Since the upheavals of the financial crisis of 2008 and the political turbulence of 2016, it has become clear to many that liberalism is, in some sense, failing. The turmoil has given pause to economists, some of whom responded by renewing their study of inequality, and to political scientists, who have since turned to problems of democracy, authoritarianism, and populism in droves. But Anglo-American liberal political philosophers have had less to say than they might have.
The silence is due in part to the nature of political philosophy today—the questions it considers worth asking and those it sidelines. Since Plato, philosophers have always asked about the nature of justice. But for the last five decades, political philosophy in the English-speaking world has been preoccupied with a particular answer to that question developed by the American philosopher John Rawls.
Is political philosophy, like liberalism itself, in crisis, and in need of reinvention?
Rawls’s work in the mid-twentieth century ushered in a paradigm shift in political philosophy. In his wake, philosophers began exploring what justice and equality meant in the context of modern capitalist welfare states, using those concepts to describe, in impressive and painstaking detail, the ideal structure of a just society—one that turned out to closely resemble a version of postwar social democracy. Working within this framework, they have since elaborated a body of abstract moral principles that provide the philosophical backbone of modern liberalism. These ideas are designed to help us see what justice and equality demand—of our society, of our institutions, and of ourselves.
This is a story of triumph: Rawls’s philosophical project was a major success. It is not that political philosophers after Rawls didn’t disagree; fine-grained and heated arguments are what philosophers do best. But over the last few decades they built a robust consensus about the fundamental rules of the game, conceiving of themselves as engaged in a common intellectual project with a shared conceptual framework. The governing concepts and aims of political philosophy have, for generations, been more or less taken for granted.
But if modern political philosophy is bound up with modern liberalism, and liberalism is failing, it may well be time to ask whether these apparently timeless ideas outlived their usefulness. Rawls’s ideas were developed during a very distinctive period of U.S. history, and his theory bears an intimate connection to postwar liberal democracy. Is liberal political philosophy complicit in its failures? Is political philosophy, like liberalism itself, in crisis, and in need of reinvention? And if so, what does its future look like?
Rawls published A Theory of Justice in 1971, though he had been working on its ideas for more than twenty years. Its 600 pages provided a way for philosophers to judge society in accordance with two principles of justice—a principle of liberty, which affirms citizens’ basic rights and freedoms, and of equality, which calls for inequalities to be limited and resources arranged so that they benefit the least well-off members of society. Rawls’s vision was of an ideally just society—a “property-owning democracy,” where inequalities were heavily circumscribed and everyone had a stake.
Rawls supported his claims with a complex set of arguments—most famously, his idea of an “original position,” a thought experiment where parties behind a “veil of ignorance” choose principles of justice according to which society can be organized, regulated, and judged. As these concepts and many others illustrate, Rawls invented an entire language, transforming the conceptual vocabulary of political philosophy to an unprecedented degree. By the end of the twentieth century, countless books were dedicated to the elaboration of its terms.
The apparatus Rawls built became the ideology of modern liberalism.
One reason Rawls’s ideas had such a profound impact is that philosophers believed they filled a vacuum of philosophical imagination. Many political philosophers said the field died during World War Two, when it became impossible to think about justice or utopia; thanks to the prevailing outlook of anti-totalitarianism, a slippery slope to authoritarianism was seen behind every progressive reform. It was in this context that A Theory of Justice was heralded as having revived political philosophy, giving philosophical form to the dream of a just society that liberals found embodied in postwar social democracy. And it is remarkable just how successful Rawls’s book and ideas became: only a decade after its publication, one bibliography listed 2,512 books and articles in conversation with them. It is no understatement to say that over the course of the 1970s political philosophy was remade in his image.
