It is my pleasure to share this post written by Featured Philosopher Charles Mills. Professor Mills is the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University, and is well know for his influential and insightful work in oppositional political theory. His post today is on Black Radical Liberalism.
BLACK RADICAL LIBERALISM (and why it isn’t an oxymoron)
“Black radical liberalism” is my attempt to reconstruct from different and usually counterposed bodies of political thought what I see as the most promising candidate for an emancipatory African American political theory. So I am less concerned with the question of whether any African American political theorists actually self-consciously identified what they were doing under this designation than with the question of whether it stands up to criticism as a plausible way forward.
In taxonomies of African American/black political thought, the standard contrast would be:
I am arguing for a synthesizing, reconstructed black liberalism which draws upon the most valuable insights of the black nationalist and black Marxist traditions, and incorporates them into a dramatically transformed liberalism. So the taxonomies would now be drawn differently:
How does black radical liberalism differ from black mainstream liberalism? By definition they are both “liberal” in endorsing liberalism as a political philosophy, but black radical liberalism seeks to transform liberalism to make it responsive to the alternative realities of the black diasporic experience in modernity, and the correspondingly necessary reordering of liberal normative priorities.
Black radical liberalism both (i) recognizes white supremacy as central to the making of the United States and (more sweepingly) the modern world, and (ii) seeks the rethinking of the categories, crucial assumptions, and descriptive and normative frameworks of liberalism in the light of that recognition.
Black mainstream liberalism either (i) refuses to recognize white supremacy (for example, by endorsing the “anomaly” view of U.S. racism [see Rogers Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in US History]) or, (ii) even if it does give lip service to its reality, assumes nonetheless that the categories, crucial assumptions, and descriptive and normative frameworks of liberalism can be adopted with little change to the task of getting rid of it.
OBJECTIONS: (1) But how can Marxist and liberal insights be reconciled? Aren’t they necessarily opposed?
Liberalism comes in different varieties, and black radical liberalism would obviously be a left-wing variety. Liberalism is opposed to state-commandist socialism, but state-commandist socialism has proved itself to be a historical failure, both economically and morally. Liberalism is not in principle opposed to social democracy or market socialism.
(2) But how can black nationalist insights be reconciled either with Marxism or liberalism?
Black nationalism likewise comes in different varieties. The key insight of the tradition, in my opinion, is the recognition of the reality and centrality of an ontology of race, and how it shapes people and their psychology, which can be accommodated in a modified Marxism and liberalism. (Obviously this means rejecting essentialist versions of black nationalism, whether onto-theological or culturalist. A “black Marxist”/”left nationalist” tradition has long existed that addresses these issues: see, e.g., Lucius Outlaw, Critical Social Theory in the Interests of Black Folks.)
(3) But how can even a “black radical liberalism” (assuming it doesn’t fly apart from centrifugal forces) deal with the problems identified by Derrick Bell‘s “racial realism,” or more recent “Afro-pessimism”?
There are no guarantees, but then no other competing ideology can offer them either. Insofar as black radical liberalism is attentive to trends within capitalism (e.g., the forthcoming consolidation and exacerbation of plutocracy in the Western world predicted by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century), it would hope that an increasing number of the white poor/white working class may begin to wake up to the reality that the prospects for their children and grandchildren under plutocratic capitalism—albeit white-supremacist plutocratic capitalism—are not that great either. As a materialist political philosophy, black radical liberalism does not rest its hopes for social transformation on moral suasion alone, but on the mobilization of group interests. The strategy would be to combine the racial justice political project with a larger social justice political project, highlighting the startling fact that the U.S. has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of all the Western democracies.
So that (very sketchily) would be the real-world agenda. Let us now look at the (academic world) implications for Rawlsian liberalism.
CHALLENGING MAINSTREAM WHITE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
IDEAL vs. NON-IDEAL THEORY
In A Theory of Justice Rawls famously focuses on “ideal theory,” the normative theory of a perfectly just society, one of “strict compliance” with its principles of justice. Ideal theory, however, was supposed to be the necessary preliminary to properly doing non-ideal theory, including “compensatory justice.” But 40+ years later, the transition to theorizing “compensatory justice” has still not been made, and contemporary Rawlsian discussions of non-ideal theory are dealing with other senses of the term.
