Liberalism After Rawls, with Katrina Forrester

Liberalism After Rawls, with Katrina Forrester

Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice explores the world that shaped the ideas of John Rawls, and how his work remade political philosophy. Is there still room for his liberal egalitarianism in an age of ideological ferment and social conflict?

John Rawls

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Nick Serpe spoke with Katrina Forrester, author of In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press).

Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice offers an insightful examination of the world that shaped the philosophy of John Rawls—and how his theories shaped the world of political philosophy. In this interview, Forrester traces some of this history and offers some prospective thoughts about the fate of liberal egalitarian ideas in a moment of ideological ferment and social conflict.


Nick Serpe: For those who aren’t very familiar with Rawls, what are the distinctive features of his political thought? What sort of system is it, and what principles does it advance?

Katrina Forrester: Rawls was known for his mammoth A Theory of Justice (1971). That book transformed how political philosophy was done and set the terms of philosophical debate for a generation. In it, he advanced a set of principles designed to provide a way of judging whether institutions were just. It was a theory of “distributive justice”—a theory for working out who gets what. Rawls put forward a vision of a society in which social institutions were regulated by two principles of justice—one of liberty and one of equality.

The society he described was pretty close to the United States in terms of its organization: it was a liberal society with legislatures, courts, a constitution, and so on. In many ways, Rawls’s philosophical vision embodied the postwar liberal dream of a more perfect America. But his principles of justice demanded that inequality be limited—so much so that he thought that, if implemented, these principles would dramatically transform American society and politics. So Rawls’s theory was liberal: it protected the liberties of individual moral persons. It was institutional: he thought achieving social justice required setting up institutions in the right way. It was also egalitarian: Rawls’s “difference principle” permitted inequalities only where they worked to the advantage of the least well-off members of society.

Since the 1970s, philosophers have spent hundreds of thousands of pages debating whether his arguments worked and how egalitarian they really were. As a philosophical system, there were a lot of moving parts. The most famous argument that Rawls gave to support his vision was his idea of the “original position,” where persons meet behind a “veil of ignorance” (which denies them all sorts of information about themselves—gender, class, race) to choose principles to regulate society. Many philosophers argued over these discrete parts, but they also questioned what the philosophical system looked like in practice. Did Rawls’s theory merely provide a liberal defense of the status quo? Or did it amount to a kind of socialism? Ultimately it came to be understood as the greatest defense of a particular kind of liberal system, somewhere between the two: liberal egalitarianism.

Serpe: Many of the political philosophers you write about in In the Shadow of Justice seem to make a choice between working from ideal theories based in universal truths or principles—and engaging with worldly affairs in terms of how they do or don’t accord with those universals—or working from theoretical explanation of historical political particulars—building up to larger truths from investigations “on the ground.” Is that a fair characterization? If so, how does Rawls fit into this framework, and what is appealing or lacking in his broad orientation about how to do philosophy?

Forrester: Approaching politics through theory can take many forms—imagining utopias, tracking the motors of history, advising rulers or revolutionaries. As you say, it’s possible to characterize political philosophers over the last half-century as largely taking one of two approaches. Either they start from universals, ideals, or general principles that are then applied to the world. Or you can go in the other direction, from the concrete or historical, to build up from particular cases to general theories. Liberal egalitarianism—actually much of analytical political philosophy since Rawls—has focused on ideal theory. Many of its critics took the second route, moving from the ground up: communitarian theorists focused on community, experience, and history; political realists started from the complexity of modern ethical and political life.

But these distinctions are more slippery than this initial binary suggests. Rawls tried to build up a set of abstract principles that could help us think about what justice required of us. He did start off with a picture of the political world—the world of the postwar United States. After A Theory of Justice was published, philosophers began from Rawls’s principles. So, there’s an inversion: Rawls began from the world, but philosophers then begin from him.

