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February 23, 2015


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About Class and the Need for a Narrative
There is a substantial practical gap in Charles Mills’s reworking of nonideal theory toward an ideology of Black Radical Liberalism. Mills writes:
“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.”

This is an old concern, which has a different subject today than when it was first proposed that poor whites in the United States are implicitly given the “racial wages” of their white racial identity, to make up for their economic exploitation––that is, at least they were not black. There was a time when not being black meant not having to compete for the worst jobs, at the lowest pay, that were performed by blacks. However, racial categories and racism no longer have the same economic importance, because poor blacks are no longer a source of cheap labor. (At the same time, racism is now based both on historical racial categories and roams freely as an ‘unbound variable’ so that new groups such as Hispanic/Latinos and Muslims can be ‘racialized’ as not-white.) The labor previously performed by blacks has been left undone with the decay of the public infrastructure, or else it has been outsourced on more reliable terms offered by the poor in other countries, or else it is performed by recent non-European immigrants. As a result, racial categories and racism now have a largely symbolic, or at most signifying, role to support an economic and political hierarchy of class in which poor whites, including those who have been flattered with the label of “middle class” cannot see their common economic and political interests with nonwhites, especially blacks. Thus, it remains the case that poor whites in the United States will resist and avoid becoming declassé (a term of intervention for which I thank Janine Jones, as well as I thank her for an email correspondence that spurred the present comments). The white racial status of poor/middle class whites is attached to what they believe about their class status, which would be threatened by making common cause with poor nonwhites.

The unjust killings of unarmed young men, without penalty, serve to underscore how bad it is to be members of those nonwhite groups, especially blacks, but not only blacks. In the United States, the low status of blacks and antiblack racism on the part of poor/middle class whites prevents a strong labor movement or even a strong social justice/democratic party from opposing elite programs of exploitation and now environmental depredation. In US history, the socioeconomic upward mobility of immigrants has also been a racial upward mobility. Most groups eventually become white, except for blacks, who need to remain black–––to be kept black/back–––as the bottom of a hierarchy that disguises class interests. Race is thus used, in general symbolic ways that nonetheless do not detract from individual cases of brutal tragedy, to mask the reality of class hierarchy, which may be the real hierarchy that elites care about. If this analysis is correct, although the ideology of Black Radical Liberalism proposed by Mills may succeed in standing Rawls on his head, it will accomplish little in reality without a lucid analysis of class and race together, which can be explained in terms that voters will understand and accept. Even this last is no guarantee for social justice, because we may be at an historical stage where powerful enough economic interests will get their way, no matter who is elected. But it underscores the importance of narrative.

American blacks and whites do not share a narrative about American race relations. This is a problem because the call for change comes mainly from blacks. Whites, who are resistant to change, as well as blame, have the political, social and economic power to block change. Whites do not want to hear that the United States is a white supremacist society or that whites are privileged solely on the grounds of race. Blacks do not want to hear that the United States is a racially equal society and that their miseries are their own fault. Needed is a narrative that could move both sides into change. Such a narrative would be an account of contemporary black/white relations that was clear and easy to understand, without detailed or specialized knowledge of history, social theory, or philosophy. For a while, during the end of his candidacy and the early days of his first administration, Barack Obama provided such a narrative––he celebrated the success of blacks and expressed gratitude to whites for allowing that to happen. But black people quickly realized that Obama’s success was not the same thing as their success and many whites regretted Obama’s success. So we need a new narrative.
-Naomi Zack, University of Oregon.

Hi Charles,

I think this is a very interesting proposal and would like to hear more about how you think we can determine when white advantages count as illict (or not). I take it that more conventional Rawlsians might try to settle questions about when advantage is illict and when it is not by appeal to the principles identified in the idealized world. I am sympathetic to the worry that this strategy has limits and will not allow us to explain all relevant cases of illict advantage, but it does seem like we then need some other way to (fully) ground our judgments about illict advantage.

