Another Bard professor has chimed in with the “damning with faint praise” stance of Roger Berkowitz that I dealt with in a post titled “Bard Professors attack Occupy Wall Street“. This time it is Steven Mazie, a political science professor, who has a web-only NY Times op-ed titled “Rawls on Wall Street“.
Like Berkowitz, Mazie frets over the hatred that the protesters have toward the rich:
Despite providing a remarkable venue for what Al Gore called a “primal scream of democracy,” Occupy Wall Street is leveraged too heavily on the rhetoric of rage rather than reciprocity. Rawls would argue that Occupy is fully justified in its criticism of the political and economic structures that propagate massive concentrations of wealth; he saw the “basic structure” of society as the “primary subject of justice.” But Rawls would lament the tendency of the “99 percent” to misdirect their energies into hatred of individuals in the 1 percent. He would have them save their hostility for the policies and institutions that have permitted only the wealthiest to enjoy significant gains from the past two decades of economic growth.
Whenever I read this kind of sanctimonious nonsense, I feel like I have wandered into Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” by mistake, with its images of Madame LaFarge knitting away furiously. Of course, when you stop and think about it, there’s not much difference between John Rawls and Charles Dickens. This kind of 19th century moralism is a lot easier to take when you are reading a good story like “A Christmas Carol” but when served up by a political science professor as advice to people who haven’t worked in five years or so and who have lost their homes, it is pretty objectionable.
John Rawls was a perfectly decent man, who despite his British-style Victorian-era pieties was actually an American born in Baltimore in 1921. In 1971 he came out with “A Theory of Justice” that made the case for liberalism at the very moment its reputation was in tatters after six years of imperialist slaughter in Vietnam. The book was typically “philosophical” in its abstraction-sodden prose. Four years earlier I decided to drop out of the graduate philosophy program at the New School and join the Trotskyist movement because philosophy in general—and ethics in particular—was so out of touch with what was going in the world. I had no idea who John Rawls was at the time but had heard more or less the same song and dance from Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”.
For that matter, I had read “Sermon on the Mount” when I was a religion major at Bard College. From the very day homo sapiens began to organize itself into tribes, wise elders understood the need for ethical behavior. You did not need to read John Rawls to understand that we should strive for social justice. The problem was that so many Princeton graduates who had probably studied with Rawls there had gone on to work on Wall Street or with the CIA, where the do-good philosophy they learned from him was conveniently ignored.
As a Rawls disciple, Mazie has applied a tepid meliorism to Israel-Palestinian relations, arguing that Israeli Palestinians deserve better civil rights type treatment without once considering the possibility that a state based on ethnic cleansing can never truly be just. One supposes that this is the kind of advocacy for Palestinian rights that won’t lead to a Joel Kovel type termination.
Mazie’s op-ed piece makes sure that its readers understand that Rawls is a horse of a different color than Karl Marx:
Rawls’s boldest claim — that inequality in society is only justified if its least well-off members fare better than they would under any other scheme — could provide a lodestar for the protests. Rawls was no Marxist: this “difference principle” acknowledges that a productive, free society will be home to at least some degree of inequality. But the principle insists that if the rich get richer while wages and social capital of the poor and middle class are stagnant or falling, there is something seriously wrong.
This idea is built on the premise that in a just society, citizens should be understood as free and equal participants in a system of social cooperation. Some individuals may be more motivated and harder working, and thus can legitimately expect greater rewards for their efforts. But everyone deserves the same bundle of individual rights and liberties, and everyone is entitled to “fair equality of opportunity,” including access to a decent education and a genuine chance of success in pursuing one’s life plans.
I am not sure how some pundits came to the conclusion that John Rawls was one of the greatest philosophers in the 20th century based on such banalities. At any rate, that there is “something seriously wrong” can hardly be redressed by moral appeals. It will take force, something that is out of the range of possibilities for liberalism unless of course it is deployed against those impudent Third World countries that believe that “a genuine chance of success” is only possible by seizing the means of production and instituting an economy based on human need rather than private profit—heaven forefend.
