[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: There's no justice

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John Gray: There's no justice
The Times Literary Supplement, 1.4.20

    EQUALITY. By Alex Callinicos. 160pp. Oxford: Polity. £40 (paperback,
    £11.99). TLS £38; £11.49. - 0 7456 2324 7

    Spectres at the feast: Rawls and Marx are unwelcome in the new Labour

    It is only during the past thirty years that political philosophy has
    been ruled by the strange idea of a theory of justice. From Aristotle
    onwards, philosophers have tried to find reasons for our judgments
    about justice, but most have believed that when we differ about what
    it demands, it is not a theory that we require. What we need then is
    politics - a practical activity in which history, sentiment and the
    sense of belonging in a common enterprise are at least as important as
    any kind of theoretical reasoning. With the ascendancy of an American
    orthodoxy in which political philosophy is viewed as a branch of
    jurisprudence, however, the centre of gravity of the subject has
    shifted. No longer do philosophers aim to improve the political
    reasoning of ordinary citizens. Instead, they see their task as
    providing a body of principles which can be interpreted by a court. In
    this view, best represented in John Rawls's deeply meditated and
    intricately reasoned, yet supremely parochial and unhistorical book, A
    Theory of Justice (1971), politics is redundant. Philosophers supply
    principles dictating the scope of individual liberty and the
    distribution of social goods; judges apply them. Little if anything of
    importance remains for political decision. Rawls calls his theory
    "political liberalism", but it is more accurately described as a
    species of anti political legalism.

    Rawls's work deserves credit for reviving political philosophy after a
    long period of intellectual neglect, but the effect of the orthodoxy
    he established has been to render the subject politically irrelevant.
    As he originally conceived it, his theory was far from being a purely
    academic exercise. It did not seek merely to demonstrate the cogency
    of a particular view of justice. Its aim was practical: to secure
    public agreement on what justice demands. Its actual result has been
    virtually the opposite. Except in the 1980s, when one or two figures
    in the ill-starred Social Democratic Party briefly flirted with it,
    Rawls's conception of justice has never been taken up by practising
    politicians. On the other hand, it has become the default position of
    philosophers whose political beliefs have been made redundant by

    Though it is no longer an unchallenged orthodoxy, A Theory of Justice
    has an iconic status in contemporary political philosophy. It is
    easily forgotten that, when the book was published, most philosophers
    viewed the very idea of a theory of justice with suspicion. Under the
    influence of Isaiah Berlin and others, they believed - rightly, in my
    view - that the claims of justice are simply too disparate and
    conflicting to be theorized in any very systematic fashion. Rawls's
    work captivated philosophers, because, for a time, it seemed to
    exorcize these sceptical doubts. But its hold over the subject had
    another, less obvious source. It conferred the imprimatur of reason on
    egalitarian values. A distinctive feature of Rawls's work is its
    method of "reflective equilibrium", whereby conceptions of justice are
    tested against intuitive moral responses. The conception of justice
    which emerges when Rawls applies his method treats the resources of
    society, including the individual talents of its members, as
    collective assets, which may be redistributed according to the
    dictates of an ideal of equality. But what is the political relevance
    of this conclusion? True, as with any moral question, one can begin to
    reason about justice only on the basis of one's own intuitive
    judgments. But as John Stuart Mill recognized, the danger of
    intuitionism in philosophy is that it sanctifies conventional opinion.
    Rawls's method treats the egalitarian prejudices of a group of
    Anglo-American philosophers as the touchstone of fairness. But why
    should the intuitions of a few academics have any public legitimacy? A
    Theory of Justice became an icon in the academy, because it allowed
    these awkward questions to go unanswered - and indeed unasked. It
    enabled Rawls and his followers to delude themselves that their work
    was politically significant, when the best that can be said of his
    theory is that it has a certain charm when viewed as a transcendental
    deduction of the Labour Party, circa 1963.

    Alex Callinicos writes in the afterword of Equality: "Egalitarian
    liberalism has, since the appearance of John Rawls's A Theory of
    Justice nearly a generation ago, greatly improved our philosophical
    understanding of the nature of distributive justice." This
    resoundingly commonplace statement does less than justice to the
    exceptional interest of the book. Callinicos distinguishes himself
    from the majority of recent writers by his highly developed awareness
    of the historical and political context of philosophical inquiry. This
    is not surprising, since he takes his intellectual bearings as much
    from Marx as from Rawls. Marx knew that we must understand the origins
    and uses that are made of political ideas if we are to evaluate them
    critically. In accordance with this admirable Marxian precept,
    Callinicos does a good deal more than consider how the idea of
    equality has been discussed among philosophers over the past thirty
    years. He situates that discussion in the history of Europe since the
    seventeenth century, showing how it arises from the fact that, in
    modern societies, no form of power can be self-validating. More
    topically, he considers the uses to which the idea of equality has
    been put by Labour in the last few years, arguing that the ideal of
    equal opportunity advocated by Gordon Brown marks a break with an
    older, more radical and - according to Callinicos -more defensible