Rawls’s ideas and those of his students cohered into a doctrine known as “liberal egalitarianism.” At first his readers asked whether his arguments worked, how much equality they demanded, and what they meant in practice—liberalism, socialism, or something else altogether. Over time, his theory of “justice as fairness” and its principles of liberty and equality were applied to novel moral and political situations. The logic of liberal philosophy toward greater abstraction and complexity pushed philosophers to look to challenging philosophical puzzles, and they found plenty within Rawls’s theory: what kinds of inequalities between people were unjust (and what kinds were permissible); how institutions, like courts, and democratic procedures should be structured to facilitate both individual and collective flourishing; the conceptual relationship between ideas such as equality and liberty, justice and fairness, morality and responsibility; and the classic questions of “distributive justice”—who gets what (not just wealth and income, but also self-respect), and who owes what to whom.
By the mid-1970s, Rawls’s ideas were being extended in new directions. Some used demands for global justice, originating in the Global South, to update Rawls’s theory for a new era of international interdependence. Others, prompted by environmental crisis, addressed obligations to future generations and developed new theories of intergenerational justice. Subsequent generations of political philosophers would contest Rawls’s methods and concepts, but for many they would take on the appearance of common sense; even those who opposed it were shaped by it. By the late twentieth century, Anglophone political theorists operated in the shadow of justice theory, and Rawls had become a sort of patron saint, the visionary behind an egalitarian dream of distributive justice. “Political philosophers,” the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick wrote already in 1974, “now must either work within Rawls’s theory, or explain why not.”
The apparatus Rawls built became not only a doctrine to be consulted in light of any new problem, but also the philosophical architecture of a highly flexible and adaptable ideology—the ideology of modern liberalism. That flexibility was its philosophical beauty: it provided a general framework for answering countless particular questions. In this way, philosophical liberalism became synonymous with Rawls, and political philosophy came to stand for a kind of liberalism.
“Political philosophers,” the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick wrote already in 1974, “now must either work within Rawls’s theory, or explain why not.”
But there was an irony to this Rawlsian renewal of philosophy. The 1970s also saw the collapse of the social liberalism that surged to dominance after World War II, propelled by the concrete political and economic successes of capitalist welfare states. As those states faced fiscal and legitimacy crises, neoliberal ideologues and policymakers gained power, and ideas of the public interest and common good fractured. Viewed in this context, Rawls’s program seemed to have spectacularly bad timing. The publication of his grand philosophical defense of the welfare state came on the eve of its crisis: to some it looked as if it hailed from a bygone era, the last gasp of a dying ideology. The success of Rawls’s theory in the coming decades only deepened its untimeliness: the more welfarism fractured in politics, the more entrenched Rawls’s arguments became in political philosophy.
The story of Anglo-American liberal political philosophy is therefore not just a tale of philosophical success. It is also a ghost story, in which Rawls’s theory lived on as a spectral presence long after the conditions it described—and under which it emerged—were gone. Rawls had intended his theory to be dynamic, but in practice it was haunted by the assumptions of postwar liberalism, and it lost its grip on reality as reality itself transformed.
Liberal egalitarianism was formulated in a very different society from our own—one with steady growth, lower economic inequality, higher union density, and greater racial and gender inequality, in which welfare systems had widespread legitimacy even as they were exclusionary, piecemeal, and unstable. It was also a society forged through war and empire, structured by the Cold War and sustained by the Bretton Woods settlement. This postwar liberalism in which Rawls’s theory emerged was not quite the rosy social democracy some imagine it to have been.
And, in fact, Rawls’s “property-owning democracy” was never a simple defense of the welfare state. His unpublished papers reveal that as a young man writing in the 1940s and early 1950s, Rawls defended a much more minimalist liberalism than that for which he is now remembered. He was wary of concentrations of power (especially in the state), worried about coercion (by corporations but also unions), and hungry for social stability. He started off closer to some early neoliberals than social democrats, though he gradually moved to the left.
Rawls’s theory lived on as a spectral presence long after the conditions it described had vanished.