I can imagine that some Rawlsians want to stick with the strategy I mentioned (grounding judgments of illict and ok advantage at least in part on the principles thrown up by ideal theory) because they can't see what other grounds we could give to all relevant judgments. In any case, I hope the question is not base on a confusion, and would be interested to hear more about the grounds you have in mind for judgements that advantage is illicit.

Glad to see Charles on PEA Soup. I think the project of black radical liberalism is exciting and holds some appeal. This post understandably focuses on the task of showing why we have reason to opt for black radical liberalism over Rawlsian liberalism, unreconstructed. We learn that we should reconstruct liberalism rather than accept, as mainstream liberals do, that "the categories, crucial assumptions, and descriptive and normative frameworks of liberalism can be adopted with little change" when attempting to address the system of white supremacy.

What I want to hear more about is why we have reason to opt for black radical liberalism over black Marxism or black nationalism, if indeed we do. I ask this especially because there are some interesting contrasts you lead us to draw. After the initial contrast of black liberalism vs. black radicalism, you set aside black radicalism to subdivide black liberalism into black mainstream liberalism and black radical liberalism. The latter synthesizes insights from black nationalism and black Marxism but is properly conceived of as a liberal rather than radical position.

What you say also suggests, though, that we can return to black radicalism and not only subdivide it into black nationalism and black Marxism but subdivide those as well. You reject "state-commandist socialism" but suggest that this does not exhaust Marxism, thus suggesting that there is, perhaps, a black social democratic position that is properly conceived of as a radical rather than liberal position (even if we say that it is arrived at in part by synthesizing liberal insights with Marxist ones). Likewise, while rejecting essentialist versions of black nationalism, you suggest that not all black nationalism suffers from being essentialist, and perhaps there is some synthesizing of liberal insights here as well (obviously I aim for my version of black cultural nationalism to show up in this category).

So I wonder: should I take black radical liberalism to be competing with not only black mainstream liberalism but all black radicalism for the title of "most promising candidate for an emancipatory African American political theory"? Or should I see black radical liberalism as really doing major battle only with mainstream liberalism and certain particular forms of radicalism, such as commandist socialism and essentialist nationalism? On the latter reading, there would be little of substance separating the viable liberal, Marxist, and nationalist positions and one could choose between them on the basis of personal idiosyncrasy or, maybe more importantly, contextual rhetorical advantage. Is this the right way to think about it?

I'm also curious about where black feminism fits in the picture (are there feminist and non-feminist variants of black radical liberalism and every other position mentioned? is black feminism a form of black radicalism and thus subject to a dynamic already discussed above? or maybe black feminism cuts across the liberal/radical distinction? etc.).

Hi Charles,

Just to follow up on Brad Cokelet's point, as you may know I've defended the beginnings of a robust account for how to extend Rawls to nonideal theory in roughly way you describe in the section, "ADAPTING RAWLS FOR CORRECTIVE JUSTICE." (see ).

Since you want to defend a Black Radical Liberalism, and you think this should be done by extending Rawls to the nonideal world in a way that corrects for illicit advantage and merges it with some notion of respect in social transition, why not go about it the way I have--namely:

(A) Take Rawls' principles of ideal theory as ideals (defended through a fair process relative to a strict-compliance assumption).

(B) Plug them into a nonideal original position that models fairness under nonideal conditions, enabling free and equal citizens to (i) treat deviations from Rawls' ideals as illicit advantages, and (ii) weigh ideals against transition-costs, and

(C) Derive principles of fairness for nonideal conditions.

I've also suggested that the kinds of nonideal principles that plausibly emerge from this model--principles of grass-roots organizing with certain structural features and substantive aims--are plausibly the kinds of corrective principles that you, and other critics of Rawlsian ideal theory, are looking for.

Anyway, I'm just curious why, if you think we should extend Rawls to the nonideal, it shouldn't be done by way of a "nonideal original position"? If (for a Rawlsian liberal) justice is fairness, and the original position models fairness, doesn't it follow that a nonideal original position models fairness (i.e. correction for ilicit advantage and fair division of transition costs) in a nonideal setting?

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