Vol 2 No 3 Fall 2018

The Politics of Reticent Socialism

In the last decade of his life, John Rawls, the most influential liberal political philosopher of the twentieth century, insisted that even the most benign form of capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, could not realize the ideal of justice as fairness to the defense of which he had devoted his entire life. This explicit critique of capitalism in the thought of one of the giants of contemporary political thought has been lost on many socialist commentators for whom Rawls’s theory of justice is no more than a series of, at best, overly moralized, at worst, ideologically driven, speculations with little to offer by way of direction to the real movement that abolishes the current state of things.

This is unfortunate, for two reasons. Firstly, because given the extent to which Rawls’s thought and related Rawlsian analysis have dominated the last half-century of Anglo-American political theory, any credible attempt to construct an alternative intellectual hegemony would at least have to avoid giving the impression that it is ill-informed about what rival liberal egalitarians actually write. But secondly, and more importantly, because in our efforts to update socialism for the challenges of the twenty-first century, it pays to begin with the points on which overlap between left-liberal and Marxist-oriented thinking is uncontroversial so as to carve the space for more critical engagement on the issues in which they are clearly at odds. For while there are important affinities when it comes to the demands of morality and justice in ideal circumstances, there are also significant differences when it comes to addressing the question of how to theorize the political transition to a condition of ideal justice. The latter is a topic on which mainstream political theory is surprisingly silent. Yet only if we appreciate how liberal egalitarianism is not only compatible with but requires socialist institutions, can we develop a critique of political liberalism that is radical, plausible, and appropriately nuanced.

For many, these observations are likely to raise eyebrows from the start. Mutual suspicion goes back a long way, not just to the political debates about “their morals and ours” but also to philosophical questions about the extent to which the Marxian critique of capitalism is about justice at all, to sociological analyses of the relation between individualism and holism in discussions between agency and structure, and to historical questions about the continuity between Enlightenment ideals of rationality and Marxist thought. But one can also choose to start elsewhere. Between them, Rawls and his followers pretty much exhaust all interesting theoretical developments in Anglo-American political theory for the last fifty years. Their endorsement of socialist ideas in connection to explicitly liberal accounts of justice should be cause for celebration rather than, as seems to be the trend, fuelling further suspicion. So how to explain the reticence? What sort of socialism is at stake here? What can we learn from the liberal egalitarian endorsement of socialism? And what does it leave out?

The following pages seek to address some of these questions more in the spirit of opening a constructive debate about the merits and limitations of liberal interpretations of socialism than by offering any settled conclusions on the matter. Still, there is one general claim that I want to make towards the end. While socialism is often presented and defended as an attractive idea by current left-liberal egalitarians, it really is no more than that — an attractive moral ideal for the pursuit of which only liberal democratic institutions and norms are invoked. But that is precisely where we have to dig deeper. In the world that we have, egalitarian justice cannot be delivered by liberal institutions, and thinking morally about a just society cannot be abstracted from thinking politically about it. The question is whether and how to extend the analysis of justice that liberal egalitarians are happy to share with their Marxist counterparts to a critique of the state, the vision of an alternative anticapitalist international order, and the political institutions and movements in charge of realizing those ideals of justice. Yet even getting to that point requires more constructive engagement with liberal egalitarianism and, in that spirit, I shall start with Rawls.

First developed in A Theory of Justice, published in 1971 and then continued with Political Liberalism, John Rawls’s account of justice as fairness specifies an ideal of social cooperation developed from an abstract choice situation that Rawls calls the original position. The thought experiment is the following. Take an idealized society where representatives have to decide about the most appropriate principles for the distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation without knowing particular facts concerning things like their own age, gender, race, income, status, and so on. Participants choosing from behind this “veil of ignorance” would be selecting a conception of justice constrained by the demands of impartiality which, according to Rawls’s theory, leads to the endorsement of two distinct principles. The first is a principle of equal basic liberty: each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all. The second concerns social and economic inequalities: those are only considered acceptable if they are attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Rawls dedicated his entire life to clarifying both the conception of justice as fairness defended in A Theory of Justice, and the principles and institutional arrangements required to further develop it. But by the end of the eighties, he had increasing doubts about the way in which the discussion of the institutional arrangements most appropriate to the ideal of justice as fairness had been conducted up to that point. One thing he wished he had handled differently, as he pointed out in the preface to the revised edition of A Theory, was the distinction between a property-owning democracy and a liberal welfare state. It was “a serious fault” of A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, that in exploring the possible institutional configurations of the ideal of justice as fairness, no sufficient emphasis was placed on the distinction between welfare-state capitalism and alternative property regimes such as property-owning democracy and a democratic socialism.