That’s not to say that Rawls had some sort of unmediated access to how the world actually was. His abstractions were shaped by his own ideological and intellectual commitments, like everyone else. But those commitments helped structure how an entire generation of political philosophers went about doing philosophy. By the late twentieth century, liberal political philosophy was underpinned by this fairly static and unchanging vision of society and politics that has its origins in liberal understandings of postwar America. At a deep level, it remained haunted by the ghosts of postwar liberalism. These principles, born of a particular ideological constellation, lived on in the abstractions of philosophers. The ideals got embedded.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any disagreement among philosophers. There was lots of it—and it got more and more detailed and technical—but this underlying vision was more or less assumed. The fundamental rules of the game and the range of moral and political possibilities were put into place. Rawls himself revised his theory and changed it in all sorts of ways, but his fundamental assumptions about what society is like persisted.

At the same time, liberal political philosophers were trying to deal with policy, applying their general principles to particular cases. One of the common critiques of ideal theory since Rawls has been to say that these theories were depoliticizing. But just because these ideas are abstract doesn’t mean they’re not political. From the Vietnam War onward, political philosophers did look to politics, all the time, but they conceived of politics in a particular way—as a realm of “public affairs.” And what counted as a public affair was shaped by a particular liberal understanding of politics, which, in the aftermath of the Warren Court, focused on courts and constitutional questions, and with questions of “applied ethics.” Many other forms of politics—the politics that go on in social movements, workplaces—didn’t fit easily into that picture (if they did, it was often as objects regulated by law). So liberal political philosophy comes to be dominated by an approach that begins from the general, the ideal, but at the same time deals in a particular form of politics—determined by liberal commitments about what counts as a political event worthy of philosophical study.

Serpe: The public reception of A Theory of Justice has a lot to do with the moment it was published: in 1971, in the wake of the Great Society (and decades of high economic growth and steady wage increases in the United States) and on the eve of a multi-decade assault on the U.S. welfare state, such as it was. But, as you show, Rawls’s ideas had gestated for decades; they have roots in debates about statism in the 1940s and 1950s, and in certain tendencies in the postwar Labour Party (Rawls studied at Oxford in the 1950s). Can you tell us a little more about the significance of this context, and how (or whether) its traces can be found in a world much transformed decades on?

Forrester: Yes, that’s right: Rawls’s theory was seen as a product of the Great Society, but it actually had earlier origins—and that matters for understandings its politics. Rawls was in dialogue with mid-century and wartime theories—theories of planning, welfare, socialism, pluralism, Keynesian stabilization, and in the UK with the Labour “revisionists,” who swapped Labour’s commitments to socialism and national ownership for equality and social justice. Rawls was initially skeptical of government intervention and any political control of the economy. He gradually saw that more state action would be necessary to secure distributive justice, to keep society operating in a fair and just way. Rawls’s theory became known as a great defense of the welfare state, even though at its origins it was about how to have a just society without too much state intervention.

That’s partly because Rawls changed his mind. He was pulled left and pulled away from his wariness of state power by the ideas of the British left in the 1950s, and also because of the civil rights movement—for many progressive liberals wary of state power, the importance of the federal state in securing civil rights overrode that wariness (at least in certain sectors). But it’s also because by the time Rawls’s book was published, it was a different political moment. The postwar debates about planning had been eclipsed by the events of the 1960s. The postwar liberal settlement that Rawls’s theory both legitimated and hoped to reform were under pressure. His theory provides a kind of solace to liberals as that world disappeared.

The more optimistic parts of postwar liberalism get baked into liberal political philosophy—optimism about the direction and fate of liberalism above all. As politics moves to the right, Rawls’s theory was consolidated as the paradigm of left-liberalism. It’s a great survivor from the mid-century. Lots of the ideas he was arguing against didn’t fare as well. But if we ignore those, we miss both what Rawls was trying to do and the function his theory played. We also miss the political distance traveled between then and now, and the different political work these ideas do in changing circumstances.

