Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Misplaced Dislike of John Rawls

There might be some interest -- among my co-bloggers, at any rate -- in this piece from the New Republic Online about John Rawls. Much of it's thrust will be familiar: the charge that Rawls's political theory basically, effectively justifies the status quo, and leads political theorists to retreat from real politics and from thinking about things that would be truly politically useful.
Make of that what you will. There are a few aspects of the article which struck me as particularly odd:
First -- as I hardly need remind the others here -- claiming that Rawls's theory called for 'moderately redistributive capitalism' is pretty arguable. But then the author doesn't seem to shy away from asserting things that are far from well-established.
For instance --second -- the claim that much of the recent eulogizing of Rorty revolved around his 'fidelity' to Rawls. I read a fair amount of that eulogizing (and meant to write something about it -- perhaps another time. Probably not.) I don't remember his 'fidelity' to Rawls playing a prominent, much less a central, part (rather, there was some discussion of the putative differences between Rorty's position and that of other, 'pluralist' liberal thinkers -- primarilly Rawls, but also Berlin).
Rawls is accused of both demanding selflessness, and encouraging selfishness. I like paradox as much as the next person, but I don't see how this works. Actually, I don't see how either claim -- that Rawls's principles of justice demand selflessness, or that his thought encourages selfishness --works.
Rawls is also faulted for trying to present a political theory not based on a metaphysics -- and for the falsity of the metaphysics on which his political theory is based. Now, I'm sympathetic to the criticism that Rawls's theory does smuggle in some assumptions -- but is it really so dominated by a 'metaphysics', is it really no more than the emanation of a metaphysics (and a 'bourgeois' metaphysics, at that)? I'm not convinced.
More importantly, there are some rather interesting, unexamined, largely implicit claims and assumptions about the relationship between political philosophy/theory and political action here. First, Rawls seems to be faulted for contributing to the failure of liberal Democrats to actualise their political visions. Second, and perhaps relatedly (though this isn't made explicit) he is blamed for promoting bad personal qualities -- selfishness and academic escapism. Thirdly, an argument for the superiority of a more teleological form of liberalism (at least, I THINK that's what's being advocated) is advanced by linking it to Bill Clinton's success. Even as a Bill Galston fan, I'm somewhat dubious about the claim that he 'engineered' Clinton's phenomenal (for a Democrat) political success; and I'm not sure how much this had to do with his work in political theory. ('It is not a coincidence', we are told, that Clinton was succesful, and that one of his top domestic policy advisors was a critic of Rawls. Is it not? How does the author know, and why should we believe her? 'It is not a coincidence' -- one of those phrases that should put any intelligent reader on his or her guard.) I don't mean to claim that there was no connection -- Clinton certainly did, in his rhetoric and the vision of politics he presented, embrace many elements of the 'communitarian' trends in political theory. He also appealed a good deal to selfishness, and did little to resist the tide that was making American capitalism even less than moderately redistributionist. So it's a bit odd to fault Rawls for encouraging selfishness and doing little to challenge the status quo -- and then hold up Clinton as one's exemplar.
It's also a bit disappointing, shall we say, having read this assured -- and, it seems to me, sometime contemptuous -- opinion piece on how liberal thought should leave Rawls behind ... to find no substantive suggestions on how to do so, or what to do next. And here I feel rather let down by Linda Hirshman. I've been in 'the senior common room' too long -- I admit it, wholly without irony; whether her charges against Rawls or others are valid or not, she's got my number all right. To do some political good, I should indeed get out of it. But how? I'm too sunk in my academic ways to see the way clearly; but Linda Hirshman, who it appears has been out of the Rawlsian cave and seen the light, surely must know the way. It is no doubt expecting too much of a brief online opinion piece to spell it all out for me, and her other readers. But some guidance beyond learning from Clinton's success, being more concerned with purposes than procedures (but what purposes? How selected and justified? How conceived, and defended, and pursued, and balanced?), would be helpful.
Particularly given that all that Hirshman says has been said many times before -- and often better. This isn't to say that it doesn't still need saying, or shouldn't be said again. Hirshman may be right that it does need saying. But it does seem to me that if one is to say it again -- and hope to have some positive impact -- one should have something new to add, something positive, something concrete ... something convincing. But I don't find any of that here.
Still, I am no doubt being ungrateful. It is good to see an attempt to bring political theory as practiced by academic political theorists and philosophers, and political argument as conducted in the public square -- or at least the somewhat recherche corner of the public square occupied by The New Republic -- together. I'm not sure that the purpose of political theory should be, or that it's effect can be, to directly (or even any more than VERY indirectly) promote desirable political change. But certainly, how our work as political theorists, and our responsibilities and aspirations as citizens, relate, and how we balance and bring these together in our lives, is an important question to ask. It would be interesting to read what Linda Hirshman would have to say about that - more interesting, I suspect, than I found her remarks on Rawls [then why have I written so much on them ...?]

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