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Political philosophy vs politics

Not that many people are keen on studying political philosophy in any shape or form, even though lots of people get really hung up on politics. Why is that? One reason is fairly straightforward: philosophy in general is just boring due to all its rigour, abstruseness, technicalities and hair-splitting distinctions. For virtually any x most people interested in x won’t be interested in the philosophy of x – and politics is no exception. But there also seems to be another, less obvious reason: basic divisions in political philosophy cut across basic divisions in politics. The latter are left vs right, progressivism vs conservatism, socialism vs capitalism. The philosophical ones are very different, and it’s usually very far from clear how they can be translated into differences in meaningful policy proposals.

Take arguably the most popular textbook, Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy. Here’s its contents page:

Of the eight theories listed, only one, Marxism, is unequivocally left-wing. Moreover, current disputes between Marxists and non-Marxists are not quite central to the field. “Liberal equality” may seem left-wing too, especially to Americans, however in the European discourse “liberal” is commonly contrasted with “socialist”, which is why classifying anything liberal as left-wing might sound odd to European ears. There’s also a left-wing vibe to multiculturalism and feminism, but both are often treated more like something complimentary to one of the main theories, rather than theories in their own right.

If you take a political philosophy course at a university, the first thing you’re likely to be taught is Rawls’s liberalism and his critique of utilitarianism. The whole debate has little to do with the left vs right divide. As Kymlicka points out, political utilitarians have a hard time determining what actually follows from their theory in practical terms: some “argue that utility is maximized by massive redistribution of wealth, due to the declining marginal utility of money, others defend laissez-faire capitalism because it creates more wealth”. Rawls’s theory is often portrayed as something that’s meant to philosophically justify the post-war capitalist welfare state, but Rawls himself doesn’t see it this way at all. He says that “the choice between a private-property economy and socialism is left open; from the standpoint of the theory of justice alone, various basic structures would appear to satisfy its principles.” Here it is important to mention that what he means by the “private-property economy” is not welfare state capitalism, which might be able to tackle different forms of inequality post hoc by redistribution, but badly fails as far as equality of opportunity is concerned. Rawls believes in a sort of a democratic, private-property-based system that complies with what justice requires, however he never specifies how this system is supposed to look like – and the same goes for his favourite form of socialism.

Next up is usually Robert Nozick and his libertarian case against Rawls, which is often presented as a right-wing response to egalitarian liberalism. In reality though, it’s much more complicated. First, philosophical libertarianism comes in two varieties, left and right. They share the commitment to the self-ownership principle, but disagree on whether natural resources can be privately appropriated or belong to everyone. Left-libertarianism can be used to justify left-wing, socialist policies – policies that are possibly even more to the left than those in line with Rawlsian liberalism. Second, what is commonly taken to be right-libertarian implications for issues like immigration, foreign policy, drugs, freedom of expression etc. is often associated with the left, not the right.

Here someone may say “ok, perhaps right-libertarianism is not that right-wing after all, but still, at least in the US there is a significant and coherent political movement that tries to put the right-libertarian ideas into practice. So we have an example of a direct link between a position in political philosophy and a position in politics.” I think this is a misunderstanding. It seems to me that right-libertarians are simply wrong about follows from their own theory. This is because right-libertarianism implies that all real-world property is illegitimate property. The way that actual individuals came to own what they own has nothing to do with the fantasy about “the original appropriation” and chains of voluntary exchanges. From a right-libertarian philosophical standpoint, protecting our current illegitimate private property rights doesn’t make any sense, and yet this is basically all that right-libertarian politics is about. Admittedly there are libertarian philosophers who have certain ideas about how to rectify things that went wrong in the past – the problem is none of those proposals seems compatible with libertarian principles. It looks like we’re left with a vision of a utopia, but no vision of how to get there from where we are now.

Marxism faces a similar difficulty. It offers an ideal called communism: a kind of classless, stateless, marketless society, based on the principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. What it doesn’t offer though is a viable vision of how to bring it about. It’s not even clear whether there should be any “how to” as it’s unclear what role human agency can play in the deterministic historical process. The failure of the Soviet system in terms of realising communism, and the fact that many Marxists didn’t recognise it as such for a long time, show how dramatic this problem is. It’s just really difficult, if possible at all, to tell whether anything labelled “Marxist politics” has much basis in Marxist philosophy.

Here the objection might be that what I’m saying only applies to orthodox Marxism, but not to at least some watered-down varieties of it, especially those that reject Marx’s philosophy of history. For example, it might be argued that policies aimed at alleviating what Marxists see as capitalist exploitation and alienation are both perfectly feasible and firmly based in the (unorthodox) Marxist theory. Or perhaps the same can be said about the policy of doing away with the parasitic owner class completely and establishing some sort of workers’ control over the means of production, without necessarily getting rid of the state or market allocation of resources. My response would be that I don’t completely disagree, but I’m not fully convinced either. First, as Kymlicka points out, what self-professed Marxists advocate, as a matter of fact, is often aimed at counteracting the kinds of injustice that don’t stem from the employer/employee relation (like homophobia, racism or ableism), and Marxism doesn’t provide any explanation of what’s wrong with those kinds of injustice – despite what numerous charlatans today would have us believe. Second, even when Marxists do focus on labour relations, it’s still not clear how to best understand Marx’s account of those relations and to what extent it’s actually Marx’s own invention. This makes the question “Is this policy Marxist?” always difficult to answer, for any given policy.

Going back to our typical political philosophy curriculum: after utilitarianism, liberal egalitarianism and libertarianism usually comes the time for communitarianism, which, as philosopher David Miller points out, “considered as a political programme was and remains strangely amorphous”. The only way to make it less amorphous, according to Miller, is to distinguish between its different varieties:

Communitarianism as political theory comes in sharply different versions. There is a Communitarianism of the left, an egalitarian Communitarianism defended by many socialists and social democrats. There is also a communitarianism of the right, an authoritarian Communitarianism less popular today than it was in the past, but still embraced by some conservatives. And finally—this suggestion may be a bit less familiar—there is a liberal version of Communitarianism.

In short, people of very different political stripes can all appeal to the value of community and be sceptical about different aspects of individualism, which means they can all subscribe to philosophical communitarianism, broadly construed.

So here we are, with a bunch of philosophical theories that don’t have any obvious practical implications. This is why, it seems to me, many folk interested in politics find political philosophy off-putting. If you’re after a deeper justification for your political beliefs, or the best arguments against your opponents’ political beliefs, or simply want to examine reasons to accept or reject familiar political positions, you’re likely to be disappointed, at least initially. Political philosophy appears to be largely about something different. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should political philosophy be better connected to politics, and if so, how do we make it more connected? This is a good question, but I’m afraid I don’t have a well-thought-out answer, so for now I’ll just leave it there.

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