An ideology of liberal consensus reigned in the postwar years: it was widely assumed by white affluent liberals that U.S. society was built on a core of consensus, or at least its real possibility. Rawls was no different. His philosophy reflected many of the contradictions of postwar liberalism and its afterlives, both its successes and its limits. The 1960s, when Rawls put the finishing touches to his theory, was the age of affluence, civil rights, and the Great Society, but it also marked a period of urban crisis and mass incarceration, and the beginning of a new era of deindustrialization and financialized capitalism in which public investment was cut and the labor movement quashed. Philosophers working in the Rawlsian framework assumed the triumphs but did not yet foresee the costs. When Rawls first penned his theory, he thought things were getting better: after the civil rights movement would come racial liberalism; the excesses of capitalism could be contained, and inequality limited. By the time he published his ideas in 1971, it reflected the optimism of an earlier age. But Rawls’s untimeliness was part of his success: as the social movements of the 1960s shattered the postwar liberal consensus, Rawls’s theory—not yet published—survived the turbulence unscathed. When it emerged, it provided the basis for a new consensus, at the very moment other liberal theories were in crisis.
The political theory born from Rawls’s interpretation of postwar liberalism was flexible: it started as a minimalist liberalism, but it could be stretched into a justification for liberal socialism. Yet it had a distinctive character, which had consequences for the future shape of political philosophy. It focused on juridical and legislative institutions but assigned a smaller role and less value to other social, political, and international institutions. It was based on a deliberative vision of politics that saw democracy as modelled on discussion. Its distributive framework squeezed out other ways of thinking about the dynamics and organization of economic, social, and political life.
The Rawlsian distributive framework squeezed out other ways of thinking about the dynamics and organization of economic, social, and political life.
These aspects of Rawls’s vision constrained the kinds of politics it could incorporate or make sense of. As his theory was widely taken up, ideas incompatible with these parameters were set aside or dropped out of mainstream philosophical discourse altogether. Liberal philosophers dispensed with older arguments and concerns—about the nature of the state, political control, collective action, corporate personality, and appeals to history. Their conceptual choices often had political implications, regardless of the political motivations of the theorists themselves, who sometimes became trapped in conceptual structures of their own collective making. As subsequent generations built on the arguments of their forebears, a philosophical paradigm took on a political shape that none of its discrete theorists might have intended. It had its own logic and its own politics, which helped determine what ethical and political problems would count as sufficiently puzzling to warrant philosophical concern.
For example, liberal egalitarians tended to insist that what mattered were institutional solutions to current inequalities; past injustices weren’t relevant, and arguments that relied on historical claims were rejected. That meant that demands for reparations for slavery and other historical injustices made by Black Power and anti-colonial campaigns in the late 1960s and 1970s were rejected too. It also meant that political philosophers in the Rawlsian strain often read later objections to the universalist presumptions of American liberalism as identitarian challenges to equality, rather than as critiques informed by the history of imperialism and decolonization.
As the concerns of philosophers were consolidated, facility with Rawlsianism became the price of admission into the elite institutions of political philosophy. Many on the margins saw that it was only by adopting the form of liberal egalitarianism or its mainstream alternatives that other ideas—Marxian, feminist, critical race, anticolonial, or otherwise—could be considered. Just as often, rival political visions or arguments were not rejected outright, but accommodated within the liberal egalitarian paradigm—often in a way that diffused their force. When marginalized ideas were taken up by liberal philosophers, they were frequently distorted to cohere with the larger paradigm. Analytical Marxism was engaged insofar as Marxism could be made into a theory of property distribution, and thus compatible with the Rawlsian focus of distributive justice. The same was true for democratic ideas, which had to be made compatible with theories of discussion and deliberation. As the British philosopher Brian Barry made explicit in debates that lie at the origins of global justice theory within philosophy, in order to fit the canons of justice theory one needed to “domesticate” the demands by theorists of the New International Economic Order for the overhaul of relations between Global North and South. The very capaciousness of liberal philosophy squeezed out possibilities for radical critique.
The political crises of the 1970s largely passed Anglophone liberal philosophers by. Few wrote about crises of legitimacy and the challenges of post-industrial society.
In this moment of conceptual consolidation, the political crises of the 1970s largely passed Anglophone liberal philosophers by. Few wrote about crises of legitimacy and the challenges of post-industrial society. Many social theorists were trying to address the collapse of Marxist and liberal grand narratives—by rethinking the subject of the working class, and by moving analyses of work beyond the factory to the school, prison, clinic, and bedroom. Rawlsians did not worry much about these collapses or the social changes these rival theories sought to explain—changes of class, capital, work, the state, or the subject. Instead they offered a new grand system at a time when many other systems were rejected. It was in part because of this refusal to engage these new challenges that liberal egalitarianism survived the undoing of the postwar liberal settlement.