I have only dealt with Rawls in the past indirectly through a commentary on analytical Marxists who felt compelled for some ungodly reason to engage with him on his own turf.
G.A. Cohen was one of them:
Cohen … feels the need to defend the socialist project from the challenge presented by bourgeois political and ethical philosophy. Liberals like John Rawls and conservatives like Robert Nozick have written a number of books that attempt to defend just societies and the forms of political action necessary to achieve them. They also have a great deal of credence in the academic circles Cohen travels in.
Cohen wants to make socialism appear as a rational choice in the face of their challenges but he ends up conceding much too much to them. The worst concession is that he conceives of political action as the role of the individual rather than classes. While he does not share Elster’s outright hostility to the notion of classes, the overall tendency in Cohen’s work is to wrestle with issues of the class struggle as they appear in the guise of moral dilemmas to individuals.
For example, in chapter 12 of “History, Labor and Freedom” he takes up the question, “Are Disadvantaged Workers who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to Take Hazardous Jobs.” What a peculiar subject for an “orthodox” Marxist to be tackling. One would think that Cohen would have had much more interest in class struggle type issues in 1988 when the book was written. Issues such as the approaching civil war in Yugoslavia do not seem to engage his interest.
Most of the chapter is an involved with consideration of the choices before an “imaginary worker in an imaginary situation.” He is one of the 7,000 unemployed people in the town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania (population 33,000), to which the Beryllium Corporation came in 1956, offering hazardous jobs.” “Our worker, whom I shall call John, took one. He was confronted with a choice between employment and health, and he chose the former. Was he forced to take the health-endangering job? did he, in taking it, contract freely?”
Of course the question of the “contractual” basis of justice lies at the heart of John Rawls’ liberalism and one could write at length about how preposterous this notion is and how pointless it is to engage Rawls’ thinking on his own terms.
I will rather conclude with several obvious conclusions. To begin with, the study of individuals and their moral problems is not the subject-matter of Marxism. Marxism studies classes. A proper use of a Marxist’s time would be to study actual rather than imaginary workers in identical situations. It would be useful to explore how capitalism tends to threaten the job safety of the working-class even in the expansionary period of 1956 or 1997 for that matter. It would then consider how the ruling-class parties share in the creation of a legal fabric that allows such plants to be kept going. It would conclude with recommendations about how to abolish such oppressive conditions. This is not to be found in Cohen’s work.
John Roemer was another:
“Egalitarian Perspectives” is a collection of John Roemer’s articles from the years 1981 and 1992. We learn in the introduction that Roemer made a pilgrimage to G.A. Cohen in 1981, like Luke Skywalker to the Jeddi Master, where he learned “the range of questions addressed by modern political philosophy.” The visit emboldened the young acolyte to launch an assault against classical Marxism’s “wrong-headed” surplus value approach to exploitation. Roemer knew what Marx “really meant,” and this was captured by his own property-relations theory.
Roemer states that the purpose of the book is to answer the question of “what egalitarians seek to equalize.” Those who are trailblazers on this question are Richard Arneson, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen and John Rawls. If some of you are scratching your heads trying to recall where you last heard these names, trust me that it was not at a trade union conference or a rally for political prisoners. The topic of “egalitarianism” within this circle of professional philosophers is an entirely abstract matter. They chat about it in the same dry and intellectual way that aesthetic philosophers discuss “beauty”.
This collection of thinkers treat question of “egalitarianism” as a subject within the rarefied world of Anglophone political philosophy. It arises out of a debate between disciples of the utilitarian John Stuart Mill on one side and John Rawls on the other, who proposes a “primary goods” theory of justice. A just society according to Rawls is one in which society maximizes the “primary goods” of the worst off members. Roemer enters the fray by trying to adapt Marxist solutions to the problem of “distributive justice.” In essence he is trying to blend liberal and socialist themes. From liberalism he appropriates the concern with welfare, from Marxism he hopes to find a theory that will reveal the underlying economic forces that explain inequality. Somewhere along the line Roemer drops the connection with Marxism, as tenuous as it is.
