Can Charles Mills Save Liberal Philosophy From Itself?

Can Charles Mills Save Liberal Philosophy From Itself?

Up From Rawls

Charles Mills’s effort to save liberal political philosophy from itself.


Charles Mills’s Black Rights/White Wrongs represents the culmination of more than two decades of work on the philosophy of race and social justice. Mills received his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1985, working with the left-wing philosophers Frank Cunningham and Daniel Goldstick on the concept of ideology in Marx and Engels. In the following years, liberal political philosophy would be strongly challenged. A growing number of feminists argued that liberal normative theorists were engaged in a form of selective historical imagination, erasing everyone but white males from the story of political society’s origins.

Already fluent in Marxist thought and politics, Mills was strongly influenced by these arguments, particularly as they were delivered in Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract; and in his first book, The Racial Contract, Mills initiated a searing critique of modern liberal theory. Despite its progressive intonations, he argued, the tradition had consistently obscured the history of racism and white supremacy in liberal societies, thereby turning a blind eye to racial inequality while embracing Enlightenment values without qualification.

Mills followed The Racial Contract with two collections that continued this critique: From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism and Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. In the former, he examined how Marxism also fell prey to masking certain forms of inequality, especially when it came to race; in the latter, he explored the often overlooked sociological assumptions in liberal moral and political philosophy that resulted in the erasure of black people and their political history and experiences during colonialism and postcolonialism. In 2007, Mills and Pateman partnered to write Contract and Domination, a condensed discussion of the main arguments in their critiques of liberal normative theory. But dedicated readers of Mills’s corpus also noticed that he was in the process of rethinking his own criticisms. His essays suggested a pivot toward a systemic theory of his own that would give readers a picture of liberalism’s ills and a way to remedy them.

Black Rights/White Wrongs, Mills’s latest book, is that long-awaited result: his most thorough account yet of why and how liberal political theory has gone wrong. He returns to his criticism that liberal theory has mainly been attentive to and representative of the sociohistorical demands of white people (men in particular), but he also argues for a refreshed liberalism that retains its core political commitments while offering a fuller reckoning with the racial hierarchies and inequalities of America’s past and present. His argument is best understood as progressing in two phases. The first finds Mills placing liberal theory’s history alongside that of race and empire in the West; the second confronts John Rawls’s foundational work, A Theory of Justice, as well as the social-contract tradition that he helped to revive.

Mills’s first line of criticism indicts the core tradition of liberal theory for persistently sidelining the moral and political questions around race and empire. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, when Socrates wandered the streets of Athens peppering young and old with questions about the nature of justice, political philosophy has been guided by an overarching preoccupation: What is the good society, and what is the role of the citizen in helping both to realize and sustain it? The Enlightenment, Mills continues, developed new ideas to answer these questions. Denouncing the reliance on religious authority that had characterized the preceding centuries, Enlightenment thinkers insisted that human agency, coupled with knowledge, could replace divine revelation as the orienting principle of social and personal change. Thus arose the modern conception of liberty, which depended on free will and human rationality. All that was needed now was an attendant form of political organization that could embody, secure, and promote these ideas and their relations to each other: something that we have come to call “liberal democracy.” Kant, an adherent of Enlightenment thinking and the modern era’s reigning moral theorist, brought the tools of moral philosophy to the aid of democratic theory by emphasizing the notion that every individual was to be treated as an end in themselves, and never as the means to someone else’s ends. This was a perfect ethical complement to the mantra of “one man, one vote” that came to characterize Western democracy.