The main flaw of the liberal welfare state from a Rawlsian perspective is that it is limited to protecting needy citizens from falling below a decent standard of life, for example, by guaranteeing unemployment subsidy or universal health care. But the state is indifferent to the question of who owns what and, relatedly, unable to address the emergence and reproduction of vast inequalities of wealth and power. While consolidating the social and economic standing of a few elites vis-à-vis the vast majority of citizens, such an accumulation of wealth and power corrupts the fair value of political liberties and undermines equal opportunity. To put it in the kind of Marxist language that Rawls did not endorse explicitly but to which he could not object: a liberal welfare state is still rigged by class injustice, it still acts as a vehicle of social oppression.

Rawls was not a political activist by any stretch of the imagination. In his work, he had very little to say directly about the big political issues that animated his country and that divided the world in the years in which his philosophy took shape: imperialism, civil rights, the exploitation of workers, the emancipation of women, and so on. As an undergraduate at Princeton, he had been interested in religion and contemplated studying for the Episcopal priesthood before volunteering to join the army as an infantryman during the Second World War. He later cited the experience of the war as responsible for his crisis of faith in religion and the reason why, once the war was over, he returned to Princeton to pursue a doctorate in philosophy.

Between 1952 and 1953, Rawls spent the academic year as a Fulbright fellow in Oxford where he developed the methodological foundations of A Theory of Justice, in the company of socialists such as Stuart Hampshire and j.o. Urmson as well as liberals such as Isaiah Berlin. Those were months of fervent political debate within the British left, a debate which was essentially about issues of property distribution and the implications of socialists’ commitment to common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, as required by Clause iv of the constitution of the Labour Party. After coming to power under Clement Attlee in 1945 and implementing a radical program of nationalization of the major British industries, the Labour Party had suffered its first electoral defeat in 1951. Moderates within the party interpreted the loss of power as a sign that the British public was wary of such a radical program of nationalization and blamed it on Clause iv. It was in this context that James Meade, a “revisionist” economist close to Attlee, adopted the term “property-owning democracy” (first coined by Tory mp Noel Skelton in the 1920s) to refer to a series of proposals required to move beyond the limitations of the traditional welfare state so as to prevent the emergence of vast disparities of wealth resulting from the unequal distribution of property.1

The measures advocated by Meade were designed to complement the nationalization program which formed the policy core of the Labour Party with a series of policies supporting the diffusion and gradual equalization of property at the level of capital owned rather than earned. These included both proposals that encouraged the accumulation of property by those who had none, and proposals that discouraged the dispersal of fortunes by those traditionally wealthy. Serious state-funded investment on education at all levels and measures promoting employee-share schemes fell under the first rubric; taxes on inheritance and gifts fell under the second one. It was a clever move intended to appropriate an ideal that conservatives had initially found appealing by showing that there was little to fear by the kind of parliamentary socialism advocated by the Labour Party. Left egalitarians did not have to choose between individual freedom and collective democratic control. Through the idea of property-owning democracy, the more radical demand for nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy, to use Lenin’s apt phrase, could go hand in hand with the bourgeois recognition of the centrality of individual holdings (provided they were equally distributed).

Rawls’s interest in socialist thought was at best theoretical; his exposure to socialist politics was at most indirect. The British debates around Clause iv and property distribution almost certainly reached him during his time in Oxford — they would have been the topic of many a high table conversation at Christ Church College. But references to real-world politics in Rawls’s writings are scarce, and no mention is made of the politics of postwar Europe (except for the one passage in which he cites the British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats as examples of attempts to realize a liberal socialist regime). Yet, while the politics of property-owning democracy left him relatively indifferent, Rawls was clearly interested in its potential as an institutional ideal and, indeed, credits the same James Meade that advised Labour on property-owning democracy with having influenced his own thinking on the topic.2