This is not to say that political philosophy was untouched by political change. In the 1980s, a number of liberal and Marxist philosophers developed a rival egalitarianism—“luck egalitarianism,” as it has become known—designed to address the limitations of Rawls’s institutional focus, which they thought let individuals off the hook. They explored questions of individual responsibility and control over choices. Many were leftists, but they took on an individualizing discourse of responsibility, dependency, choice, and market solutions identified with the New Right. Others challenged proceduralism and marketization in the name of community or human rights. A school of thought known as communitarianism became the dominant alternative; its advocates prioritized community over the individual and the social self over the atomistic, liberal one (though in practice many communitarians returned to ideas that Rawls had himself begun from and left behind). The Rawlsian liberal’s focus remained with juridical, legislative and democratic institutions and individuals. What both they and their communitarian critics missed were the larger changes to the administrative state and the rise of neoliberal policies—those that outsourced and privatized public welfare functions, expanded the state’s carceral functions and the reach of public management, and introduced competition, deregulation, and new transnational forms of clientelism and governance.
Liberal egalitarians tended to insist that past injustices weren’t relevant.
These blind spots didn’t stop Rawls’s theory from remaining the touchstone for both his followers and his critics. The rise of Rawlsianism is thus a story of triumph—the triumph of a small group of affluent, white, mostly male, analytical political philosophers who worked at a handful of elite institutions in the United States and Britain, especially Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, and constructed a universalizing liberal theory that took on a life of its own. They began from where they were, focusing almost entirely on North American and Western European welfare states, except in their imagination of the global. Yet they wanted their political philosophy to have a broader reach; they tried to expand their theories across space to encompass wider communities, nations, the international realm, and ultimately the planet. They also moved across time, drawing on the past to reimagine the future and to make political philosophy as universal and unconstrained as possible. But in the end, they remained within the contradictions of postwar liberalism.
In recent years, however, aspects of the Rawlsian paradigm have come under pressure as a new generation probes its limits. Its prevailing assumption and aim of consensus today look out of touch in the face of so much sharp division. Doubts have led many philosophers to ideas that the first few generations of Rawlsians ignored.
In recent years, aspects of the Rawlsian paradigm have come under pressure as a new generation probes its limits.
Some have extended Rawls’s ideas to corporations, workplaces, labor markets, financial markets, algorithms, borders, and unions as sites for theories of justice. Others have repurposed theories of exploitation and domination to supplement distributive principles. Self-described political realists have tried to put the politics back into political philosophy by making theories of democracy more sensitive to the nature of actual political conflict. There has also been a move away from the distributive focus, as well as from the deliberative view of democracy that models politics on a seminar room. In these critiques, the limits of earlier phases of liberal egalitarianism are illuminated. It is perhaps not surprising that a political philosophy that began as averse to ideology, interests, and the coercive power of states, corporations, and unions became a theory of ideal speech unmoored from politics, but today that has been found wanting. Problems that had once been foreclosed by the non-historical nature of justice theory are also now interrogated, as some revisit ethical issues—such as reparations—raised by the legacies of colonialism. The study of ideology and the ethics of the oppressed have seen a resurgence, deploying insights from critical race theory, feminism, and Marxism.
So political philosophers are adapting, constantly extending the egalitarian framework in new directions. But is that enough? Whether Rawlsian ideas can help us confront the needs of our own moment is not so clear. Like much of the human sciences (and thanks in part to the constraints of a professionalized and increasingly precarious academic system), political philosophy continues to be oriented toward solving particular problems rather than to building new systematic theories. Even as the substantive concerns of political philosophers have begun to shift as new subject matter enters the philosophical domain, much debate still takes place in the shadow of a set of ideas that reflect the assumptions of a different age. There are benefits to working within an intellectual tradition, but there can also be costs if the tradition struggles to shed light on changing circumstances. After all, radicals in the United States are drawing more inspiration from Marxism than from liberalism.
