Charles W. Mills on Rejecting Rawls and Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy

Anglo-American political philosophy students of my generation were socialized into a world where John Rawls reigned. We were taught a grand narrative in which political philosophy had all but disappeared in the 20th century. In1971, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice appeared, freeing political philosophy from oblivion and pushing it into the future. Theory of Justice put to pasture utilitarianism which was too eager to encourage the violation of rights and libertarians to promote utility. In the process, it gave rise to Robert Nozick’s revival of libertarianism and to the communitarian responses of Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor. Eventually, philosophers such as Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge extended the Rawlsian framework to questions of global justice.
Advanced undergraduates and graduate students with any ambition to work in the political philosophy had to spend hundreds of hours parsing the subtleties of Theory of Justice, Rawls’ own revisionary tome in Political Liberalism, and taking seriously Law of Peoples (a work that would have been justly ignored if it had been written by anyone other than John Rawls). (Rawls’ genius is attested to by the fact that it is possible to spend hundreds of hours absorbed in his texts.) Like so many others from my generation and the preceding generation, I immersed myself in the Rawlsian scripture (with its commentaries on commentaries on the subtleties of the system). Inspired by Joseph Carens’ Rawlsian arguments for open borders, I wrote a dissertation on the ethics of immigration largely inspired by Rawls’ liberal egalitarianism.
When I was writing my dissertation, I began to feel something was wrong. The Rawlsian framework didn’t easily translate to what I thought were the central issues surrounding migration: racism, colonialism, social stratification, patriarchy, and state violence. I thought – and do think – that freedom of movement is a fundamental right and that borders controls are far too restrictive. I also believe that immigration has largely laudable distributive effects and anyone genuinely concerned with distributive justice should advocate more migration. Nonetheless, freedom of movement and equality do little to capture the plight of refugees excluded by state violence from seeking asylum, unaccompanied refugee children trapped in the soon to be demolished Callais, or the banal horrors of Australia’s offshore detention. (I develop some of these worries in The Refugee Crisis and the Responsibility of Intellectuals.)
A combination of a tendency to resist academic socialization (possibly a result of feeling a bit out of place after growing up in a libertarian environment in Northern Canada) and exposure to other works led me to look elsewhere. My advisor Kai Nielsen introduced me to the Analytic Marxian writers (he also introduced me to Rawls and Habermas as an undergraduate) which in turn led me to read Marx. Also, in graduate school at the University of Calgary Elizabeth Brake assigned Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract to one of my office mates, leading me to read the essays in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race and From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism and eventually ponder Mills’ “Ideal Theory as Ideology”.
This has resulted in a long process of reeducation and reading, including Mills’ recent article “Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy”. (Unfortunately, I can’t find a version that is not behind a paywall.)
John Rawls is the villain of Mills’ article. Mills writes:
Rawls reoriented the field, so that the adjudication of social justice rather than the justification of political obligations became the main point of the subject. The battlefront of debate was thus competing normative perspectives on justice, whether utilitarians counterattacking Rawls to defend their theory against his criticisms, libertarian arguing for Lockean entitlement and property rights that precluded Rawlsian social-democratic redistribution, egalitarians seeking to push Rawls further to the left, or communitarians trying to exorcise the ghostly and disembodied individuals they found in Rawls’s contractarian cast of characters (Decolonizing, 3-4).
Rawls takes his starting point from a conception of closed societies as systems of cooperation. The question then becomes “what are the fair terms of cooperation?” This question presupposes cooperation and in turn ignores the possibility that society is in fact based on coercion – on some groups dominating and exploiting others for their advantage. To focus on social justice – particularly on distribution – rather than political obligation allows us to assume that our political institutions are basically just and legitimate, obliterating colonization and imperialism from political philosophy:
Those subordinated by the Western empires would obviously have had a very different perspective on the question of their political obligations to the state. But we never get to hear their voices: the presumption is always that the state is legitimate, non-oppressive, consensual, so that the distinctive Euro-experience of the political can be unproblematically adopted as a general framework by others.
Combined with the focus on social justice is Rawls’ presupposition that the nation state is the “central political unit of the modern period” (8). Rawls reinforced the discipline’s methodological nationalism by assuming a closed society as the unit of justice in Theory of Justice and reinforcing this closure in The Law of Peoples.
As Mills points out,
such a concept cannot capture the crucial difference between those polities which were the rulers and those which were the ruled, nor the distinct histories of colonizers and colonized, settlers and indigenous, free and enslaved, in the colonial world. To ignore this history and this set of central political divisions in the name of an abstraction ostensibly innocent only serves to guarantee that the experience of the white political subject, whether Europeans at home or Europeans abroad, will be made the standard bearer of political modernity itself. It is to erase a history of domination which needs to be formally recognized as itself political and leaving a  political legacy that can only be properly addressed through being acknowledged at the abstract conceptual level at which philosophy operates (Decolonizing, 8-9).
The overall effect is ideological, supporting a Eurocentric idealization with no bearing on history or reality:
The abstraction from the empirical which is its defining feature is generally taken to justify the ignoring of such real-world “deviations,” because the important thing is the concepts employed. The aspiration to the timeless and the universal then rationalizes an idealized form of abstraction which, through its obfuscation of the distinctive political experience of people of color in modernity, makes the representative political individual European (Decolonizing, 12).
All this raises the question of how to reconstruct political philosophy as a discipline. The alternative is not only to continue teaching and working within a tradition that fundamentally distorts reality, it is eventually to condemn the field to irrelevance (we can no longer pretend the world is Eurocentric). This reconstruction will have radical consequences, forcing those of us who want to remain relevant to relearn a great deal of history and to become fluent in other traditions, tasks that our education has not prepare us for.Mills comments on Philip Pettit’s overview of “Analytical Philosophy” in Goodin, Pettit, and Pogge’s second edition of A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy:
Pettit basically repeats [Anthony] Quinton’s white and Eurocentric picture of the field, asserting that from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s, “political philosophy ceased to be an area of active exploration … there was little or nothing of significance published in political philosophy.” Now this is, of course, precisely the period in which the anti-colonial movement across the world is gathering momentum, and in the post-bellum United States black activists are beginning the long battle (still not complete) to make their country live up to the promise of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. But for Pettit, none of the texts produced by these global political struggles – work by people like Martí, Gandhi, Douglass, SunYat-Sen, Garvey, Du Bois, Fanon – merit inclusion, whether because they are insufficiently analytic, non-Western, or simply unworthy of the designation of political philosophy (Mills, 6).
Reconstructing the field cannot merely be a matter of including figures who are not usually taught in our courses. Rather, it means recognizing that broadening the field will also mean changing it fundamentally to more adequately reflect history and social reality:
A revisionist history needs to be undertaken, which will not only recognize alternative non-Western political traditions, both outside and inside the West (thus redrawing the “West”), but make central how the non-recognition of the equality of others has, from modernity onwards, distorted the West’s own descriptive mapping of and prescriptive recommendations for the local and incipiently global polities it has constructed (Decolonizing, 23).
For those of us brought up under the shadow of John Rawls, the opportunity to contribute to this task is both daunting and thrilling.
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