For Rawls, who is inspired by Meade, property-owning democracy realizes an account of justice as fairness which embodies a societal ideal of reciprocity that presents a credible alternative to welfare-state capitalism. Unlike welfare-state capitalism it allows all citizens to have a share in capital and land sufficient to prevent the formation of small concentrations of wealth and power. It is, therefore, less vulnerable to the emergence of dependency on welfare benefit and seems attractive as a measure that seeks to prevent the emergence of social inequality rather than countering its undesirable effects, in other words, a pre-distributive rather than redistributive measure. Indeed, property-owning democracy helps to prevent the concentration of wealth and power by giving citizens equal productive assets and human capital (i.e., education and training) before they become vulnerable and in need of state subsidy in the form of, say, medical care or compensation for unemployment.

For Rawls then, the difference between reciprocity-enhancing forms of cooperation such as property-owning democracy and liberal socialism, on the one hand, and capitalism, on the other, boils down to a question about who has what, and about the final shape of the public system of rules that determines the distribution of property. It is, in essence, a distributive question, although not one that is indifferent to how what is distributed gets produced and to how decisions about what gets produced are ultimately made. The reason capitalism, even in the most benign form of welfare-state capitalism, fails to adequately promote the two principles of justice is that it permits a small class of property-holders to have a near-monopoly of the means of production thereby perverting both the economic and the political institutions of a well-ordered society.

Rawls was of course thoroughly familiar with Marx and was sufficiently sensitive to the Marxian critique of bourgeois rights to interpret the requirements of equal basic liberties contained in his first principle in a more demanding way than the classical liberal formulation. He insists that equal political liberties ought to have a “fair” value and he emphasizes that their fair value is reflected in a society in which citizens have a roughly equal chance of occupying public office or influencing governmental policy, regardless of their economic and social class. Yet welfare-state capitalism, Rawls contends, is unable to guarantee this. The kind of socioeconomic inequalities that welfare-state capitalism permits undermine the fair value of political liberties by allowing wealthy citizens to pervert the process of political decision-making by securing for themselves opportunities for shaping the public agenda that are denied or unavailable to their more vulnerable counterparts.

On the other hand, both property-owning democracy and liberal socialism are plausible candidates for institutionalizing the two principles of justice. Both, as Rawls understands them, are incompatible with the existence of class society, a society in which a few wealthy citizens are able to concentrate wealth and power and to direct society as a whole in a way that imposes their particular ends on the rest of society. The difference between them is that while property-owning democracy permits private ownership of the means of production in a limited way, liberal socialism is opposed to it and guarantees each citizen democratic control over the use of socially owned resources.

It is one of the greatest merits of William Edmundson’s analysis in John Rawls: Reticent Socialist to unambiguously bring out Rawls’s profound hostility to a capitalist society characterized by both economic exploitation and political domination, where those with more money and resources can undermine the fair value of political liberties by exerting disproportionate influence on political processes that further entrench their accumulated advantage.3 The Rawls that Edmundson engages with is one that continuously emphasizes how those with more money and power tend to share a self-interested political viewpoint and to form common political allegiances so as to pursue their agenda. He also warns that when this is the case the prospects of parliamentary democracy furthering equal political liberties appear particularly bleak. It is refreshing to see an interpretation of Rawls that finds affinities between him and Marx not just on the question of whether capitalism is exploitative (it is) but also on the implications of capitalist exploitation for the production and reproduction of dominant ideologies, class advantage, and cultural practices that shape the basic structure of society and consolidate particular social advantages.

Edmundson’s analysis proceeds at the same level and from within the same methodological commitments as Rawls’s. It moves through the different stages of the justification procedure laid out in A Theory of Justice and tries to settle the question of which regime type is most appropriate to realize the two principles of justice. His conclusion is that liberal socialism is a superior institutional arrangement compared to property-owning democracy. On this point, the interpretation moves beyond Rawls’s explicit remarks and turns into a work of reconstruction. Indeed, for Rawls himself, the choice between the two regime types could not be settled in the abstract and without considering a society’s historical circumstances, its traditions of thought and practice, and other contingent empirical factors. Since such information only becomes available at the point in which legislative measures designed to protect the principle of fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle are put in place, for Rawls this is a decision that political representatives ought to make in a legislative assembly. But Edmundson argues that more solid guarantees are needed, and that the issue of who controls the means of production should be settled at the constitutional level. If we take seriously the different stages of the process of justification of the ideal of justice as fairness, liberal socialism is a superior model to property-owning democracy because of the way in which it realizes the two principles of justice while also protecting the stability requirements of a well-ordered society. And since the matter is important to avoid the distortion of political processes by the wealthy few, it is crucial to settle the issue of ownership of the commanding heights of the economy in a way that’s immune from the fluctuations of electoral cycles.