Serpe: Rawls formed his ideas at a historic high point of liberal confidence. Like many of his contemporaries (not just in philosophy), he didn’t find it too hard to assume—or at least to work out—a kind of moral consensus that could accommodate reasonable differences. That political tendency seems to have a mirror in Rawlsianism as a body of thought; throughout the book, you show how this framework managed to engage with and absorb critique, making it at once admirably broad-ranging and flexible but having the frustrating effect of defanging dissenting voices—whether feminist, anticolonial, socialist, or right-wing. Is there some connection between a period of alleged liberal political consensus and a philosophy that accommodates alternatives almost to its breaking point?

Forrester: Yes, I think there is, but it’s hard to parse it exactly. Rawls developed his theory when American liberals believed that their society rested on a fundamental consensus about deep political principles, or at least that such a consensus was possible. His theory is about finding agreement given circumstances of disagreement, but that possibility of consensus is assumed. He didn’t imagine capitalist society as necessarily agonistic, rife with exploitation, or definitionally class-divided. Society for Rawls was structured by interest groups and classes and he thought those inequalities hurt people. But at a deep level he also thought it was possible to agree about the terms on which we can live together.

The interesting thing is that “Rawlsianism” became the favored theoretical framework among liberal philosophers at a moment when that consensus was shattering. Although it’s formulated as a kind of mirror for that consensus, it was at its most compelling in an age when it came to provide a form of consolation. To put it another way, it functions as a kind of semi-autonomous ideology. It legitimated a kind of accommodationist politics even as the broader terrain on which that politics makes sense was shifting. There’s also a more prosaic point: liberalism is dominant in universities, so it’s not exactly surprising that a liberal theory dominated political philosophy. But Rawlsianism’s near-hegemonic status served that dominance in a particular way—it elevated a consensus-seeking theory, which finds a way to make ideas justifiable to all. That emphasis on justification meant that defanging dissent was built into the approach. Though there have always been critiques of Rawlsianism, when they were translated into the languages of liberal political philosophy, they were most often domesticated.

Serpe: Rawls’s ideas had a particular political valence when they were first published, but already a major realignment to the right was underway. How did these changing conditions affect both Rawls and philosophers he inspired? Did they triangulate their ideas to meet right-wing challenges, double down on egalitarian principles, engage in a more foundational rethinking of their ideas—or some combination of these, or something else entirely?

Forrester: A combination! In the 1980s, philosophers insisted on the importance of equality. There was a resurgent left—the rise of analytical Marxism and a revival of market socialism. But at the same time, there was a kind of marketization of philosophy. Equality was defended, but on market principles, using market tools and mechanisms. There was a deep skepticism about labor. Some liberal egalitarians did take the rise of the New Right very seriously, but they ended up lowering their sights: the demand to justify values to all lead to increasingly minimalist defenses of the welfare state. There were worries about “the market” and its encroachment on community, but there was also a sense in which liberals missed some of the deeper changes going on around themfinancialization, privatization, the transformation of the state and international capital markets. That wasn’t just true of philosophers, of course. But their focus on courts and constitutions and distribution meant that they weren’t that interested in the administrative state, capital, and labor. Some of the major realignments went on outside the purview of liberal political philosophy.

Serpe: In recent years, Marxism and its political relatives have made a major comeback, at the same time that criticism of liberalism (or at least “liberals”) has picked up steam on the left. Does this re-popularization of more critical or conflictual left-wing ideas point to limits of Rawlsian public philosophy in the current conjuncture? What might socialist frameworks, reinterpreted and reapplied, offer to alienated, marginalized, or exploited people that liberal egalitarianism does not? Is something lost in the move to distance ourselves from liberalism as a body of thought? Does that actually seem to be happening, whether in philosophy or political theory departments or outside of them?