There is precious little in Roemer’s book that has any relation to the sorts of topics that preoccupy Marxists. Mostly it can be found in the section “Socially necessary exploitation and historical materialism.” Roemer’s definition of exploitation in this section is as follows: “were a coalition able to preserve the same incentive structure, and, by withdrawing with its per capita share of produced assets thereby improve the lot of its members, then it is capitalistically exploited in the current allocation.”
Yeah, I know. This is virtually impossible to understand at first glance. I have been knocking my head against Roemer’s shitty prose for a couple of weeks now, so I think I can provide a translation. He is saying that if a group of workers dropped out of capitalist society and improved their situation, then the situation they dropped out of was exploitative. Now you may ask yourself why I chose the words “dropped out.” Does this mean the same as Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in and drop out”?
Yes, it does and this is exactly what Roemer is talking about in so many words:
Assuming capitalist property relations were necessary to bring about accumulation and technical innovation in the early period of capitalism, then the coalition which has withdrawn will soon fall behind the capitalist society because of the incentives to innovate. Even the proletarians under capitalism will eventually enjoy an income-leisure bundle superior to the bundle of independent utopian socialists who have retired into the hills with their share of the capital, assuming enough of the benefits of increased productivity pass down to the proletarians, as has historically been the case.
Translation from the Roemer-ese: When some workers “drop out” of bourgeois society and go to Vermont with their tools and set up a commune like a bunch of lazy grasshoppers, they will eventually fall behind the industrious ant workers who remain in bourgeois society, and who keep their hair short and drive their cars to their factory job each day where foremen yell in their face and where assembly lines keep speeding up and where they keep losing fingers… The criteria for Roemer is not lost fingers or alienation, it is the bundle of goods you can take home. (What was John Roemer doing in 1967 anyhow? Somebody should have slipped him some acid.)
In terms of Marxism and morality, I can still remember how bowled over I was back in 1967 or so after reading “Their Morals and Ours” by Leon Trotsky. Compared to John Rawls’s weak tea, these are the words to live and die by:
Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.
But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable. Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.
Under “normal” conditions a normal” man observes the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!” But if he murders under exceptional conditions for self-defense, the judge condones his action. If he falls victim to a murderer, the court will kill the murderer. The necessity of the court’s action, as that of the self-defense, flows from antagonistic interests. In so far as the state is concerned, in peaceful times it limits itself to individual cases of legalized murder so that in time of war it may transform the “obligatory’ commandment, “Thou shalt not kill! into its opposite. The most “humane” governments, which in peaceful times “detest” war, proclaim during war that the highest duty of their armies is the extermination of the greatest possible number of people.
The so-called “generally recognized” moral precepts in essence preserve an algebraic, that is, an indeterminate character. They merely express the fact that man, in his individual conduct, is bound by certain common norms that flow from his being a member of society. The highest generalization of these norms is the “categorical imperative” of Kant. But in spite of the fact that it occupies a high position upon the philosophic Olympus this imperative does not embody anything categoric because it embodies nothing concrete. It is a shell without content.
This vacuity in the norms obligatory upon all arises from the fact that in all decisive questions people feel their class membership considerably more profoundly and more directly than their membership in “society”. The norms of “obligatory” morality are in reality charged with class, that is, antagonistic content. The moral norm becomes the more categoric the less it is “obligatory” upon all. The solidarity of workers, especially of strikers or barricade fighters, is incomparably more “categoric” than human solidarity in general.
The bourgeoisie, which far surpasses the proletariat in the completeness and irreconcilability of its class consciousness, is vitally interested in imposing its moral philosophy upon the exploited masses. It is exactly for this purpose that the concrete norms of the bourgeois catechism are concealed under moral abstractions patronized by religion, philosophy, or that hybrid which is called “common sense”. The appeal to abstract norms is not a disinterested philosophic mistake but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception. The exposure of this deceit which retains the tradition of thousands of years is the first duty of a proletarian revolutionist.