The tension between Rawls’s text and Edmundson’s reconstruction becomes very clear on this point. According to Rawls, since both property-owning democracy and liberal socialism have to do with mechanisms for the distribution of property required to safeguard the most vulnerable members of society from the abuses of power by their wealthy counterparts, the choice between the two should be left to the legislative stage where the framework for the basic economic institutions of society is put in place. But in Edmundson’s reading, this cannot be his final position on the matter. Given Rawls’s emphasis on the importance of stability for realizing justice as fairness, the decision between property-owning democracy and liberal socialism cannot be the subject of legislative measures vulnerable to the whims of majority rule. Once information about envy and the psychological limitations to upholding of justice as fairness (such as envy, greed, and attitudes towards risk) come into play, the decision ought to be settled as an essential constitutional matter. Rawls’s theory, so the interpretation goes, requires that “the common ownership of the commanding heights of the economy be constitutionally guaranteed” (121). To assure the fair value of political liberties and the realization of a distributive principle of reciprocity, one has to guarantee that all citizens will have roughly equal political influence and be protected from the political domination of those with more wealth and power whose voices are likely to carry the greatest weight.

Rawls does mention a number of institutional measures intended to both ensure that all citizens have a roughly equal chance of affecting political outcomes and to guarantee their independence from concentrations of private economic and social power (in a property-owning democracy) and of governmental and bureaucratic control (in liberal socialism). Although he does not put much emphasis on the specific content of his proposals, he also provides concrete examples of measures to this effect. They include proposals such as public funding of elections and limits on campaign contributions, more equal access to public media, regulations on the freedom of speech and press, and so on.4 Yet if the question of who controls the means of production remains a legislative question, subject to electoral dispute, it is clear that it will continue to divide citizens, as it did with the United Kingdom after 1945. Capitalists will be able to use their wealth and power to change the balance of forces in legislative institutions, or they will continue to exercise pressure on courts in hope of tweaking judicial review in their favor. In short, the problem of assurance when it comes to establishing robust legislative measures guaranteeing the fair value of political opportunity remains a significant problem and continues to threaten the stability, publicity, and reciprocity of a well-ordered society — desiderata central to Rawls’s theory. It is a problem that can only be resolved, or so Edmundson argues, if the common ownership of the means of production is constitutionally guaranteed. This makes it possible to remove the issue from the day-to-day political agenda and to enable reciprocal cooperation among citizens in a way that meets the stability requirements of Rawls’s theory.

All this is by way of interpretive reconstruction of Rawls’s commitments rather than directly supported by Rawls’s text. Rawls did not defend the superiority of liberal socialism over property-owning democracy from a systematic perspective, nor did he offer a unified argument one could appeal to in making the interpretive claim. For all these reasons, Edmundson argues, “his socialism has to be seen as “guarded,” “muffled,” “reticent,” but nonetheless real.”5

But let us take the most charitable interpretation for granted. Let us suppose that Rawls was or should have been committed to a constitutionally guaranteed form of liberal socialism. What follows from this commitment, even in its reticent form? Rawls’s defense of justice as fairness, including his analysis of the institutional regimes that best realize its two principles, is pitched entirely at the level of what he calls “ideal theory.” For Rawls this is a technical term: it indicates a kind of theory that constructs certain premises and draws certain conclusions by assuming perfect compliance and the motivation of all parties to act in conformity with the principles of justice. His analysis of the original position and the choice of principles of justice under conditions that assume that a society is “well-ordered” and that everyone takes responsibility in upholding just institutions is the paradigmatic case in point. The real world is often not like that, it is affected by injustices of all sorts: gender, race, class, to mention but the most familiar ones. How to deal with these injustices is for Rawls part of what he calls nonideal theory, a theory that develops principles under conditions of partial, as opposed to perfect, compliance, and where both natural limitations and the contingencies of an (often unjust) history play a much greater role. One of Rawls’s examples of this latter case is that of a scenario where votes carry unequal weight or where sections of the population are disenfranchised altogether. Our assessment of the right principles of justice and of the balance of, say, freedom with equality, Rawls insists, needs to take these distortions into account.