    Equality is a topical and provocative book. It is also a deeply
    muddled and politically fatuous book. Like others who have abandoned
    Marxism for the more mundane pieties of Anglo-American liberalism,
    Callinicos succeeds only in combining their worst elements. Nowhere in
    Equality is there anything reminiscent of the sharply realistic
    analysis of social forces prescribed (and intermittently practised) by
    Marx. Quite to the contrary, Marx's blankly utopian project of "an
    efficient and democratic nonmarket form of economic co-ordination" is
    reaffirmed on the book's last page, as if the ruinous history of
    Marxian socialism in the twentieth century had never occurred, or had
    all been a ghastly mistake. (Callinicos does not interpret the Soviet
    collapse as showing the failings of central economic planning. Not a
    bit of it. If anything, he seems to think, it demostrates the risks of
    market socialism.) At the same time, precisely because he has
    relinquished Marx's attempt to link radical ideals of equality with
    the aspirations of large social groups, Callinicos falls in with the
    intuitionist method of recent Rawlsian orthodoxy. As in Rawls, so in
    Callinicos, "principles" are tested for consistency with "our"
    intuitive judgments, and "concepts" are inspected to see how they
    square with what "we" are inclined to say. At no point does Callinicos
    seriously consider how this method connects with the realities and
    possibilities of the present time. To be sure, as Marxists were fond
    of saying when they still imagined history was on their side, this is
    no accident.

    Callinicos cannot link the radical egalitarian ideals he defends with
    the aspirations of any social class. It is not only that no actually
    existing working class anywhere in the world shows the slightest
    interest in them. Worse -for Callinicos - the party that might once
    have been regarded as their political vehicle in Britain has rejected
    them irrevocably. Without a historical agent to which they can be
    attached, Callinicos is reduced to spinning his egalitarian ideals
    from thin air.

    If Equality has an interest lacking in much recent political
    philosophy, it does not come from Callinicos's analysis of equality,
    which is pedestrian in the extreme. It comes from his furious animus
    against Labour, which is angrily castigated as having sold out to the
    capitalist forces of darkness. Gordon Brown's effort to develop a
    conception of equality more suited to the present day is given
    parti-cularly short shrift. Brown - Callinicos fumes - "is a leading
    member of a government that has dedicated itself to avoiding giving
    offence to the rich and privileged . . . . If New Labour does obtain a
    second term, the forces of reaction and privilege will be able to rest
    easy in the know-ledge that they are the masters."

    Here Callinicos voices an uncomprehending indignation frequently found
    among members of an old academic Left who have been left stranded and
    gawping by the political developments of the past twenty-odd years. It
    is not only that Thatcher's early governments finished off old-style
    social democracy in Britain. Worse, the Labour leadership confirmed on
    its return to power that it had shed any commitment to equality as
    that was once understood by R. H. Tawney or even Tony Crosland. The
    party which embodied Rawls's egalitarian intuitions and the remaining
    hopes of the Old Left has ceased to exist.

    This is not to say there are not important con-tinuities between that
    party and the party of Blair and Brown. On the contrary, after nearly
    four years in power, "New Labour" looks in many ways rather like "Old
    Labour". Its positive attitude to public spending and its commitment
    to liberal policies such as legal equality for gays are clear links
    with earlier Labour administrations. But there are two all-important
    differences. Labour now has a secure reputation for economic
    competence, and its re-election depends on retaining the support of
    Tory voters who switched to them in numbers for the first time in
    1997. Changes in Labour thinking reflect these facts. Gordon Brown's
    defence of maximal, comprehensive, lifelong equality of opportunity
    marks a shift with the party's past, but it can be defended by
    reference to parallel shifts in the real world. Plausibly, equal
    opportunity is the version of equality best suited to a society such
    as ours. A fixed pattern cannot be imposed on the distribution of
    goods in society when continuous technological innovation has thrown
    the economy into flux. Nor - and this is a point of the greatest
    importance - is egalitarian redistribution demanded by any widespread
    notion of fairness.

    The difficulties of Brown's conception come not so much with its
    positive content as from what it leaves out. Doing well in the labour
    market can never be the whole of social justice, if only because there
    will always be many people who find themselves outside it. The sick,
    the disabled and the old who are poor are owed resources, whether or
    not they return to the labour market. They are owed help, not in
    virtue of any principle of distribution, but because their well-being
    will be damaged if they are not helped - and so will be the cohesion
    of society.

    Callinicos's attack on Brown is mere rant. He comes closest to making
    a valid criticism of Labour's recent thinking when he argues that the
    government's basic contradiction "lies in its attempt to combine
    egalitarian aims with a neoliberal economic strategy". But here as
    elsewhere he fails to make crucial distinctions. The main threat to
    the government's objectives comes not from its acceptance of the
    market economy, nor from its rejection of older ideals of equality,
    but from a major dislocation in world markets. A sharp protectionist
    recession would blow Labour's strategies badly off course. But this is
    testimony to the instability of global laissez-faire, not the inherent
    evils of capitalism. Like the neo-liberals against whom he rails,
    Callinicos writes as if today's deregulated markets express
    capitalism's unalterable essence. But throughout practically all of
    its history, capitalism has gone with extensive government
    intervention in the economy, and it will surely do so in the future.
    At the end of the afterword to Equality, Callinicos writes that
    changing the present state of things will require "a revival in
    Utopian imagination". It is a refreshingly candid admission, for
    Rawls's legalism and Marx's project of a planned economy run up
    against an intractable fact that makes them both unrealizable. Human
    values have always been dissonant, but rarely more clearly so than
    they are today. The fundamental error of recent political philosophy
    is to imagine that conflicts of value can be marginalized by adopting
    an agreed idea of justice.

    Curiously, this is the same mistake that Marx made when he prophesied
    that the government of men would be replaced by the administration of
    things. In bringing together this pair of Utopians to mount a ranting
    attack on Labour, Alex Callinicos has forgotten the reality that
    political philosophy exists to understand. It's the politics, stupid.

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