Forrester: We’re in a volatile political moment and that’s bound to have implications for political philosophy. Since at least the crisis of 2007–8, there have been renewed challenges to Rawlsianism and efforts either to abandon or repurpose its frameworks. From a socialist point of view or from the perspective of the marginalized, there are a host of familiar problems with much mainstream liberal political philosophy. For one, it often treats people as subjects of distributions rather than as agents of change. There are plenty of other approaches to political theory that have long offered alternatives to the distributive paradigm and focus in on agency—theories of agonism, post-Marxism, realism, participatory democracy, as well as much of the feminist and black radical traditions. Liberal political philosophers have often placed these traditions outside of the bounds of what counts as philosophy, but recently they’re starting to be mainstreamed, and I think it’s the resurgence of socialist ideas that’s driving that. If you’re searching for a language of politics that goes beyond distribution and justice, it’s still the socialist and Marxist tradition that provides the best alternativewith its conceptual vocabulary of emancipation, exploitation, class division, domination, dependency.

The recent debates about the relative merits of liberalism and socialismparticularly the disputes over the status of left-liberalism and socialism that played out in the Warren versus Sanders debatesare interesting from the point of view of political philosophy. In general, the critique of liberalism and the wide invocations of the mantle of socialism—and the revisiting of the socialist tradition—is extremely welcome, but it’s had some strange upshots. One has been the attempt to claim Rawls as a socialist. Rawls’s arguments do allow for kinds of socialism, but he wasn’t a socialist, and it’s a bizarre rereading of history to make him one. He once said that he might be willing to support New Left demands—but he would have to provide liberal arguments for them.

That’s a really important point to underscore. Much of liberal political philosophy tries to take ideas from the “public culture” and show that, from the basic intuitions that we are supposed to share in liberal societies, we can derive more radical outcomes. One of the main contributions of the analytical Marxists was to begin with liberal principles and get to socialism. Today on the left there’s a sense we need to do the reverse: start with the class-divided nature of society and work back. But often what we end up with is social democracy. The resurgent socialism of the last few years has largely been about giving socialist arguments for social democracy. In part that’s a sign that, as Geoff Mann puts it (borrowing from Milton Friedman), we’re all Keynesians now. Our horizons of possibility have narrowed so much since when Keynes (or Rawls) was first writing. But there’s also a sense that the attempt to get even social democracy by liberal arguments and means has failed. In the UK, Corbynism was sometimes said to be about repairing or reconstructing liberal democratic institutions, but it was key that left-liberal reforms were justified with socialist arguments. Defenses of social democracy started from assumptions of class warfare. The same can be said of Sanders—he’s a class-struggle social democrat, as [Jacobin editor] Bhaskar Sunkara terms it. He situates himself in the socialist tradition and aims to speak for a particular social base, but does so in order to call for social democratic institutions.

Do Rawlsian approaches have any appeal in this context? One in particular stands out: as the left has glimpsed the possibility of institutional power, with concrete opportunities to imagine left-wing policy solutions, a space has opened up for a kind of left-liberal or liberal-socialist Rawls-inspired policymaking. But that strength might also be a kind of weakness. Think about it in political terms, with the UK as an example again: one of the best things about Corbynism was its ambitious policy platform. But one of its strategic failures was trusting in the imaginative force of policy to create political constituencies. Corbynism was a kind of socialist project—the appeal, for socialists, was in large part its movement-building promise and its potential for antagonism—but at work in the election campaign was nonetheless a liberal trust in the power of policies to persuade. When it comes to political philosophy, a similar logic applies: the best thing about liberal egalitarianism is its immense power as a policy-generating tool, but maybe right now we don’t need better policy. Maybe we’ve got all the justifications for raising taxes we’ll ever need! On the U.S. left, too, one thing that’s clear from the Sanders campaign is that we don’t need better policy. We need better infrastructure, and the capacity and power that such infrastructure builds and conveys. So we have to find new ways of thinking about how we transition out of this conjuncture. Ideal theories aren’t exactly well suited to eras of crisis.

Katrina Forrester is assistant professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University.

Nick Serpe is a senior editor at Dissent.

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