Given the gap that exists between ideal and nonideal theory and the conditions under which each is elaborated, it would seem that the more demanding the ideal, the more distant that ideal is from societies as we know them, the heavier the burden to articulate a theory of the transition from where we are to where we ought to be. But if Rawls’s agreement with socialist accounts of justice is real, even if reticent, the gap that separates his understanding of politics, including politics taken from a nonideal perspective, from the socialist tradition of reflection on the topic is enormous, and much more challenging to fill.

For a start, Rawls’s remarks about the transition from nonideal theory to ideal theory are mostly limited to discussing the role of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal in a well-ordered society. A well-ordered society is a society in which the basic structure of social institutions is just, or nearly just. The reason Rawls gives for starting with the simpler cases is that once we are clear on those, they “may help clarify the more difficult problems.”6 Ideal theory, he argues, provides “the only basis for the systematic grasp of these more pressing problems” At least Rawls acknowledges they are more pressing.7 But very little is said on how exactly his orientation is supposed to work, if it works at all. And Edmundson’s book, notwithstanding a final chapter devoted to questions of agency and of political transition, also struggles to bring out the contribution of Rawls’s theory at this point. The requirements of civil disobedience apply only when citizens are already motivated by a public sense of justice, and indeed rely for their effectiveness on a public appeal to a roughly just constitution. A society rigged by class injustice, where the interests of a few wealthy citizens shape the dominant rules of social cooperation, is clearly not a well-ordered society. Indeed, Edmundson reminds us that it is not even a “decent” society like the one Rawls mentions as a contrasting model in one of his later books, The Law of Peoples, to describe the structure of government-oriented by a decent consultation hierarchy. Welfare-state capitalism is what Edmundson calls “a badly ordered society,” and a badly ordered society is one that lacks a just constitution, that lacks reciprocally acceptable criteria that shape its sense of justice, and where the strictures of public reason are inapplicable because the “public” in public reason is never institutionalized.

But there is more. A capitalist society is a badly ordered society, and a badly ordered society has no right to expect obedience — though of course, one might choose to obey for prudential reasons. As Rawls puts it, “to employ the coercive apparatus in order to maintain manifestly unjust institutions is itself a form of illegitimate force that men in due course have a right to resist.”8 Still, resistance is different from what Rawls calls “militant action.” The first, as he emphasizes, characterizes a well-ordered society and can take the form of civil disobedience or conscientious refusal. The second refers to a kind of action that applies when the basic structure is not “nearly just” or “reasonably so” and where compliance with laws has no basis in any existing constitutional ethos. This form of resistance, according to Rawls, paves the way to radical and revolutionary change and is justified “if society is regulated by principles favouring narrow class interests” in ways that “promise some success.”9 Yet the orientation required is different from the one Rawls applies to a well-ordered society and with which he engages in his discussion of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. When it comes to radical opposition to a profoundly unjust society not much is said on how ideal theory is supposed to influence militant action. What are the paths for militant activism in a class-divided society? What kind of ethics should orient such attempts? Are there any existing political institutions available to help on the path to political transformation? What kind of burdens, practical but also epistemic, do individuals have to shoulder in operating within such institutions? Are these burdens evenly distributed? Are the costs of resistance the same for different agents in different social roles? Are they the same for people of different gender, race, and class? Which costs are bearable and by whom? Does the history of their oppression matter? What price is to be paid, to what degree? Should short-term gains in favor of, say, property-owning democracy trump long-term demands supporting liberal socialism?

Rawls pays scant attention to these questions, limiting his contribution to a few lines about the militant activist’s work in consciousness-raising. The means of political change for the activist, he emphasizes, is the attempt “to arouse the public to an awareness of the fundamental reforms that need to be made.”10 Here the reticent socialism of liberal egalitarianism is at its limits. The theory of justice requires ideal theory to take priority in hope that once the ideals are worked out there will be orientation for nonideal circumstances. But as it turns out, nonideal circumstances are also very much ideal and when we turn to the question of how to deal with truly nonideal circumstances the guidance we obtain is limited to a few very basic and rather unqualified remarks about raising public awareness and the likelihood of success.