Political philosophy continues to be oriented toward solving particular problems rather than to building new systematic theories.
That is partly because of the ambiguous political legacy of Rawls’s theory. From our vantage point on the other side of the financial crisis, liberal egalitarianism can now look to have been the perfect left-liberalism for the “end of history” brought by the end of the Cold War. In that period of relative calm and liberal optimism, when politics looked technocratic and was characterized by a new consensus, liberal egalitarianism didn’t seem so different—just a step or two further left—from the centrism of Bill Clinton’s or Tony Blair’s Third Way. In setting out his theory, Rawls had wanted to provide a way of judging the incremental reforms of societies moving gradually closer to justice. By the 1990s, liberal egalitarianism—like liberal democracy—appeared hegemonic, and it seemed that Rawlsian philosophy might simply aspire to reform an already successful if imperfect liberalism. From this perspective, liberal egalitarianism can look responsible for a narrowing of the utopian imagination and complicit in the rise of a technocratic neoliberalism—reinforcing rather than helping to dismantle its injustices. Now that the claims of the end of history seem not only complacent but mistaken, the political role of this philosophical liberalism is more uncertain.
Yet at the same time, Rawls’s theories can also be seen as a welcome throwback to a mid-century welfare statist moment that has now, in the desert of austere neoliberalism, taken on the allure of a kind of utopia. In today’s climate, the distributive arrangements demanded by liberal egalitarianism—from universal health care to free education and the wide dispersal of capital—are radical. Some argue that those arrangements might offer institutional blueprints for the recent revival of socialist aspirations in the British and U.S. left; Corbynism counts Rawlsians among its theorists.
This utopian allure itself speaks to the extent to which we underestimate the political distance traveled between the postwar liberal consensus that birthed liberal egalitarianism and our own time. As the center of gravity pulled right, Rawls and his followers became definitive of left-liberalism. These ideas meant something different in the decades after the Depression and Second World War than in the aftermath of the New Right and the successes of neoliberal assaults on democratic state institutions.
So we face an ambiguity: if parts of liberal philosophy look bound up in the political structure of technocratic neoliberalism, others look well suited to our own moment of dramatic inequality, with its longing for universalizing principles. Liberal egalitarianism certainly remains an unparalleled resource for schemes to organize and justify property distribution and limit inequality; during the years of the Third Way, inequality was often ignored in politics, but it was never ignored by philosophers. In this respect, the fact that liberal political philosophy did not fully accommodate itself to the post-1970s era is one of its strengths. Anglophone political philosophy has also starkly resisted the denaturalizing, anti-essentializing, and particularizing intellectual movements that gained ground in the second half of the twentieth century. Rawls’s universalist and normative aspirations outlasted the challenges of poststructuralism and post-Marxist critical theories. For a long time that recalcitrance looked like conservatism, but it could now be a resource. If political philosophers gave up some of their naturalized assumptions and viewed certain forms of argument as bound to a political moment that has passed, they could perhaps do new political work in defense of their far-reaching principles of social justice—not only of justification, but of persuasion.
The question remains whether the egalitarian tradition can reckon with the crises of our future, but many aspects of the Rawlsian vision suggest it cannot rise to the challenge. Some of our most pressing concerns lie in its blind spots. In the years since the rise of liberal egalitarianism, the state has expanded, but it has also been privatized. The nature of capitalism and of work has transformed and will continue to do so, likely in dramatic and unexpected ways. The constituency of the least well off has been reconstructed, and both its composition and its place as an agent of change rather than a recipient of goods need to be again interrogated. Politics is changing, as authoritarians, radical movements, and new oligarchs battle in a novel international landscape shaped by unaccountable financial institutions, new media platforms, new technologies, and climate change.
Liberal egalitarians have some of the tools to deal with these changes, but our questions also require new frameworks that depart from one invented in a period of ideological battles quite unlike today. It is time to ask what it would take to have a political philosophy fit for our own era.
This essay is adapted from In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Liberal Philosophy by Katrina Forrester. Copyright 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.