lament that the left hasn’t got a “governmentality,” an art of governing, but liberals do. Arguably, that’s most of what liberalism is. If we’re going to take and wield power, we might want to pay attention, and, certainly, if we’re going to understand the worlds liberalism has shaped — we need to, as well.
Peter Berard, Ph.D. is a writer, historian and activist in Watertown, Mass. He is San Antonio Review’s Book Review Editor.