Thinkers working in the modern tradition came to embrace the Enlightenment ideals of personal agency and sovereignty as checks on government power. Yet, as Mills observes, at the same time that Europe was offering its white male inhabitants liberalism as a way to make good on the ideal of equality among persons, those same newly enlightened nations were in a furious race around the globe to colonize and dominate nonwhite peoples in faraway lands in an effort to establish economic and military might. The triumphant narrative of Western modernity occluded the barbarity of rape, murder, pillage, and the exploitation of millions of persons of African descent as well as Native Americans in the service of a vision of liberal progress. What the writer James Baldwin once called the “bloody catalogue of oppression” effectively subsidized white freedom and the ability to think about white property rights, legislative design, and free markets. And all of this happened in a liberal society because racism, for Mills, is “a normative system in its own right that makes whiteness a prerequisite for full personhood and generally…limits nonwhites to ‘sub-person’ status.”

The problem, according to Mills, is that the very foundations of liberalism’s moral and political theory “would all then have to be rethought in the light of this category’s existence,” because liberal philosophers had provided cover for much of this brutal history. This was true in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Locke could be found offering advice on what Carolina colony ought to do with its black population (spoiler alert: It wasn’t giving them the vote) and Kant could be found saying, “The Negro can be disciplined and cultivated, but is never genuinely civilized. He falls of his own accord into savagery.” And it was true in the 20th century as well: Even in an era in which Ella Baker, Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King Jr. urged white and black Americans alike to come to grips with the fact of racial violence and domination in American democracy, few liberal philosophers did.

In a volume of political thought edited by Richard Brandt with the straightforward title Social Justice (1962), for example, not one author felt compelled to remark on racial injustice as a motivating example for their theory. Even after passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, Rawls failed to note in his writings that in the middle of the 20th century, the defining case of social injustice had to do with race, and A Theory of Justice, his canonical 1971 text in liberal political theory, also failed to deal with race in any meaningful way.

Mills’s first point concludes with the following proposition: that one source for this blindness to race comes from the fact that so many people writing about liberalism were untouched by the bloody catalogue of oppression. So it is not very surprising to learn that Rawls, as well as every contributor to Brandt’s book, was a white man. And while women have made notable (though not satisfactory) gains in attaining faculty positions, philosophy traditionally has been and remains today the domain of white people. As Mills notes, for the past 20 years the number of black professors teaching philosophy in the United States has held at a measly and tragic 1 percent.

Mills’s second argument follows very much from his first: that liberal political philosophy’s aloofness to the history and everyday experience of race leads it to ignore the importance of sociology to moral and political thought. Rawls’s major innovation in A Theory of Justice was to remove ethics from the context of particular social circumstance. He did so by pairing two ideas, the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance.” Here’s how they work: Imagine you want to design a perfectly just society, and your main concern is that it be done fairly. Rawls’s idea was that people’s judgment is so compromised by the bias of self-interest that the most reliable way to make people reason fairly about the role of society in promoting justice is to place them in a bargaining situation in which they deliberate in complete ignorance of both their own social position and the particulars of their society’s history.

This is, of course, a theoretical tool, so it bears mentioning that what it really amounts to is Rawls working out the final principles of justice from his own original position. And most of the principles that Rawls came up with are pretty fair: They stipulate equal basic rights, equality of opportunity in accessing society’s resources, and a welfare provision that justifies those forms of inequality that benefit the least advantaged. Mills finds none of these objectionable. Rather, he argues that where Rawls goes wrong is in the proposition that one can work out the ideal society first and then address the society we actually have.

Mills’s position here is a natural outgrowth of his first line of attack. If a discipline already prone to abstraction is grounded in a view of modern society that denies the centrality of centuries of human bondage and exploitation to its prosperity, then a theoretical framework that essentially promises to circle back to this problem will effectively treat it as anomalous or tangential rather than as fundamental. To sustain this view of society, Mills notes, it has been necessary to “retroactively [edit] out of national (and Western) memory” experiences of violence and racism because they contradict “the overarching contract myth that the impartial state was consensually created by reciprocally respecting rights-bearing persons.” This results in moral and political theories that purport to tell us how to live well without any sense of how distinctly atrocious the lives of marginalized subpopulations have long been.