Obviously, for a population historically subordinated in modernity through slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crow, non-ideal theory is the imperative. Afro-modern (as it is now called) political philosophy is centrally shaped by the experience of oppression, domination, exploitation, etc. So black radical liberalism is going to be a variety of non-ideal-theory liberalism, liberalism dealing with the overcoming of social oppression in a nominally liberal society.
WELL-ORDERED vs. ILL-ORDERED SOCIETIES
A related distinction is the difference between well-ordered (perfectly just) and (what I am going to call) ill-ordered societies. Rawls suggests we think of societies as “cooperative ventures for mutual advantage.” But a white supremacist state is not a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. To assume the cooperative-venture characterization would be to rule racist societies out of normative consideration from the start. So black radical liberalism rejects such a stipulation. Instead, it works with a conception of society broad enough to include ill-ordered societies. Ill-ordered societies are coercive rather than cooperative ventures, characterized by exploitation and asymmetries of respect rather than mutual advantage and reciprocal respect. Ill-ordered societies are, in other words, the world.
In his A Short History of Distributive Justice, Samuel Fleischacker points out that universal distributive justice as a norm in the Western tradition is only slightly more than 200 years old (and of course initially really just extends over the “universe” of white males). At first, not even white women are included (Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract), and certainly not people of color in Western societies (Mills, The Racial Contract). “Corrective justice” as a concept is even more undeveloped and untheorized, especially where groups are concerned.
Basic implication: Western normative theory in general historically for most of 2500 years, and liberalism for most of modernity, has been complicit with rather than condemnatory of, group subordination. The under-theorization in the tradition of corrective justice for subordinated groups, despite the subordination of most of the population nominally in the theory’s ambit, is itself a manifestation of this complicity.
Black radical liberalism reverses these normative priorities, and makes corrective justice its central concern.
ADAPTING RAWLS FOR CORRECTIVE JUSTICE
Here’s a simple way of formulating Rawls’s two principles of justice (the arrows indicate lexical ordering):
The hegemonic focus on these principles in the world of Anglo-American ideal-theory political philosophy makes it easy to forget how very limited (by Rawls’s own acknowledgment) their scope is. As a graphic representation and reminder of their severely restricted zone of application, let us put them inside identifying and constraining brackets:
That is, these are principles of distributive justice for an ideal (I) well-ordered society, that being a society which is (i) a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, in which (ii) the rules are designed for reciprocal benefit, and (iii) people generally follow the rules.
However, we are not, of course, in such a society. We are in a non-ideal (~I) ill-ordered society, which was historically established as (i) a coercive and exploitative venture for differential white advantage, and in which (ii) the rules are generally designed for white benefit.
So how could PDJI be the appropriate principles of justice for such a society? Obviously, they cannot. What we want are principles of corrective justice that will eliminate illicit white advantage. How should this be conceptualized?
In A Theory of Justice, in the attempt to establish the continuity of his approach with the classical, here Aristotelian, tradition, Rawls refers to pleonexia, “gaining some [illicit] advantage for oneself.” I suggest we think of illicit white advantage/white privilege as a form of racial pleonexia, historic and current, which needs to be corrected for. Let us call it ∆, the illicit white differential. So what we are seeking are:
Translated into prose: these would be principles of corrective justice, P1, P2, P3, for eliminating illicit white advantage/white privilege/racial pleonexia in whites’ basic liberties, opportunities, and social respect, in a non-ideal, ill-ordered, white supremacist society.
Clarificatory points: (i) respect is included as a basic social good in keeping with both Kantian and Rawlsian norms, and the need for correcting the founding of the polity on the systematic disrespect, dissin’, of people of color (ii) the asterisks indicate uncertainty about the principles’ ordering; from what Rawls says, P1 -> P2, but where would P3 fit? (iii) EO is listed rather than FEO, and the DP is not mentioned, because even for whites neither FEO nor the DP were ever institutionalized, and the principles here are for correcting actual white racial advantage.
Does this settle the matter? Obviously not—it’s only a beginning. But what I at least wanted to establish by putting these two formulas side by side is the crucial conceptual and normative difference between the two projects and the fundamental mistakenness (in my opinion) of trying to derive racial justice from principles designed with a completely different end in mind. Rawls says himself in numerous locations that he is talking about principles of justice for the very limited case of a well-ordered society. He is not talking about racist societies such as our own. What are called for in the case of these societies are principles of transitional justice:
So PCJ would be principles of corrective justice for remedying past injustices, and guiding the transition to a more just society. The concerns motivating a black radical liberalism would be addressed rather than evaded.