At this point, one would forgive the impatient Marxist for concluding that this just goes to show that Rawls was wrong all along, wrong to favor ideal theory and the orientation that it promises and wrong to moralize the critique of welfare-state capitalism from the get-go. But that is not the main problem. The main problem is one of consistency in the application of moral standards to matters of political transition. In other words, having appealed to moral theory to settle the question of what principles of cooperation would be the most desirable if we could think about them in an unbiased way, Rawls then abandons the moral inquiry when it comes to the circumstances of a badly ordered society, leaving us in the dark about the ways through which ideal theory is supposed to guide action in the nonideal world. The sharp contrast he draws between the citizen engaged in conscientious refusal and civil disobedience in a nearly just society and the militant activists engaged in a badly ordered one is evidence of that rigidity. In ideal theory the contrast to a society rigged by class injustice, the contrast to the representative of the bourgeois, is the citoyen whose public reason is shaped by the sense of justice of a well-ordered society. But in the case of the unjust society, the contrast is between the bourgeois and the militant activist about whom not much more is said. His hegemonic endeavors receive quite a few favorable mentions but very little orientation.

One might think that it is no great loss to socialist thought if, having correctly diagnosed the limitations of an idealized form of political liberalism in a class-divided society, Rawls has very little to say about class politics and the prospects of socialist transformation. The socialist tradition is itself full of resources devoted to developing an ethics of political activism that, while being critical of the contemporary capitalist state, relies on some of its key institutions, structures, and offices for bringing about a just society. The conversation between democratic centralists and spontaneists on the role of the party and mobilization from below, discussions around the ethics of striking and the virtues and limitations of compromise in trade unions, the role of education in shaping a shared ethos between the oppressed, the function of organic intellectuals and the construction of hegemony, all offer examples of how to elaborate further on Rawls’s insufficiently nuanced discussion of militant activism and its contribution to a theory of transition to the just society. But some of these socialist debates are themselves steeped in the contingent historical circumstances from which they emerged, and the question of how to productively deploy them in formulating a theory of transition to the ideal of the just society shared by both socialists and liberals a-la-Rawls, is no more obvious in the socialist case than it is in the liberal one.

On this matter, a topic that certainly deserves further exploration is the relation between Rawlsian public reason as an acceptable standard of political justification and the standards of public justification formulated and invoked by activists in resisting class injustice. An essential aspect of democratic legitimacy is, for Rawls, the formulation of political proposals grounded on shared reasons rooted in the public political culture of any given society. The question is whether this is an appropriate starting point for a theory of transition, and the challenge is to develop an alternative analysis of public reason that is less reliant on the consent around constitutional fundamentals that existing constitutional orders embody, often for reasons that are historically contingent and problematic.11 This, in turn, requires looking at different sites and ways of formulating public reasons from the ones Rawls is concerned with, including the alternative sites of militant activity with which the Left has traditionally been concerned. Analyzing that relation puts in question the choice of focus and the particular analysis of political institutions on which Rawls grounds his account of justice as fairness, both in A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. It requires, in particular, expanding the analysis of public reason to contexts in which the resources for an appropriate justification of political proposals relevant to a theory of transition are not found in established political institutions and the legal documents and traditions associated with them, but present in alternative sites in which real struggles for justice historically take shape. The task is to develop a parallel history of the learning processes that shape the emergence of public reason in sites of resistance to injustice, therefore telling a story similar to the one that Rawls provides but from the point of view of the oppressed rather than that of consolidated legal institutions. Such an account would go a long way in preserving the benefits of a collective, historically rooted, and constructive analysis of shared political norms while avoiding the bias associated with the reification of the state in its legal forms.