Mills isn’t suggesting that Rawls or any other philosopher is intentionally looking to keep black well-being on the sidelines when discussing his or her theory of justice. Rather, by ignoring race as a fundamental case of injustice, these thinkers are more emblematic of how American liberalism operates in general. For Mills, white supremacy isn’t only the Richard Spencers of the world, gleefully marching through Southern towns with tiki torches. It is also a state of mind common among white Americans—liberals included—that allows one to refuse to reckon with his or her relationship to black suffering, whether on the streets, in the boardrooms, or in philosophy books.

Taking apart flimsy arguments is a prized and common rite in the field of philosophy, and readers coming to Black Rights/White Wrongs—especially nonspecialists—will want to know how they should think about race and social justice in a positive sense after grappling with Mills’s indictments of how we often think about the two. At the end of the book, Mills signals that he plans to write a sequel that will offer a more complete picture of what he thinks should follow from his critical project. However, he does conclude Black Rights/White Wrongs with a short section that may surprise some of his readers. In it, he argues for a conception that he terms “black radical liberalism.”

Despite all of the problems that beset them, Mills wants to retain the best parts of both liberalism and liberal philosophy, as they provide “the most developed body of normative theory for understanding the rights of persons.” Coupled with a perspective that makes the black diasporic experience central to its thinking, this body of rights can, Mills asserts, produce a politics radical in its distribution of social and political power as well as in its redistribution of economic power. And while these would be welcome amendments to liberal theory, the most radical aspect of Mills’s argument is its standpoint: seeing society as fundamentally rooted in white supremacy rather than as a basically fair system with some relatively minor cases of disadvantage that still need to be addressed. This new standpoint, Mills insists, will open up moral and political theory for the future as well, since it won’t be closed off to the actual experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups in a society.

People reading Black Rights/White Wrongs might worry, given our current moment, whether Mills’s work offers too little, too late. The rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right has been disturbing for any number of reasons, but let me highlight just one. For decades, the political right has depended on dog whistles to code its appeals to racial resentment. For example, the so-called War on Drugs has really been an assault on people of color, even as whites have casually used illicit narcotics with comparatively little in the way of legal consequences. Black Americans have always found it telling that their neighborhoods are a site for this “war,” even though they have no policing power over the nation’s borders, and so they reliably retort: How did the drugs get to the hood in the first place? By and large, however, most people have agreed to this coded language, with both the left and the right winking and nodding through this and other policy discourses. But Trump and the alt-right contingent of his followers have made this winking and nodding explicit. Trump has also continually appointed known racists to high-level positions—Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka—and publicly condoned white-supremacist violence by, for example, claiming that even the neo-Nazi demonstrators at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—which ended in multiple people being hurt and one woman, Heather Heyer, being killed—included among their number some “fine people.”

In this way, what Mills has long warned lurks beneath the surface has now boiled to the top. The left and the right have traditionally understood these dog whistles as being necessary to maintain the idea that America is a liberal society, and it is partly on account of this implicit concession that, for all our woes, black people have made progress, though nowhere near enough to describe America as just. But Trump and his cadre have forced the right to plainly own its racism and are instituting a government that challenges the very idea of a liberal society.

Appropriately, Mills’s book has appeared at a moment when liberal democracy’s violent and racist tendencies have been unmasked. But I would argue that his work resonates in many other ways as well. I like to think of Mills as our black Socrates, roaming the philosophical streets, asking people why they think a society like ours, stained by a history of racial horrors, is not more ashamed of itself, and why its leading minds do not make that shame a motivating force in the struggle for a more just society. And maybe, alas, Mills’s prophecies are like all prophecies—ignored until the future forces us to acknowledge them, finally positioning us to see the truth they contained all along. This is why we need Charles Mills: His effort to demand a reckoning with liberalism’s weaknesses and limitations is also an effort to save liberalism, and that is a struggle to save ourselves as well.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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