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Lost in Rawlsland

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EXCERPT: This is the second in a series of interviews with philosophers on race that I am conducting for The Stone. This week’s conversation is with Charles Mills, the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University and the author of several books, including the influential 1997 work “The Racial Contract.” — George Yancy

George Yancy: You are a philosopher who thinks very deeply about issues of race. Can you provide a sense of your work?

Charles Mills: I think a simple way to sum it up would be as the transition from white Marxism to (what I have recently started calling) black radical liberalism.

G.Y.: So, how does “white” modify Marxism? And what is it about the modification that helps to account for the transition to what you’re now calling black radical liberalism?

C.M.: Mainstream Marxism has (with a few honorable exceptions) been “white” in the sense that it has not historically realized or acknowledged the extent to which European expansionism in the modern period (the late 15th century and onward) creates a racialized world, so that class categories have to share theoretical space with categories of personhood and subpersonhood. Modernity is supposed to usher in the epoch of individualism. The Marxist critique is then that the elimination of feudal estates still leaves intact material/economic differences (capitalist and worker) between nominally classless and normatively equal individuals. But the racial critique points out that people of color don’t even attain normative equality.

In the new language of the time of “men” or “persons” (displacing citizens and slaves, lords and serfs), they are not even full persons.

So a theorization of the implications of a globally racially partitioned personhood becomes crucial, and liberalism — once informed by and revised in the light of the black experience — can be very valuable in working this out. In a forthcoming essay collection for Oxford University Press, “Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism,” I try to make a case for this retrieval — the deracialization of a liberalism historically racialized.

G.Y.: So what then is left of the value of Marxism? [...]

C.M.: Marxism is still of value in various ways: its mapping of the revolutionary transformative effects of capitalism on the modern world; its diagnosis of trends of concentration of wealth and poverty in capitalist societies (Thomas Piketty’s best-seller, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” pays tribute to Marx’s insights, while distancing itself from some of his conclusions); its warning of the influence of the material economic sphere on the legal, cultural, political and ideational realms.

It also has various weaknesses, the recounting of which would be too long to get into here....

[...snip...] you have norms of professional socialization that school the aspirant philosopher in what is supposed to be the appropriate way of approaching political philosophy, which over the past 40 years has been overwhelmingly shaped by Rawlsian “ideal theory,” the theory of a perfectly just society.

Rawls himself said in the opening pages of “A Theory of Justice” that we had to start with ideal theory because it was necessary for properly doing the really important thing: non-ideal theory, including the “pressing and urgent matter” of remedying injustice. But what was originally supposed to have been merely a tool has become an end in itself; the presumed antechamber to the real hall of debate is now its main site. Effectively, then, within the geography of the normative, ideal theory functions as a form of white flight. You don’t want to deal with the problems of race and the legacy of white supremacy, so, metaphorically, within the discourse of justice, you retreat from any spaces worryingly close to the inner cities and move instead to the safe and comfortable white spaces, the gated moral communities, of the segregated suburbs, from which they become normatively invisible....

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