Indeed, in this case, the moral orientation of transitional political action comes from the construction of public reason not as reflected in the institutions that monopolize coercion and reify the stratification of society in the legal form, but from the processes that challenge that consent, from the struggles for emancipation by those who are oppressed by the institutions of the capitalist state. This is, of course, very complicated. A badly ordered society has many sites of contestation, and that not all are valuable is a truth hardly worth mentioning in the days of Steve Bannon and alt-right resurgence. To think that all the activity flowing from all sites of resistance contributes to the construction of public reason simply because it challenges the status quo is morally naive at best, politically dangerous at worst. Yet Rawls never engages with these questions. In the end he is too Hegelian to think of civil society as potentially opposed to, rather than absorbed by, the state. He is also too quick to relegate questions such as these to the realm of political sociology, instead of engaging them as worthwhile topics of political theory. This is also why the issue of how to apply the methodological strictures of the original position to the moral critique of any political form other than that which is shaped by the law or grounded in the constitution is never really addressed in his work.

These efforts at engaging public reason in particular sites typically neglected by liberal egalitarians need not (and should not) dismiss the universalist moral orientation that Marxist approaches share with critical liberal theories, from Rousseau to Hegel and from Kant to Rawls. A moral assessment of politics is necessary to distinguish desirable from less desirable states of affairs, as well as modes of transitional political activity that are more or less conducible to realizing the end goals of justice. Pace Rawls, likelihood of success cannot be the only criterion, if learning from the past is to play any instructive role in thinking critically about the future. And pace many contemporary Marxists, the priority is not to abandon morality altogether by condemning it as a form of empty bourgeois formalism but to show how a socialist political outlook is a more effective form of realization of reciprocal moral relations between human beings than the liberal one.

Liberal public reason, to the extent that it is institutionalized in existing legal forms cannot be decoupled from the historical oppressions of gender, race, and class that are incompatible with the universal moral ideal of the person at the root of much liberal political thinking. The task of socialist theory is not to abandon the terrain of moral critique but to show how the ideal egalitarian society to which many liberals are committed cannot be realized through a set of political institutions that isolate the critique of capitalism from the critique of the capitalist state, including in its liberal welfare form. The critique should, therefore, be directed not only to capitalist economic relations but also to the political forms that sustain them; it requires reflecting not just on the prospects of democratizing economic relations but also bureaucratic hierarchies in the distribution of offices and social positions — a theme that is also absent in much contemporary liberal egalitarian thinking.

Related to these topics, one final and important thought is in order. Taking seriously the reality of capitalism poses not only a problem of institutional site but also of scope for liberal egalitarian theories of justice. As is well known, Rawls’s initial account of justice as fairness is supposed to apply to a well-ordered society that is closed: one enters by birth and exits by death. Rawls is characteristically ambiguous about the extent to which we should associate this description to an idealized version of the nation-state. But in the latter case, and if the two are ever supposed to overlap, the extent to which such a model of society can tame the global pull of capitalist oppression without a significant effort to reflect on the coordination of transnational struggles is very much an open question. If we are to go by anything other than our historical experience, any institutional realization of either property-owning democracy or liberal socialism in isolated societies would require a degree of closure and border coercion that would be unfair to those struggling against capitalism in other parts of the world. It would also be incompatible with the universal moral claims at the heart of both theories. However much workers in one part of the world could achieve in their fight against capital, it would be worth very little if the price to pay were more capitalist exploitation and suffering by fellow-workers in other parts of the world.

A recent wave of global justice theorizing has sought to address these gaps in Rawls’s thought by globalizing his theory of egalitarian justice and extending the requirements of justice as fairness beyond his account of the well-ordered society. But here again, although much needed, the effort has been mainly in the direction of setting up ideal prescriptions for the world as a whole and exploring, at most, how one could democratize existing transnational institutions like the EU, the WTO, or the World Bank so as to increase coordination between states. What egalitarians of the globalist stripe often neglect is the extent to which reform of these institutions that does not engage with the need not just to change them, but to change them in an anticapitalist direction is likely to hinder rather than help. Merely formal changes run the risk of entrenching the class divisions that characterize the capitalist states that we have, at a level that stands even further removed from the political scrutiny of those affected by their injustice. Here again, we need not just ideal theory but also a different theory of transition that reflects on the necessary intermediate steps for transforming international institutions in a liberal socialist direction. Whether and to what extent this is compatible with the liberal egalitarian theory of domestic institutions remains to be seen.

About the Author

Lea Ypi is a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency and, with Jonathan White, The Meaning of Partisanship, both published by Oxford University Press.